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2016: a good year, perhaps

2016: a good year, perhaps

So, that was pretty much 2016, then.

Long shadow

I don’t buy this conventional, and increasingly annual, narrative that 2016 was a “bad year”. True, elections have gone not the way many wanted – though perhaps not surprisingly – in Europe and the USA, with significant consequences for many. Although the roots for much of this grew through political and popular ignorance between 2008 and 2010, but that’s another bitter story.

Steam train

And it’s also true that many famous people have died, though this happens every year. And many other bad things have happened around the world, and climate change has gone quite possibly past the point of reversibility, making this probably the last century of a civilisation of many, as opposed to a few (or less), billions. Nature always wins the long game, and perhaps deservedly so. It’s not “our” planet, anyway. Never was.

Cows in the village

But looking back 2014 was also summarized by many (and many media outlets, especially online) as a terrible year. As was 2015.

Ready, steady ... chaos

And, no doubt 2017 will be as well; a combination of Trump being inaugurated POTUS and a few famous people dying in January will lead to headlines of “2017: as terrible as 2016”. Betcha.

Lush grass

Again, but…

In the corn

You’re alive as you are reading this. So 2016 could have been a lot, fatally, worse for you. Maybe seriously bad things happened; ill health to yourself (or just your body making pointed reminders about mortality) or those you are close to, or unexpected and hard to bear deaths.


Or less financial security, or freedom to move. Or your social fabric slowly aged and came apart a little, or around the time of a referendum or election, rather a lot. Or the realisation that the comfortable echo chamber you sat in on social media is not the predominant echo chamber. These things have happened to more than a few people in this year ending.


But, again, you’re still alive. You survived 2016 – literally – but no t-shirt. Your reward is to have a go at level 2017 in the Game of Life. That game usually finishes when either your body gives out, or climate change seriously and fatally affects your environment, and getting through 2017 will be more of a challenge for most than previous years.

Yellow, green, brown

And here on this rock, more than a few of the current inhabitants may have a brutal education in the science around food supply chains and networks, for example. Nature, reap, sow, etc. But I digress…

The flames

Yet again you are still alive, so your 2016 could have been a lot worse. Tot up the good times that you had, and you may be surprised. That’s a reason I still take pictures of walks out in the countryside, good meals, fun and interesting events attended, nice sunsets and the like (the other reason being that as one ages, one simply forgets).


When you read the paper (not advised), turn on the television (ditto) or go onto social media (cautionary for information quality), it’s pretty much relentlessly bad stuff and (very unscientific alert) gradually bangs your neurons into an “everything, 24/7, was crap” configuration. The pictures tell an accurate truth, instead of a 2016 post-truth, though.

Hawk thinks "You were rubbish at Maypole dancing"

(Though on reflection, the big and small screens have not been bad if you looked for the diamonds amongst the rough. Rogue One was the adult Star Wars film I realised I’ve been waiting 39 years to see. Above all, Blue Eyes was the series which foretold and gave a warning for 2016. And next year…)

Wood on the hill

So go back through whatever you’ve recorded – a diary, pictures on Facebook or Twitter or Instagram or (for us oldies) Flickr, a blog (some of us still do), postings on MetaFilter or Reddit or whatever platform, and note and remember the good things, and the interesting, quirky and strange things you did. You may be surprised how many there were for you in 2016. “But these are little things and Trump and Brexit and Climate Change were massive things”. True, but that’s the collective mind telling you, again, that everything was bad for you when it wasn’t.

More Christmas trees

So there.


Wishing you a Happy Christmas, and a 2017 full of more good things.


My favorite historical picture

My favorite historical picture

First controlled flight
The Wright Brothers, Kitty Hawk, 17th December 1903.

The anniversary of the first controlled flight, on Kitty Hawk beach. Less than 15 years after this, planes were engaging in armed combat over the fields of Europe.



This has been a strange year so far; stranger than usual, with Leicester City at football, the Brexit vote and the new PM (and the new Foreign Secretary), and Trump poised to become POTUS. Huh. Though, picking at “Why X did Y” threads, these things become less surprising. For context, go and see Hell or High Water for some thought-provoking content about why people sometimes vote in ways that may not make clear sense. Or, read Deer Hunting with Jesus, or hang out with the locals in rural towns in midwest US (bonus: these are the best eating places) or England, and go to political events across the whole political spectrum, not just those promoted by your social media echo chamber.

Or, best of all, have a near-poverty very rural upbringing, make the conscious decision to escape it through the route of academia (even if your childhood network sees it as a betrayal) and while noticing how they vote in elections and referenda, remember that it could so easily have also been you.

It’s the first presidential debate tonight; Hillary verses Donald. And, I’m think I’m done with this. Time to retreat further from the firestorm, inferno, which is non-work social media and get back to doing the basic, useful, planned and thought-through, and sustainable personal things for the rest of the autumn and possibly longer.

Yesterday, I hung out with some druids for a while at their autumn equinox ritual. There was good, positive chat, no pushyness or aggression or coercion (I was ready to walk away at the first sign of that). I’m a little wary of turning into a typical English “old antiquarian man”, especially after doing church bell ringing for the first time last week; but, it was friendly, surprisingly touching, and above all relevant.

Here’s the rainbow which appeared, right on cue, at the end of the ritual. I wish you a peaceful, non-fearing and healthy rest of autumn and into the winter months:


The summer of 2016

The summer of 2016

It has been a good summer; so far, anyway.

Lush grass

There have been meetings in nice towns.

Up the hill



Many walks in the countryside.

Nearing harvest

Some Nordic food shopping.


More walks.




Convivial conversations.


More sunsets.


Moon rises.

Moon in the gap


Expectant home supporters

Some writing.


And unexpected music.


I have been, and remain (using that word pointedly), disinclined to “blog” or write much of a non-work nature. The EU referendum has poisoned much, and my thoughts and vision lie increasingly elsewhere. Maybe some other time.

In the meantime, my work website (which remains under permanent construction) is where to go to check I’m still around.

Summer of 2015

Summer of 2015

My on-off personal project to sort out the colossal mess of online “stuff” is back in “on” mode. And with it, here’s some digital ephemera from the summer just gone. First up, the Flickr set of 260 pictures.

This was my third entire summer in the USA, this time stretching from early May to early August. Apart from being bookended by a few days in Chicago, pretty much all of this was spent in central, and rural, Iowa. As with previous summers, it was also an opportunity to celebrate my inner American in a place where that’s an okay thing to do.

And it was splendid. As is every long trip in, or around, the USA. Much good food was eaten, many walks undertaken – several hundred miles over the three months, but curiously no politicians were encountered.

Unlike four years ago, when I kept literally tripping over them here (“Oh, hi, erm, you must be Rick Santorum.” Cue long awkward silence.) I managed to not see any this time round. Partially this was due to timing; Rand Paul was in town shortly before I arrived, and Bernie Sanders, then Hillary Clinton, after I left. But partially this was also due to the weather; Mike Huckabee did an event (a “huddle”) in a pizza place about a mile from where I was, but as it was 95F AFTER SUNSET I was ugh no. A very hot walk to see a politician; nope. A very hot walk to have possibly a huddle with a sweaty politician with very dubious views; dear God nope.

So instead, I did the usual rural American things. This means the town 4th of July parade, complete with horses, a large man on a tractor, farmers on tractors, tractors leading tractors (the most rural American thing ever), BIG VEHICLES, old vehicles, bands on trailers, patriotism, progressive flags, more flags, chairs, kids on bikes, and so forth.

The hound remained unmoved.

And also the county fair, and I am drawn to rural American county fair, out of a potent mixture of curiosity, nostalgia and a feeling of belonging. There are school pupil displays and art shows which possibly make some urban liberals a little alarmed. A van sells deep fried confectionary; we tried the oreos, and they were nom. And then there was the pig auction, and the culture and people around it, which made me remember and yearn for the good parts of a life long ago lived past. It’s interesting, being – and quietly being proud of being – a liberal rural redneck at heart. And I’m still not entirely sure why I’m doing tech stuff and in a different world, now.

Oh, and trains. I ache for the sight of American trains and have done since primary school (future anecdote). Here’s waiting for one:

Therefore much of the summer was a quiet and rural summer, and I got on with work, and let events and drama and the like unfold elsewhere as I gradually removed myself from social media and networks and fighty-online-circles and the like. And got on with the simple pleasures of yardwork (mowing the American lawn, picking berries off a magic raspberry bush that forever produced fruit, removing corpses of dead wildlife) which, combined with the walking, led to losing ten pounds in weight. So, yay.

Also, hunting fireflies…

Which leads to the videos embedded into this post. No oscar-winning stuff. Here’s the last few seconds of the July 4th fireworks in smalltown Iowa; I didn’t bother trying to film the rest because, well, I was (mostly) either eating or enjoying the fireworks:

What else? Oh, eating – I’ve probably mentioned that already – so much eating, such as at familiar places, discovering the awesomeness that is the pork tenderloin, eating at a country inn, and the peanut butter milkshake. Oh, and Pizza Ranch (the best ranch)(hell yeah), and Marshalltown for Mexican food – and this was the best Mexican meal I have ever had, cream soda and barfood, produce at the farmers market, local brunch, daily specials, chinese-on-pizza, more brunch, root beer floats made by master baker, a ridiculous sandwich, a near-impulse-purchase of a lot of chicken, more Chinese, and so many more good things.

Also napping, because I am no longer young.

And watching Americans get genuinely excited – but without the nastiness, corruption, prejudice and violence of “supporting” the mens game in some other countries – as their team progressed and won at the association football thing. I could possibly get to like this particular form of the game. Maybe:

But most of all, those walks in rural Iowa. In the daytime, at dusk, under a big sky, past baseball, at sunset, and by mushroom circles, cornfields and buzzing fireflies.

Always, the fireflies.

That was a good summer.

West and south and west again

West and south and west again

A walk doesn’t have to be of Appalachian Trail length to be epic. This evenings was but four miles long.

I leave base and walk in the direction of Wisconsin. Hit a junction, turn and walk in the direction of Minnesota. Pass a church, bright sign welcoming or enticing; pass a softball park, and new houses, rich and bland and slightly ridiculous and a little isolated by absurd lawns.


A crossroads. I turn towards Nebraska. I hit an area of agricultural land; farmland to the right of me, flat and still, large fields marching off to South Dakota, the occasional house with the occasional small lake. To the left, small holdings, the lights of the edge of town.

And fireflies. One, two, five, ten, dozens, hundreds, in either verge, flickering and flashing like an insect paparazzi as I strolled on by, towards where the sun had set a little earlier. Crossing the rail track, descending towards the golf course, more appeared; suddenly, I’m surrounded by a silent, glowing, swarm of fireflies, not landing on me but circling.

I stop and snatch out, on the third attempt catching one in my hands. Between my fingers it glows, intensely, on and off, nature’s own flying LED. I contemplate keeping it, somehow carrying it back to base, but decide against. This taming and appropriation of nature the last few hundred years has led us to quite possibly this century being the last one of advanced civilization; I don’t feel I deserve to keep the firefly.

The swarm moves on, and I feel oddly bereft.


Onwards, and always under the constant blanket of the sound of crickets, night insects, night animals. I can’t hear any traffic, near or distant.

Past the golf course, nearing the corner of the outer built up area of town, I swing left again, head in the direction of Missouri, following the curves of suburban roads. Large houses, each different, low lights and ponds and manicured lawns and refuse out for the morn pickup. Under a street lamp I stop and write a short while, a long term work problem solved, saving notes for future implementation.

Onwards, round suburbia, then picking up the grid of streets and avenues. Through the local college, low lighting and symmetry of building design. Back across the railroad tracks, and along the last straight road, elm trees slightly rustling in the late evening breeze. And still, that background noise, like Revelations happened while no-one was looking and only, by some deity administrative error, the crickets were left on Earth.


Back to base. I feel a lot older, a lot calmer, despite only being gone an hour and a half. It feels that the process of my mind gradually “decompressing”, for want of a better word, has concluded. Spending a year walking roughly a thousand miles around rural Leicestershire in ye olde England helped, as did clocking up a couple of hundred miles so far this summer here. It’s taken that much to slow the mind, return its clock speed to something more useful, get a whole bundle of thoughts and memories and strange life turns out of my system and into digital bits, nudge aside the inscribers block, and make some kind of adequate peace with the country of my birth. Now, it seems as equally foreign and strange to me as other countries. And that’s a good thing.

This is a better summer, and ultimately a productive summer.

I say hello to the cat, note that only three vehicles had passed by during the walk, upload pictures, eat a couple of chocolate glazed cinnamon swirls (99 cents for a dozen and I’ll never complain), and write this. Now it’s time for bed, falling asleep listening to some radio station elsewhere on the plains, hopefully a sleep undisturbed by automated warnings of storms and tornados.

Tomorrow is another day.


When winter leaves

When winter leaves

The end, finish, conclusion of winter in the Northern Hemisphere is a matter of conjecture, opinion and history. BBC weather tells us that winter ends today, February 28th, meteorologically. Some say it ends at the vernal or spring equinox, which this year is March 20th. Some say it’s when the clocks go forward and we suddenly have daylight and sunlight well into the evenings. Sometimes we just notice things that indicate a change of season. And some, in Boston, doubt it will ever end.

It perhaps does not matter what others say. Winter ends when you notice it is ending. That’s good enough.

Steam under the bridge

I’ve enjoyed this winter. On the downside, some signs of aging. I feel the cold, even mild cold, which is something new to me and I don’t like that feeling. Things take longer to repair themselves; hell to my aching shoulder of some time now. As the beard lengthens (nearly four years now), so the proportion of whiteness increases. By age 50, Gandalf perhaps. Though I’ve written much, it’s mostly been recollections about people and events and times, and that’s all been filed away; maybe for future use, or inspiration, or maybe not.

On the upside, much has been done and completed. I’ve hit a vein of work that is interesting and, sometimes, fun. And controversial, but emerging technology in education always is. We perpetually argue about the proof, what it is and where it is. Occasionally, we agree on it.



This has also been the first winter out of the last six where I haven’t lived in a city, either Birmingham (England) or Toledo (USA). The lack of daylight or street light hasn’t meant an end to walks, though the mud and rain and surface water have meant diversions, and the strange preponderance of doggers and other people with their rituals in the rural east Midlands has also been a source of caution.

But I’ve got out and about, over field, up hill, and on trains both steam and modern to villages, towns and small cities in the eastern reaches, as the pictures on this post show. And that’s been fun.

Tea in the chapter house

Some of my significant legacy issues (more about that several years down the line) have been tackled; things I’d left for so long I didn’t think they would ever get sorted. From the mundane – finally getting rid of a load of physical possessions so I could downsize my storage unit – to more complex issues. Still much to do, but personal progress has been greater this season ending than in many previous.

Which is good. I just hope this momentum continues for the next six months, over the spring and summer.

Pub garden

Habits and daily mundane routines have changed, a lot. I still regress to a few bad habits; lemon curd, watching the relentlessly grim Walking Dead, getting pointlessly annoyed. And social media – I’m looking at your addictive qualities and we need to ‘have a talk’. Yet again. But much more of a useful nature gets done nowadays, between rising from the pillow and returning to it.

There is still much to do. The vein of work, although useful, needs more funding, perpetually. Some old things need replacing; tech and clothes especially. I have to make some difficult decisions about old books. I need, as ever, to do a bunch of legal stuff but that seems like a lifelong thing now. I have found the perfect present for my current housemate, which need to be procured soon. Closure on a few more issues would be good.


But overall, this winter has been quietly satisfying. Helped by, as said previously, living in a quieter place, on the edge of a market town, and often on my own. The sound of predictable chatty voices grinds me down; it’s been pleasant, restorative, to have coming on for a year away from that background noise.

My common sounds this winter have been the typing on this keyboard, the rustle of pages, and the radio. Four for the talking stuff, Five Live for the cricket. And if that means I’m old, then I’m old.


Possibly for the first time ever, logistics and moving things around mean that all three of my suitcases are with me in this room. The battered grey one that I hauled around two continents for several years; the very expensive-looking gold colored one that I rolled through Detroit on my first stay there instead of getting a taxi; the smart red one which has been pressed into service to transport human and animal ashes on several occasions this last six years. They probably all need a thorough clean before further use.

And one of these will soon be loaded, with new clothes, a cumbersome amount of tech, three books, a lot of stationary, and Cadbury chocolate (the genuine version). It’ll be coming with me on a long trip (multiple modes of transport, multiple days) I’ve started to plan out, and book.

Deepening sky

Daily, several times, sometimes many times, I look up at the sky, where others fly for reasons significant, to places distant. It’s lighter a lot more now, as we steadily head towards the equinox, then the summer solstice. Looking at the sky frequently is a good thing to do; you leave the babble of people on the surface behind, make your eyes stretch far, become aware of the weather, the light, where you are, who you are, where you want to go, where you’ll probably end up.

It’s been a while.

The walk of two seasons

The walk of two seasons

The walk of two seasons

That was a strange one. I was supposed to work all day today, but I woke just before dawn because of the cold. Winter, still.

But then noticed how clear and gradually cobalt blue the sky was. And so, by breakfast it was a case of “Dammit!”, laptop off, hiking shoes on, stuff thrown into overbag, and out the door.

This time I tried a few new paths heading straight south, but the second one did not exist; not for the first time, a large and monotonous housing estate, dwellings with tiny windows for new owners to hide away in, appeared where the map of a few years age marked only farmland. A detour, then heavy walking on muddy trails, and thenextremely heavy walking across what was, in summer, a cornfield; the effort made worse by the mini lakes left behind by horses and cyclists. Finally, a track on which I could scrape off the now several pounds of mud caked around my boots.

Zigzagged through a wood, along the side of a few more fields, then up a long lane I had not been before (new routes are always refreshing), passing expensive whitewashed farm buildings and driveways and picket fences, new England transplanted into old England. Then zigzagged around the side of the hill until reaching the double summit. Near the top, the remnants of recent snow and ice still clinging to the ground in places. Stopping a short while; inside my layers due to the mud-walk and hill walk; cold outside due to the wind; thighs hurting a bit, not used to the heavy mud walks.

At the summit, a plane was climbing from the south, probably out of Birmingham airport. Hence the picture. Followed by down the hill on the other side, a near-straight line through the woods, a short bit of road walking, more fields but still downhill most of the way, and back to base. Passing, in a few places, crocus and snowdrops starting to emerge from barren ground.

Spring, though not quite here yet, is on the way.

Winter, arrives, in England

Winter, arrives, in England

Observations of the outside, this evening. As tweets, originally.

+ + + + +

That warm autumnal yesterday, shunted, fronted away by the tail of the storm. Winter enters, for the clocks to fall back in a hundred hours.

The fourth quarter slides in. The quiet countdown to Christmas, the silent worries of relative visits; that micro-social etiquette of cards.

Dinnertime darkness. Signs for bonfires protestingly tug at fastenings with each gust. Cyclists slowly strain and wince into the headwind.

Crinkled, bronzing leaves, twirling in mini-tornados. Swaying, unbroken, trees that have seen this and worse, and darker and wetter, before.

Draught snakes deployed; duvets togged up and heating notched up; ubiquitous white plastic garden furniture shedded; hatches battened down.

Coated commuters and headsunk shoppers. Gloved. Scarfed. Minimal exposed skin; minimalist conversation. Crocs and sandals replaced by boots.

Halloween tat vies with Christmas tat for shelving. Duffel coats are “in”; summer fashions “reduced to clear”. Mince pies “use by December”.

Less salad, more soup. “Summertime specials” culled by “Winter Warmers”. A modest stack of pumpkins where the “value barbeques” once camped.

Mittens for the young ones. Chocolates for the wife. Socks for the husband. Eggnog for the elderly. The commercial Groundhog Day of gifting.

“Where’s the saffron?” “This is Tesco, not Waitrose; you’ll be wanting bloody myrrh next”, bicker the identically attired couple in aisle 5.

Outside, still England. Just a damper, darker, version of a recent self. A lonely, early, firework ascends the sky. Pop. Szzzzzzzz. Sparkle.

But it’s quieter, fresher, sharper, newer. A trade-off in ambience. No drunken raised voices, now brushed away by that cleansing cold wind.

The near-identical glow of a terrace of televisions; the same living room corners, the same channels, beginning their sedentary winter eves.

The courtyard cat, now the fireside cat, tracks a floating leaf from the other side of the glass. Still a curious cat, but now a warmer cat.

A few more steps, key in lock, inside. Door closed against that outside. The unwinding relief of being “In for the night, now”.




The ISS appeared again this evening. No longer smothered by the glow of city lights, I watched it from the countryside as it rose and soared, bright and clear, floating silently, constantly, almost overhead. This sight will never pale; in a world that seems relentlessly broken it’s a reminder that, occasionally, our flawed species can produce something great.

And make the International Space Station we did; centuries of science culminating in an almost impossible craft. 240 feet long, 990,000 pounds in weight, 260 miles up and orbiting our little rock every 93 minutes. A solar-powered home to six of our kind, traveling at over 17,000 miles an hour. And if you watch it quietly pass overhead, who knows; one of those six crew might, at that moment, be looking down to where you are.

If you want to see it, use a site such as “Heavens Above” to work out when. Enter your observing location (you don’t need to login); check the 10 day predictions for the ISS. The more negative the brightness figure (magnitude), the better; a number lower than -3 in particular makes for a brilliant view.

Note the times and the directions to look (usually the ISS passes west-ish to east-ish). Pick somewhere away from lights, and things that may block the view. Wait for the object that seems to be an aircraft, that gets gradually brighter but never blinks, that moves silently.

And look. Because we made that.