Books of 2021

Termination Shock, by Neal Stephenson

It’s politically toxic to suggest that climate change could be addressed by geoengineering – deliberate and large-scale intervention in the climate system – because the effects would be hard to predict. But maybe we should do it anyway.

It’s the end of the 21st century and climate change is impacting most of the planet, sometimes catastrophically. Unilateral geoengineering becomes an option. Cue a giant technothriller that’s as much about teaching you about how levees work as following the trials of a ex-ranger hell-bent on revenge against a particular feral pig (there are a lot of feral pigs), or the combatants in a YouTube-led martial-arts-based ‘performative war’ at an ever-shifting India-China border in the Himalayas (it’s hard to explain), or the piloting skills of the Queen of the Netherlands (what it sounds like). And then there are the global political ramifications.

Spectacular first 50 pages. And, following the initial craziness, some plausible and often-brilliant insight into how the future could look. But it’s mostly a paean to human ingenuity, and how we interpret politics as damage and route around it.

As ever with Neal Stephenson he tries to shift the overton window of competence. Everyone is very good at their jobs. Everyone is curious, and eager to learn. And most of them can and do kick ass when needed, whether physically or verbally. This is all just normal.

Every Neal Stephenson book goes off the rails at some point – sometimes brilliantly, sometimes…less so. To read him is to be waiting for this to happen. I’m pleased to report that Termination Shock does so only at whatever point you realise it’s actually a long letter to Elon Musk.

Project Hail Mary, by Andy Weir

The sun is fading. Not a lot, but enough to induce permawinter and kill us all off. Why is the sun fading? Dunno, but lots of nearby stars have the same problem. Except one. So let’s send a team to it in the desperate hope they can figure out what the difference is.

Bit of geoengineering in this one too, except this time to deliberately keep the planet warmer while they wait.

It’s from the guy who wrote The Martian, and the style is the same: great ideas, interesting and coherent science, and pulp-fiction dialogue where everyone precisely expresses their exact thoughts and feelings.

Go in blind to this one. Stuff happens.

The Scout Mindset, by Julia Galef

This book could not be more relevant to my interests. It’s also highly recommended by Dominic Cummings. I don’t know what to do about that.

It’s about how to think clearly. This usually means: ‘here are a list of common mistakes we all make, so don’t make those!’. But Julia Galef goes beyond this, giving practical advice on how to avoid such cognitive biases.

She emphasises that it’s often very difficult. It’s all very well being told that our rational mind often acts as press secretary for our emotions, justifying what we want rather than thinking things through from the ground up. But recognising this in day-to-day practice is tough.

Cue the advice, drawn from years of research: she started a foundation dedicated to actually investigating such things.

Her main approach is a series of questions you can ask yourself, like ‘would you support the findings of this study if it supported the other side?’, or ‘if this idea were not the status quo, would I support changing the status quo to it?’. Get into the habit of asking these, she says, and you stand a better chance. It’s some work to do this – you basically need to write a list and check it. I haven’t done this yet. But it all seems sensible, and I fully intend to do so!

If this piques your interest, this is a better review:

The Culture Code, by Daniel Coyle

What makes for good culture in any group of people? You may not be able to define ‘good culture’, but we know it when we see it. And we certainly recognise the opposite.

The author argues that this isn’t as mysterious as we think: it is caused by particular approaches (not people), which can be laid out.

These approaches are:

  • First, you build psychological safety. This makes people feel like a team.
  • Then you turn this into actual trusted cooperation by encouraging the sharing of vulnerability. This sounds like Goopy wellness stuff but is just being open about weaknesses and difficulties.
  • Finally, you establish purpose by clearly showing what you’re trying to achieve and how you’re going to do it.
    • This is more than just having a clear purpose. It’s about knowing how you will achieve your purpose, then communicating it loudly and clearly and continually.
  • And you achieve all of these via small, everyday behaviours – or ‘signals’. These signals must be everywhere, all the time.

I found this very useful at work. It’s changed how I induct new staff, as well as how I write documentation and introduce new concepts. Worth a look if this is your bag.

The Harry Bosch novels, by Michael Connelly

I caught up on the Harry Bosch novels this year. They’re classic hard-boiled police procedurals, based in Los Angeles, and solid as hell.

I like them because everything follows from the detective work. There are no magical gut feelings, or unlikely coincidences. You can run a string from the crime to its conclusion and know it all makes sense. It’s super relaxing to have that certitude.

And Harry is a long term friend and role model. He acknowledges the complexities of criminal behaviour in a vastly unequal society, but isn’t afraid to judge. He has a diamond moral code that drives everything he does, often to his detriment. You may not always agree with his actions, but they’re coherent.

By all accounts it’s a pretty accurate depiction of the LA police force, too. It’s all real acronyms, processes, frustrations, and corruptions. Also the *city* is real: Michael Connelly famously only uses real locations, and you’ll never see someone cheatily beat the traffic at rush hour.

Harry’s getting a bit old now (worrying), and has a younger partner who isn’t just him in a different body. She’s good too. Lives in a tent. Has a dog. I like her.

You might have seen the Amazon TV show, which ended this year. I thought it started off a bit weak, but it hit its stride in series 4 and was great after that. It accords to the same principles as the books, but also plays with the form. You see a lot of unnecessary action: people walking to cars, getting coffee, standing in lifts. As a result you never know when something is going to happen. They leave open doors in the background of shots for the same reason. Plus the lead actor is a perfect fit. The Harry in my head is now 50% the guy I’ve known for 20 years, and 50% Titus Welliver.

If you need a fast, satisfying read, I highly recommend these books. There are loads of them. The first is The Black Echo. Here’s a timeline.

Ghostbusters: Afterlife

If you see a ghost, the correct thing to do is poke it. The next thing to do is get out the HD camera you carry on you at all times and document said poking in great detail in preparation for your Nobel Prize. It is not, repeat not, to scream, run away, trip over, split up, flee crowded areas, devise a super-clever anagram and scrawl it into a manhole cover using your own tooth enamel, etc.

All the kids in Ghostbusters: Afterlife get this. They find ghosts; they’re curious about the ghosts; they investigate the ghosts; they handle the damn ghosts. I do not have kids, but if I did I would swap them for these ones. They get a lot of good jokes, and the cool action scenes. They’re good kids, Brent.

The adults try pretty hard too. They’ve mostly got their own boring adult issues like rent and paying for property damage and making sure your kids don’t die, but they’re interesting and not annoying and also resist the impulse to run away from stuff they don’t understand.

But it’s the kids who carry the story, which is decent enough and gets more nostalia-y as it goes on. No doubt this annoyed some people. Sure, it’s super-poignant if you’re like me and watched Ghostbusters as a kid, and sure, if you’re not like me and didn’t it may lack the same punch, and sure, it could have not done this and still been a decent film. But it didn’t and that is that.

What it *did* do is warm and funny and inventive. There’s a Spielbergian touch to it all, from the kids all being bright, excitable, and likeable, to the deft intelligence of the action scenes. Childlike but not childish. It’s properly these-characters-are-your-friends-now *fun* and I enjoyed every second of it. The only real weirdness was the third act was surely missing like 10 minutes of footage and maybe a subplot?! But it still worked and that aside I highly recommend doing yourself the favour of sitting in the dark for a couple of hours, smiling.

First Solo

After 7 months of lessons, rudely interrupted by lockdowns, I flew solo for the first time this morning. That means: taking off, doing a circuit of the airfield, and landing again – without an instructor beside you. They wish you luck, hop out of the aircraft, and you’re on your own. It’s quite the moment!

I was up half the night worrying, but thankfully it turned out great. Beautiful weather, and a quiet airfield.

It was actually fun. This came as a surprise: I’ve found learning to have a high cognitive load – there’s a lot going on at once, and many things that need to be *just so*. I thought being by myself may make this worse. But today it all felt surprisingly natural. Free and easy. I really enjoyed it.

I’m by no means a licensed pilot yet: this step marks (roughly) the end of learning to fly and the beginning of learning to navigate. I’ve another 6 months or so of lessons, not to mention 6 exams plus the big skills test at the end. So going solo carries no legal weight, but it’s a traditional milestone and a big life goal!

Thanks to all at the excellent Redhill Aviation Flight Training for getting me here.

Grade 4 Piano

Little life victory today.

When I was 10 I took grade 3 piano, failed it, and gave up soon after. This annoyed me for 26 years. So at the start of lockdown I signed up for remote lessons.

18 months later and today I passed grade 4. Most pleased.

I got points deducted for playing a baroque piece too romantically. That’s as good an epitaph as any.

Huge thanks to Kensington Piano Lessons for the teaching and encouragement, and for always checking whether it was me or Skype that dropped a note (it was me).

Frozen: The Musical

Today I went to the theatre for the first time in forever, for the Frozen musical. I am pleased to report it is exactly what it should be.

You secretly want it to feel like Disney did when you were a child, when stories and reality still overlapped, and all was wonder and wide-eyed excitement. This is obviously a tall order. Nostalgia can get you partway there, and that’s usually dandy. But a bit of you still yearns for a touch of that breathlessness.

Frozen gives this a pretty good shot. It is not an easy cash-in. It has put the effort in, and it pays off.

It does this by being a real spectacle. It is proper dazzling. It fuses beautiful set design with pixel-perfect digital projection mapping, but the two are blended so smoothly that it never feels like a special effect. It’s just Elsa getting emotional and remodeling the entire set in seconds. Wood cracks, snow falls, the temperature seems to drop 10 degrees. Ice radiates perfectly from her hands in choreography that must have taken intricate practice, creating a palace that is honestly visually better than the one in the film. Northern lights shimmer, objects gracefully fly to the wings, and all the time snow swirls in the background. It might have been actual particles of something, it might have been digital: I honestly couldn’t tell. I am a sucker for this kind of ambient magic.

Olaf is particularly clever. He really shouldn’t work on a stage. He’s a three foot walking talking snowman with a very specific non-human bearing. How do you do that and not have him look like someone in a suit? I will not reveal this secret, but they pull off quite the trick here. I am amazed it worked, but after 10mins I was cheerily watching and believing the walking, talking, non-CGI snowman.

The above is very much my kind of thing. I very much enjoy appreciating visual skill and hard work. But I also wanted them to play it straight. Plenty of stage shows go meta for an easy laugh or to paper over a difficult segue. That’s even easier to do in shows nominally for children. But Frozen doesn’t. It tells the story, with minimal adaptations for the stage. It retcons it a little in light of the sequel, and adds a fair few new songs as the second half is a bit sparse otherwise (fans will note the odd inspiration from the unused Anderson-Lopez demos on the Frozen Deluxe album). But it’s the right story, well-told, and they don’t shy away from the tougher parts. They don’t attempt the snow giant, but everything else is intact.

Also: there is a dress. I have been to enough ballroom dances to know a sparkly dress from a holy-wow sparkly dress, and this was a cut above. It was the talk of the interval.

I haven’t mentioned the music, singing, and dancing because they’re what you expect and enjoy in a west-end production. Impressive bordering on ridiculous. Elsa is played by Samantha Barks (Éponine from Les Mis), who seems to be enjoying herself immensely.

It’s bright, it’s clever, it’s a bit like being a kid again. And when they play the first two bars of Let It Go there’s a quiet happy sigh from every child in the room. And not a few of their parents.

Thank you very much to the friend from work who donated the tickets – it was very much appreciated!


The final series of Bosch is fantastic. It’s a hard-boiled police procedural with basically zero exposition, based on the Michael Connelly books.

It never signposts bloody anything, and it plays all sorts of compositional games to keep you guessing. We see the characters doing mundane stuff all the time, so the usual trope-spotting of ‘why are we seeing them walk to the car? something’s going to happen’ doesn’t work. They like to put open doors in the background for the same reason.

It’s the proper Bosch of the books, too. He’s the moral capstone. “Everyone counts or nobody counts”, and everything flows from there.

This show was a slow burn. I thought the first few series were a bit dodgy. There was too much single-episode drama that didn’t ring true – people getting kidnapped and then being all fine by the next episode/day etc. But it hit its stride around series 4, and was excellent through to the end of this one (7).

Thankfully it’s not actually the end, by all accounts – it’s moving studio and it sounds like there’ll be a straight continuation.

In The Heights

This pulled me into another world for a couple of hours. Just lovely.

Imagine staring into a fresh coffee on the first proper day of spring, and in the swirls it’s all sun and youth and dreams and salsa and at the bottom, just for a moment amongst the foam, a little hope for the world. That, plus some thoughtful storytelling, a real sense of place, and enormous musical numbers that fill the neighbourhood – but not so much they don’t fit.

Also: Brooklyn Nine-Nine fans get some extreme cognitive dissonance. You’ll know it when you see it.

Here are the first 8 minutes:


(Very minor spoilers for the first 10mins)

Have you seen the meme about Cruella? The one that says ‘Turns out dalmatians killed Cruella’s parents, how are they so obvious, why am I not a scriptwriter lol’? Let me be 100% clear: none of these people have watched Cruella. Block them on sight.

These people have gone for a cheap gag, for the retweets. Never mind that Cruella itself never sinks to their level. Never mind that it’s a delightful reworlding, full of wit and craft. Never mind the hard work that bursts from its every frame. Never mind that it’s barely about bloody dalmatians. No, these people are connoisseurs of the arts, don’t you know. They’ve memorised They don’t have to spend two hours actually engaging with something to know it’s beneath them. I’m glad they’ve been able to signal their superiority and establish standing in their apparently-terrible social circles. They’ve got what they wanted. Now let’s ignore them and speak of things that actually make the world better.

You might indeed wonder how or why you would make a prequel about one of the most properly-evil villains in Disney history. I mean, she tries to kill 101 dogs. Dogs. She wants to kill dogs. This is a thought crime in all civilised countries. She doesn’t even come good at the end. We can all agree there is no redemption here, so are they really going to try and make her a sympathetic character? This is surely unconscionable.

I won’t spoil the plot. I will just say this: they have thought of that.

Cruella knows the story it wants to tell, and goes about it with professional care. There is *work* here. It feels rich. Almost every moment has an insight, or a progression, or a nod, or a spark of the unexpected. Every shot is frameable, every twist a jigsaw piece, every set months in the building, many lines wittier than they could have got away with. And its world is a swirl of impossible one-shot-steadicam dances.

Indeed, its visual style reaches out of the screen and insists on your attention. It successfully builds a large world with a coherent feel – something that’s especially tricky as it needs to make internal sense even when it shouldn’t. The cars are from the ’50s and the security cameras are very not. Does this matter? I didn’t mind, and still wanted to live there.

I liked that the characters weren’t stupid. The bumbling comedy sidekicks do not, in fact, bumble. The fashion people are not weighed down by luvvie. The dogs are clever, but not magic. The security guards are competent, and have to be defeated by cunning rather than slapstick. And the set pieces are spectacular, extravagant, and occasionally mad…but not silly. They tread the fine line between fun and ridiculous with a delicate style.

And the much-maligned plot didn’t go where I expected. It knew what it was doing. Every time I thought it was about to be a little too convenient, there was a reason. My prevailing reaction was ‘huh, clever’.

I enjoy anything full of inbetween moments, too. Half-second visual gags. Neat turns of phrase. Wit from unexpected quarters. Emma Thompson being Emma Thompson. There was no plot reason to go to the effort of Emma Stone stealing a postal bike rather than a regular bike, but it meant she got to ride over a stormy London bridge with envelopes flying in her wake. Just for a couple of seconds. They put in *so much effort*. Like I said, craft.

I suspect you can appreciate it from a fashion perspective too, although this is rather outside my area. But also if you finished The Devil Wears Prada feeling that these awful people did not get sufficient comeuppance, there is comeuppance to be found here.

I’m not saying it’s perfect. You could pick things out, if you wanted to. But there’s so much that’s done so very well that I feel it’s well worth your time. It is put together by competent people, who worked hard. It is never cheap. It is never easy. It is too classy to be meta, and too thoughtful to be dull. Worth a go, if this has piqued your interest. And you’ll see what’s actually going on with the dalmatians.

Listening to music in your head

Can you listen to music in your head? I’ve recently discovered I can’t, and it’s intriguing. I know the songs, so I figure I should be able to listen to them whenever I feel like it. It doesn’t work, though. I’ve been trying to catalogue what happens when I try, and here’s what I’ve got so far:

My first approach was to sing along in my head. I don’t actually sing, I just do everything that you normally do when singing – but stop before the actual out-loud noises part. All that matters is the intention to make the same sounds. And this works. I can get through a whole song without much conscious effort. This includes instrumental music – I just sort of sub-vocalise the notes by pretending I’m a violin or whatever.

But this isn’t what I want. It feels different from listening to music. It’s silent singing, rather than listening. I want to instead pull the song from memory and listen to it like it was on the radio, not feel like I am performing it.

So I tried to suppress the active singing. That turned out to be a thing my brain will do if I ask. No talking please, just listening. So this was the second thing I tried. And things happen: I can certainly will music into existence. But when I started paying attention I realised it was…strange. For starters, I don’t ‘hear’ the songs in real-time.

Let’s say I want to listen to ‘It Must Have Been Love’ by Roxette. With no conscious effort I immediately ‘get’ the first line of the chorus. I ‘hear’ the whole thing instantly, even though it would take a few seconds to sing out loud. That’s odd in itself – how is it possible to have a few seconds of music appear in consciousness in a fraction of a second? It’s more like seeing the music than hearing it.

After that the song doesn’t flow like it does when internally singing. I always get it in chunks. And it’ll cheerily just stop. Or sometimes I get a different part of the song – there’s no reliable order to it. It requires a continual low-level mental attention. I have to gently think ahead to the next refrain, and then that too just appears, fully formed. Sometimes I get a whole line or two, and sometimes just a particular musical highlight. But always in these little chunks of compressed time. The more attention you pay, the more structured and ordered it becomes – but the closer it gets to internal singing.

This was a surprise! I had expected that to work. And I thought I could just practice my way around it, but it’s proven quite stubborn.

In a pop-neuroscience way I could hypothesise about neural networks here. If memory is a network of linked ideas, it makes sense that information isn’t naturally ordered. At a low level you just get whatever is most closely connected to the previous part. Maybe the speech centres corral this stuff into a proper order, which is why it works when singing. I’m sure proper neuroscientists could point out 100 ways this is more complicated and interesting.

So, just asking my brain to play music doesn’t seem to work. I have to be actively involved. I can’t passively sit there and listen, with the occasional mental prod. Yet…I do feel like this happens sometimes. When I have an earworm, for example, it just plays unbidden. Admittedly earworms feel more like a glitch than a useful feature. But I also think I sometimes hear music when I’m concentrating deeply. Usually when coding, where it’s easy to fall into cognitive wells. (I’m tempted to say ‘a flow state’, though I’m not sure how dubious that concept is.) I think that songs go around my head during those times, without any cognitive effort. But it’s hard to say for sure: once you snap back to reality everything gets a bit hazy. I certainly can’t trigger this at will, though.

Perhaps relatedly: I’m much more aware of this happening with some visual stuff. When playing the piano I definitely get unexpected visual popups of whatever I’ve been watching of late. I’m not good enough at the piano to be truly zoned out yet, but I’m certainly over the lip of the well. I’m interested to see how this changes.

So that’s my experience, anyway. I wonder if this says something about mental structures in general, or if it’s more about mine in particular.

I’ve always figured that most people’s cognitive mechanisms are roughly the same. The philosophers will talk about the qualia of experience, and how we can never know what it’s like to be another person. But still: the world is real and evolution has adapted us to it. We all have to be able to navigate actual reality. It’s no good if one person perceives the ground differently, or if we all see different colours such that we disagree on, say, their relative brightness. It makes sense to think we have evolved to perceive things pretty much the same way – barring major issues in brain development etc.

But I recently heard the US magician Penn Jillette talk about his lack of visual memory. He can’t picture a scene from different angles, and his dreams are mostly conceptual: he certainly doesn’t seem to dream in the I-am-in-a-real-place way that I do. And while he isn’t entirely face-blind, he remembers few – and those only in familiar conditions. But he has an artist friend whose visual memory is such that she can draw people she hasn’t seen for 20 years. She and he have all sorts of discussions about the differences in their fundamental perceptions of reality, both of which seem entirely natural to them.

(It’s tempting to wonder if it’s a zero-sum game: he remembers most music, which makes little impact on her, and seems to have an almost-visual sense of the structure of ideas. This is likely wishful thinking, though)

This then made me remember an astonishing claim by director Robert Rodriguez. He says that during preproduction on his films he will find out their length by visualizing them while holding a stopwatch. He simply opens his eyes and sees how much time has passed. This is just alien to me. When I try to do that I get the aforementioned chunks problem – everything just turns up in one go. I can’t see how to override that. Maybe it’s something you can practice, but it feels more like a brain-structure superpower.

Maybe Penn Jillette and Robert Rodriguez are just one end of the bell curve, but it made me wonder if I’ve underestimated individual cognitive variation when it comes to these very fundamental perceptions. If there’s major variation amongst the general public about the very nature of perception, it’s no surprise we have so much trouble communicating. I’m sure there’s lot of research on this! I’m looking forward to finding out.

It’s weird finding yourself conscious inside a blob of physical matter. Your internal thoughts seem so freewheeling, but when you poke them a bit you realise they’re clearly running on physical architecture. If my brain can take an input of music from the radio, and just listen, why can’t I turn my memory of that music into an output and listen in the same way? Presumably it’s the same reason my computer “should” be able to do obvious things but can’t. Eventually you learn how everything’s put together and you see it’s a factor of the way it’s built.

I’m interested to know what happens when other people try this. How does your brain differ? Can you hear music in this way?

Photo: “Music Note Bokeh” by all that improbable blue is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Rita, Nanny, Mom

We buried my grandmother today. She was a motorbiker, a boater, and a great-grandmother to five. She ran her own clothes shop, officiated at TT Races for decades, and she and my grandfather were a year away from their 70th wedding anniversary. She will be missed.

The funeral was as good as such a thing can be. I have some contacts in this area. As it happens, today is the 125th anniversary of Humanists UK, where come Monday I’ll have been working for 10 years. I have spent much of that time supporting our network of humanist celebrants. I’ve got to know many of them, and I’ve worked with some of the most knowledgeable people in the funeral trade. So I was very lucky that the plans for today were informed by the best in the business – thank you so much, to those reading – and I knew the celebrant who led the service.

He did an excellent job. It was dignified, thoughtful, caring, and told the complete story of her life. A real tribute. It was hard, but it was a proper moment in time.

My grandmother was, we think, happy. She had love, and her family around her. She and my grandfather endured tough times – indeed, life-changing times – but always together. She seemed, broadly and as much as you can say this about another person, content. Her final years were more difficult, and not a little cruel, as illness took its toll. But she had a good life, and lived it well. Her family are a testament to that.

She had a soft spot for Mickey Mouse, and a good collection of Mickey memorabilia. I used to pick her up a different item on my every trip to Disneyland. But over the last year she’d grown particularly fond of a giant toy octopus – bright orange, with the happiest smile you’ve ever seen. It was this that sat on top of her coffin today. It was quite the sight. She’d have loved it.

She used to take me shopping when I was little. I think she bought me my first magic trick. I will treasure the idyll of watching cartoons at her house on a Saturday morning, usually a family dog or cat nearby, while she made my lunch. And I’ll forever be reminded of her by the taste of pear drops, which she always had to hand for me and my sister. We gave out free bags as the mourners left.