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Wheeling the Reinvention

Dave Winer has ideas:

ideas for rethinking blogs and feeds. I found, as others have, that I need another kind of document to include in my personal CMS other than a story that’s part of the blog. Everything about blogs are set up to be written, then lightly edited, and never touched again. It’s temporal writing. But there are other things that I want to develop over time, keep coming back to, revising. A few years back I started to hold those docs.

He’s talking about what I like to call ‘web pages,’ surely? You don’t need any fancy CMS for those, as Dave of all people should know. And if you want to use such a thing, well, even WordPress has its Posts/Pages distinction.

Colliding Names

A few years ago I wrote about how I was notified about the wrong band called (The) Nails. In that case the names were different, though only by the subtle presence or absence of the definite article. Things have got even more confusing recently.

I have an app on my phone called Music Harbor (sic). The idea is, you give it access to your music library, and it notifies you of forthcoming releases by artists you already have tracks by. It sometimes throws up some oddities, like people I’ve never heard of just because they’re ‘featured‘ on something I have. But mostly it’s pretty good. It’s how I know that Bruce Springsteen has a new album coming out in a few days, for example.

A few years back I heard a track called ‘Bass Down Low,’ by someone called Dev. I liked it, both musically and lyrically. I mean, it’s not profound, but ‘I like my beats fast and my bass down low’ is a sentiment I can get behind.

So there was a new track by Dev out today. However, the guy rapping on ‘El Erb‘, is not, I feel sure, Dev, the female singer & rapper of ‘Bass Down Low.’

It’s also a scunner of a name to search for, what with it being an abbreviation for developer, the TV show, and Google completely owning the .dev top-level domain.

Multiple people with the same name: it’s a problem. It’s why actors have Equity names, I guess.

Still, there should be no problem with the early nineties Scottish indiepoppers Bis, right? Who’d have thought they’d be back with a new single, this long after ‘The Secret Vampire EP’?

No-one, it turns out. This Bis is someone else (and his single ‘Streets‘ is also nothing to do with The Streets).1 It’s also hard to search for, not least because it’s an abbreviation for several different organisations. I even used to work for a company called BIS.

I don’t think the English language is running out of names, but if you’re planning on using a short one as your professional persona or brand, you probably want to check out whether or not someone has already used it in your field. Though it’s not always that easy, as I’ve noted.

There’s even a music magazine called Clash, which has nothing to do with The Clash.

Still, ‘Sugar sugar kandy pop/Push it down and pull it up,’ as I’m sure we can all agree.

  1. Shit, and I’ve just found out he was murdered last year. 

Covid Track

This is one of our local parks. Look at that desire-line track, fading into the distance (click or tap on the picture to see it bigger).

A footpath worn in grass across a park.
A path made by many people, avoiding each other

The paved footpath is off to the right. That track — a simple, direct route, that avoids the footpath — wasn’t there a year ago. The novel coronavirus changes the landscape.

When the Going Gets WEIRD

In the New York Times Daniel C Dennett reviews a book by Joseph Henrich called The Weirdest People in the World: How the West Became Psychologically Peculiar and Particularly Prosperous. Sounds like an interesting book, and the review itself is engaging. I just wanted to note a few points.

First, we have the acronym WEIRD, which stands for “Western, educated, industrialized, rich, democratic.” Apparently being WEIRD makes us weird, in psychological terms. Non-WEIRD and WEIRD people have differences that can be observed, measured.

I was intrigued by this quote:

To point to just one striking example: Normal, meaning non-WEIRD, people use left and right hemispheres of their brains about equally for facial recognition, but we WEIRD people have co-opted left-hemisphere regions for language tasks, and are significantly worse at recognizing faces than the normal population. Until recently few researchers imagined that growing up in a particular culture could have such an effect on functional neuroanatomy.

I wonder if this can apply on an individual scale: are people whose focus has been language less able to recognise faces? Answering just from within my own head, I’d say maybe? I’ve been what my Dad used to call a compulsive reader all my life, as well as being at least somewhat interested in writing, and I’m very poor at facial recognition. Bordering on prosopagnosia, I sometimes think (though far from anything like the poor woman in this story, who can’t even recognise herself in a mirror).

If my experience suggests that, I have counter examples right in my own family. My beloved and our daughter are both linguists, and both border (to my mind) on being super recognisers1, which is the complete opposite of me.

None of which tells us anything useful, except maybe that the ability to recognise faces, like many things, exists on a scale.

More interestingly, Dennett introduces (to me, at least) the delightful term ‘Occam’s Broom’:

A good statistician (which I am not) should scrutinize the many uses of statistics made by Henrich and his team. They are probably all sound but he would want them examined rigorously by the experts. That’s science. Experts who don’t have the technical tools — historians and anthropologists especially — have an important role to play as well; they should scour the book for any instances of Occam’s broom (with which one sweeps inconvenient facts under the rug).

Occam had a famous razor; why wouldn’t he have a broom as well?

  1. There’s a professional body of super recognisers. Who’d have thought? 

Orlando by Virginia Woolf (Books 2020, 22)

This is a book about history, biography, gender — and writing.

It’s presented as a biography of the titular character, who starts as the son of a noble family. It’s written for, and partly based an the life of, Woolf’s friend Vita Sackville-West.

Famously, Orlando’s gender (or biological sex) changes partway through the novel. She spends the latter part of it as a woman. She also lives for four or five hundred years — and presumably is living still. She’s barely got started by the end of the book.1

The interesting thing about the time difference is that he/she doesn’t experience the passage of hundreds of years, as far as we are shown. It’s like time passes at a different rate for her. She reaches the age of around 30, but the world has moved on through ages around her.

I enjoyed this greatly, and as I said a while back, it sparked some ideas and made me think of associations with Iain Banks. Which can’t be bad.

  1. Indeed she/he turns up in Alan Moore’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen series, switching back and forth seemingly at random. 

How I’m Going To Master this Writing Lark

Announcing a big life change: I’m going to be starting a masters course in a couple of weeks. An MA in Creative Writing, at Birkbeck, University of London.

Nine Months in Slippers

How did you get here, Martin?” I hear you ask. Let me take you back to November last year. I lost my job. The reasons are obscure and not that interesting, but I had been working at SPIKA for only six months, and suddenly I was out on the street.1

If that had happened a couple of months sooner, I might have been studying all this time. I had been vaguely musing on the idea of doing a masters in journalism. I love to write, and I sometimes think that I kind of missed a calling.

I was too late for 2019, all the university terms having already started. So I did a bit of job hunting, but mainly took a break till after Christmas.

When this year that we had no idea was going to be so terrible started, I started looking for jobs, but I also kept thinking about journalism. I started a distance-learning course. Learned a bit of shorthand, and read up on some of the other aspects of the craft. A journalism MA, starting this year, was still on the table.

Then Coronavirus arrived.

To be honest, the lockdown didn’t change things that much for me: I was at home all the time anyway. But the jobs market, as well as the rest of the world, was affected. It’s easy to work from home in software development, but recruitment was down. I had a few interviews, but no success.

Then somewhere in there I decided that journalism wasn’t for me after all. There are aspects of the profession that didn’t appeal to me: newsgathering and all that side of it, essentially. I’d like to be a columnist or maybe a feature writer, but not so much a reporter. Perhaps more importantly, it’s a terrible time for journalism, with newsrooms laying people off and cutting back.

I kept looking for jobs back in software development. But after a bit, Frances said, “Why don’t you do a masters in your own field?” It was a good idea: it would be intellectually stimulating, and possibly improve my employability. I started looking at courses.

Computer science itself (I’ve never formally studied it), or one of the various data science options? Both had their merits. Either would have been interesting and mentally challenging.

But they didn’t spark joy, to use a tidiness-related term that seems appropriate. I looked at the course outlines, and they were interesting enough, but I could tell I wouldn’t have loved doing them.

There were other subjects, though, and one kept prodding my mind; one that did offer the prospect of joy, the possibility that I would love it.

Like I said, I love to write.


Quite a few institutions offer creative writing MAs, in various forms. I applied to all of them. All the ones in London, anyway, and a few others that offer distance learning. Each needed a personal statement and a sample of writing. Every single one had unique requirements of the sample, in terms of word length and type of piece. Royal Holloway, for example (who rejected me), wanted a short story extract and, uniquely, a piece of critical writing. Most just wanted the fiction.

There were differences in the course titles, too. London Met’s was ‘Creative, Digital, and Professional Writing.’ Westminster’s was ‘Creative Writing: Writing the City,’ though they had closed entry for this year.

City, University of London has several. But the plain ‘Creative Writing‘ was showing a message to the effect of ‘Applications suspended.’ I emailed to ask if this meant that they were full for the year, and was told that no, they had suspended entry for 2020 because there wasn’t enough interest. So I applied for another one they have, ‘Creative Writing and Publishing.’ They got back to me after a few days and said the course was full. Seems to be a slight disconnect there, maybe?

I got offers from London Met, Kingston (by distance learning), and Birkbeck. Birkbeck were the only ones who interviewed me first (I still haven’t heard back from several, and Glasgow’s website was too broken to let me apply — and they didn’t reply to my query). And just today, Teeside, another distance learning one, offered me a place. Far, far too late. I shouldn’t criticise, though, since I was very late in applying.

For a variety of reasons I decided Birkbeck was the best of the offers, not least that I liked Julia Bell, the course leader, who interviewed me from her shed. Birkbeck is ‘London’s evening university.’ It was set up to provide adult education to people who are working. All the classes are in the evenings.

Why, and Why Now?

This is probably something I should have done thirty years ago, but we didn’t know about masterses back then. Well, I didn’t, anyway. And I don’t think creative writing masters courses existed at all.2 Anyway, as the saying more or less has it, the best time was then; the second-best time is now.

Will it help me be a better writer? I damn well hope so. Beyond that, we’ll have to wait and see.

And Beyond…

What comes after this? In an ideal world I’ll make my living as a writer. I’m well aware how hard that is to achieve, though, so I might end up going back to programming. The best might be some sort of hybrid. We’ll see, but I’m not going to worry too much about it for the next year or so.

One thing I do plan to do is to blog about the course as I do it, so expect to see more here.

  1. Specifically Victoria Street, Westminster. It was a very convenient office for popping down to Parliament Square to protest illegal proroguing

  2. A little research tells me the famous UEA one started in 1970, so I’m wrong there.