(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.

Books of 2020

My bookshelves and Kindle library show that in 2020 I started dozens of books but finished few. Here are some of the latter that I liked:

Human Compatible – by Stuart Russell. This is an actual down-to-earth, non pie-in-the-sky book about Artificial General Intelligences: computers that are as intelligent as a person, in a non-specific way. These aren’t machines that can only, say, recognise objects in photographs. These are machines you can have a chat with, and that can figure stuff out.

Creating such entities seems plausible. Since it’s possible in brains, it…should be possible in software? We just don’t know how to do it yet. But that doesn’t mean we know nothing. In fact, we know quite a lot. Including much about what we don’t yet know. This book goes over the current state of research, the challenges ahead, the potential for such technology, the spectacular dangers that could result, and a framework for reducing such risks from the early stages.

AGI is a world-changing possibility, and you don’t need to go full Kurzweil to get excited. Basic extrapolation takes you to interesting places, even without thinking about machines that can themselves build more-intelligent machines. Two ideas that stood out for me:

–machines with human intelligence, but a far greater working memory. Who knows how much knowledge exists out there that just needs someone to join the dots? Feed an AGI every medical journal in the world and see what they spot.

–AI tutors. We know personal tuition works better than class instruction. Once AGI arrives, we teach them how to teach. Then everyone can get a personal tutor. I am particularly fond of this as I think school is trauma for millions of kids – and would love to see schools replaced with something that doesn’t involve children spending a decade being bullied.

But this kind of potential isn’t actually the focus of the book. It’s more about mapping how we might get there, and why we should take the possibility seriously. If you’d like to know more, Scott Alexander has a proper review – one informed by an actual understanding of the AI landscape.

Schrodinger’s Killer App – by Jonathan P Dowling. I wanted to understand what a quantum computer was in more detail than ‘it can do multiple things at the same time, ta-da’ but less detail than ‘here is the equation for the collapsing wavefunction, thus encryption doesn’t work’. I needed quantum computers for someone who has read enough Sean Carroll not to require the double-slit experiment explaining, but still needs their hand holding for the next bit. This was the book! It’s a weird book! Half explainer, half rambly memoir, it takes you down a road and by the end of it you can see how quantum computers work in practice. Not understand, but at least get the general idea without feeling like it’s still a metaphor. You end up knowing why some problems will be helped by quantum computers, and some won’t. You end up knowing why there’s currently only a limited business model for quantum computers (you build one and sell it to the NSA; the end). You get a glimpse of new vistas in the utter weirdness of quantum mechanics, but not in a Deepak Chopra way. You also end up knowing a lot about the author’s life and his philosophy of being. He seemed like a fun, loud guy. He died unexpectedly this year.

The System – by James Ball. I haven’t finished this yet. But it’s a look at the structure of the Internet, from the physical cabling to how data is regulated in a borderless infrastructure – and how the money flows. I thought I knew roughly what was going on. Spoiler: haha I did not.

Superman: Up in the Sky – by Tom King / Andy Kubert. The best Superman story in a long time. No bloody Krypton. No bloody tantrums. No bloody heart-to-hearts with wise priests. It doesn’t even lead you down a trail of whether Superman will do the right thing: *of course he’ll do the right thing*. But how do you decide the right thing? And what happens when you make that decision? It’s about the nature of heroism and moral duty – and the role of inspiration.

Radicalized – by Cory Doctorow. Four short stories about Cory things. Tech. Power. Surveillance. Control. Rebellion. Identity. Look, I don’t know whether his ideas make sense. They’re the far carriage of a long train of thought. I don’t know how people feel equipped to evaluate critiques of capitalism and modern tech without, like, doing a PhD. But as with AGI I think it’s possible to get the gist of what people are thinking about. Cory is great at that. And he writes like a wizard. He sort of zaps you in the first two paragraphs, and then you’re in whirlpool till you’re done. In his attic there’s a shit book where every word is a slog, the characters are flat, and every page drops in overused references to Oscar Wilde. Be warned, though: Radicalized is a grim read. It will not cheer you up.

Outside of books:

–Joe Wicks kept me at least slightly fit
–Mrs Maisel, The Good Place and The Expanse made me laugh and think and occasionally upset me
–I got an air conditioner and don’t know what I’d have done without it

Happy New Year!


My old dance studio, Karen Hardy Studios, closed down this week. It had been trying to change form for a while, but couldn’t survive 2020.

It was a lovely, complicated place. As with any dance studio it had its fair share of politics, drama, and occasional creepy men. It sometimes muddied the idea of being glamorous with being elite. And the prices could be eye-watering.

But it wasn’t cynical. Karen herself was charismatic, skilled, and put the effort into knowing you. The staff poured their heart and soul into their work. The students had goals, workplans, written histories, and a solid idea of what they were working towards and why. The management continually developed and iterated new ideas, honing in on what worked (big Christmas parties, internal progress medals, almost-daily communications) and what didn’t (Sunday evening social dances, website member areas, complex lesson packages). The events were huge, star-studded, and lingered long in the memory. The studio building had a bar and lounge for chatting long after your lesson had finished, which *I actually did*, and encouraged you to call in when passing. It was a good setup.

And it was great at lifting me out of the world. For a couple of hours a week I was looked after, taught a skill and encouraged – in a little land of sparkles and catharsis. No matter what else was happening in my life, I walked in and felt better. And the ultimate otherworldly experiences were the international dancing competitions. These were whirlwinds of light and terror and camaraderie. I still get a contented glow thinking about them – particularly the Disney trips.

The world of competitive dancing is, like any other niche, full of tradition and social mores that have evolved and tessellated over the decades. It is often charming (infectious enthusiasm for *everything*), regularly idiosyncratic (let’s merge the bronze and gold level couples), and sometimes downright weird (international competition compères). It is regularly confusing even for people who know what they’re doing. At the top level it is run by competing cartels who will have nothing to do with each other, but who control their own domains by a mixture of rules, grandiosity, appeals to tradition, dubious claims to authority, and ever-so-polite ostracism. The big competitions have the not-entirely-unreasonable but not-entirely-reconcilable dual aims of calibrating dance skill while bringing in as much money as possible. The venues are full of competitors who have been dancing since they were 4, know the industry inside out, and who don’t really know what to say to a bunch of amateurs from London there for the teacher/student competitions.

The studio did a good job of filtering out this oddness. We pretty much sailed through it all on a wave of glitter, fear, and punch-drunk elation. Dance. Wait. Cheer. Check timings. Dance. Explore. Did I eat? Eat. Dance. Check timings. Console. Cheer. Food? Check timings. Somehow late. Run. Watch the superhuman professionals. Sleep. Repeat. All while looked after by the ever-excellent teachers.

I was always far more nervous about the social aspects than the dancing, but those competitions gave me huge (and much-needed) boosts in social confidence. Despite my being a bit weird and a lot quiet, I made friends who I would help move mountains to this day. (You weren’t allowed to be proper friends with the teachers or staff, though. You can see the theoretical reasons for this. Thankfully this worked fine and never caused any problems.)

It was a good few years. Ultimately I left the studio and discovered the wider London dance scene. But I fondly remember my time there, and I’m sad it’s gone.

Thank you to all the teachers and staff who ran the place. You were and are appreciated! You did a good thing.

Published at last

Unexpected discovery this morning:

Back in the day I used to write ‘non-murder-mystery’ games for a US website. They were aimed at children’s parties: some kids were assigned specific characters and had a sheet of facts that only they knew, while everyone else was a detective who questioned the characters to solve the mystery.

It was all very gentle and without any murdering or real unpleasantness. I think the most shocking thing I got away with was a town mayor who went on a haunted house theme park ride and came out with white hair and unable to speak.

This came to mind because at work we’re talking about having a murder-mystery during our Christmas party on Zoom, and I remembered that one of mine had been quite festive. So I googled it.

It’s still for sale, but apparently a few years back it was also packaged up as a book, which is available on Amazon under my name! I am a published author on Amazon! Sort of! And have been for six years! I had no idea.

It has one review! Saying it’s too difficult! They got away lightly: I remember my editor adding extra clues, much to my chagrin.

I’m gonna buy it.

PHP bug when uploading Word or Excel files to WordPress

If you’re unable to upload docx or xlsx files to WordPress due to “Sorry, this file type is not permitted for security reasons”, it may be down to this PHP bug. The MIME type of the file is reported incorrectly.

The bug seems to apply to PHP 7.3 upwards, and is not currently fixed. Here’s a workaround you can drop into functions.php:

function fix_office_file_mimetype_bug( $compact, $file, $filename, $mimes ) {
  if (strpos($filename, '.docx') !== false) {
    $finfo     = finfo_open( FILEINFO_MIME_TYPE );
    $real_mime = finfo_file( $finfo, $file );
    finfo_close( $finfo );

    if ($real_mime == 'application/vnd.openxmlformats-officedocument.wordprocessingml.documentapplication/vnd.openxmlformats-officedocument.wordprocessingml.document') {
      $compact['ext'] = 'docx';
      $compact['type'] = 'application/vnd.openxmlformats-officedocument.wordprocessingml.document';
      $compact['proper_filename'] = $filename;

  if (strpos($filename, '.xlsx') !== false) {
    $finfo     = finfo_open( FILEINFO_MIME_TYPE );
    $real_mime = finfo_file( $finfo, $file );
    finfo_close( $finfo );

    if ($real_mime == 'application/vnd.openxmlformats-officedocument.spreadsheetml.sheetapplication/vnd.openxmlformats-officedocument.spreadsheetml.sheet') {
      $compact['ext'] = 'xlsx';
      $compact['type'] = 'application/vnd.openxmlformats-officedocument.spreadsheetml.sheet';
      $compact['proper_filename'] = $filename;

  return $compact;
add_filter( 'wp_check_filetype_and_ext', 'fix_office_file_mimetype_bug', 10, 4 );

Laser surgery

I had laser eye surgery this afternoon. It was a bit magical.

Nothing was wrong: it was elective. I’ve been short-sighted since I was 10, but for the last 15 years my vision’s slowly been getting better. I was due to reach perfection in the next couple of years, then sail right through it into long-sightedness. I was improving fairly quickly so was perpetually out of focus in one eye or the other, and lockdown seemed a good time to sort this.

So today I slid under a large machine and was told to stare at a green light while the LASIK surgery worked its wonders.

If you squick about eye stuff, skip to END OF SQUICK.


They cut a FLAP in my CORNEA. This was an unusual thing to witness. It wasn’t painful, due to anaesthetic drops, but I could feel it happening and it was certainly uncomfortable. This took twenty seconds of staring at a precision laser while my eye was held open with tape and a speculum (and a surprising lack of head restraint). There were some weird visual effects: I saw red, blue and green sparkles that are hard to describe: the best I can get is ‘dead-pixel fireflies’. They were beautiful, though, and I can’t imagine I’ll see them again. This was followed by the usual apparitions you get when you rub your eyes, just a lot more eldritch.

Then they LIFT THE FLAP and fire a different laser. Let me tell you, watching somebody lift up the front of your eye is a good addition to the qualia bank. Everything went fuzzy and an invisible laser spent 4 seconds reshaping my lens. You’re meant to keep staring upwards but in all honesty heaven only knows what was going on at this point – I had sensations of being something akin to cross-eyed, entirely outside of conscious control. I just concentrated on looking in the correct direction. This whole thing was painless, and I wouldn’t have known the laser was firing if the surgeon hadn’t kept me informed.

Then that’s it. Flap down and smoothed over with tiny brushes. More drops.


And then the same for the other eye. Bish bash bosh. Whole thing took 10 minutes.

I sat up, and things were foggy but…sharp. I walked out of the room, mildly dazed but fine. 5mins later the surgeon tested my vision with your basic letters on a chart, and said I already had 20:20 vision. 5mins later I was in a taxi.

It’s now 7 hours later, and things are good: a little foggy, but I can see unaided for the first time in 25 years. The fog should clear by morning. My brain refuses to parse good sight + gritty-feeling-in-eye as anything other ‘you need to take your contact lenses out’. I’m having to override that every ten minutes. It might take my subconscious a while to catch up, there.

I have a plethora of drops for the next week, a supply of artificial tears for the next couple of months, plus 2 checkups and strict instructions to avoid dusty environments / bright light / poking myself in the face. As far as I can tell this is all about making sure the aforementioned incision heals ok.

I am in awe that it is possible, as a matter of routine, to fire lasers into people’s eyes and fix their sight. In an hour. I didn’t even take my coat off.