The idea that your job should be the primary source of meaning in your life is an elaborately made trap, propped up across industries, designed to make you a loyal worker who uses the bulk of their intellectual and creative capacity to further their own career.
Tuesday, April 13th, 2021
Saturday, March 27th, 2021
A lot happened in the first few years. I was born in England but my family back moved to Ireland when I was three. Then my father died not long after that. I was young enough that I don’t really have any specific memories of that time. I have hazy impressionistic images of London in my mind but at this point I don’t know if they’re real or imagined.
Most of this time was spent being a youngster in Cobh, county Cork. All fairly uneventful. Being a teenage boy, I was probably a dickhead more than I realised at the time. It was also the 80s so there was a lot of shittiness happening in the background: The Troubles; Chernobyl; Reagan and Thatcher; the constant low-level expectation of nuclear annihilation. And most of the music was terrible—don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.
This was the period with the most new experiences. I started my twenties by dropping out of Art College in Cork and moving to Galway to be a full-time slacker. I hitch-hiked and busked around Europe. I lived in Canada for six months. Eventually I ended up in Freiburg in southern Germany where I met Jessica. The latter half of this decade was spent there, settling down a bit. I graduated from playing music on the street to selling bread in a bakery to eventually making websites. Before I turned 30, Jessica and I got married.
We move to Brighton! I continue to make websites and play music with Salter Cane. Half way through my thirties I co-found Clearleft with Andy and Rich. I also start writing books and speaking at conferences. I find that not only is this something I enjoy, but it’s something I’m actually good at. And it gives me the opportunity to travel and see more of the world.
It’s more of the same for the next ten years. More Clearleft, more writing, more speaking and travelling. Jessica and I got a mortgage on a flat at the start of the decade and exactly ten years later we’ve managed to pay it off, which feels good (I don’t like having any debt hanging over me).
That last decade certainly feels less eventful than, say, that middle decade but then, isn’t that the way with most lives? As Phil says:
If my thirties went by more quickly than my twenties, my forties just zipped by.
You’ve got the formative years in your 20s when you’re trying to figure yourself out so you’re constantly dabbling in a bit of everything (jobs, music, drugs, travel) and then things get straighter. So when it comes to memories, your brain can employ a more rigourous compression algorithm. Instead of storing each year separately, your memories are more like a single year times five or ten. And so it feels like time passes much quicker in later life than it did in those more formative experimental years.
But experimentation can be stressful too—“what if I never figure it out‽” Having more routine can be satisfying if you’re reasonably confident you’ve chosen a good path. I feel like I have (but then, so do most people).
Now it’s time for the next decade. In the short term, the outlook is for more of the same—that’s the outlook for everyone while the world is on pause for The Situation. But once that’s over, who knows? I intend to get back to travelling and seeing the world. That’s probably more to do with being stuck in one place for over a year than having mid-century itchy feet.
I don’t anticipate any sudden changes in lifestyle or career. If anything, I plan to double down on doing things I like and saying “no” to any activities I now know I don’t like. So my future will almost certainly involve more websites, more speaking, maybe more writing, and definitely more Irish traditional music.
I feel like having reached the milestone of 50, I should have at least a few well-earned pieces of advice to pass on. The kind of advice I wish I had received when I was younger. But I’ve racked my brains and this is all I’ve got:
Never eat an olive straight off the tree. You know this already but maybe part of your mind thinks “how bad can it be really?” Trust me. It’s disgusting.
Black Mirror meets Henrietta Lacks in this short story by Erik Hoel who I had not heard of until today, when I came across his name here and also in a completely unrelated blog post by Peter Watts about the nature of dreams.
Sunday, March 14th, 2021
Thursday, February 25th, 2021
Today is my birthday. I am one twentieth of a millenium old. I am eighteen and a quarter kilo-days old. I am six hundred months old. I am somewhere in the order of 26.28 mega-minutes old. I am fifty years old.
The reflected light of the sun that left Earth when I was born has passed Alpha Cephei and will soon reach Delta Aquilae. In that time, our solar system has completed 0.00002% of its orbit around the centre of our galaxy.
I was born into a world with the Berlin Wall. That world ended when I turned eighteen.
Fifty years before I was born, the Irish war of independence was fought while the world was recovering from an influenza pandemic.
Fifty years after I was born, the UK is beginning its post-Brexit splintering while the world is in the middle of a coronavirus pandemic.
In the past few years, I started to speculate about what I might do for the big Five Oh. Should I travel somewhere nice? Or should I throw a big party and invite everyone I know?
Neither of those are options now. The decision has been made for me. I will have a birthday (and subsequent weekend) filled with the pleasures of home. I plan to over-indulge with all my favourite foods, lovingly prepared by Jessica. And I want the finest wines available to humanity—I want them here and I want them now.
I will also, inevitably, be contemplating the passage of time. I’m definitely of an age now where I’ve shifted from “explore” to “exploit.” In other words, I’ve pretty much figured out what I like doing. That is in contrast to the many years spent trying to figure out how I should be spending my time. Now my plans are more about maximising what I know I like and minimising everything else. What I like mostly involves Irish traditional music and good food.
So that’s what I’ll be doubling down on for my birthday weekend.
Sunday, January 10th, 2021
My typical day
Colin wrote about his typical day and suggested I do the same.
Y’know, in the Before Times I think this would’ve been trickier. What with travelling and speaking, I didn’t really have a “typical” day …and I liked it that way. Now, thanks to The Situation, my days are all pretty similar.
- 8:30am — This is the time I’ve set my alarm for, but sometimes I wake up a bit earlier. I get up, fire up the coffee machine, go to the head and empty my bladder. Maybe I’ll have a shower.
- 9am — I fire up email and Slack, wishing my co-workers a good morning. Over the course of each day, I’ve usually got short 1:1s booked in with two or three of my colleagues. Just fifteen minutes or so to catch up and find out what they’re working on, what’s interesting, what’s frustrating. The rest of the time, I’ll probably be working on the Clearleft podcast.
- 1pm — Lunch time. Jessica takes her lunch break at the same time. We’ll usually have a toasted sandwich or a bowl of noodles. While we eat, Jessica will quiz me with the Learned League questions she’s already answered that morning. I get all the fun of testing my knowledge without the pressure of competing.
- 2pm — If the weather’s okay, we might head out for a brisk walk, probably to the nearby park where we can watch good doggos. Otherwise, it’s back to the podcast mines. I’ve already amassed a fair amount of raw material from interviews, so I’m spending most of my time in Descript, crafting and editing each episode. In about three hours of work, I reckon I get four or five minutes of good audio together. I should really be working on my upcoming talk for An Event Apart too, but I’m procrastinating. But I’m procrastinating by doing the podcast, so I’ve kind of tricked myself into doing something I’m supposed to be doing by avoiding something else I’m supposed to be doing.
- Sometime between 5pm and 6pm — I knock off work. I pick up my mandolin and play some tunes. If Jessica’s done with work too, we play some tunes together.
- 7pm — If it’s a Tuesday or Thursday, then it’s a ballet night for Jessica. While she’s in the kitchen doing her class online, I chill out in the living room, enjoying a cold beer, listening to some music with headphones on, and doing some reading or writing. I might fire up NetNewsWire and read the latest RSS updates from my friends, or I might write a blog post.
- 8pm — If it is a ballet night, then dinner will be something quick and easy to prepare; probably pasta. Otherwise there’s more time to prepare something with care and love. Jessica is the culinary genius so my contributions are mostly just making sure she’s got her mise en place ahead of time, and cleaning up afterwards. I choose a bottle of wine and set the table, and then we sit down to eat together. It is definitely the highlight of the day.
- 9pm — After cleaning up, I make us both cups of tea and we settle in on the sofa to watch some television. Not broadcast television; something on the Apple TV from Netflix, Amazon Prime, Disney+, or BBC iPlayer most likely. If we’re in the right mood, we’ll watch a film.
- Sometime between 11pm and midnight — I change into my PJs, brush and floss my teeth, and climb into bed with a good book. When I feel my eyelids getting heavy, I switch off the light and go to sleep. That’s where I’m a Viking!
That’s a typical work day. My work week is Monday to Thursday. I switched over to a four-day week when The Situation hit, and now I don’t ever want to go back. It means making less money, but it’s worth it for a three day weekend.
My typical weekend involves more mandolin playing, more reading, more movies, and even better meals. I’ll also do some chores: clean the floors; back up my data.
Friday, January 1st, 2021
In 2020, I didn’t have the honour and privilege of speaking at An Event Apart in places like Seattle, Boston, and Minneapolis. I didn’t experience that rush that comes from sharing ideas with a roomful of people, getting them excited, making them laugh, sparking thoughts. I didn’t enjoy the wonderful and stimulating conversations with my peers that happen in the corridors, or over lunch, or at an after-party. I didn’t have a blast catching up with old friends or making new ones.
But the States wasn’t the only country I didn’t travel to. Closer to home, I didn’t have the opportunity to take the Eurostar and connecting trains to cities like Cologne, Lisbon, and Stockholm. I didn’t sample the food and drink of different countries.
In the summer, I didn’t travel to the west coast of Ireland for the second in year in a row for the annual Willie Clancy festival of traditional Irish music. I didn’t spend each day completely surrounded by music. I didn’t play in some great sessions. I didn’t hear some fantastic and inspiring musicians.
Back here in Brighton, I didn’t go to the session in The Jolly Brewer every Wednesday evening and get lost in the tunes. I didn’t experience that wonderful feeling of making music together and having a pint or two. And every second Sunday afternoon, I didn’t pop along to The Bugle for more jigs and reels.
I didn’t walk into work most days, arrive at the Clearleft studio, and make a nice cup of coffee while chit-chatting with my co-workers. I didn’t get pulled into fascinating conversations about design and development that spontaneously bubble up when you’re in the same space as talented folks.
Every few months, I didn’t get a haircut.
Throughout the year, I didn’t make any weekend trips back to Ireland to visit my mother.
2020 gave me a lot of free time. I used that time to not write a book. And with all that extra time on my hands, I read fewer books than I had read in 2019. Oh, and on the side, I didn’t learn a new programming language. I didn’t discover an enthusiasm for exercise. I didn’t get out of the house and go for a brisk walk on most days. I didn’t start each day prepping my sourdough.
But I did stay at home, thereby slowing the spread of a deadly infectious disease. I’m proud of that.
I did play mandolin. I did talk to my co-workers through a screen. I did eat very well—and very local and seasonal. I did watch lots of television programmes and films. I got by. Sometimes I even took pleasure in this newly-enforced lifestyle.
I made it through 2020. And so did you. That’s an achievement worth celebrating—congratulations!
Let’s see what 2021 doesn’t bring.
Wednesday, December 30th, 2020
First you cope and then you adapt. The kicker: once you adapt, you may not want to go back.
Wednesday, July 22nd, 2020
Wildlife Photographer Of The Year on the Clearleft podcast
This one is a bit different. Whereas previous episodes focused on specific topics—design systems, service design—this one is a case study. And, wow, what a case study! The whole time I was putting the episode together, I kept thinking “The team really did some excellent work here.”
I’m not sure what makes more sense: listen to the podcast episode first and then visit the site in question …or the other way around? Maybe the other way around. In which case, be sure to visit the website for Wildlife Photographer Of The Year.
This episode of the podcast ended up being half an hour long. It should probably be shorter but I just couldn’t bring myself to cut any of the insights that Helen, James, Chris, and Trys were sharing. I’m probably too close to the subject matter to be objective about it. I’m hoping that others will find it equally fascinating to hear about the process of the project. Research! Design! Dev! This has got it all.
I had a lot of fun with the opening of the episode. I wanted to create a montage effect like the scene-setting opening of a film that has overlapping news reports. I probably spent far too long doing it but I’m really happy with the final result.
And with this episode, we’re halfway through the first season of the podcast already! I figured a nice short run of six episodes is enough to cover a fair bit of ground and give a taste of what the podcast is aiming for, without it turning into an overwhelming number of episodes in a backlog for you to catch up with. Three down and three to go. Seems manageable, right?
Anyway, enough of the backstory. If you haven’t already subscribed to the Clearleft podcast, you should do that. Then do these three things in whichever order you think works best:
Tuesday, June 30th, 2020
There is a gentle sadness to being present in a moment so precious that you know you’ll never forget it, and will revisit it as a memory time and time again. It will be a shadow, many details missing, the moment bittersweet.
Sunday, June 28th, 2020
Probably fewer than a hundred people in the world have seen what you’re looking at right now.
Jessica and I were taking turns at the microscope when we were told that.
Let me back up a bit and explain how we found ourselves in this this situation…
It all started with The Session, the traditional Irish music community site that I run. There’s a big focus on getting together and playing music—something that’s taken a big hit during this global pandemic. Three sections of the website are devoted to face-to-face gatherings: events (like concerts and festivals), sessions, and the most recent addition, trips.
The idea with trips is that you input somewhere you’re going to be travelling to, along with the dates you’ll be there. It’s like a hyper-focused version of Dopplr. The site then shows you if any events are happening, if there are any sessions on, and also if there are any members of the site in that locality (if those members have added their location to their profiles).
Last August, I added the trips I would be taking in the States. There’s be a trip to Saint Augustine to hang out with Jessica’s family, a trip to Chicago to speak at An Event Apart, and a trip to New York for a couple of days because that’s where the ocean liner was going to deposit us after our transatlantic crossing.
A fellow member of The Session named Aaron who is based in New York saw my trip and contacted me to let me know about the session he goes to (he plays tin whistle). Alas, that session didn’t coincide with our short trip. But he also added:
I work at the American Museum of Natural History, and if you have time and interest, I can provide you with vouchers for tickets to as many special exhibits and such as you’d like!
Ooh, that sounded like fun! He also said:
In fact I could give you a quick behind-the-scenes tour if you’re interested.
Jessica and I didn’t have any set plans for our time in New York, so we said why not?
That’s how we ended spending a lovely afternoon being shown around the parts of the museum that the public don’t usually get to see. It’s quite the collection of curiosities back there!
There’s also plenty of research. Aaron’s particular area was looking into an entirely different kingdom of life—neither animal, nor plant, nor fungus. Remarkably, these microscopic creatures were first identified—by a classmate of Aaron’s—by happenstance in 2016:
The hemimastigotes analyzed by the Dalhousie team were found by Eglit during a spring hike with some other students along the Bluff Wilderness Trail outside Halifax a couple of years ago. She often has empty sample vials in her pockets or bags, and scooped a few tablespoons of dirt into one of them from the side of the trail.
That’s like a doctor announcing that they’d come across a hitherto-unknown limb on the human body. The findings were published in the paper, Hemimastigophora is a novel supra-kingdom-level lineage of eukaryotes in 2018.
In the “backstage” area of the American Museum of Natural History, Aaron had samples of them. He put them under the microscope for us. As we took turns looking at them wriggling their flagella, Aaron said:
Probably fewer than a hundred people in the world have seen what you’re looking at right now.
Monday, May 4th, 2020
This is for everyone at Clearleft, but I’m sharing it here for you too.
Monday, March 30th, 2020
We should celebrate our hobbies for the joy-giving activities they are, and recognize that they don’t need to become anything bigger than that. And of course that’s not to say they those hobbies can’t turn into something bigger — it’s incredible when your passions and your occupation overlap — but it should be because you want to rather than that you feel pressured to. Not every activity you do needs to become a big official thing.
Thursday, March 19th, 2020
COVID-19 has really made me realize that we need to be grateful for the people and activities we take for granted. Things like going out for food, seeing friends, going to the gym, etc., are fun, but are not essential for (physical) survival.
It reminds of Brian Eno’s definition of art: art is anything we don’t have to do. It’s the same with social activities. We don’t have to go to concerts—we can listen to music at home. We don’t have to go the cinema—we can watch films at home. We don’t have to go to conferences—we can read books and blog posts at home. We don’t have to go out to restaurants—all our nutritional needs can be met at home.
But it’s not the same though, is it?
I think about the book Station Eleven a lot. The obvious reason why I’d be thinking about it is that it describes a deadly global pandemic. But that’s not it. Even before The Situation, Station Eleven was on my mind for helping provide clarity on the big questions of life; y’know, the “what’s it all about?” questions like “what’s the meaning of life?”
Part of the reason I think about Station Eleven is its refreshingly humanist take on a post-apocalyptic society. As I discussed on this podcast episode a few years back:
It’s interesting to see a push-back against the idea that if society is removed we are going to revert to life being nasty, brutish and short. Things aren’t good after this pandemic wipes out civilisation, but people are trying to put things back together and get along and rebuild.
Related to that, Station Eleven describes a group of people in a post-pandemic world travelling around performing Shakespeare plays. At first I thought this was a ridiculous conceit. Then I realised that this was the whole point. We don’t have to watch Shakespeare to survive. But there’s a difference between surviving and living.
I’m quite certain that one positive outcome of The Situation will be a new-found appreciation for activities we don’t have to do. I’m looking forward to sitting in a pub with a friend or two, or going to see a band, or a play or a film, and just thinking “this is nice.”
Wednesday, January 1st, 2020
So that was 2019. Quite a year.
Looking back, there were some real highlights for me…
- Going to CERN in February to be part of the project to recreate the first web browser was like a dream come true. It really was an honour and a privilege to be part of it.
- In July, I returned to Miltown Malbay for the Willie Clancy Summer School after an unreasonably long hiatus of fifteen years. I had a great time immersed in traditional Irish music.
- In August, Jessica and I crossed the Atlantic on board the Queen Mary 2. That was an unforgettable experience.
Then there were the usual benefits that come with speaking at international conferences like An Event Apart and Beyond Tellerrand. I got to visit interesting places, eat excellent food, and meet good people.
Not everything was rosy. There were some sad life events for friends and family. And of course the whole political situation here in the UK has been just awful in 2019.
So onwards to 2020. I need to remind myself that many things are going well in the world but it can be hard to keep that in mind. At a local—nay, parochial—level, there’s a good chance that 2020 will deliver a hard Brexit. I have no faith in the competence or motivations of the current government to do otherwise (I keep reminding myself that I don’t have to stay in this country if it falls apart). And at the global scale, our attempts to mitigate the climate crisis are proceeding too slowly.
That’s something I need to take more personal responsibility for in 2020: fewer plane journeys, more trains, and more carbon offsetting.
Ultimately, it’s a fairly arbitrary moment in time but I do like to pause for a moment and look back at the year that’s just been. For all its faults, I have happy memories. I’m healthy. I played lots of music. I ate well. I spent time with friends and family.
I look forward to more of that in the third decade of the 21st century.
Monday, December 2nd, 2019
This book is a beautiful tribute to Cindy.
Several talented illustrators have come together to create a unique book about unique animals. Each contributor has a special connection to the book’s original illustrator, Cindy Li. When she was unable to complete the illustrations before passing away in 2018, many of Cindy’s talented friends offered to help finish the project.
I think you should get a copy of this book for the little animal lover in your life this Christmas.
Proceeds from the sale of this book benefit Apollo Li Harris and Orion Li Harris, two out-of-this-world kids who had an amazing mom.
Friday, July 19th, 2019
I’ve shaped this timeline over five months. It might look simple, but it most definitely was not. I liken it to chipping away at a block of marble, or the slow process of evolving a painting, or constructing a poem; endless edits, questions, doubling back, doubts. It was so good to have something meaty to get stuck into, but sometimes it was awful, and many times I considered throwing it away. Overall it was challenging, fun, and worth the effort.
Simon describes the process of curating the lovely timeline on his personal homepage.
My timeline is just like me, and just like my life: unfinished, and far from perfect.
Monday, June 24th, 2019
Frank Chimero on causing ‘good trouble’ and re-imagining the status quo to combat achievement culture | Creative Boom
It’s really easy to think that not working full bore is somehow failing your teammates or that withholding effort is poor work ethic and moral weakness. That thought is worth interrogating, though, and it all seems kind of ridiculous once you get it out in the open. There should be no guilt for refusing to work hysterically.
Thursday, March 7th, 2019
There’s something deliciously appropriate about using a painting cloning service to clone a photograph of some cloned dogs.
“Did you just order an oil painting of Barbra Streisand’s dogs?” is the most Simon and Natalie thing ever.
Although this comes close:
Sunday, February 17th, 2019
Living things are just a better way for nature to dissipate energy and increase the universe’s entropy.
No anthropocentric exceptionalism here; just the laws of thermodynamics.
According to the inevitable life theory, biological systems spontaneously emerge because they more efficiently disperse, or “dissipate” energy, thereby increasing the entropy of the surroundings. In other words, life is thermodynamically favorable.
As a consequence of this fact, something that seems almost magical happens, but there is nothing supernatural about it. When an inanimate system of particles, like a group of atoms, is bombarded with flowing energy (such as concentrated currents of electricity or heat), that system will often self-organize into a more complex configuration—specifically an arrangement that allows the system to more efficiently dissipate the incoming energy, converting it into entropy.