It felt strange to be inside a building with other humans sharing an experience. At times it felt uncomfortable. The speaker’s dinner the night before the conference was lovely …and anxiety-inducing. Not just because it was my first time socialising in ages, but also just because it was indoors. I’ve been avoid indoor dining.
But the travel to Zürich all went smoothly. The airport wasn’t too busy. And on the airplane, everyone was dutifully masked up.
There’s definitely more paperwork and logistics involved in travelling overseas now. Jessica and I had to fill in our passenger locator forms for Switzerland and the UK. We also needed to pre-book a Covid test for two days after we got back. And we had to get a Covid test while we were in Switzerland so that we could show a negative result on returning to England. It doesn’t matter if you’re double-vaccinated; these tests are mandatory, which is totally fair.
Fortunately the conference organisers took care of booking those tests, which was great. On the first day of the conference I ducked out during the first break to go to the clinic next door and have a swab shoved up my nose. Ten minutes later I was handed a test result—negative!—complete with an official-looking stamp on it.
Two days later, after the conference was over, we had time to explore Zürich before heading to the airport to catch our evening flight. We had a very relaxing day which included a lovely boat trip out on the lake.
It was when we got to the airport that the relaxation ended.
We showed up at the airport in loads of time. I subscribe to the Craig Mod school of travel anyway, but given The Situation, I wanted to make sure we accounted for any extra time needed.
We went through security just fine and waited around for our gate to come up on the screen of gates and flights. Once we had a gate, we made our way there. We had to go through passport control but that didn’t take too long.
At the gate, there was a queue so—being residents of England—we immediately got in line. The airline was checking everyone’s paperwork.
When we got to the front of the line, we showed all our documents. Passport? Check. Boarding pass? Check. Passenger locator form? Check. Negative Covid result? Che …wait a minute, said the member of staff, this is in German. According to gov.uk, the test result needs to be in English, French, or Spanish.
I looked at the result. Apart from the heading at the top, all of the actual information was international: names, dates, and the test result itself said “neg.”
Not good enough.
My heart sank. “Call or email the clinic where you got the result. Get them to send you an English or French version” said the airline representative. Okay. We went off to the side and started doing that.
At this point there was still a good 40 or 50 minutes ’till the flight took off. We could sort this out.
I phoned the clinic. It was late Saturday afternoon and the clinic was closed. Shit!
Jessica and I went back to the gate agent we were dealing with and began pleading our case (in German …maybe that would help). She was very sympathetic but her hands were tied. Then she proposed a long shot. There was a Covid-testing centre in the airport. She would call them and tell them we were coming. But at this point it was 35 minutes until the flight left. We’d really have to leg it.
She scribbled down vague directions for where we had to go, and we immediately pelted off.
At this point I feel I should confess. I did not exhibit grace under pressure. I was, to put it mildy, freaking out.
Perhaps because I was the one selfishly indulging in panic, Jessica kept her head. She reminded me that we weren’t travelling to a conference—there wasn’t anywhere we had to be. Worst case scenario, we’d have to spend an extra night in Zürich and get a different flight tomorrow. She was right. I needed to hear that.
I was still freaking out though. We were running around like headless chickens trying to find where we needed to go. The instructions had left out the crucial bit of information that we actually needed to exit through passport control (temporarily re-entering Swiss territory) in order to get to the testing centre. Until we figured that out, we were just running hither and tither in a panic while the clock continued to count down.
It was a nightmare. I don’t mean that figuratively. I mean, I’m pretty sure I’ve had this exact nightmare. I’m in a building with a layout I don’t know and I need to get somewhere urgently but I don’t know how to get there.
Even the reason for this panicked situation felt like it had a dream logic to it. You know when you wake up from a bad dream and you examine the dream in retrospect and you realise it doesn’t actually make any sense? Well, that’s how this felt. You’ve got a negative test result but it needs it to be in one of these three languages …I mean, that sounds like the kind of nonsensical reasoning that should dissolve upon awakening.
Time was slipping away. Our flight leaves in twenty minutes.
Finally we realise that we need to go back through passport control. On the other side we run around some more until we spot the location that matches the vague description we’ve been given. There’s a sign! Covid testing centre!
We burst in through the doors. The gate agent had called ahead so we were expected. The young doctor on duty was cool as a cucumber. He must have to deal with this situation all day long. He calmly got us both to start filling in the appropriate online forms to pay for the tests, but instead of waiting for us to finish doing that, he started the testing straight away. Smart!
This felt like another nightmare I’ve had. I don’t mean having a swab shoved up my nose until it tickles my brain—that was probably the least uncomfortable part of this whole ordeal. I mean I need to fill out this web form accurately. On a touch screen device. And do it as quickly as possible!
Well, we did it. Filled in the forms, got the swabs. But now it was less than fifteen minutes until our flight time and we knew we still had to get back through passport control where there were lines of people.
“You’ll have the test results by email in ten minutes,” said the doctor. “Go!”
We sprinted out of there and went straight for the passport lines. Swallowing my pride, I went to the people at the end of a line. “Our flight leaves in ten minutes! Can we please cut in front!?”
Right, next line. “Our flight leaves in…”
“Yes, yes! Go!”
“Thank you! Thank you so much!”
We repeated this craven begging until we got to the front of the line and gave our passports to the same guy who had orginally stamped them first time we came through. He was unfazed.
Then we ran back to the gate. Almost everyone had boarded by this point, but the gate was still open. Maybe we could actually make it!
But we still needed our test results. We both stood at the gate with our phones in hand, the email app open, frantically pulling to refresh.
The minutes were ticking by. At this point the flight departure time had arrived, but the gate agent said there was a slight delay. They could wait one or two minutes more.
We showed the gate agent the results. She stamped whatever needed to be stamped and we were through.
I couldn’t believe it! Just 15 minutes ago I had been thinking we might as well give up—there was absolutely no way we were going to make it.
But here we were boarding the plane.
We got to our seats and strapped in. We were both quite sweaty and probably looked infectious …but we also had fresh proof that neither of had the ’rona.
We just sat there smiling, looking at each other, and shaking our heads. I just couldn’t believe we had actually made it.
The captain made an announcement. They were having a little technical difficulty with the plane’s system—no doubt the cause of the slight delay, luckily for us. They were going to reboot the system in the time-honoured fashion of turning it off and again.
The lights briefly went out and then came back on as the captain executed this manouvre.
Meanwhile Jessica and I were coming down from our adrenaline rush. Our breathing was beginning to finally slow down.
The captain’s voice came on again. That attempt at fixing the glitch hadn’t worked. So to play it safe, we were going to switch planes. The new plane would take off in an hour and a half from a different gate.
As the other passengers tutted and muttered noises of disapproval, Jessica and I just laughed. A delay? No problem!
But oh, the Alanis Morissette levels of irony! After all that stress at the mercy of the ticking clock, it turned out that time was in plentiful supply after all.
Everything after that proceeded without incident. We got on the replacement plane. We flew back to England. We breezed across the border and made our way home.
I’m speaking at a conference this week. But unlike all the conference talks I’ve done for the past year and a half, this one won’t be online. I’m going to Zürich.
I have to admit, when I was first contacted about speaking at a real, honest-to-goodness in-person event, I assumed that things would be in a better state by the end of August 2021. The delta variant has somewhat scuppered the predicted trajectory of The Situation.
Still, this isn’t quite like going to speak at an event in 2020. I’m double-vaccinated for one thing. And although this event will be held indoors, the numbers are going to be halved and every attendee will need to show proof of vaccination along with their conference ticket. That helps to put my mind at ease.
But as the event draws nearer, I must admit to feeling uneasy. There’ll be airports and airplanes. I’m not looking forward to dealing with those. But I am looking forward to seeing some lovely people on the other end.
Brian and Joschi are considering an interesting approach for their Material conference:
Maybe we should think about a “crop rotation” method for our event? One year in Iceland to help benefit the local community, then the following year move to Germany so it is easier for people to attend, then a third year of rest and change the format to a virtual or remote event. Then repeat on that three year cycle.
I have mostly been inside one building for the best part of a year. I have avoided going inside of any other buildings during that time. I have made the occasional foray into shop buildings but rarely and briefly.
Last week I went into another building. But it was probably the safest building to enter. I was there to give blood. Masking and distancing were the order of the day.
I try to give blood whenever I can. Before The Situation, my travelling lifestyle made this difficult. It was tricky to book in advance when I didn’t know if I’d be in the country. And sometimes the destinations I went to prevented me from giving blood on my return.
Well, that’s all changed! For the past year I’ve been able to confidently make blood donation appointments knowing full well that I wasn’t going to be doing any travelling.
On video calls recently, a few people have remarked on how long my hair is now. I realised that in the past year I’ve gone to give blood more often than I’ve been to the hairdresser. Three nill, if you’re keeping score.
But why not do both? A combined haircut and blood donation.
Think about it. In both situations you have to sit in a chair doing nothing for a while.
I realise that the skillsets don’t overlap. Either barbers would need to be trained in the art of finding a vein or health workers would need to be trained in the art of cutting hair while discussing last night’s match and whether you’re going anywhere nice this year.
Anything that encourages more blood donations is good in my books. Perhaps there are other establishments that offer passive sitting activities that could be combined with the donation process.
Nail salons? You could get one hand manicured while donating blood from the other arm.
Libraries and book shops? Why not have a combined book-reading and blood donation? Give a pint and get a signed copy.
Airplanes? You’re stuck in a seat for a few hours anyway. Might as well make it count.
Dentists? Maybe that’s too much multitasking with different parts of the body.
But what about dentistry on airplanes? Specifically the kind of dentistry that requires sedation. The infrastructure is already in place: there are masks above every seat. Shortly after take off, pull the mask towards you and let the nitrous oxide flow. Even without any dentistry, that sounds like a reasonable way to make the hours stuck in an airplane just fly by.
None of us are going to be taking any flights any time soon, but when we do …build back better, I say.
I really, really missed speaking at conferences in 2020. I managed to squeeze in just one meatspace presentation before everything shut down. That was in Nottingham, where myself and Remy reprised our double-bill talk, How We Built The World Wide Web In Five Days.
Giving a talk online is …weird. It’s very different from public speaking. The public is theoretically there but you feel like you’re just talking at your computer screen. If anything, it’s more like recording a podcast than giving a talk.
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!
Normally this wouldn’t be a big deal, but in our current circumstances, it was something of a momentous decision that involved a lot of risk assessment and weighing of the odds. We’ve been out and about a few times, but always to outdoor locations: the beach, a park, or a pub’s beer garden. For the first time, we were evaluating whether or not to enter an indoor environment, which given what we now know about the transmission of COVID-19, is certainly riskier than being outdoors.
But this was a cinema, so in theory, nobody should be talking (or singing or shouting), and everyone would be wearing masks and keeping their distance. Time was also on our side. We were considering a Monday afternoon showing—definitely not primetime. Looking at the website for the (wonderful) Duke of York’s cinema, we could see which seats were already taken. Less than an hour before the start time for the film, there were just a handful of seats occupied. A cinema that can seat a triple-digit number of people was going to be seating a single digit number of viewers.
We got tickets for the front row. Personally, I love sitting in the front row, especially in the Duke of York’s where there’s still plenty of room between the front row and the screen. But I know that it’s generally considered an undesirable spot by most people. Sure enough, the closest people to us were many rows back. Everyone was wearing masks and we kept them on for the duration of the film.
The film was Tenet). We weren’t about to enter an enclosed space for just any ol’ film. It would have to be pretty special—a new Star Wars film, or Denis Villeneuve’s Dune …or a new Christopher Nolan film. We knew it would look good on the big screen. We also knew it was likely to be spoiled for us if we didn’t see it soon enough.
At this point I am sounding the spoiler horn. If you have not seen Tenet yet, abandon ship at this point.
I really enjoyed this film. I understand the criticism that has been levelled at it—too cold, too clinical, too confusing—but I still enjoyed it immensely. I do think you need to be able to enjoy feeling confused if this is going to be a pleasurable experience. The payoff is that there’s an equally enjoyable feeling when things start slotting into place.
The closest film in Christopher Nolan’s back catalogue to Tenet is Inception in terms of twistiness and what it asks of the audience. But in some ways, Tenet is like an inverted version of Inception. In Inception, the ideas and the plot are genuinely complex, but Nolan does a great job in making them understandable—quite a feat! In Tenet, the central conceit and even the overall plot is, in hindsight, relatively straightforward. But Nolan has made it seem more twisty and convuluted than it really is. The ten minute battle at the end, for example, is filled with hard-to-follow twists and turns, but in actuality, it literally doesn’t matter.
The pitch for the mood of this film is that it’s in the spy genre, in the same way that Inception is in the heist genre. Though there’s an argument to be made that Tenet is more of a heist movie than Inception. But in terms of tone, yeah, it’s going for James Bond.
Even at the very end of the credits, when the title of the film rolled into view, it reminded me of the Bond films that would tease “The end of (this film). But James Bond will return in (next film).” Wouldn’t it have been wonderful if the very end of Tenet’s credits finished with “The end of Tenet. But the protagonist will return in …Tenet.”
The pleasure I got from Tenet was not the same kind of pleasure I get from watching a Bond film, which is a simpler, more basic kind of enjoyment. The pleasure I got from Tenet was more like the kind of enjoyment I get from reading smart sci-fi, the kind that posits a “what if?” scenario and isn’t afraid to push your mind in all kinds of uncomfortable directions to contemplate the ramifications.
Like I said, the central conceit—objects or people travelling backwards through time (from our perspective)—isn’t actually all that complex, but the fun comes from all the compounding knock-on effects that build on that one premise.
In the film, and in interviews about the film, everyone is at pains to point out that this isn’t time travel. But that’s not true. In fact, I would argue that Tenet is one of the few examples of genuine time travel. What I mean is that most so-called time-travel stories are actually more like time teleportation. People jump from one place in time to another instaneously. There are only a few examples I can think of where people genuinely travel.
The grandaddy of all time travel stories, The Time Machine by H.G. Wells, is one example. There are vivid descriptions of the world outside the machine playing out in fast-forward. But even here, there’s an implication that from outside the machine, the world cannot perceive the time machine (which would, from that perspective, look slowed down to the point of seeming completely still).
The most internally-consistent time-travel story is Primer. I suspect that the Venn diagram of people who didn’t like Tenet and people who wouldn’t like Primer is a circle. Again, it’s a film where the enjoyment comes from feeling confused, but where your attention will be rewarded and your intelligence won’t be insulted.
In Primer, the protagonists literally travel in time. If you want to go five hours into the past, you have to spend five hours in the box (the time machine).
In Tenet, the time machine is a turnstile. If you want to travel five hours into the past, you need only enter the turnstile for a moment, but then you have to spend the next five hours travelling backwards (which, from your perspective, looks like being in a world where cause and effect are reversed). After five hours, you go in and out of a turnstile again, and voila!—you’ve time travelled five hours into the past.
Crucially, if you decide to travel five hours into the past, then you have always done so. And in the five hours prior to your decision, a version of you (apparently moving backwards) would be visible to the world. There is never a version of events where you aren’t travelling backwards in time. There is no “first loop”.
That brings us to the fundamental split in categories of time travel (or time jump) stories: many worlds vs. single timeline.
In a many-worlds story, the past can be changed. Well, technically, you spawn a different universe in which events unfold differently, but from your perspective, the effect would be as though you had altered the past.
The best example of the many-worlds category in recent years is William Gibson’s The Peripheral. It genuinely reinvents the genre of time travel. First of all, no thing travels through time. In The Peripheral only information can time travel. But given telepresence technology, that’s enough. The Peripheral is time travel for the remote worker (once again, William Gibson proves to be eerily prescient). But the moment that any information travels backwards in time, the timeline splits into a new “stub”. So the many-worlds nature of its reality is front and centre. But that doesn’t stop the characters engaging in classic time travel behaviour—using knowledge of the future to exert control over the past.
Time travel stories are always played with a stacked deck of information. The future has power over the past because of the asymmetric nature of information distribution—there’s more information in the future than in the past. Whether it’s through sports results, the stock market or technological expertise, the future can exploit the past.
Information is at the heart of the power games in Tenet too, but there’s a twist. The repeated mantra here is “ignorance is ammunition.” That flies in the face of most time travel stories where knowledge—information from the future—is vital to winning the game.
It turns out that information from the future is vital to winning the game in Tenet too, but the reason why ignorance is ammunition comes down to the fact that Tenet is not a many-worlds story. It is very much a single timeline.
Having a single timeline makes for time travel stories that are like Greek tragedies. You can try travelling into the past to change the present but in doing so you will instead cause the very thing you set out to prevent.
The meat’n’bones of a single timeline time travel story—and this is at the heart of Tenet—is the question of free will.
The most succint (and disturbing) single-timeline time-travel story that I’ve read is by Ted Chiang in his recent book Exhalation. It’s called What’s Expected Of Us. It was originally published as a single page in Nature magazine. In that single page is a distillation of the metaphysical crisis that even a limited amount of time travel would unleash in a single-timeline world…
There’s a box, the Predictor. It’s very basic, like Claude Shannon’s Ultimate Machine. It has a button and a light. The button activates the light. But this machine, like an inverted object in Tenet, is moving through time differently to us. In this case, it’s very specific and localised. The machine is just a few seconds in the future relative to us. Cause and effect seem to be reversed. With a normal machine, you press the button and then the light flashes. But with the predictor, the light flashes and then you press the button. You can try to fool it but you won’t succeed. If the light flashes, you will press the button no matter how much you tell yourself that you won’t (likewise if you try to press the button before the light flashes, you won’t succeed). That’s it. In one succinct experiment with time, it is demonstrated that free will doesn’t exist.
Tenet has a similarly simple object to explain inversion. It’s a bullet. In an exposition scene we’re shown how it travels backwards in time. The protagonist holds his hand above the bullet, expecting it to jump into his hand as has just been demonstrated to him. He is told “you have to drop it.” He makes the decision to “drop” the bullet …and the bullet flies up into his hand.
This is a brilliant bit of sleight of hand (if you’ll excuse the choice of words) on Nolan’s part. It seems to imply that free will really matters. Only by deciding to “drop” the bullet does the bullet then fly upward. But here’s the thing: the protagonist had no choice but to decide to drop the bullet. We know that he had no choice because the bullet flew up into his hand. The bullet was always going to fly up into his hand. There is no timeline where the bullet doesn’t fly up into his hand, which means there is no timeline where the protagonist doesn’t decide to “drop” the bullet. The decision is real, but it is inevitable.
The lesson in this scene is the exact opposite of what it appears. It appears to show that agency and decision-making matter. The opposite is true. Free will cannot, in any meaningful sense, exist in this world.
This means that there was never really any threat. People from the future cannot change the past (or wipe it out) because it would’ve happened already. At one point, the protagonist voices this conjecture. “Doesn’t the fact that we’re here now mean that they don’t succeed?” Neil deflects the question, not because of uncertainty (we realise later) but because of certainty. It’s absolutely true that the people in the future can’t succeed because they haven’t succeeded. But the protagonist—at this point in the story—isn’t ready to truly internalise this. He needs to still believe that he is acting with free will. As that Ted Chiang story puts it:
It’s essential that you behave as if your decisions matter, even though you know that they don’t.
That’s true for the audience watching the film. If we were to understand too early that everything will work out fine, then there would be no tension in the film.
As ever with Nolan’s films, they are themselves metaphors for films. The first time you watch Tenet, ignorance is your ammuntion. You believe there is a threat. By the end of the film you have more information. Now if you re-watch the film, you will experience it differently, armed with your prior knowledge. But the film itself hasn’t changed. It’s the same linear flow of sequential scenes being projected. Everything plays out exactly the same. It’s you who have been changed. The first time you watch the film, you are like the protagonist at the start of the movie. The second time you watch it, you are like the protagonist at the end of the movie. You see the bigger picture. You understand the inevitability.
The character of Neil has had more time to come to terms with a universe without free will. What the protagonist begins to understand at the end of the film is what Neil has known for a while. He has seen this film. He knows how it ends. It ends with his death. He knows that it must end that way. At the end of the film we see him go to meet his death. Does he make the decision to do this? Yes …but he was always going to make the decision to do this. Just as the protagonist was always going to decide to “drop” the bullet, Neil was always going to decide to go to his death. It looks like a choice. But Neil understands at this point that the choice is pre-ordained. He will go to his death because he has gone to his death.
At the end, the protagonist—and the audience—understands. Everything played out exactly as it had to. The people in the future were hoping that reality allowed for many worlds, where the past could be changed. Luckily for us, reality turns out to be a single timeline. But the price we pay is that we come to understand, truly understand, that we have no free will. This is the kind of knowledge we wish we didn’t have. Ignorance was our ammunition and by the end of the film, it is spent.
Nolan has one other piece of misdirection up his sleeve. He implies that the central question at the heart of this time-travel story is the grandfather paradox. Our descendents in the future are literally trying to kill their grandparents (us). But if they succeed, then they can never come into existence.
But that’s not the paradox that plays out in Tenet. The central paradox is the bootstrap paradox, named for the Heinlein short story, By His Bootstraps. Information in this film is transmitted forwards and backwards through time, without ever being created. Take the phrase “Tenet”. In subjective time, the protagonist first hears of this phrase—and this organisation—when he is at the start of his journey. But the people who tell him this received the information via a subjectively older version of the protagonist who has travelled to the past. The protagonist starts the Tenet organistion (and phrase) in the future because the organisation (and phrase) existed in the past. So where did the phrase come from?
This paradox—the bootstrap paradox—remains after the grandfather paradox has been dealt with. The grandfather paradox was a distraction. The bootstrap paradox can’t be resolved, no matter how many times you watch the same film.
So Tenet has three instances of misdirection in its narrative:
Inversion isn’t time travel (it absolutely is).
Decisions matter (they don’t; there is no free will).
The grandfather paradox is the central question (it’s not; the bootstrap paradox is the central question).
I’m looking forward to seeing Tenet again. Though it can never be the same as that first time. Ignorance can never again be my ammunition.
I’m very glad that Jessica and I decided to go to the cinema to see Tenet. But who am I kidding? Did we ever really have a choice?
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).
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.
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.
Clearleft is a remote-working company right now. I mean, that’s hardly surprising—just about everyone I know is working from home.
We made this decision on Friday. It was clear that the spread of COVID-19 was going exponential (even with the very incomplete data available in the UK). Despite the wishy-washy advice from the government—which has since pivoted drastically—we made the decision to literally get ahead of the curve. We had one final get-together in the studio yesterday to plan logistics and pick up equipment. Then it was time to start this chapter.
one Aeron chair,
one big monitor,
a wired keyboard,
a wireless mouse, and
Cassie kindly provided the use of her van to get that stuff home. The Aeron chair proved to be extremely tricky to get through my narrow front door. For a while there, it looked like I’d need to take the door off the hinges but with a whole lotta pushin’ and a-pullin’ Jessica and I managed to somehow get it in.
Now I’ve got a reasonable home studio set up, I can get back to working on that conference talk I’m prepar… Oh.
Yeah, I guess I’ve got a stay of execution on that. For the past few months I’ve had my head down preparing a new hour-long talk for An Event Apart. Yes, it takes me that long to put a talk together—it feels kinda like writing a book. I’d like to think it’s because I’m so meticulous, but the truth is that I’m just very slow at most things. Also, I’m a bad one for procrastinating.
For the past week or so, while I’ve been making pretty darn good progress on the talk, a voice in the back of my head has been whispering “Hey, maybe the conference won’t even happen!” In answer to which, the voice in the front of my head has been saying “Would you shut the fuck up? I’m trying to work here!”
I was due to debut the talk at An Event Apart Seattle in May. Sure enough, that event has quite rightly been cancelled. So have a lot of other excellent events. It’s a real shame, and my heart goes out to event organisers who pour so much of themselves into their events; their love, their care, and not least, their financial risk.
I speak at quite a few events every year. I really, really enjoy it. For one, public speaking is one of the few things I think I’m actually any good at. Also, I just love the chance to meet my peers and collectively nerd out together for a short while.
Then there’s the travel. This year I was planning on drastically reducing my plane travel. I had bagged myself speaking slots in European cities that I could reach by train: Cologne, Strasbourg, even Lisbon, along with domestic destinations like Nottingham, Manchester, and Plymouth. I was quite looking forward to some train adventures. But those will have to wait.
Right now I’m going to settle into this new home routine. It’s not entirely new to me. Back in the early 2000s, I worked from home as a freelancer. Back then, Jessica and I worked not just in the same room, but on opposite ends of the same table!
We’ve got more room now. Jessica has her own office space. I’m getting used to mine. But as Jessica pointed out:
I’ve worked from home for 20(!) years, I love it, I’m made for it, I can’t imagine not doing it—and I’ve gotten absolutely nothing done for the past week.
Newly WFH folks, the situation now is totally unconducive to concentration and productivity. Be gentle with yourselves.
It was my birthday recently. I’m a firm believer in the idea that birthday celebrations should last for more than 24 hours. A week is the absolute minimum.
For the day itself, I did indeed indulge in a most luxurious evening out with Jessica at The Little Fish Market in Hove (on the street where we used to live!). The chef, Duncan Ray, is an absolute genius and his love for all things fish-related shines through in his magnificent dishes.
But to keep the celebrations going, we also went on a weekend away to Galway, where I used to live decades ago. It was a quick trip but we packed in a lot. I joked at one point that it felt like one of those travel articles headlined with “36 hours in someplace.” I ran the numbers and it turned out we were in Galway for 41 hours, but I still thought it would be fun to recount events in the imperative style of one of those articles…
Saturday, February 29th
The 3:30pm train from Dublin will get you into Galway just before 6pm. The train station is right on the doorstep of Loam, the Michelin-starred restaurant where you’ve made your reservation. Enjoy a seven course menu of local and seasonal produce. Despite the quality of the dishes, you may find the overall experience is a little cool, and the service a touch over-rehearsed.
You’ll be released sometime between 8:30pm and 9pm. Stroll through Eyre Square and down Shop Street to the Jury’s Inn, your hotel. It’s nothing luxurious but it’s functional and the location is perfect. It’s close to everything without being in the middle of the noisy weekend action. The only noise you should hear is the rushing of the incredibly fast Corrib river outside your window.
Around 9:30pm, pop ‘round to Dominick Street to enjoy a cocktail in the America Village Apothecary. It’s only open two nights a week, and it’s a showcase of botanicals gathered in Connemara. Have them make you a tasty conconction and then spend time playing guess-that-smell with their specimen jars.
By 10:30pm you should be on your way round the corner to The Crane Bar on Sea Road. Go in the side entrance and head straight upstairs where the music session will be just getting started. Marvel at how chilled out it is for a Saturday night, order a pint, and sit and listen to some lovely jigs’n’reels. Don’t forget to occassionally pester one of the musicians by asking “What was that last tune called? Lovely set!”
Sunday, March 1st
Skip the hotel breakfast. Instead, get your day started with a coffee from Coffeewerk + Press. Get that coffee to go and walk over to Ard Bia at Nimmos, right at the Spanish Arch. Get there before it opens at 10am. There will already be a line. Once you’re in, order one of the grand brunch options and a nice big pot of tea. The black pudding hash will set you up nicely.
While the weather is far clearer and sunnier than you were expecting, take the opportunity to walk off that hearty brunch with a stroll along the sea front. That’ll blow out the cobwebs.
When the cold gets too much, head back towards town and duck into Charlie Byrne’s, the independent bookshop. Spend some time in there browsing the shelves and don’t leave without buying something to remember it by.
By 1pm or so, it’s time for some lunch. This is the perfect opportunity to try the sushi at Wa Cafe near the harbour. They have an extensive range of irrestistable nigiri, so just go ahead and get one of everything. The standouts are the local oyster, mackerel, and salmon.
From there, head to Tigh Cóilí for the 2pm session. Have a Guinness and enjoy the tunes.
Spend the rest of the afternoon strolling around town. You can walk through the market at St. Nicholas Church, and check out the little Claddagh ring museum at Thomas Dillon’s—the place where you got your wedding rings at the close of the twentieth century.
If you need a pick-me-up, get another coffee from Coffeewerk + Press, but this time grab a spot at the window upstairs so you can watch the world go by outside.
By 6pm, you’ll have a hankering for some more seafood. Head over to Hooked on Henry Street. Order a plate of oysters, and a cup of seafood chowder. If they’ve got ceviche, try that too.
Walk back along the canal and stop in to The Salt House to sample a flight of beers from Galway Bay Brewery. There’ll probably be some live music.
With your appetite suitably whetted, head on over to Cava Bodega for some classic tapas. Be sure to have the scallops with black pudding.
The evening session at Tigh Cóilí starts at 8:30pm on a Sunday so you can probably still catch it. You’ll hear some top-class playing from the likes of Mick Conneely and friends.
And when that’s done, there’s still time to catch the session over at The Crane.
Monday, March 2nd
After a nice lie-in, check out of the hotel and head to McCambridge’s on Shop Street for some breakfast upstairs. A nice bowl of porridge will set you up nicely for the journey back to Dublin.
If you catch the 11am train, you’ll arrive in Dublin by 1:30pm—just enough time to stop off in The Winding Stair for some excellent lunch before heading on to the airport.
Aer Lingus flies daily from Gatwick to Dublin. Dublin’s Heuston Station has multiple trains per day going to Galway.
The nation I live in has decided to impose sanctions on itself. The government has yet to figure out the exact details. It won’t be good.
Today marks the day that the ironically-named Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland officially leaves the European Union. Nothing will change on a day to day basis (until the end of this year, when the shit really hits the fan).
Like Bastian, I’m making a concerted effort now to fly less—offsetting the flights I do take—and to take the train instead. Here’s a description of a train journey to Nottingham for New Adventures, all the way from Germany.
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.
I’ve made a few trips to Germany recently. I was in Berlin last week for the always-excellent Beyond Tellerrand. Marc did a terrific job of curating an entertaining and thought-provoking line-up of speakers. He also made sure that those speakers—myself included—were very well taken care of.
I was also in Frankfurt last month. It was for an event, but for once, it wasn’t an event that involved me in any way. Jessica was there for the Frankfurt Book Fair. I was tagging along for the ride.
While Jessica was out at the sprawling exhibition hall on the edge of town, I was exploring downtown Frankfurt. One lunch time, I found myself wandering around the town’s charming indoor market hall.
While I was perusing the sausages on display, I noticed an older gentleman also inspecting the meat wares. He looked familiar. That’s when the part of my brain responsible for facial recognition said “That’s Dieter Rams.” A more rational part of my brain said “It can’t be!”, but it seemed that my pattern matching was indeed correct.
As he began to walk away, the more impulsive part of my brain shouted “Say something!”, and before my calmer nature could intervene, I was opening my mouth to speak.
I think I would’ve been tongue-tied enough introducing myself to someone of Dieter Rams’s legendary stature, but it was compounded by having to do it in a second language.
“Entschulding Sie!”, I said (“Excuse me”). “Sind Sie Dieter Rams?” (“Are you Dieter Rams?”)
“Ja, bin ich”, he said (“Yes, I am”).
At this point, my brain realised that it had nothing further planned and it left me to my own devices. I stumbled through a sentence saying something about what a pleasure it was to see him. I might have even said something stupid along the lines of “I’m a web designer!”
Anyway, he smiled politely as I made an idiot of myself, and then I said goodbye, reiterating that it was a real treat for me to meet him.
After I walked outside, I began questioning reality. Did that really just happen? It felt utterly surreal.
Of course afterwards I thought of all the things I could’ve said. L’esprit de l’escalier. Or as the Germans put it, Treppenwitz.
I could’ve told him about the time that Clearleft went on a field trip to the Design Museum in London to see an exhibition of his work, and how annoyed I was by the signs saying “Do Not Touch” …in front of household objects that were literally designed to be touched!
But I didn’t say any of those things. I just spouted some inanity, like the starstruck fanboy I am.
There’ll be a lunchtime showing of the Rams documentary at An Event Apart in San Francisco, where I’ll be speaking in a few weeks. Now I wonder if rewatching it is just going to make me cringe as I’m reminded of my encounter in Frankfurt.
One of those presentations was on the threat of asteroid impacts—always a fun topic! Charles mentioned Spaceguard, the group that tracks near-Earth objects.
Spaceguard is a pretty cool-sounding name for any organisation. The name comes from a work of (science) fiction. In Arthur C. Clarke’s 1973 book Rendezvous with Rama, Spaceguard is the name of a fictional organisation formed after a devastating asteroid impact on northen Italy—an event which is coincidentally depicted as happening on September 11th. That’s not a spoiler, by the way. The impact happens on the first page of the book.
At 0946 GMT on the morning of September 11 in the exceptionally beautiful summer of the year 2077, most of the inhabitants of Europe saw a dazzling fireball appear in the eastern sky. Within seconds it was brighter than the Sun, and as it moved across the heavens—at first in utter silence—it left behind it a churning column of dust and smoke.
Somewhere above Austria it began to disintegrate, producing a series of concussions so violent that more than a million people had their hearing permanently damaged. They were the lucky ones.
Moving at fifty kilometers a second, a thousand tons of rock and metal impacted on the plains of northern Italy, destroying in a few flaming moments the labor of centuries.
Later in the same lecture, Charles talked about the Torino scale, which is used to classify the likelihood and severity of impacts. Number 10 on the Torino scale means an impact is certain and that it will be an extinction level event.
Torino—Turin—is in northern Italy. “Wait a minute!”, I thought to myself. “Is this something that’s also named for that opening chapter of Rendezvous with Rama?”
I spoke to Charles about it afterwards, hoping that he might know. But he said, “Oh, I just assumed that a group of scientists got together in Turin when they came up with the scale.”
Being at sea, there was no way to easily verify or disprove the origin story of the Torino scale. Looking something up on the internet would have been prohibitively slow and expensive. So I had to wait until we docked in New York.
On our first morning in the city, Jessica and I popped into a bookstore. I picked up a copy of Rendezvous with Rama and re-read the details of that opening impact on northern Italy. Padua, Venice and Verona are named, but there’s no mention of Turin.
Sure enough, when I checked Wikipedia, the history and naming of the Torino scale was exactly what Charles Barclay surmised:
A revised version of the “Hazard Index” was presented at a June 1999 international conference on NEOs held in Torino (Turin), Italy. The conference participants voted to adopt the revised version, where the bestowed name “Torino Scale” recognizes the spirit of international cooperation displayed at that conference toward research efforts to understand the hazards posed by NEOs.
Remember when I wrote about adding travel maps to my site at the recent Indie Web Camp Brighton? I must confess that the last line I wrote was an attempt to catch a fish from the river of the lazy web:
It’s a shame that I can’t use the lovely Stamen watercolour tiles for these static maps though.
In the spirit of Cunningham’s Law, I was hoping that somebody was going to respond with “It’s totally possible to use Stamen’s watercolour tiles for static maps, dumbass—look!” (to which my response would have been “thank you very much!”).
Alas, no such response was forthcoming. The hoped-for schooling never forthcame.
Still, I couldn’t quite let go of the idea of using those lovely watercolour maps somewhere on my site. But I had decided that dynamic maps would have been overkill for my archive pages:
Sure, it looked good, but displaying the map required requests for a script, a style sheet, and multiple map tiles.
Then I had a thought. What if I keep the static maps on my archive pages, but make them clickable? Then, on the other end of that link, I can have the dynamic version. In other words, what if I had a separate URL just for the dynamic maps?
These seemed like a good plan to me, so while I was travelling by Eurostar—the only way to travel—back from the lovely city of Antwerp where I had been speaking at Full Stack Europe, I started hacking away on making the dynamic maps even more dynamic. After all, now that they were going to have their own pages, I could go all out with any fancy features I wanted.
I found a plug-in for Leaflet.js that animates polylines—thanks, Iván! With a bit of wrangling, I was able to get it to animate between the lat/lon points of whichever archive section the map was in. Rather than have it play out automatically, I also added a control so that you can start and stop the animation. While I was at it, I decided to make that “play/pause” button do something else too. Ahem.
If you’d like to see the maps in action, click the “play” button on any of these maps:
You get the idea. It’s all very silly really. It’s right up there with the time I made my sparklines playable. But that’s kind of the point. It’s my website so I can do whatever I want with it, no matter how silly.
First of all, the research department for adactio.com (that’s me) came up with the idea. Then that had to be sold in to upper management (that’s me too). A team was spun up to handle design and development (consisting of me and me). Finally, the finished result went live thanks to the tireless efforts of the adactio.com ops group (that would be me). Any feedback should be directed at the marketing department (no idea who that is).
The Edinburgh-Madrid-London whirlwind wasn’t ideal. I gave the opening talk at Finch Conf, then immediately jumped in a taxi to get to the airport to fly to Madrid, so I missed all the excellent talks. I had FOMO for a conference I actually spoke at.
I did get to spend some time at Code Motion in Madrid, but that was a waste of time. It was one of those multi-track events where the trade show floor is prioritised over the talks (and the speakers don’t get paid). I gave my talk to a mostly empty room—the classic multi-track experience. On the plus side, I had a wonderful time with Jessica exploring Madrid’s many tapas delights. The food and drink made up for the sub-par conference.
I flew back from Madrid to the UK, and immediately went straight to London to deliver the closing talk of Generate CSS. So once again, I didn’t get to see any of the other talks. That’s a real shame—it sounds like they were all excellent.
The day after Generate though, I took the Eurostar to Amsterdam. That’s where I’ve been ever since. There were just as many events as in the previous week, but because they were all in Amsterdam, I could savour them properly, instead of spending half my time travelling.
Indie Web Camp Amsterdam was excellent, although I missed out on the afternoon discussions on the first day because I popped over to the Mozilla Tech Speakers event happening at the same time. I was there to offer feedback on lightning talks. I really, really enjoyed it.
I’d really like to do more of this kind of thing. There aren’t many activities I feel qualified to give advice on, but public speaking is an exception. I’ve got plenty of experience that I’m eager to share with up-and-coming speakers. Also, I got to see some really great lightning talks!
Then it was time for View Source. There was a mix of talks, panels, and breakout conversation corners. I saw some fantastic talks by people I hadn’t seen speak before: Melanie Richards, Ali Spittal, Sharell Bryant, and Tejas Kumar. I gave the closing keynote, which was warmly received—that’s always very gratifying.
Neither of us is under any illusions about the nature of a joint talk. It’s not half as much work; it’s more like twice the work. We’ve both seen enough uneven joint presentations to know what we want to avoid.
I’m happy to say that it went off without a hitch. Remy definitely had the tougher task—he did a live demo. Needless to say, he did it flawlessly. It’s been a real treat working with Remy on this. Don’t tell him I said this, but he’s kind of a web hero of mine, so this was a real honour and a privilege for me.
I’ve got some more speaking engagements ahead of me. Most of them are in Europe so I’m going to do my utmost to travel to them by train. Flying is usually more convenient but it’s terrible for my carbon footprint. I’m feeling pretty guilty about that Madrid trip; I need to make ammends.
I’ll be travelling to France next week for Paris Web. Taking the Eurostar is a no-brainer for that one. Straight after that Jessica and I will be going to Frankfurt for the book fair. Taking the train from Paris to Frankfurt will be nice and straightforward.
I’ll be back in Brighton for Indie Web Camp on the weekend of October 19th and 20th—you should come!—and then I’ll be heading off to Antwerp for Full Stack Fest. Anywhere in Belgium is easily reachable by train so that’ll be another Eurostar journey.
After that, it gets a little trickier. I’ll be going to Berlin for Beyond Tellerrand but I’m not sure I can make it work by train. Same goes for Web Clerks in Vienna. Cities that far east are tough to get to by train in a reasonable amount of time (although I realise that, compared to many others, I have the luxury of spending time travelling by train).
And then there’s Ireland. I make trips back there to see my mother, but there’s no alternative to flying or taking a ferry—neither are ideal for the environment. At least I can offset the carbon from my flights; the travel equivalent to putting coins in the swear jar.
Don’t get me wrong—I’m not moaning about the amount of travel involved in going to conferences and workshops. It’s fantastic that I get to go to new and interesting places. That’s something I hope I never take for granted. But I can’t ignore the environmental damage I’m doing. I’ll be making more of an effort to travel by train to Europe’s many excellent web events. While I’m at it, I can ask Paul for his trainspotter expertise.
We took the surprisingly busy train from Brighton to Southampton, with our plentiful luggage in tow. As well as the clothes we’d need for three weeks of hot summer locations in the United States, Jessica and I were also carrying our glad rags for the shipboard frou-frou evenings.
Once the train arrived in Southampton, we transferred our many bags into the back of a taxi and made our way to the terminal. It looked like all the docks were occupied, either with cargo ships, cruise ships, or—in the case of the Queen Mary 2—the world’s last ocean liner to be built.
Check in. Security. Then it was time to bid farewell to dry land as we boarded the ship. We settled into our room—excuse me, stateroom—on the eighth deck. That’s the deck that also has the lifeboats, but our balcony is handily positioned between two boats, giving us a nice clear view.
We’d be sailing in a few hours, so that gave us plenty of time to explore the ship. We grabbed a suprisingly tasty bite to eat in the buffet restaurant, and then went out on deck (the promenade deck is deck seven, just one deck below our room).
It was a blustery day. All weekend, the UK newspaper headlines had been full of dramatic stories of high winds. Not exactly sailing weather. But the Queen Mary 2 is solid, sturdy, and just downright big, so once we were underway, the wind was hardly noticable …indoors. Out on the deck, it could get pretty breezy.
By pure coincidence, we happened to be sailing on a fortuituous day: the meeting of the queens. The Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Victoria, and the Queen Mary 2 were all departing Southampton at the same time. It was a veritable Cunard convoy. With the yacht race on as well, it was a very busy afternoon in the Solent.
Alas, Jessica had a migraine brewing all day, so we weren’t in the mood to dive into any social activities. We had a low-key dinner from the buffet—again, surprisingly tasty—and retired for the evening.
Passenger’s log, day two: Monday, August 12, 2019
Jessica’s migraine passed like a fog bank in the night, and we woke to a bright, blustery day. The Queen Mary 2 was just passing the Scilly Isles, marking the traditional start of an Atlantic crossing.
Breakfast was blissfully quiet and chilled out—we elected to try the somewhat less-trafficked Carinthia lounge; the location of a decent espresso-based coffee (for a price). Then it was time to feed our minds.
We watched a talk on the Bolshoi Ballet, filled with shocking tales of scandal. Here I am on holiday, and I’m sitting watching a presentation as though I were at a conference. The presenter in me approved of some of the stylistic choices: tasteful transitions in Keynote, and suitably legible typography for on-screen quotes.
Soon after that, there was a question-and-answer session with a dance teacher from the English National Ballet. We balanced out the arts with some science by taking a trip to the planetarium, where the dulcet voice of Neil De Grasse Tyson told the tale of dark matter. A malfunctioning projector somewhat tainted the experience, leaving a segment of the dome unilliminated.
It was a full morning of activities, but after lunch, there was just one time and place that mattered: sign ups for the week’s ballet workshops would take place at 3pm on deck two. We wandered by at 2pm, and there was already a line! Jessica quickly took her place in the queue, hoping that she’d make into the workshops, which have a capacity of just 30 people. The line continued to grow. The Cunard staff were clearly not prepared for the level of interest in these ballet workshops. They quickly introduced some emergency measures: this line would only be for the next two day’s workshops, rather than the whole week. So there’d be more queueing later in the week for anyone looking to take more than one workshop.
Anyway, the most important outcome was that Jessica did manage to sign up for a workshop. After all that standing in line, Jessica was ready for a nice sit down so we headed to the area designated for crafters and knitters. As Jessica worked on the knitting project she had brought along, we had our first proper social interactions of the voyage, getting to know the other makers. There was much bonding over the shared love of the excellent Ravelry website.
Next up: a pub quiz at sea in a pub at sea. I ordered the flight of craft beers and we put our heads together for twenty quickfire trivia questions. We came third.
After that, we rested up for a while in our room, before donning our glad rags for the evening’s gala dinner. I bought a tuxedo just for this trip, and now it was time to put it into action. Jessica donned a ballgown. We both looked the part for the black-and-white themed evening.
We headed out for pre-dinner drinks in the ballroom, complete with big band. At one entrance, there was a receiving line to meet the captain. Having had enough of queueing for one day, we went in the other entrance. With glasses of sparkling wine in hand, we surveyed our fellow dressed-up guests who were looking in equal measure dashingly cool and slightly uncomfortable.
After some amusing words from the captain, it was time for dinner. Having missed the proper sit-down dinner the evening before, this was our first time finding out what table we had. We were bracing ourselves for an evening of being sociable, chit-chatting with whoever we’ve been seated with. Your table assignment was the same for the whole week, so you’d better get on well with your tablemates. If you’re stuck with a bunch of obnoxious Brexiteers, tough luck; you just have to suck it up. Much like Brexit.
We were shown to our table, which was …a table for two! Oh, the relief! Even better, we were sitting quite close to the table of ballet dancers. From our table, Jessica could creepily stalk them, and observe them behaving just like mere mortals.
We settled in for a thoroughly enjoyable meal. I opted for an array of pale-coloured foods; cullen skink, followed by seared scallops, accompanied by a Chablis Premier Cru. All this while wearing a bow tie, to the sounds of a string quartet. It felt like peak Titanic.
After dinner, we had a nightcap in the elegant Chart Room bar before calling it a night.
Passenger’s log, day three: Tuesday, August 13
We were woken early by the ship’s horn. This wasn’t the seven-short-and-one-long blast that would signal an emergency. This was more like the sustained booming of a foghorn. In fact, it effectively was a foghorn, because we were in fog.
Below us was the undersea mountain range of the Maxwell Fracture Zone. Outside was a thick Atlantic fog. And inside, we were nursing some slightly sore heads from the previous evening’s intake of wine.
But as a nice bonus, we had an extra hour of sleep. As long as the ship is sailing west, the clocks get put back by an hour every night. Slowly but surely, we’ll get on New York time. Sure beats jetlag.
After a slow start, we sautered downstairs for some breakfast and a decent coffee. Then, to blow out the cobwebs, we walked a circuit of the promenade deck, thereby swapping out bed head for deck head.
It was then time for Jessica and I to briefly part ways. She went to watch the ballet dancers in their morning practice. I went to a lecture by Charlie Barclay from the Royal Astronomical Society, and most edifying it was too (I wonder if I can convince him to come down to give a talk at Brighton Astro sometime?).
After the lecture was done, I tracked down Jessica in the theatre, where she was enraptured by the dancers doing their company class. We stayed there as it segued into the dancers doing a dress rehearsal for their upcoming performance. It was fascinating, not least because it was clear that the dancers were having to cope with being on a slightly swaying moving vessel. That got me wondering: has ballet ever been performed on a ship before? For all I know, it might have been a common entertainment back in the golden age of ocean liners.
We slipped out of the dress rehearsal when hunger got the better of us, and we managed to grab a late lunch right before the buffet closed. After that, we decided it was time to check out the dog kennels up on the twelfth deck. There are 24 dogs travelling on the ship. They are all good dogs. We met Dillinger, a good dog on his way to a new life in Vancouver. Poor Dillinger was struggling with the circumstances of the voyage. But it’s better than being in the cargo hold of an airplane.
While we were up there on the top of the ship, we took a walk around the observation deck right above the bridge. The wind made that quite a tricky perambulation.
The rest of our day was quite relaxed. We did the pub quiz again. We got exactly the same score as we did the day before. We had a nice dinner, although this time a tuxedo was not required (but a jacket still was). Lamb for me; beef for Jessica; a bottle of Gigondas for both of us.
After dinner, we retired to our room, putting our clocks and watches back an hour before climbing into bed.
Passenger’s log, day four: Wednesday, August 14, 2019
After a good night’s sleep, we were sauntering towards breakfast when a ship’s announcement was made. This is unusual. Ship’s announcements usually happen at noon, when the captain gives us an update on the journey and our position.
This announcement was dance-related. Contradicting the listed 5pm time, sign-ups for the next ballet workshops would be happening at 9am …which was in 10 minutes time. Registration was on deck two. There we were, examining the breakfast options on deck seven. Cue a frantic rush down the stairwells and across the ship, not helped by me confusing our relative position to fore and aft. But we made it. Jessica got in line, and she was able to register for the workshop she wanted. Crisis averted.
We made our way back up to breakfast, and our daily dose of decent coffee. Then it was time for a lecture that was equally fascinating for me and Jessica. It was Physics En Pointe by Dr. Merritt Moore, ballet dancer and quantum physicist. This was a scene-setting talk, with her describing her life’s journey so far. She’ll be giving more talks throughout the voyage, so I’m hoping for some juicy tales of quantum entanglement (she works in quantum optics, generating entangled photons).
After that, it was time for Jessica’s first workshop. It was a general ballet technique workshop, and they weren’t messing around. I sat off to the side, with a view out on the middle of the Atlantic ocean, tinkering with some code for The Session, while Jessica and the other students were put through their paces.
Then it was time to briefly part ways again. While Jessica went to watch the ballet dancers doing their company class, I was once again attending a lecture by Charles Barclay of the Royal Astronomical Society. This time it was archaeoastronomy …or maybe it was astroarcheology. Either way, it was about how astronomical knowledge was passed on in pre-writing cultures, with a particular emphasis on neolithic sites like Avebury.
When the lecture was done, I rejoined Jessica and we watched the dancers finish their company class. Then it was time for lunch. We ate from the buffet, but deliberately avoided the heavier items, opting for a relatively light salad and sushi combo. This good deed would later be completely undone with a late afternoon cake snack.
We went to one more lecture. Three in one day! It really is like being at a conference. This one, by John Cooper, was on the Elizabethan settlers of Roanoke Island. So in one day, I managed to get a dose of history, science, and culture.
With the day’s workshops and lectures done, it was once again time to put on our best garb for the evening’s gala dinner. All tux’d up, I escorted Jessica downstairs. Tonight was the premier of the ballet performance. But before that, we wandered around drinking champagne and looking fabulous. I even sat at an otherwise empty blackjack table and promptly lost some money. I was a rubbish gambler, but—and this is important—I was a rubbish gambler wearing a tuxedo.
We got good seats for the ballet and settled in for an hour’s entertainment. There were six pieces, mostly classical. Some Swan Lake, some Nutcracker, and some Le Corsaire. But there was also something more modern in there—a magnificent performance from Akram Khan’s Dust. We had been to see Dust at Sadlers Wells, but I had forgotten quite how powerful it is.
After the performance, we had a quick cocktail, and then dinner. The sommelier is getting chattier and chattier with us each evening. I think he approves of our wine choices. This time, we left the vineyards of France, opting for a Pinot Noir from Central Otago.
After one or two nightcaps, we went back to our cabin and before crashing out, we set our clocks back an hour.
Passenger’s log, day five: Thursday, August 15, 2019
We woke to another foggy morning. The Queen Mary 2 was now sailing through the shallower waters of the Grand Banks of Newfoundland. Closer and closer to North America.
This would be my fifth day with virtually no internet access. I could buy WiFi internet access at exorbitant satellite prices, but I hadn’t felt any need to do that. I could also get a maritime mobile phone signal—very slow and very expensive.
I’m not missing Twitter. I’m certainly not missing email. The only thing that took some getting used to was not being able to look things up. On the first few days of the crossing, both Jessica and I found ourselves reaching for our phones to look up something about ships or ballet or history …only to remember that we were enveloped in a fog of analogue ignorance, with no sign of terra firma digitalis.
It makes the daily quiz quite challenging. Every morning, twenty questions are listed on sheets of paper that appear at the entrance to the library. This library, by the way, is the largest at sea. As Jessica noted, you can tell a lot about the on-board priorities when the ship’s library is larger than the ship’s casino.
Answers to the quiz are to be handed in by 4pm. In the event of a tie, the team who hands in their answers earliest wins. You’re not supposed to use the internet, but you are positively encouraged to look up answers in the library. Jessica and I have been enjoying this old-fashioned investigative challenge.
With breakfast done before 9am, we had a good hour to spend in the library researching answers to the day’s quiz before Jessica needed to be at her 10am ballet workshop. Jessica got started with the research, but I quickly nipped downstairs to grab a couple of tickets for the planetarium show later that day.
Tickets for the planetarium shows are released every morning at 9am. I sauntered downstairs and arrived at the designated ticket-release location a few minutes before nine, where I waited for someone to put the tickets out. When no tickets appeared five minutes after nine, I wasn’t too worried. But when there were still no tickets at ten past nine, I grew concerned. By quarter past nine, I was getting a bit miffed. Had someone forgotten their planetarium ticket duties?
I found a crewmember at a nearby desk and asked if anyone was going to put out planetarium tickets. No, I was told. The tickets all went shortly after 9am. But I’ve been here since before 9am, I said! Then it dawned on me. The ship’s clocks didn’t go back last night after all. We just assumed they did, and dutifully changed our watches and phones accordingly.
Oh, crap—Jessica’s workshop! I raced back up five decks to the library where Jessica was perusing reference books at her leisure. I told her the bad news. We dashed down to the workshop ballroom anyway, but of course the class was now well underway. After all the frantic dashing and patient queueing that Jessica did yesterday to scure her place on the workshop! Our plans for the day were undone by our being too habitual with our timepieces. No ballet workshop. No planetarium show. I felt like such an idiot.
Well, we still had a full day of activities. There was a talk with ballet dancer, James Streeter (during which we found out that the captain had deployed all the ships stabilisers during the previous evening’s performance). We once again watched the ballet dancers doing their company class for an hour and a half. We went for afternoon tea, complete with string quartet and beautiful view out on the ocean, now mercifully free of fog.
We attended another astronomy lecture, this time on eclipses. But right before the lecture was about to begin, there was a ship-wide announcement. It wasn’t midday, so this had to be something unusual. The captain informed us that a passenger was seriously ill, and the Canadian coastguard was going to attempt a rescue. The ship was diverting closer to Newfoundland to get in helicopter range. The helicopter wouldn’t be landing, but instead attempting a tricky airlift in about twenty minutes time. And so we were told to literally clear the decks. I assume the rescue was successful, and I hope the patient recovers.
After that exciting interlude, things returned to normal. The lecture on eclipses was great, focusing in particular on the magificent 2017 solar eclipse across America.
It’s funny—Jessica and I are on this crossing because it was a fortunate convergence of ballet and being on a ship. And in 2017 we were in Sun Valley, Idaho because of a fortunate convergence of ballet and experiencing a total eclipse of the sun.
I’m starting to sense a theme here.
Anyway, after all the day’s dancing and talks were done, we sat down to dinner, where Jessica could once again surreptitiously spy on the dancers at a nearby table. We cemented our bond with the sommelier by ordering a bottle of the excellent Lebanese Château Musar.
When we got back to our room, there was a note waiting for us. It was an invitation for Jessica to take part in the next day’s ballet workshop! And, looking at the schedule for the next day, there was going to be repeats of the planetarium shows we missed today. All’s well that ends well.
Before going to bed, we did not set our clocks back.
Watching the ballet dancers doing their company class.
Watching a rehearsal of the ballet performance.
The workshop was quite something. Jennie Harrington—who retired from dancing with Dust—took the 30 or so attendees through some of the moves from Akram Khan’s masterpiece. It looked great!
While all this was happening inside the ship, the weather outside was warming up. As we travel further south, the atmosphere is getting balmier. I spent an hour out on a deckchair, dozing and reading.
At one point, a large aircraft buzzed us—the Canadian coastguard perhaps? We can’t be that far from land. I think we’re still in international waters, but these waters have a Canadian accent.
After soaking up the salty sea air out on the bright deck, I entered the darkness of the planetarium, having successfully obtained tickets that morning by not having my watch on a different time to the rest of the ship.
That evening, there was a gala dinner with a 1920s theme. Jessica really looked the part—like a real flapper. I didn’t really make an effort. I just wore my tuxedo again. It was really fun wandering the ship and seeing all the ornate outfits, especially during the big band dance after dinner. I felt like I was in a photo on the wall of the Overlook Hotel.
Passenger’s log, day seven: Saturday, August 17, 2019
Today was the last full day of the voyage. Tomorrow we disembark.
We had a relaxed day, with the usual activities: a lecture or two; sitting in on the ballet company class.
Instead of getting a buffet lunch, we decided to do a sit-down lunch in the restaurant. That meant sitting at a table with other people, which could’ve been awkward, but turned out to be fine. But now that we’ve done the small talk, that’s probably all our social capital used up.
The main event today was always going to be the reprise and final performance from the English National Ballet. It was an afternoon performance this time. It was as good, if not better, the second time around. Bravo!
Best of all, after the performance, Jessica got to meet James Streeter and Erina Takahashi. Their performance from Dust was amazing, and we gushed with praise. They were very gracious and generous with their time. Needless to say, Jessica was very, very happy.
Shortly before the ballet performance, the captain made another unscheduled announcement. This time it was about a mechanical issue. There was a potential fault that needed to be investigated, which required stopping the ship for a while. Good news for the ballet dancers!
Jessica and I spent some time out on the deck while the ship was stopped. It’s was a lot warmer out there compared to just a day or two before. It was quite humid too—that’ll help us start to acclimatise for New York.
We could tell that we were getting closer to land. There are more ships on the horizon. From the amount of tankers we saw today, the ship must have passed close to a shipping lane.
We’re going to have a very early start tomorrow—although luckily the clocks will go back an hour again. So we did as much of our re-packing as we could this evening.
With the packing done, we still had some time to kill before dinner. We wandered over to the swanky Commodore Club cocktail bar at the fore of the ship. Our timing was perfect. There were two free seats positioned right by a window looking out onto the beautiful sunset we were sailing towards. The combination of ocean waves, gorgeous sunset, and very nice drinks ensured we were very relaxed when we made our way down to dinner.
At the entrance of the dining hall—and at the entrance of any food-bearing establishment on board—there are automatic hand sanitiser dispensers. And just in case the automated solution isn’t enough, there’s also a person standing there with a bottle of hand sanitiser, catching your eye and just daring you to refuse an anti-bacterial benediction. As the line of smartly dressed guests enters the restaurant, this dutiful dispenser of cleanliness anoints the hands of each one; a priest of hygiene delivering a slightly sticky sacrament.
The paranoia is justified. A ship is a potential petri dish at sea. In my hometown of Cobh in Ireland, the old cemetery is filled with the bodies of foreign sailors whose ships were quarantined in the harbour at the first sign of cholera or smallpox. While those diseases aren’t likely to show up on the Queen Mary 2, if norovirus were to break out on the ship, it could potentially spread quickly. Hence the war on hand-based microbes.
Maybe it’s because I’ve just finished reading Ed Yong’s excellent book I contain multitudes, but I can’t help but wonder about our microbiomes on board this ship. Given enough time, would the microbiomes of the passengers begin to sync up? Maybe on a longer voyage, but this crossing almost certainly doesn’t afford enough time for gut synchronisation. This crossing is almost done.
Passenger’s log, day eight: Sunday, August 18, 2019
Jessica and I got up at 4:15am. This is an extremely unusual occurance for us. But we were about to experience something very out of the ordinary.
We dressed, looked unsuccessfully for coffee, and made our way on to the observation deck at the top of the ship. Land ho! The lights of New Jersey were shining off the port side of the ship. The lights of long island were shining off the starboard side. And dead ahead was the string of lights marking the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge.
The Queen Mary 2 was deliberately designed to pass under this bridge …just. The bridge has a clearance of 228 feet. The Queen Mary 2 is 236.2 feet, keel to funnel. That’s a difference of just 8.2 feet. Believe me, that doesn’t look like much when you’re on the top deck of the ship, standing right by the tallest mast.
The distant glow of New York was matched by the more localised glow of mobile phone screens on the deck. Passengers took photos constantly. Sometimes they took photos with flash, demonstrating a fundamental misunderstanding of how you photograph distant objects.
The distant object that everyone was taking pictures of was getting less and less distant. The Statue of Liberty was coming up on our port side.
I probably should’ve felt more of a stirring at the sight of this iconic harbour sculpture. The familiarity of its image might have dulled my appreciation. But not far from the statue was a dark area, one of the few pieces of land without lights. This was Ellis Island. If the Statue of Liberty was a symbol of welcome for your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, then Ellis Island was where the immigration rubber met the administrative road. This was where countless Irish migrants first entered the United States of America, bringing with them their songs, their stories, and their unhealthy appreciation for potatoes.
Before long, the sun was rising and the Queen Mary 2 was parallel parking at the Red Hook terminal in Brooklyn. We went back belowdecks and gathered our bags from our room. Rather than avail of baggage assistance—which would require us to wait a few hours before disembarking—we opted for “self help” dismembarkation. Shortly after 7am, our time on board the Queen Mary 2 was at an end. We were in the first group of passengers off the ship, and we sailed through customs and immigration.
Within moments of being back on dry land, we were in a cab heading for our hotel in Tribeca. The cab driver took us over the Brooklyn Bridge, explaining along the way how a cash payment would really be better for everyone in this arrangement. I didn’t have many American dollars, but after a bit of currency haggling, we agreed that I could give him the last of the Canadian dollars I had in my wallet from my recent trip to Vancouver. He’s got family in Canada, so this is a win-win situation.
It being a Sunday morning, there was no traffic to speak of. We were at our hotel in no time. I assumed we wouldn’t be able to check in for hours, but at least we’d be able to leave our bags there. I was pleasantly surprised when I was told that they had a room available! We checked in, dropped our bags, and promptly went in search of coffee and breakfast. We were tired, sure, but we had no jetlag. That felt good.
I connected to the hotel’s WiFi and went online for the first time in eight days. I had a lot of spam to delete, mostly about cryptocurrencies. I was back in the 21st century.
After a week at sea, where the empty horizon was visible in all directions, I was now in a teeming mass of human habitation where distant horizons are rare indeed. After New York, I’ll be heading to Saint Augustine in Florida, then Chicago, and finally Boston. My arrival into Manhattan marks the beginning of this two week American odyssey. But this also marks the end of my voyage from Southampton to New York, and with it, this passenger’s log.
I’m going to America. But this time it’s going to be a bit different.
Here’s the backstory: I need to get to Chicago for An Event Apart in a couple of weeks. Jessica and I were talking about maybe going to Florida first to hang out with her family on the beach for a bit. We just needed to figure out the travel logistics.
Here’s the next variable to add in to the mix: Jessica is really into ballet. Like, really into ballet. She also likes boats, ships, and all things nautical.
I chuckled at that, and almost immediately dismissed it as being something from another world. But then I looked at the dates, and wouldn’t you know it, it would work out perfectly for our planned travel to Florida and Chicago.
The first rule about traveling between America and England aboard the Queen Mary 2, the flagship of the Cunard Line and the world’s largest ocean liner, is to never refer to your adventure as a cruise. You are, it is understood, making a crossing. The second rule is to refrain, when speaking to those who travel frequently on Cunard’s ships, from calling them regulars. The term of art — it is best pronounced while approximating Maggie Smith’s cut-glass accent on “Downton Abbey” — is Cunardists.
Because of the black-tie gala dinners taking place during the voyage, I am now the owner of tuxedo. I think all this dressing up is kind of like cosplay for the class system. This should be …interesting.
By all accounts, internet connectivity is non-existent on the crossing, so I’m going to be incommunicado. Don’t bother sending me any email—I won’t see it.
We sail from Southampton tomorrow. We arrive in New York a week later.