thoughts September 23, 2018

(Slight Return) 

At the start of March this year, I dropped off social media.

I stopped posting on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram; blocked the sites on my browsers, deleted the apps from my phone. I didn't go as far as deleting the actual accounts, but I haven't been back since.

The main reason for leaving was the sheer volume of politics being shared by my social graph. As a left-leaning liberal SJW, my stream was a non-stop shit-show of Trump and Brexit outrage, and the constant reminder of how awful some segments of society can be to each other was causing me so much stress and anxiety that I decided my head would be better off buried in the sand for a few months.

Around the same time, I came to a decision that I would stop writing fiction. Although I've managed to write two novels and multiple short stories over the last five years, I've slowly come to the realisation that the future I thought I wanted was actually diametrically opposed to what makes me happy. So, I quit (and instead spent a pleasant few months doing little apart from playing video games and watching TV).

However, just recently I have realised that I miss having an outlet - somewhere to share random thoughts, opinions, and over-processed photos - so I am resurrecting Twitter and Instagram (not Facebook, which I now only use for messages) plus this blog, which has also been sorely neglected for more than a few years. While I don't intend to write any more fiction, I do pine for those early days of personal blogging, when I felt comfortable sharing a mere couple of sentences or a newly-discovered shortcut, and I'd love to recapture that feeling. We'll see.

One thing I will definitely be doing is ruthlessly culling my following list, in an attempt to avoid as many of those triggering political posts as possible. In fact, I'm half tempted to just delete everyone and start again...

thoughts January 01, 2018

2017 #yearinreview // 2018 #newyearsresolutions 

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Welp, here we are again.

I'm not 100% sure how many years I've been doing this—I nuked my old blog a couple of years ago—but archive.org seems to suggest that since at least 2007 (with a few omissions) I have been posting a set of New Year resolutions on this site, along with a look back at what last year was like. So, in the spirit of change, let's do exactly the same thing this year...

My 2017 followed the same pattern as most years: lots of work, with a conference to provide a bit of a break and a holiday in the summer when the kids are not at school. This year, both the conference (UX Cambridge, a short walk from where I work) and the holiday (Edinburgh, for a rainy week in July) were at a smaller scale than previous years; this was somewhat balanced by working on larger scale projects at work, where I moved to a new area of the business where significant changes are afoot. It's challenging and pushing me outside my comfort zone, which everyone will tell you is a good thing yet somehow never feels like it when it's happening to you.

Fitness-wise, I gave up on daily exercise since it seemed to make zero difference to my health. Instead, I doubled down on running, going out twice a week (Sunday and Wednesday) throughout the year, barring illness or injury, with the result that I feel fitter than I have in a while.

When I look back at last year's resolutions, though, it's hard not to feel that I could have done much, much better:

  • Write 1,000 words per day was something that I had managed to stick to throughout much of 2016, and I entered 2017 feeling optimistic about maintaining the habit. That optimism lasted until the first week of February, by which time depression over missed targets had set in; a month later, in early March, I threw out my second completed novel, frustrated by poor character development, and started on a third; and then, in June, five years after deciding to focus on developing my writing, I called a complete halt. Anything that was making me that miserable and stressed, I reasoned, was clearly not the right path to take. The second half of the year, then, was mostly a creative wash-out. Grade: F
  • I said I wanted to share more. I admired those who could post paragraphs of insight on Facebook, while I barely managed a weak Twitter gag once a week. Yet I uploaded a scant two Instagram posts per month in 2017, and wrote only two actual blog posts (not counting the Dec 31/Jan 1 round-ups), both way back in January. Grade: F
  • Finally, be more awesome at work was such a vague aim that it's hardly surprising that I'm struggling to identify any indicators that might signal success or failure. I don't feel particularly awesome, though. Grade: F

So, in summary, a complete failure. There was a popular Twitter thread doing the rounds a while back that discussed the difficulty of producing creative work while the world spirals the drain, and I can certainly attest to the depressing effects of encountering the latest terrible Trump/Brexit/terrorist outrage every time I open Twitter or Facebook. It does tend to make whatever you might be doing seem terribly pointless.

2018 resolutions

With that said, it's pretty hard to pin down a handful of resolutions for the coming year. At work, I'm noodling with an idea for a conference talk, although I'm still not sure of the direction to take. And, in my spare time, I find myself open again to the idea of writing as well as coding side projects, but I don't particularly want to commit to any specific outcome or regime.

I think the one thing I definitely want to try to do this year is:

  • Cut down on depressing social media.

I tend to check Twitter first thing in the morning and in the evening, when it's generally an unmitigated stream of bad news (either from the overnight US, or the daytime UK). While I value being informed, it's a mostly passive consumption of events that I have zero power to influence, with the result that it's sometimes hard to stay positive.

Of course, I'll need to replace those periods of consumption with something else—perhaps more deliberate use of Medium or Blinkist, or some other source of uplifting or informative content. If you have any suggestions, leave a comment below.

thoughts January 01, 2017

2016 #yearinreview // 2017 New Year's Resolutions 

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Naysayers may scoff all they like, or pontificate about arbitrary and meaningless dates, but, for me, January 1st will always be a perfect day for reviewing the events of the preceding year and planning what will happen over the next twelve months.

Leaving aside the litany of terribleness that stained the broader world canvas of 2016, my personal year went reasonably well. At work, I joined a different, brand new team, which is always fun to play a part in moulding, and attended the Design It; Build It conference in Edinburgh (it was also my first time in the Scottish capital, and I wrote a short piece on my first impressions). In May, our team travelled to Reykjavik in Iceland as part of a 'dogfooding' initiative within Booking.com; as well as gathering notes to help improve our product and sampling the occasionally odd cuisine on offer, it was also a perfect opportunity to visit the EVE Monument and pass by the offices of EVE creators, CCP Games.

Following the DIBI Conference, I became involved in the nascent UX For Change project with my old Digital Web compatriot, Nick Finck. As Technical Lead, it's been an opportunity to stretch my backend development muscles while also picking up some new technologies (Vagrant, Vue.js and JWT, in this case). Hopefully you'll hear more about the project early in the new year.

On the personal front, I completed work on the first draft of a novel on the last day of June. A daily writing regimen of 1,000 words on almost every day of those first six months of the year saw me also complete over twenty short stories (and publish one on Medium) as well as seventeen posts on this blog, including one that went on to garner over 65,000 views when it was reposted to Medium.

Sadly, without the end goal of a novel's final lines, and after two weeks in the Italian sun, my productivity slipped pretty dramatically in the latter half of the year. I've been slowly working on editing the book, but I miss the satisfaction of daily creativity. Looking back at last year's resolutions, the writing was the only thing that really suffered:

  • Exercise daily had been on my NYR list for a couple of years, and for the most part I didn't do too badly in 2016. Where I tend to skip days is when life gets in the way early enough to mess with my routine. Grade: B
  • Less social media, fewer video games was an acknowledgement that something had to make way for the time I wanted to spend writing. I've been using the Block site Chrome extension to train my brain to ignore the siren call of social media during working hours (even at weekends) and it's been pretty successful, although I can still wind up spending far too much time on Reddit. Grade: B
  • Read more. I published last year's reading list yesterday, and 25 isn't a bad tally considering the last one took me over three months to get through. Grade: B+

2017 Resolutions

And so onto this year. Given the above, it should come as no surprise that I'm resurrecting last year's main ambition, which is to:

  • Write 1,000 words per day, every day.

I know it's possible now, I just need to master the combination of determination and prioritisation. Writing daily is the only way I'll ever get better, though.

Semi-related, if not a little in opposition to my vow to lay off social media, is to:

  • Share more.

There was a story floating around a few weeks ago about how simply consuming social media, rather than actively contributing to it, could lead to lower self-esteem and depression (actually I forget the exact claim, and I can't seem to hit on the right combination of keywords to dredge up the article again). Anyway, too often I succumb to the "why would anyone care what I think?" brand of internal propaganda, which combined with a preference for Twitter and its 140-character roadblock over Facebook, means I self-censor far more than I perhaps should. I think I'd be happier if I put more of myself out there, so to speak, and not just for the validating Likes. So, I'm going to experiment with more social engagement. You're welcome to unfollow me if it gets too much.

Finally, a work-related resolution:

  • Be more awesome at work.

My internet friend, Meri Williams, published an article on Preparing to Be Badass Next Year on the 24ways advent site, and it chimed with a general feeling that I'd been allowing my personal development to slip as we moved into the closing months of the year. It's vague, and needs more thought, but I've always believed that most problems can be solved by thinking about them hard enough.

So, that's a year of being engagingly creative and awesome. Sounds easy.

thoughts April 02, 2016

Q1 Review 

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It's now been three months since I started trying to write every day. Unfortunately a handful of 3am starts -- and one hangover -- prevented me from hitting the 1,000 word goal I had set for myself on every day of the quarter, but of a potential word count of 91 thousand words, I'm pretty pleased that I managed almost 86 thousand in the first three months of the year. By way of comparison, that's more words than are in the first two Harry Potter books, The Catcher in the Rye, or Brave New World.

Aside from making steady progress on my novel, I've also written eleven blog posts (including one that garnered over 60,000 views and became one of the top 20 most recommended articles on Medium that day), fifteen short stories (the first of which I published the other day), a couple of film reviews, and a handful of pieces of short-form flash fiction.

I'm going to call that a successful first quarter.

A few things I have learned about writing and about myself

It's impossible to write a thousand words every day for three months and not learn something about what it takes to motivate (or de-motivate) yourself. Here's what I have found out so far:

  • I need music to write. Without some sort of aural distraction, my mind wanders, usually in the direction of social media; a nice long playlist of vocal-free tunes (like this one on Spotify) is necessary for me to focus. I tried brain.fm, a sort of intelligent white-noise generator, a couple of times, and that seemed to work reasonably well too, but not enough to make me want to pay for it. I should probably try one of those apps that prevents you from accessing the internet for a period of time.
  • It's very easy to make excuses. It was relatively rare for me to write less than 1,000 words in a day -- I either hit my target, or didn't manage anything at all. The days that I skipped writing altogether were the ones that started out badly, rising at 3am to catch an early flight, or were interrupted by unplanned social events. But in pretty much every case, it would absolutely have been possible for me to write if I had not been too eager to give myself permission to fail. I need to get better at forcing myself to write, no matter what obstacles life places in my path.
  • Nothing feels better than being done by lunchtime. On the rare occasion that I met my target before late evening, I felt great. If I could do that more often, I'd be very happy.
  • It's good to experiment. Writing in different styles and genres is a great way to discover your own voice, and find out what you feel most comfortable writing. I've written fantasy, sci-fi, horror and comedy (as well as what is generally termed 'literary fiction', i.e. none of the above) over the last three months.
  • Don't forget about your main project. There is always going to be one particular thing that is a lot easier to churn out than anything else you might work on, but don't let the ease with which you can produce bad poetry or Harry Potter fan-fic distract you from your primary goal, whatever that might be. For me, it's a novel, so I'm trying to make sure that at least half of my time is spent working on that.

We are what we repeatedly do

I've had the above quote, attributed to Aristotle, on my personal homepage for the last year or so, and it's certainly the case that it doesn't take much to engender a new habit. I don't think I'm capable, any more, of simply forgetting to write on a particular day.

Hopefully this new assiduity remains constant throughout the rest of 2016.

thoughts January 31, 2016

Shovelling sand 

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At the start of January, I committed to a daily word target that represented more writing than I had ever done in a single day. And I was going to manage to write that much every single day, without fail? I must have been mad.

But once you begin to do something every day, it doesn't take long for it to first become a part of your daily routine, and then to become habit. Two or three weeks in, you realise it's now just something you do, like showering or paying bills. Part of your conception of yourself.

It's now the last day of the month, and I have written almost 33,000 words. That's more than there are in Animal Farm, or Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. It's closing in on the word count of The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe or The Great Gatsby.

Of course, I haven't actually been working on just a single project. When I conceived of the idea of setting a more challenging daily word count for myself, one of the benefits I expected to realise was that it would force me out of the comfort zone of only working on one thing (which gives you a legitimate excuse to not write anything on days when inspiration doesn't strike).

So, as well as making, by my reckoning, around 12,000 words progress on my current novel, I also wrote seven blog posts (including this one), a handful of pieces of flash fiction, and several short stories.

The short stories in particular are something totally new for me; I had never really considered them as something I'd like to do, but now I've tried a few they're actually kind of fun. So far I've written about:

  • A wife and her children wondering who their father really was while they listen to his choice of funeral music;
  • A world where growing old is optional;
  • A husband who discovers his wife is a jewel thief;
  • A man who decides he is going to treat everyone better in life, right before he has a heart attack;
  • What happens to people in a world where everything, even decisions, are automated;
  • And a voyeur who tries to help the people he spies on.

Most of them aren't great, and that's okay. As Ray Bradbury once said,

“Write a short story every week. It's not possible to write 52 bad short stories in a row.”

I have eleven more months in which to prove him wrong.

thoughts January 01, 2016

2015 Year in Review & New Years Resolutions 2016 

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It is hard to sit down and write a review of last year. Not because it was particularly difficult, challenging, or meaningful; but because nothing much really happened.

Work was fine. I stepped back from a Team Lead position to rejoin the rank-and-file designers once more, and it has been nice to be able to focus on day-to-day design work again, as well as thinking about ways to attract, retain and develop our ever-growing design community at Booking.com. But aside from the regular commute to Amsterdam I didn't travel anywhere else, and didn't attend any conferences, which is a first in many years. I'm not sure yet whether anything will change in 2016.

Outside of work, everything else has ticked along nicely. All three of our girls are now at secondary school, my wife got a new job, and we visited the Lake District before it disappeared beneath several feet of water. One cat died; we got another one. Vita pergit.

Things start to go awry when I look back at last year's Resolutions list, however. Let's see how I did:

  • Edit my novel (Grade: F. I started to review the first draft, and made it about a quarter of the way through before the combined terribleness of the idea and the writing caused me to throw the rest on a shelf and abandon the project altogether. It did reveal the main problem with my writing though; a tendency to skip lengthy description because I want to get to the next plot point, and a fear of writing dialogue because I don't think I'm very good at it.)
  • Write an album. (Grade: F. In retrospect this was a stupid thing to try and I gave up after the first few days, partly because I have nowhere near enough free time to write a song every two days, but also because I am woefully out of practice at writing music.)
  • Exercise every day. (Grade: D. Looking back at the calendar tracking in the app I use, I didn't do too badly during the first half of the year, but in August it pretty much stopped. To be fair, I was running 3-4 times a week from that point until mid-October, but the last two months of the year were a complete wash.)

While these disappointing non-achievements are annoying, my biggest regret of the year has been my complete lack of discipline when it came to writing. After I ditched the editing, I started work on an idea I had been researching for a year or more, but after a couple of months working on that I realised I actually wanted to write something else first. I started work on the new project in early August, but to date have only managed a shade under 10,000 words, which works out at around 2k/month, or less than 70 words per day; barely a handful of sentences. Shameful.

So, it was with that complete lack of work ethic in mind that I formulated a new plan ... and with it, a new resolution.

Resolutions, 2016

Recently, a member of the /r/writing subreddit posted how he had successfully maintained a daily writing habit of over one thousand words per day for the last two years. A lot of the advice he shared was common to many other lists by both professional and amateur writers -- namely, if you want to get better, treat it as a job and write every day. If you sit around and wait for inspiration to strike, you'll never get anywhere (a common analogy asks whether you would only go to the gym when you are guaranteed to beat a personal best).

I had reasonable success with developing a writing habit in 2014 when I was writing the first book, but looking back I think where I went wrong was in only ever trying to work on a single project. With that approach, that tunnel-vision, if you ever get genuinely stuck for inspiration nothing gets written. So, with that in mind, my main goal for 2016 is:

  • Write 1,000 words per day, every day.

Whether it is actual progress on the book, or something else -- short stories, worldbuilding, blog posts, book reviews, or just private thoughts -- doesn't matter. What matters is the development and maintenance of a daily routine, a commitment to find time to put (metaphorical) pen to paper. I have plenty of ideas, this just provides a framework within which to explore all of them.

To that end, I've started carrying a notebook again. I used to always carry one, years ago, until it was superseded by the ubiquitous iPhone, but often I find myself wanting to write something down -- a story idea, an interesting quote -- without having to swipe through several screens to find the right app for the job. Pencil and paper will do just fine. Call it a modern commonplace book.

Along with this primary plan for the year, some secondary goals:

  • Exercise daily. Yes, it's the same as last year. And it's certainly nothing that you would feel tempted to call a 'regime'. But I can't deny that an early morning workout puts me in a more positive mindset for the rest of the day. Combine that with getting your daily writing out of the way first thing ... well, you can almost taste the endorphins. I'm also running again, but this year I'm keeping it strictly casual; no competitive races, no overly rigorous training schedules.
  • Less social media, fewer video games. To make room for writing, something else has to give, and since work and family are kind of important I'll need to cut back on other distractions instead. That's not to say that I'll stop altogether, just that perhaps when I have an hour to kill I'll open Scrivener instead of Fallout.
  • Read more. A paltry 24 books in 2015 is embarrassing. Another activity that needs to take precedence over mindlessly bouncing between Facebook, Twitter and Reddit.

So, there you have it. Lots of writing, less of other stuff. If Malcolm Gladwell is right about that 10,000 hours thing, I should have mastered this writing lark in about, oh, 27 years. Check back with me when I'm 68.

(1,036 words) ✓

thoughts June 07, 2015

Peterborough weekends, '88-'91 

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Between the ages of thirteen and sixteen there was a predictable pattern to my weekends. I had a paper round, and every Saturday was payday; after an early start and a late finish (since Saturdays also meant the latest copy of 2000AD was out, which I read religiously before delivering), by mid-morning I was ready to head into town to spend my hard-earned.

I cycled, usually, locking my narrow-wheeled, drop-handle racing bike to the lone lamppost at the corner of the Great Northern Railway Hotel car-park (a place I would later work, shivering in the dark winter mornings as I collected money from equally miserable London-bound commuters) before walking over the footbridge and into the Queensgate shopping centre. Queensgate had been in Peterborough for as long as I had -- it opened in 1982, around the time we moved to the city -- and so, for as long as I can remember, it was the retail Mecca toward which I headed every weekend.

First stop was always the now defunct record store, Our Price, where I browsed the cassettes and, later, CDs. It was there where I bought my first ever CD, Metallica's Ride The Lightning, spending my first paycheque from a Christmas job stacking shelves in BHS. Our Price was also where I took my first tentative steps out of the 80s heavy metal universe, buying Led Zeppelin's double-cassette album Remasters (I think much to my parents' surprise); I also remember agonising over which of Guns N' Roses' Use Your Illusion albums to buy first (my limited purchasing power only permitting me one CD every few weeks). I was a little in awe of one of the people working behind the desk, because I knew he played in a local band.

Further into the mirrored eighties interior of the shopping centre was Beatties, another long-gone relic. I don't remember what was downstairs at this toy store, but upstairs was where the Airfix models were kept; shelves stacked with airplanes and other vehicles on plastic sprues just waiting to be snapped apart and superglued to my fingers. At one time they also had lifesize plastic model guns; my younger self fantasised about fighting crime armed with a realistic plastic pistol.

Just around the corner from Beatties was the book shop Waterstones, offering a luxurious three floors of books. As I graduated from the teens section and moved upstairs to the adult section, I discovered travel writers like Ffyona Campbell and Christina Dodwell, two of the last of the explorer-writer hyphenates, braving the wilds of Africa or south-east Asia, writing about how to cook porcupines and the best place to pitch a tent in a monsoon. For several months I was convinced that I was going to be an explorer when I grew up, and filled the pages of notebooks with sketches of overland routes to India via the Black Sea and the Khyber Pass. Back then, Afghanistan was just another exotic name on a map.

Peterborough's last independent music retailer was Andys Records on Bridge Street. The regional shop chain -- it expanded from its humble beginnings as a Cambridge market stall into a national chain in the late 80s, before falling victim to the supermarkets' aggressive expansion into entertainment -- offered a little more variety than the larger chains; it was here I bought Tori Amos's debut album (a bold choice for a fifteen-year-old heavy metal fan) and many other lesser-known artists were also discovered in their racks of cassette boxes.

At the other end of town was the covered market, a semi-permanent grid of stalls that, as a child, would sometime seem an impenetrable labyrinth. To get there, though, I had to pass the only computer game shop in town, on Midgate opposite the scary and rundown Hereward Arcade. Logic Sales was the only place in town you could find a decent selection of software for Commodore or Spectrum home computers in the days before Amazon, and I spent hundreds of hours combing through their racks of budget and full-price games. I remember on one visit only being able to muster up £2.97 of the £2.99 asking price for Codemasters' latest, and wandering the streets with eyes locked on the ground until I found a discarded two-pence piece and could return for my prize.

Within the market, there was only one stall I was really interested in. Sure, the sweet stall was worth a visit when I had a few spare pennies, but hidden at the far end of the market, beyond the secondhand book stall, was my goal: the rock and metal collectibles seller. Sew-on badges emblazoned with Metallica, Slayer, AC/DC logos; rings, belt buckles, and wallet chains; and the occasional denim or leather jacket. I was too unsure of myself at fourteen to dare wear a skull ring or Harley Davidson buckle, but I did cover the back of my denim jacket in patches advertising my exquisite taste in music made by men with ridiculous hairstyles.

Just beyond the market, in a neat row of shops below the car park, lay my final regular destination. Stamford Music Shop was primarily a place for parents to find graded music books for their gifted offspring, but in a concession to popular music there was a small section of sheet music by popular bands. It was here where I bought my first acoustic guitar, and where I subsequently found guitar tablature books for albums by Guns N' Roses, Pantera, and many others. A few years later, it would also be where I placed an advert for band members, and the venue for my first meeting with my future bandmates ... but that's another story.

Some Saturdays a trip to town would also include a walk up past the bus station to visit The House On The Borderland. Hidden down a rubbish-strewn alleyway and below a tattoo parlour, HotB was a treasure trove of comic books, incense and second-hand vinyl, with an owner who looked like he had escaped from the Grateful Dead. Aside from the occasional comic or graphic novel, it was here that I found many "promo-only" CDs discarded by radio stations, including Machine Head's debut, and the ultra-rare Jefferson Airplane/Crosby, Stills & Nash/Grateful Dead collaboration, the concept album Blows Against The Empire. Borderland closed down in 2011, and the owner sadly lost much of his collection of rare records in a house fire in 2006, but he's since popped up on eBay selling much the same sort of great selection.

Finally, plastic bags either swinging from my handlebars or stuffed awkwardly inside the pockets of my denim jacket, I would ride home. An afternoon of new music awaited. I couldn't have asked to grow up in a better time.

(Photo credit: Alex Underwood)

thoughts March 01, 2015

Running again 

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On January 1st this year, I did something that I hadn't done in over fourteen months.

I went out running.

Back in October 2013, during a long-ish run as part of my training for an upcoming half-marathon, I pulled up short with intense pain in the base of my left foot. After a few days of discomfort, particularly in the morning and evening, I went to the doctor, who told me that it was probably something muscular and that I should stay off my feet for as long as possible.

I cancelled the half-marathon, and waited.

Since then, a series of podiatrists diagnosed basically the same as the original doctor, and prescribed inserts to raise my arch and 'fix' my gait, and a series of exercises designed for sufferers of plantar fasciitis (which apparently I "definitely don't have, but the exercises are good for what you have as well").

Following the most recent appointment, the podiatrist told me: "There's nothing more we can do, but I can refer you for a course of laser treatment." I'm not entirely sure how that would work, but luckily towards the end of last year the persistent pain that I had lived with for more than a year lessened and then eventually disappeared, with the result that, on a sunny New Year's Day, I felt confident enough to try running on my damaged foot again.

Since then, I've been out several more times, gradually increasing in distance, vigilant at all times for the slightest twinge from my so far complaint-free foot. And, despite the bitter cold and occasional rain shower at this time of year, my enjoyment of the sport has not dimmed during my enforced sabbatical; in fact, a recent book I read has reinforced a lot of my beliefs about the purpose it serves.

What I think about when I read about running

In Haruki Murakami's What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, the celebrated Japanese novelist details his daily running and writing habits and muses on the relationship between the two. A committed marathoner, he runs an average of six miles a day, every day, and has done so for over twenty years; but the book is not only concerned with running. In it, Murakami draws connections between his solitary pastime and his relationship with his body, and his writing. The fact that you have to put the time in, every day, to get better. The fact that you are competing against nobody but yourself.

Most of what I know about writing I've learned through running every day. These are practical, physical lessons. How much can I push myself? How much rest is appropriate — and how much is too much? How much should I be aware of the world outside, and how much should I focus on my inner world? To what extent should I be confident in my abilities, and when should I start doubting myself? I know that if I hadn't become a long-distance runner when I became a novelist, my work would have been vastly different.

A lot of what he talked about in the book rang very true. Not the part about doing it every day, because I have neither the time nor the inclination to take it that seriously — and also not the part about how it has helped him to become an internationally successful novelist — but I recognised both his description of the empty, absence-of-thought that fills (or rather, doesn't fill) your mind when running long distances, and the connection with, and affection for, the various landscapes through which he runs.

Where I live, there's not much landscape to speak of — it's flat, muddy, and featureless — but I still feel as if I am a part of it when I run. The potholed road, the windswept trees, the swans overhead; the mud and the rain and the wind and me.

(Ironically, while writing this piece I actually broke my toe, so I am once again back to a non-running state for at least a few weeks until it has healed. Plus ça change...)

thoughts January 01, 2015

New Year Resolutions, 2015 Edition 

Another revolution around the sun; another resolutions blog post.

Last year my list was a bit hand-wavey and vague—things I might do, but no concrete parameters for success. So this year I have hard targets; they will either get done, or they won't.

  1. Edit my novel: I finished the first draft of a novel back in March, but since then I haven't even looked at it (although to be fair I did write a screenplay in the meantime). So, 2015 is going to be The Year Of Editing, wherein I fix and expand on what I already have, in the hope of getting it into a state where I feel comfortable showing it to anyone else. But that's going to have to wait until at least March, because in February I plan to...
  2. Record an album: FAWM is February Album Writing Month, a NaNoWriMo for musicians, and for no particular reason I fancy having a crack at it this year. Although I listen to a lot of music, I haven't written any in almost twenty years; I plan to spend January learning how to use the various pieces of free music-making software I've accumulated over the years, and then we'll see what results.
  3. Exercise every day: Alright, maybe not every day, but any time I'm not feeling too ill to move I want to try to at least do a little exercise, whether that's running or a simple exercise series like the Scientific 7 Minute Workout. I spent a few months doing just that in the middle of last year, and the benefits are excellent—not just in terms of physical improvement, but in a general sense of well-being and positivity that can carry you through the entire day.

After reading about it on Medium a while back, I'm giving Coach.Me (née Lift) a try, setting daily exercise and writing goals and receiving prompts and encouragement from the app every day. I'm not convinced it is going to work for me, but it can't hurt to try.

So, those are my sticks in the ground for 2015. Oh, and I plan to read more than I managed last year, which shouldn't be hard...

thoughts December 28, 2014

New beginnings 

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Art is impermanent.

Paintings fade, dances are forgotten, books cease to be published. Did you know that Franz Kafka destroyed more than 90% of his own work (and left instructions for the rest to be burned after his death)? There are extensive Wikipedia articles overflowing with the tragedy of creations lost.

The community that arose on the web in the mid-2000s shared a similar veneration for the preservation of creative output, enshrined in a seminal 1998 article by Tim Berners-Lee, entitled "Cool URIs Don't Change". While Tim was addressing the then-prevalent annoying habit of websites to change the address of your favourite page simply because they had come up with a 'cooler' alternative (or had switched from one server-side language to another), it has since become part of a larger movement aiming to never allow old content to disappear; at the same time, bloggers like Jeremy Keith bang the drum for a "host it yourself" philosophy, wherein it is infinitely preferable to maintain your own website and (presumably) "cool" URI rather than allow another service to host and serve your content.

For a long time, I subscribed to that same philosophy. Every previous incarnation of this blog was carefully archived on a new subdomain, with HTTP 301 redirect status codes ensuring that ten years' worth of writing could forever be found, preserved in pixels. I installed, updated and hacked on Textpattern, ExpressionEngine, WordPress. I taught myself how to use SSH, Git, and bash. It seemed important, and worthwhile.

Lately, though, I've started to feel differently.

Nobody will miss you when you're gone

When I look at my site statistics it is abundantly clear that, when it comes to the preservation of Important Parts Of The Internet, nothing remotely qualifies. Over three-quarters of my traffic is to an article approaching its tenth birthday; not a problem if it was a timeless piece of observational insight, but unfortunately it's a PHP tutorial that, through accidentally fortuitous keyword optimisation, has continued to attract students seeking an easy solution to their first-year programming assignments. (I still receive the occasional email asking for help.)

The rest of my website traffic over the last year has been to similarly out-of-date technical solutions to problems that have been better solved elsewhere (where "elsewhere" is invariably Stack Overflow), plus a handful of views of each new article posted to Twitter, inevitably tailing off rapidly. By any objective measure, I'd be doing the internet a favour if it all just quietly went away.

I don't mean that I want to stop blogging; far from it. But what I want to do is stop pretending that what I write here continues to have value beyond its initial creation. I'm not writing for the benefit of unseen future readers. As Zeldman said, over seven years ago:

Blogging. And blogging again. Writing is fun. Writing is fundamental. If you don't write, you don't know what you think.

I'm writing for me.

Tabula rasa

So the old site is gone, and I'm starting anew. Who knows, I might do this every year—throw out last year's notepad and unwrap a fresh new one, inhale that new book smell.

I've decided to use the Ghost platform and Ghost(Pro) hosting for now, not through any great admiration for their non-profit, open-source approach but because I like the interface and the focus on doing nothing but writing. And because I don't want to have to care about upgrades, security, or accidentally knocking out all of my other sites when I write a database-killing query.

I'll probably still continue to write very occasional longer things on Medium, although I'm not a huge fan of their changes to how collections are curated. Twitter, Tumblr, Facebook—it's third-party all the way down. "But you could lose it all! What if they are acquired and shut down? What if it suddenly goes away and takes all of your precious content with it?" Yes, all of that could happen—but you know what I've realised?

I don't care.