Writing

w/e 7 January 2017

‘Good Time’, ‘The Florida Project’, ‘Spiral’, ‘McMafia’ and nearly getting some code live.

There were a few films I missed towards the end of 2017 and this week I managed to see two of them at the Prince Charles: Good Time and The Florida Project. They were both really good. Good Time was a relentless descent as one thing after another went inevitably wrong for the desperate characters. The Florida Project had more great performances, especially from the young children and showed an odd side of American life, around motels and strip malls and novelty stores. Together, although they’re both fun to watch, the films present a grim view of a side of life in the US.

Also in watching things… we were pleased to see Spiral / Engrenages return for a sixth series. I think I’d take this over any scandi-noir. The characters generally seem interesting in more believable ways, often a bit worse-for-wear, and always interesting to watch.

We also started watching McMafia which my personal jury is still out on. So far I’m wishing they’d spent less effort on zipping between global locations and more on convincing dialogue. For example, conversations between characters discussing hedge funds seem obviously written to be clear for all viewers, rather than in a way those characters would actually speak. There’s no room for any viewer to be even momentarily confused, resulting in dialogue that’s weirdly superficial. Consequently it’s hard to believe Alex Godman knows anything about running a fund because he’s not demonstrated any knowledge beyond the ability to stare at complicated screens and to send money by clicking large “Authorise” buttons.

I spent some time this week getting my almost-finished new code for this site up and running on a server at Heroku. Inevitably several bugs reared their heads in my code, in third-party code, and in code used by third-party code (fourth-party code, I guess?). It’s all pretty much there now, fixed, patched or worked around. Aside from the Flickr API throwing “502 Bad Gateway” errors a lot of the time. Small pieces loosely joined by sticky tape and frayed string.

In Weeknotes on 7 January 2018. Permalink

Hello RSS people

At some point over the next mumble days I’ll probably be doing drastic things to this site, including changing the locations of the RSS feeds.

Hopefully this will happen seamlessly and my posts will continue to appear in your feed reader just as they always have done and always should do. But if, in a week or two, you find yourself thinking, “Hmm, I haven’t seen anything from Phil Gyford’s Website recently,” then it might be worth checking on the site. If there are recent posts you haven’t seen, you may need to update your RSS feed subscription. The new links will, as now, be down at the bottom of every page.

Even if this change does work as seamlessly as possible, it might still be the case that lots of old posts, including this one, reappear as “new” in your feed reader. Look on this as a retro re-enactment of the old days when some people would occasionally re-write their own websites, resulting in this exact behaviour. The glory days 2.0.

Thank you for your attention and patience in this matter. If you’re reading this via RSS then you’re one of the special people, my people, and I appreciate you clinging on to this technology like a dated XML life raft. Hold on tight.

In Misc on 4 January 2018. Permalink

w/e 31 December 2017

Not just the end of the week but the end of the year.

I hope you’ve had a good Christmas and a restfully unproductive inter-holiday limbo period, following all of your annual traditions.

We went to Berlin for Christmas and stayed with friends, which was a lovely way to spend the holiday. No pressure to do anything but sleep, eat, drink, chat and relax.

It had been six years (and 21 hours, 15 minutes, to be precise) since I’d last been in a plane and more than three years since I’d left the UK. Which is nothing to be proud of. Even though we barely went out over Christmas the time we did spend out in Berlin it was great to be somewhere different. I am (obviously) terrible at finding reasons to go on holiday but the pleasure of being at leisure in a foreign city should be reason enough. He said to himself.

Regular readers may be relieved to know I have pretty much finished work on the new version of my site. Or, at least, it’s as finished as it needs to be to put it online. So at some point, soon, I will get that done which will be a massive relief, to me at least.

That’s about all for now, for this week, for this year. Personally I’m hoping to have a better, happier year in 2018, and I hope you have one too.

In Weeknotes on 31 December 2017. Permalink

I’ll meet you in Cathedrals

William Gibson asked a question on Twitter about how to describe the location of a London street, presumably for the novel he’s working on:

London query: Is Alfred Mews in Fitzrovia? If not, what’s the name of the hood?

Here it is on Google Maps if it helps you make your own decision.

Map of Alfred Mews

As the replies suggest, it’s hard to be sure where such areas, that aren’t necessarily legal boundaries, start and end. I replied:

I’d concur with those saying Fitzrovia is west of Tottenham Court Road. Maybe Bloomsbury but I’d say “just off TCR, next to Heals”. Lots of little bits of London just don’t fit comfortably into named areas and it sounds weird to shoehorn them in.

The OED agrees with me about Fitzrovia (“A Bohemian area of London around Fitzroy Square, west of Tottenham Court Road”) but Wikipedia puts the area’s eastern edge at Gower Street. That’s the thing about these areas — they blend into each other and their boundaries vary for different people. And getting it “wrong” can smell weird. Like so many parts of London, and other cities, some locations aren’t clearly enough within a specific area for their neighbourhood to be a helpful descriptor.

For this reason I wouldn’t refer to Alfred Mews as being in either Fitzrovia or Bloomsbury or any other area. To me it’s on a boundary, or even an overlap between the two, and so using one label or the other would feel less helpful than saying “next to Heal’s”, or using some other concrete marker. Why be more vague?

This reminds me of the neighbourhood names that Foursquare/Swarm has used when mentioning friends’ check-ins at locations. In order to help locate where a check-in happened, notifications included the establishment’s neighbourhood. Often, though, these were areas I’d never heard of, only making things more confusing, as if friends were dining out in a parallel London. Telling me a friend is at a restaurant in “Cathedrals” doesn’t help me identify the location. I started collecting the place names that meant little to me. Here they are linked to their Foursquare search results:

Map of Cathedrals

I think Foursquare have stopped using these now — most recent check-ins are located in the less confusing but not-much-more-helpful “London, Greater London”. Before I searched for them I could guess where a few are, but others are baffling. For example, Wick must be Hackney Wick and Northcote is presumably around Northcote Road in Clapham. Of course, it’s possible that other people use some of these terms on a daily basis and they’re only unfamiliar to me (presumably Lord Rogers of Riverside knows exactly where the boundaries of Riverside are). But describing an area around the South Bank, Southwark and Borough as “Cathedrals” seems very peculiar to me.

I’m curious as to where these names come from. I thought it might be Quattroshapes, Foursquare’s “authoritative source of polygons around a curated list of places” but I can’t find a way to easily browse that data. And even then, where does that data come from? Maybe someone reading this knows the origin of these place names?

Map of HackneyI’m not saying Foursquare have done a terrible job with this stuff; I’m saying that this stuff is really hard.

For purposes like this it’s useful to be able to describe a small and well-defined area and frustrating when such descriptors don’t exist. London has plenty of existing well-known names for areas but they’re not all useful. Some are well-defined and a usefully small size, such as Soho and Fitzrovia (leaving aside quibbles about their precise borders). But others are less helpful. I could say “Let’s meet in Hackney” but where would I mean? I’d be thinking of somewhere not far from, say, Mare Street (itself pretty long). But the legal boundaries of the big London Borough of Hackney (pictured) also include areas like Stoke Newington, Dalston, Hoxton… plenty of other neighbourhoods that are more useful in their specificity.

Northbank Christmas decorationsAnd so I can sort of understand why sometimes organisations attempt to define and promote new areas.

There’s an effort underway to brand the area of “Northbank”, the logo of which helpfully includes the locations “Trafalgar Sq, Strand, Aldwych” so that everyone knows where it is. [Photo by Matt Brown, used unchanged, under a CC license.] Similarly, there are banners on streets in a part of central London proclaiming the zone as “Midtown”, “encompassing Holborn, Bloomsbury and St Giles”.

Like Northbank, Midtown is a Business Improvement District and was once focused solely on Holborn (“inholborn”) before expanding to become “inmidtown” and now “Midtown”. Often these BIDs have generic names to describe the areas they cover (e.g. “The New West End Company”) which is fair enough and I assume they serve a useful purpose. But Northbank and Midtown both sound like they’re trying to enforce a change of name from above. Which seems extra strange, and not useful, when these are larger than the existing areas they include. But I know nothing of branding and marketing or government funding.

MidtownI guess those old, messy districts of Holborn, Bloomsbury and St Giles are a bit too vague or old-hat for today’s bizniz. Bloomsbury may have a distinct brand but maybe it’s the wrong one for “the go-to place for businesses in London”?

St Giles has been undergoing a resurgence — while it was once a distinct parish, for the time I’ve lived in London it seemed to me like a lost corner of the past, squeezed out by New Oxford Street and Centrepoint. With the arrival of the attention-seeking facades of Central Saint Giles it seems more noticeable again. Another one for the power of branding.

Although I love the area of Holborn, a loose strand stretched between the City and the West End, it’s also vague as a precise location, distended by its eponymous streets: it’s over a mile from one end of Holborn Viaduct in the east, along Holborn, and to the far end of High Holborn in the west. But until 1965 Holborn was a more identifiable Metropolitan Borough with its own town hall and legal boundaries. So why festoon it with “WE ARE midtown”?

It feels ludicrous to try to create a new area with a top-down branding effort. And yet… maybe if they can persist with this longer than you might imagine, perhaps in 20 years people will be arranging to meet in Midtown before heading to a theatre in Northbank. Names come and go. After all, Fitzrovia itself is less than a century old, although being named by an artist or a poet feels more satisfying than by a “business led partnership”.

In Misc on 20 December 2017. Permalink

w/e 17 December 2017

This week, double acting and sort-of-finishing some code.

I went to two Drop-in classes in which we continued to work on the opening three pages of Uncle Vanya. Not a lot happens in it: Astrov, a doctor, is telling Marina, a nurse/nanny, about how old and tired he is, and how a man he was operating on died on the table. Alex had us work on raising the stakes: How does he feel about being called out all this way and the “patient” going off for a walk? How guilty does he feel for being here chatting rather than being wherever else he’s urgently needed? How responsible does she feel for wasting the doctor’s time like this? None of this is explicit in the text but it helps enormously in making the scene more urgent and interesting.

We also tried to make things more specific — Astrov needs to see the patient that dies while he talks about him — and ensure the characters have a point of view about everything: what they’re saying, why they’re there, the other person, the people who aren’t there, the state of their life, their past, their future, the state of the world… it’s not like you have to hold all this in your head while delivering the lines but bits will (hopefully) come and go when relevant, and help to give you a reason for why you’re saying what you’re saying.

It was surprising (to me, anyway) how much the scene varied every time we did it. I’m not sure we’ll continue working on it any more but it’s been interesting, useful and enjoyable. Maybe a different scene in January.

And then the stage 2 Meisner course came to an end with an all-day class in which the increasingly soap-opera-like plots reached their conclusions. Our first scene was me in a hospital bed recovering from my abusive wife “pushing” me down the stairs, while she and my sister argued around me. The second was a dinner party with my sister and our respective new partners which was all extremely awkward, a state that I love acting. I’m not quite sure why. Maybe because I can find real life too awkward and stressful at times and so it’s enjoyable to be in a position where there’s nothing at stake for me (as opposed to for the character) and we can really push the hesitancy and awkwardness as much as possible. Good fun.

Around all that I’ve almost finished my laborious website re-write. Or, it’s as finished as it needs to be to put it live. I doubt I’ll manage to tick off all the tiny final tasks over the Christmas period — there are always more than expected — but it’s nice to know I’ve finally got to the end of this stage. I’m not 100% sure whether to put it on Heroku (easier) or my shared WebFaction account (a lot cheaper but probably more fiddly). Decisions, decisions.

But that can wait. Have a lovely Christmas/whatever period of time!

In Weeknotes on 17 December 2017. Permalink

w/e 10 December 2017

Another week over.

This week we went to see How to Win Against History a three man musical show about Henry Paget, 5th Marquess of Anglesey who, around the turn of the 19th/20th centuries, spent his huge inheritance by putting on elaborate, and probably doomed, shows. It was a lot of fun, very quick, very funny, and nicely warm-hearted. The music and lyrics are by Seiriol Davies who I was at LISPA with and who is marvellous. As is the way with these things, it’s completely sold out. Good old London.

As good as it was, the most surprising dramatic moment of the week happened in the Meisner class. I was watching an repetition-based improvisation: a brother and sister, living in their deceased parents’ old house, no money, she’s had a baby, he’s frustrated with her doing nothing… the scene was OK for a while but wasn’t really going anywhere, with emotions not building, and nothing quite hitting home.

The teacher talked to the brother, to get at the root of what he was upset about and the scene continued, a little more intensely. All of a sudden the sister recoiled and exclaimed, “You’re making me wish I never had the baby!” I noticed they way she said it before I understood the words. It was almost as if the actor had noticed something terrible, like a rat running across the floor, because the emotion, the horror, was so believable and true — it was her, not her-playing-a-character, who was upset. It was amazing to see. It’s rare for a scene in class to bring tears to my eyes. The moment made me realise how many of the emotional moments one sees in class, even when they’re good, are often that one step removed from this “emotional truth” (for want of a better term). And I wonder if I can ever do that.

Back home… I’ve given up on playing Horizon Zero Dawn I think. It’s just not for me. I find the world a bit daft and I don’t want to spend any time there. I also realised it’s too RPG for me — way too many bits of equipment and skills and crafting and upgrading and all that. Too complicated for my idea of fun.

Instead I started playing Elite: Dangerous, having fond memories of Elite from the 1980s but this is, so far, way too complicated for my idea of fun. There’s no way you could play the game without spending time online watching videos and reading forum posts to work out how to do anything. There are a handful of training missions included but they only cover a tiny proportion of all there is to know. I’ve spent a lot of time getting confused over the three different ways to fly around; which buttons to press to do anything; how to know what to trade anywhere; how to complete missions which initially sounded simple; how to find bad guys to shoot for the bounty… So much time feeling lost and bewildered. It’s infuriating. I feel I have hours of watching and reading ahead of me and that’s not fun. Such a shame because it looks lovely. On the plus side I did manage to successfully dock in a space station at the first attempt, which I always remember being a challenge.

That’s the highlights. Much of the rest of the week was spent at a desk staring into a computer, the usual. Let’s all make sure we do something else this week too.

In Weeknotes on 10 December 2017. Permalink

The foco

I don’t know much about how to effect change in a large organisation but I know people who have done it (or tried to do it). Hello, agile digital change agents! When I read this book review I thought of you.

It’s in the London Review of Books by Piero Gleijeses, of Cuba’s Revolutionary World by Jonathan Brow. The review starts:

‘We were absolutely convinced that we had discovered an infallible method to free the people,’ a close aide of Che Guevara’s once told me as we talked about Cuba’s support for armed struggle in Latin America in the 1960s. When Fidel Castro seized power in 1959, levels of poverty and exploitation in Latin America seemed to meet what Marxists called ‘the objective conditions’ for revolution. As a senior US intelligence officer pointed out, the victorious Cubans viewed Latin America ‘as a tinderbox to which one merely had to apply a spark … to set off the revolutionary explosion’. This spark would be the foco, a small guerrilla vanguard whose purpose was to launch armed struggle in the countryside, just as it had in Cuba, creating the necessary ‘subjective conditions’ - an awareness among the people that they could and should fight. Castro wanted the armed struggle to start immediately.

Castro’s analysis of how Batista had been removed - and therefore of what it would take to achieve revolutions elsewhere - overlooked several key factors in the Cuban situation, three of them decisive. First, when he and a dozen guerrillas reached the Sierra Maestra, in December 1956, there was already a peasant base ready to support them. Furthermore, a strong urban underground was able to provide Castro with weapons, supplies and fighters. Finally, his assurances that he was not a communist gained him the support of conservative Cubans who opposed Batista, and mitigated the hostility of the United States. But the victorious Cubans ignored these facts; they were mesmerised by the foco. ‘We have demonstrated,’ Guevara wrote, ‘that a small group of men who are determined, supported by the people, and not afraid of death … can overcome a regular army.’ This, he believed, was the lesson of the Cuban revolution.

It seems, from what I’ve heard, like a good parallel with trying to make large organisations drastically change their direction and/or ways of working. You can’t rely solely on a few good, enthusiastic people, the foco. You also need existing internal support and readiness, access to plenty of resources, and the ability to appease potential allies who might otherwise find you too scary.

It seems so obvious a parallel that I assume I’m not the first to notice it.

In Periodicals on 9 December 2017. Permalink

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