Life Photography

Lockdown Photography (Part One)

When this whole horrible COVID19 experience started—back when we thought maybe we’d be in lockdown for a few weeks, not a few months to a year—I thought to myself that at least it might be something worthy of documenting with my camera. I considered the world so changed and strange in this moment in time that no one would really understand it in the future unless people tried to capture the experience.

But the truth is, I’ve really struggled. The world generally doesn’t look transformed. It doesn’t even look abandoned in many ways. It’s more eerie than that. It just looks like a perpetual early morning before people are out on the streets. Or what Sunday afternoons used to feel like in England in the 1980s. For the most part, the visual reality of this situation conveys almost nothing of the experience of living through it. In fact, at times, while it feels desolate and strange and disconcerting—terrifying even—it looks almost idyllic.

A better photographer than I might be able to capture the feeling. But in the meantime, here’s some of the surface reality of San Francisco in April and May 2020. I’ll probably post some more in another couple of months.

One day, when basically overwhelmed by the state of things, I went for an epic walk from my home all the way to the Golden Gate Bridge and part of the way back. The walk was about four hours long, and very strange with all the streets abandoned and quiet. The Golden Gate Bridge itself was the strangest. It wasn’t deserted by any means, but compared to normal, it was fascinatingly empty.
Seeing friends has become a highly sporadic activity and everyone is being incredibly cautious. In the first time I’d seen him for at least two months, Matt suggested that we go up to Bernal Park one afternoon to play with his new drone. He brought alcohol wipes and I brought Purell so we could handle the controls without risk of disease spread. We both wore masks. It did not feel normal.
I don’t really have pictures of all the shops on Valencia boarded up. That was probably the weirdest thing – one by one all the shops disappearing, being put into some kind of suspended animation, knowing as they do it that some of them may never reopen again. It’s a hard thing to capture in a visually interesting way as well. But as time has spread, posters have started to appear that are better statements of how we’re feeling.
Dolores Park is normally packed with people, even during the week. And now it’s starting to get busier again, particularly on the weekends when the weather is good. People are taking risks in being out, and hoping that the openness will minimize the chance of contagion. For a few weeks though, it was pretty much completely empty.
Cliff’s Variety in Castro is sort of like a hardware store in drag. It sells all kinds of sensible practical things, plus feather boas and shiny chains and Bear Pride flags. Because it’s a hardware store, it counted as an essential business. But they still wanted to be really careful when opening up. There’s nothing less like the feel of the Castro than this sad, quiet, structured and orderly line. I found it deeply unsettling.
Ben and I decided we needed to get some exercise one afternoon so slogged up to Kite Hill in the Castro. At this stage, very few people had serious face masks and we were making do with scarves and pieces of fabric. The hill was busy but also really weird, everyone subdued and concerned and insular.
This *is* good news, and it’s pretty widespread around San Francisco. Some of them are really great. But it’s hard to maintain this level of positivity and optimism and it’s hard to read it and take it at face value. There’s a celebration of anything that we can do to make things feel more normal, but the desperation with which people reach for them actually makes things feel less normal, more bizarre.
Part of a long walk to get some of the anxiety out of our systems. I found this picture to sort of capture part of my feeling, part of my sense that my beautiful city is trapped in some kind of vice. I feel the same about my own heart and lungs.
Another trip up to Bernal to look at the view and exercise the demons. Looking out over the city it’s both hard to get a sense of how weird everything is but also you get this sense of hundreds of thousands of people hiding in all these little boxes. Insular, caged, worried people.
This took a while to interpret, but the short version is FUCK THIS NOISE. This particular wall was covered in anti-Trump posters, but this actually felt both clever and oddly mood-encapsulating. Fuck this noise indeed.
Life Personal Publishing


It feels odd, writing your first blog post in seven years. It used to be such a large part of my life—and this blog used to be such a core part of my work and engagement with my community—that you’d think you’d never forget how to do it. I wrote here almost every day for well over a decade. It saw me through the first half of my working life, from Time Out to Brickhouse, London to America. It saw me through many of my most significant life events. And yet I’ve not done it for seven years. It feels odd. And forgotten how to do it, I think I sort of have.*

I’ve obviously been writing, don’t get me wrong! I’ve written many, many tweets in the last seven years. Around 150,000 of them, in fact, on pretty much every subject under the sun, although mostly (in recent years) #politics and #doctorwho. I’ve built up over 40,000 followers over that time, a number that I think I can get back down under a thousand if I continue to focus ardently on #politics and #doctorwho. This will have a certain circular irony to it since, if I’m honest, the ease of writing on Twitter is probably one of the reasons that I finally stopped blogging in the first place.

I’ve set up a few other Twitter accounts too. There’s @lovedsongs which publishes a list of every song I’ve given five stars to or loved on iTunes. And @houseofcoates which fairly aimlessly plugs away reporting the things that happen at my home. Just two of the many absurd things you can do with Twitter if you get bored.

I’ve also written a number of conference talks. Looking back at my dump of the old Lanyrd website, probably around thirty! Or at least maybe ten, each of which was delivered a few times. Writing those conference talks reminded me a lot of how it felt to write a decent blog post after ten years on the job. By that time I was no longer just knocking something out for fun to get a thought out of my head. I wanted them to be good. Really good. And so I wrote them to death, and focused in on them and really thought them through. Some of the conference talks I managed to write in less than one focused week of work. Some took almost a month. It had been getting that way with my blog posts by the end. And that, in a third ancillary and supportive nutshell, is yet another reason that I finally stopped blogging.

It might surprise some of you that I used to go outside. But if you don’t believe me, the conference talk I gave most recently was at the Mind The Product event in 2018. It was a keynote on the main stage at the San Francisco Symphony Hall. Get me. Main stage at Glastonbury. Crowds go wild. I three-dimensionally-rendered most of the slides using a focused brick of computronium. (I wrote that out longhand because “I 3d rendered” looked very strange indeed.) It took a really long time, and over-ran by ten full minutes. Everyone was very, very nice about it. I’m quite proud of the whole thing.

I also wrote a few things in other places over that time. I wrote a few things on Medium. I’m not sure why I chose to move to Medium, except I guess I thought it was a bit less embarrassing than writing a blog. I also thought I could just write something every so often and it might somehow find itself an audience without me having to write all the time to maintain people’s attention. Plus, of course, it makes what you write look gorgeous.

However, after roughly a decade of not writing regularly, I can testify that removing the pressure of regular content production did not make me produce fewer, higher quality thoughts, but just removed the impetus to write altogether. And that for the fourth time, is another reason why I stopped blogging.

I wrote a few things for more public spaces too. The most prominent of those was an opinion piece for NBC News that I guess I never actually billed them for (their payment system was appalling) so in principle, I guess I still own it. I might copy it over to this site in fact since they probably don’t hold the copyright. If you’re interested at all, it’s here: Trump blocked me on Twitter. But for democracy’s sake, we can’t ban him.

I should say a couple of things about that piece of writing before I move on – firstly, I didn’t write the headline. Mostly when you write things, the sub-editor writes the headline, and it is normally the distilled down and clickbaitiest possible version of what you actually might have meant. The second thing I’d like to say is that, you know, I still stand by it 85%. But, you know, when he started encouraging people to break the lockdown and go outside and give and spread disease to millions of Americans… Well, anyway.

But of course the main thing I’ve been doing over the last decade is building things. First at Yahoo, we built and launched Fire Eagle within Brickhouse and did a whole bunch of product innovation things, plus a couple of substantial but much less glamorous internal projects to do with location sharing and storage. Then after that projects like The Eatery with Aza Raskin, Up Coffee for Jawbone, projects for Nokia and Burner, doing consulting with Matt Biddulph at Product Club, then launching a better smart object UX with Thington (also built with Matt), sold to Eero a couple of years ago, followed by spending the last year and a half working on a completely decentralized alternative to Facebook and Twitter now known as Planetary.

I often find that when I’m working on something complicated my desire to write sort of dries up. I used to find these patterns where I’d spend chunks of time in strategic roles where I’d have to think a lot about an emerging subject in public, followed by times where I’d be focused on building and the writing would dry up. It’s a shame because I think the writing and the thinking helps you draw attention to the building, helps you engage people with the projects and keeps you a bit honest. It’s a good thing to think and work in public if you can do it. But for me, recently, for good or ill, it’s been mostly building and not very much writing for the last few years. And that, I suppose, is yet another reason why I stopped blogging.

So I guess the question of the moment is why have I started again? Why after seven+ years have I felt compelled to write just one more post? Is this the beginning of something more substantial?

There are probably two answers to this. The first one is purely practical. A few years ago someone managed to hack into my servers via an unpatched version of DBAdmin. And shortly after that, Google started reporting that there appeared to be content spam appearing in my blog. Shortly after that, my web host shut down access to any of my sites from outside, citing the presence of malware. And since I didn’t really know what they’d done and I didn’t have time to investigate it all thoroughly, over not very long at all every mark of my internet presence evaporated.

Which brings us to today, and this moment in time where we’re all reeling a bit from the world. A time that finds some of us trying to occupy our minds with something constructive. A moment where I finally had the time (and the desperate inclination) to back everything up and then completely purge my server, soup to nuts. And then gradually, piece at a time, when I get a moment, I’ve been putting it up online again.

Little fragments from my distant past are starting to emerge. Old fan sites like The Bomb. Weird creative projects from the past that I’m too embarrassed to link to. Websites made of many, many frames (ask your granddad). And of course, this blog. Over twenty years old, and filled with great swathes of my history. Looking at me blankly, using an off-the-shelf theme that conveys none of my feel or personality, with a little link that doesn’t blink but feels like it does saying only, “Add new post”. “Add new post.”

And hence the second answer to the question, why have I started again? Well, first up, I don’t know that I have. This could be the only new post I ever put up here. But if it is, it won’t be because I’m writing lots elsewhere. We live in a new time of isolation and fear. Twitter feels too urgent and anxious and tense right now. There’s no space to think or breathe. Facebook is filled with all the angst and pain and fury people are feeling. It’s overwhelming. Instagram is filled with people performing a perfect family lockdown experience interspersed with adverts for masks.

And suddenly, I find myself hearkening back to an earlier time of self-expression and community. The crowds have gone. There are no hordes of people waiting outside for a new post to emerge. There’s little to no pressure. Everyone’s not looking. It’s just the relics from an earlier era, posting periodically. And suddenly, maybe just for this one moment in time, that community is who I need. That community is who I miss. And talking to them in this kind of way feels right.

So I’m sorry that it’s long and vague and formless. I’m sorry that I’ve forgotten how to write … good*. I’m sorry that I haven’t posted for a very long time. But I’m here now, I have very little to say, and for some reason, goddam, I’m determined to say it.

So here’s to all you old people who still glance at blogs. Maybe this will turn up in your RSS feeds somehow. Maybe you’ll stumble upon it at some point in the future. Maybe you’ll never see it. That’s okay too. It’s not for an audience. It’s not for the attention. It’s just something I wanted to say, written down and pushed out the door to be stumbled upon by random people at some point. Just like it always was supposed to be, I guess.

It feels odd, writing your first blog post in seven years. But it’s a good kind of weird. And I’ve missed it.

* The irony here is intentional. I haven’t written long pieces for a while. I can’t tell if you’re getting the jokes.

Health Life

On Falling Over…

In 2008 I moved to the US and within six months I’d paralysed my left arm doing something stupid in the office. For a while I didn’t know if it was ever going to recover. It was one of the most disturbing experiences of my life and it happened in the most trivial of ways.

I first published this piece on Medium in August 2012 and only moved it over to in March 2013. If you’re interested in seeing it in its original context you can do so here: On Falling Over.

I’d moved over from the UK with some trepidation. I’d always wanted to spend some time living in America—I’d spent so much of my time online with SF natives in the nineties—but the mechanism I’d found to make the move was less than perfect. I’d found myself in a job that was relatively well-protected but working in an organisation that I couldn’t stand. I’d had some other—in retrospect rather better—opportunities, but I’d turned them down for a solid prospect. And then I’d delayed the move several times because of the scale of the commitment and my feelings towards it.

I’d have to work at this company for at least another two years in the US (potentially a lot longer), and I had absolutely no idea what the job would be like once I got here. It felt like the most grown-up thing I’d ever done. I was committing to do something I thought I’d hate, purely to be in the right situation a few years down the line.

Once I arrived though, things picked up pretty much immediately. The area I was working in was good and I got quite a lot of agency to improve and refine it. Within a few months, I was having a great time – working with clever, fun people in a familial, creative environment and on stuff that seemed actually important and interesting. I’d be working myself to death, of course – so much that I’d still not managed to get out of the corporate housing that I’d been placed in when I arrived in the country. Sixteen hour days were not uncommon. But honestly, it didn’t seem to matter.

One of the benefits of our particular relaxed environment and distance from the mothership was that we could turn our space into anything we liked. We had sofas and weird screens and neon signs and loads of space. We let dogs and children come in and play around us. We had people giving talks over the other side of the office. There were finger dart battles.

And we had a Balance Board.

The board was the property of our lead engineer and he used it to practice for snow-boarding. Very gradually all the rest of us started to play with it too. We’d stand on it and trying to stay upright and laugh at each other’s clumsiness. I started off worse than anyone else—I’d never had much sense of my body—but gradually started to improve. I mucked around on it every day. In the end something was bound to go wrong.

Picture the scene – I’m standing next to the lead engineer, looking at his screen. We’re talking about an element of the product we’re working on. We’re probably making some ridiculous joke or something. And I’m balancing on the balance board. And I fall off.

Everyone comes around and laughs at me lying on the floor, but I’m not laughing. I can tell something is wrong, but I don’t know what. I feel a bit irritated because they’re all having fun at my expense and honestly I’m not very good at being embarrassed. A co-worker makes a dumb joke and I say something like, “I think there’s something wrong with my arm” and then she looks and her eyes widen quickly and she shrieks and runs off. My arm is at a funny angle coming right out of my shoulder and it’s moving … strangely … I can’t seem to control it properly. And it hurts. Although not as much as it maybe ought to…

Ten minutes later I’m in a friend’s car driving to the hospital. I feel incredibly strange. I’m scared out of my mind. I’m in pain, but again, not as much as I ought to be, but every time we hit a pothole in the car it feels like something inside my arm is sawing through my shoulder muscle. My arm hangs off me strangely. It’s not moving properly. I have to hold it in mid air with my other arm or it feels … bad … Really bad. In the back of my mind I’m wondering whether it’ll be fixable. I’m trying to work out if I’m being melodramatic. Does this kind of thing happen to people all the time? My friend is being calm in that way that only someone who has had two children can be. She knows it’s a big deal, she’s not pretending it isn’t, but she knows that panicking won’t help. She’s awesome.

We get to SF General. I’m clearly not freaked out enough, because it takes me about ten seconds to notice that all the junior doctors and orderlies and people who are working there are absolutely stunning. It takes me about another five seconds to realise that I don’t like SF General. There’s a wide-eyed woman handcuffed to a railing who screams ‘Rape!’ whenever a doctor comes near her. There are two men who are mostly naked, covered in red scratches and dust, moaning like zombies and reaching out for one another with dirty, bloody hands. A woman runs in as the doctors start cutting off my t-shirt shouting, “Do you have insurance?” over and over. She’s shouting at me like I don’t have other things on my mind right at this moment. I don’t know what to say. I don’t know how this works. I have insurance in theory, but I haven’t looked into it at all since joining the company. I have no idea what one’s supposed to do. And also—by the way—my arm is hanging out of its socket…

I’m put in a strange position and my arm starts to feel incredibly bad and painful. They inject me with something, but I don’t feel the pinprick. I start talking to my friend. “This isn’t doing anything…” I say. “It’s rubbish.” Then a few seconds later… “Shit, It had been doing something. Shit. Give me some more!” I’m in a room covered in tiles with equipment around me. I’m losing track a bit of who is in the room with me and who isn’t. They give me something stronger—something wonderful—and I start making jokes. Brilliant jokes. I’m the wittiest man alive. Also I’m English and that counts for something with these people. I’m dimly aware that I shouldn’t flirt with any of the doctors. I can sort of see them talking to my friend in the corner.

Time passes and honestly I don’t remember them setting my arm, but they clearly did. And next thing I know I’m lying exhausted and only semi-aware of what’s going on in a corridor on a gurney. One of the dirty blood-covered men is being wheeled past me on another gurney. He reaches out for me as he passes. My friend blocks him. I close my eyes and hear his groaning zombie-noise pass me by.

I’m sent home in pretty good order. Their suspicion is that the shoulder has just been dislocated. Now it’s been put back in place everything will sort of return to normal. I mention that I don’t seem to be able to move it that much and they say that’s common and that it’ll get better in a few days. I go home and collapse.
And time passes. The next day my arm doesn’t hurt that much at all. I can’t move it very much. I’m not that concerned. But the day after, it’s still not moving. It’s a long holiday weekend, but I stay at home trying to get better. The Monday comes and I’m starting to freak out. I’ve tried to work out what’s going on. A few things seem to be working. I can clench my fist. My bicep works. But I can’t straighten my arm, I can’t lift it up. I can’t straighten my fingers at all. And the outside of my arm from my shoulder to my finger tips feels cold and dead. My left arm can only really do one useful thing. I can hold out my arm like I’m begging. That’s the limit of what is practical. My arm has been replaced by a cup-holder.

Over the next few weeks I learn what’s going on. The brachial nerve in my shoulder has been ‘damaged’. No one knows how much. It could be bruised. It could be severed. If it’s bruised it will recover, at the rate of about a millimeter a week. If it has been severed, then it won’t recover at all. I’ll be stuck with a barely functioning arm for the rest of my life.

I visit a shoulder therapist who tries to calm me down about the whole thing. He’s a tall, tanned middle-aged man who looks like he surfs. He’s relatively positive, but says it’ll be a long wait to find out if I’ll heal. I want to know what happens if I don’t heal, but he doesn’t want to tell me. I have to force him to go into detail. He talks of opening up my arm and moving the muscles around so that they connect to the other side of my hand. He talks of fusing the bones in my wrist together so that my hand doesn’t flop down like a gay stereotype every time I move. He talks of braces and assistive devices. I sort of take some of it in. Knowing there are options—even weird cyborg, body-mutilating options—is weirdly comforting.

My friends try and help—some more than others. None of them really know what to do. None of them know how to react. They’re looking at me unclear as to how serious it is. At one level, I’m just a guy with his arm in a sling. At another level, I’m the guy whose arm doesn’t work and may never work again. They very graciously offer to help.

Very gradually a kind of black humour dredges itself across me, as I start to think about what my life could be like. You believe that you treat people with significant problems like this normally, but your illusions go away pretty quickly when you’re in the situation yourself. As the muscle starts to waste away on your arm, you start wondering what you’ll look like with one flaccid, scrawny arm, clawing upon itself. You wonder if you’ll be able to drive a car or ride a bike. What if you fall over on it? Would you be able to feel if you’d damaged it more? Will you be stuck looking after your arm like you would an insensate vegetative child?

How are you going to type? How are you going to do the work you’ve been doing for years? Within a few weeks I get my typing up to forty five words a minute one-handed. Everyone is very impressed, but what do they know? It’s half the speed I could type before. Am I going to be half as productive? My mother calls me and starts talking about assistive devices. Should I get a chording keyboard? It all feels like preparing for a life without a functioning arm. That’s not a view of the future that I’m capable of dealing with. I’m not able to think like that. It makes me angry that anyone would think that I should think like that. I will not think like that.

I find myself doing things in my home that I’d been meaning to do for years but never got around to, purely because doing them one-handed is borderline impossible. I refuse help from people. They mean well but they don’t understand. If I start taking people’s help now, then it’s accepting that I’m a broken person. It’s accepting that I’ll need some kind of assistance for the rest of my life. That I’ll always be dependent on other people. Fuck that. Fuck it so hard. I move every piece of furniture in my house. I rip up the carpet. I fold it up and drag it out into the shed. I’m swearing every step of the way. It’s a war between me and the carpet. It’s the most difficult thing I’ve ever done. It takes me four hours. At the end I’m victorious. I feel strong and angry and determined and relentless.

I don’t take a single day off work from the moment the fall happened. In retrospect this was one of the most stupid things I’ve ever done.

I wonder about sex. I wonder whether anyone would want to have sex with someone with a gimpy arm. I wonder whether or not I’d want to have sex with someone who wanted to have sex with someone with a gimpy arm. I try and imagine the mechanics. I visualize the look on their face as we go through the motions. I have fairly dark patches.

I go and see a neurologist who inserts long needles into my arms and asks me if I feel anything. He runs current through my body. He’s not impressed by the results. He tells me there’s a fifty percent chance of me getting something back, but that’s all. I leave composed and balanced. Sitting on a chair outside the surgery, I feel myself falling. I get a phone call from my boss. It’s the worst possible time and the poor man gets an earful of quite un-British set of emotion. I walk around for a bit. When I get back to the office, no one knows about my blip.

Months pass, and I start physiotherapy with two guys. One of whom is incredibly athletic and looks at me as if the arm is the least of my problems. Apparently working eighteen hour days and not getting any exercise is a bad thing. The other guy spends every minute manipulating my arm and asking about how to set up a tech start-up in San Francisco. I humour him. I wish he’d shut up.

I get an exciting new device that runs an electrical stimulus through my arm. When it’s on, every muscle clenches. All the muscles I can’t control. My fingers splay out like a maniac. It hurts a lot but it’s a pleasing kind of pain. It feels like I have some control over opening my fingers for the first time in months. I’m supposed to hold my arm out, trigger the device, watch my hand lift up and then turn off the device and try and keep my hand in the air. Every time I turn it off it flops down like a dead fish. Every time I’m a little more disappointed.

Friends are fascinated by this device. It gives them insight into how their bodies work; that you can route around the nervous system so easily. They sometimes want to try it on themselves. I’m eager to show them how it works. Partly that’s because I want them to understand the process, but there’s a part of me that also wants to hurt them for having working limbs. It’s not a feeling I’m proud of.

No one knows what to say, and I don’t know how to help them. After a while I start to wish they’d just pretend not to notice it. The following is the standard conversation that people had with me, borderline unedited:

“So what happened to your arm?”
“It doesn’t work”
“How did you do that?
“I fell over. I don’t really want to talk about it.”
“Oh well, I’m sure it’ll be better soon.”
“Well, actually, no. It’s paralysed and may never get better.”
“Are you right-handed?”
“Ha! Well at least you can still masturbate, amiright?”

I have this conversation fifty times or more. I start to want to hide from people rather than have the conversation. I can sense when it’s about to start and try and steer the discussion in a different direction. It never works. I start to avoid talking to new people because I know they’ll do it. Every new time I have to explain myself forces me to go through the whole process in my head again. Yes, that’s right. My arm doesn’t work. It may never work again. Yeah, it’s a big deal. Thanks so much for asking.

Other concerned people ask me questions and sound so upset by the answers that I find myself having to make them feel better.

After a while I find a new script to stop things spiraling out of my control – a better script, a script that scares people. A script that stops their homilies dead in their tracks.

“So what happened to your arm?”
“Horrific fisting accident.”
“I’m sorry. What?”
“Horrific fisting accident. I hurt myself fisting someone.”
“Holy shit.”
“This is nothing. You should see the other guy…”

That shuts them up.

Four months after I fell over, I started noticing that I could lift my left hand up a couple of millimeters. I didn’t want to get my hopes up – maybe I’d always been able to do that, but the swelling from the injury had just masked it. But then a week later, it was getting stronger. I could move it half an inch. And then stronger and stronger. A couple of months later, with regular physiotherapy, I had a fully functioning left arm again. It was weak, certainly and it took a long time before it felt the same as my right arm. And there are still moments where the joint hurts a bit. But every day throughout all of the healing, while working hard to make things better, I’d say to myself, “This is fine. If it never gets any better than this, I’ll still be grateful.”

Today it’s back to normal, and it’s so easy to forget how hard it was and how I felt during the process. During the time it happened, I never once wanted to go onto my blog and write up what was going on. It was too big, too hard, too upsetting. All it would be was spreading my black mood around the internet.

The first thing I learned when this happened to me was the difference between something that will heal and something that may not. People break their arms every day. They know it’ll get better. They’re in pain and sad and limited, but they’ll almost certainly get better. So they can take help, lean on their friends and family. Accept a short burst of incapacity, then get back to normal.

But if it might not heal—if it’s something that you could have to live with for forty or fifty or sixty years—then it’s very different. We don’t tend to think about disease or illness in that way. We have very few mental tools to help us understand that kind of shift of life-expectations – that deformation of your future. You may not get better. You may not heal. You may be like this forever. Are you going to be a burden to everyone around you? Are people going to treat you like a child or look at you with ‘profound sympathy’ until the day you drop dead? Are you always going to be unable to carry your own weight? Are you always going to rely on others?

People always say, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger…”, but I’ve come to ruefully add in my head every time I hear that, unless it maims you. Unless it maims you.

So I’ve got a newfound respect for all the people who have had these experiences. My experience was thankfully brief but I feel I have a little more understanding of what it means to fall over and feel that you have to get up, no matter what you have to leave behind in the process. No one wants to have their independence and sense of self diminished by some trivial and stupid accident. I now understand a little more the absolute determination of people who live with a condition that won’t go away – the guts it takes to get through fear and self-doubt and the need to demonstrate that you’re not a wasted person, a mutilation, a wreck. Looking that battle in the face, however briefly, made me admire people who fight through it every day all the more. They don’t need our sympathy. They need our admiration and our respect. My arm healed. I was lucky. Many other people are not.

I have no moral from this story. I wish I could say it changed my life dramatically, or that I brought something back from the abyss that I can share and we can all learn from. But really, all I have is that you should appreciate what you’ve got. Very few people whose bodies get broken were injured rescuing children from ships or fighting against dangerous psychopaths. Most accidents are in the home or in a car, doing something normal and stupid. Falling from a ladder. Tripping on a curb. Trivial, embarrassing things. And they can happen at any time. There’s little you can do to avoid all risk in life, and it would be a pretty dull life if you did. So just be careful. Be decent. Be nice to each other. Because it could happen to you.

Update: I’ve received a number of comments from people about this piece who have said that it’s given them some extra perspective or helped them through tricky situations, and obviously that makes me feel quite good. However, I’ve also had a couple of people who have experienced much worse situations respond to it very badly indeed. Absolutely the last thing I would ever want would be to piss these people off – my goal, if anything, was to try and share with able-bodied people some small amount of the change in perspective I went through. Nonetheless, I’ve pissed them off, and I have to accept that. Rather than change my piece above, I’ve decided to link instead to this response: Alexander Williams on Google Plus. It’s far from flattering about me, but if you want a different perspective, there it is.


My last day at Yahoo!

After over four years, spread over several teams and two continents, today will be my last day at Yahoo!

It’s been a pretty extraordinary ride, all things considered. I came into the company at the same time as a whole bunch of extraordinary people, a number of whom I’ve had the honour of working with at some time or another. I’ve met a whole bunch of brilliant, new, amazing people through the company – far too many in fact to list with any degree of comprehensiveness.

I’ve moved halfway across the planet to San Francisco and made a new life for myself, delivered talks on multiple continents, worked on and launched projects and done work that I consider the very best of my career, some in public and much behind the scenes. I’ve got a green card. I’ve filed a few patents with some brilliant people. I’ve seen the absolute best of Yahoo! and a fair amount of its worst. I’ve had some amazing highs and some significant lows. And–with the exception of falling over last year and paralysing my left arm for six months, which I could have done without–I don’t regret a moment of it.

There really is too much to talk about, but there are a few projects in particular that stick in my memory – projects that I’m proud to have been a part of.

The Yahoo! Hack Day programme was started by Chad Dickerson in 2006. He’d started off running them internally – twenty-four hour periods where creative designers and engineers could build and show off new features, technologies and projects to their peers using Yahoo!’s technology. Towards the end of 2006 he’d decided to take it to the next level and put together an amazing Open Hack Day at the Sunnyvale Campus for the general public. The event was an amazing success, loads of people came and produced some amazing stuff. He even managed to get Beck to come and play for everyone.

So when Matt McAlister started talking to me about doing an event like it in London, it sounded like a great idea. And after talking to old colleagues at the BBC, it started to look like a joint event between the two organisations might be even better. But the event really started to come together when Matthew Cashmore from the BBC and Yahoo!’s Anil Patel and Elaine Pearce got involved. Matthew Cashmore really was a force of nature, pushing us continually think bigger and grander and the event genuinely would not have happened without him. He was extraordinary. In fact he’s the main reason, we ended up at Alexandra Palace

The Hack Day event, which some of you will remember was so awesome that it got struck by lightning represented everything I think is great about our industry – a collaborative, creative, imaginative, productive event, full of passionate, optimistic people. And it would never have happened without all the great volunteers from both Yahoo! and the BBC.

Another project that I think sums up some of these qualities was Brickhouse – a new product development arm that Caterina brought into being at Yahoo in 2007. I was brought over to the US to act as Head of Product for the team, and the following year was one of the most productive and creative of my life. There’s a truism that consolidating your creative work into ‘external innovation units’ is a bad idea, and I tend to agree with that. But Brickhouse wasn’t about consolidating innovation into one part of the company, it was about adding another string to the company’s bow – it was about supplementing the creative work going on around the rest of the company with small (sometimes tiny) groups of creative people developing and launching new ideas that simply wouldn’t get developed elsewhere.

Obviously, not everything about Brickhouse was perfect, but even if I look back just at the things we got out the door in that year, I remain proud of work that was never less than prescient and interesting. Among (much) other work in development, we launched innovative platforms for achievements online, services to open up live broadcast to anyone, open platforms for sharing your location – all ideas to this day I’m quite comfortable standing behind.

It would take too long to list everyone who worked at, passed through, or helped out projects at Brickhouse–and I’d be bound to forget someone in the process–so instead I’m just going to mention (again) what a pleasure it was to work with Salim Ismail, Chad Dickerson and Mike Folgner. I hope I get to work with all of them again at some point.

The last project I want to talk about is Fire Eagle. When I first joined Yahoo! in 2005, Simon Willison and I wrote a list of some areas we thought could be really fascinating to work on, and which could be a really huge deal over the coming years. We’d become really interested in location and had come to the conclusion that every website on the planet could be enhanced in some way if you could add some element of location.

We didn’t work on that idea immediately, but it stuck with us, and a couple of years later we started playing with it more seriously with Paul Hammond and a small team at Yahoo Research Berkeley (whose work had initially inspired us). One thing lead to another, we brought the project into Brickhouse and launched it late in 2008.

I’m incredibly proud of Fire Eagle. The idea was early, perhaps, but clearly in the right direction. We could see location on the near horizon as a really big idea and we could also see some of the problems and worries it might cause. We spent an incredible amount of time thinking about the privacy implications of users sharing their locations. Many other services see privacy as a problem and attempt to gloss over it for their users. We thought of it as an opportunity and made the privacy features the core part of the project. Users could choose where to share, how much to share, hide themselves and change or retract their permissions at any time. I think we progressed the state of the art in that area. Someone once referred to Fire Eagle as the Pixies of the latest batch of Location Services, and if that’s at all true, it may be the biggest compliment I’ve ever received.

But yet again, the most important thing for me with Fire Eagle was the people I got to work with. If I had to say one thing to those who wonder how to make their companies more creative, it would be to hire amazing people. Amazing people are so much more important than ideas, because amazing people are idea factories. And when you find teams of people who can generate good ideas, enjoy working together and are also experts in their craft–and your work is just to support them, help them focus and get problems out of their way–then honestly, you can’t fail.

So I want to personally thank Seth Fitzsimmons, Samantha Tripodi, Jeannie Yang, Chris Martin, Ben Ward, Kevin Ryan, Phil Pearson, Rabble, Arnab Nandi, Simon King, Mor Naaman, Ayman Shamma and everyone else who worked on Fire Eagle at any point in its life. I learned an enormous amount from all of you.

Over the last year, I’ve been working to take some of the ideas that lie behind Fire Eagle and apply them more widely across Yahoo! by looking after the company’s User Location platforms. There’s not a lot more I can say about that at the moment, but I’m sure that you’ll see some of the stuff we’ve been working on over the coming months and years.

So what’s next? Firstly I’m taking a bit of a break. I’m going to be spending the next couple of months relaxing and visiting my friends and family in the UK. I’m looking forward to the opportunity to digest the last few years a bit and maybe do a bit more writing. And I’m already talking to a few people about some interesting new projects for later in the year. If you want to be one of those people, then feel free to contact me at tom [at] plasticbag [dot] org. It’s an exciting time to be stepping out into the industry. Wish me luck!

[Apologies to anyone who is having trouble posting comments. I think a server upgrade a while ago broke some stuff. I’ll try and sort it out once I’ve slept for a couple of days.]


Some things I'd like to do…

My life has been a bit strange and a bit strained recently, as anyone who knows me will be able to testify. There are a lot of reasons that I haven’t really been keeping this site particularly up to date, brain strain and stress aren’t the only ones (and I’ll talk about the rest of them sometime soon), but they’re definitely among them. Anyway, with the sun out and various forms of progress and movement coursing through my head, I’m starting to feel some kind of end to the crapulence and am starting to stretch out in various directions trying to work out what I can do with all the great swathes of frustrated energy that I’ve previously been turning almost totally inwards on myself.

My latest scheme, as of this evening, is to try and start thinking about some things that I’d just really like to do that I actually could probably get done and which would be experientially rewarding. I’m not talking about going and killing a hobo or toppling government or anything, just things that I’ve maybe always thought might be quite interesting to do, but I’ve never motivated myself to get out of bed and actually do.

My list so far is pretty small, and doesn’t include things I’d like to buy (own home would be nice but never going to happen at this rate). So here we go. Some things I’d really quite like to do:

  • I’d like to go on a helicopter ride over London and take photos. In fact I’d like to go exploring a lot more and take a bunch of photos. I keep looking at my photos of Las Vegas and getting a sense of how fucking cool it was to see those things and how I’d like to see more super awesome things and crystalise them into pixels and keep them on the Internet forever. Feel the same way? Let me know!
  • I want to get a man-facial—perhaps here or here—because I’ve never had one and I think it would be bloody interesting and/or weird and also because if you look right close up at the big versions of my recent weird headshots all you can see are big blackheads the size of Kent and I don’t care if you think it’s because I’m gay, because it’s pathetic enough for straight men not to do things because people might think they’re gay. Worse still for those of us who actually are.
  • I want to go and see Spider-man 3 in the cinema on pretty much the day it comes out at the biggest bloody cinema that I can find with a whole bunch of the people I like most in the world. And I want popcorn. And I want a big vat of coke. And I don’t bloody care if it’s going to suck. And I don’t want people complaining that the cinema is crowded. And I want good seats in the middle, somewhere between row ten and row thirty.
  • I want to go to the Fat Duck and have the super ridiculous tasting menu. With nice people. And I want to dress up a bit.
  • I’d really like to learn how to Scuba-dive at some point too. And go to Burning Man. And PopTech. Also I want to go to the Far East, Egypt and the mud mosque of Djenne. But maybe that’s something for another time.

And while I’m on the subject, even though I said this wasn’t about buying things, I’d quite like to get this bicycle and potter around on it, even though apparently it’s a women’s bike and no man worth his salt would be seen on it. And I’d like to get this poster and frame it. And I’d like this case for my camera and finally own my own personal copy of Creative Suite 3. But maybe that’s another story for another day.


A quick apology to long-term readers…

Having to explore my weblog to try and scrabble together evidence of visits to the US over the last six years has really brought home to me exactly how quiet this site has been over the last six months to a year, and how I really need to do something about that. I don’t know that I can really go into the reasons for it in enormous detail – there’s a chunk of work-related stresses associated with doing Trans-Atlantic work massively distant from your employer, and another chunk of stresses relating to important life-decisions and the idea of moving halfway across the world. All I can really say at the moment is that I’m terribly sorry to any long-term reader who misses the good old days when I used to write interesting things about the industry. I miss them too and am doing my best to get myself into a position where I can start doing them again. This is not exactly where I expected myself to be…

Life Random

On jet-lag and my self-image…

I spent last week in the US, visiting the great purple mothership, hanging out with Flickr and MyBlogLog and the Bookmarks teams, watching Schulze and Webb do their talks in Sunnyvale and Adaptive Path and catching up with enormous tracts of wonderful people including Chad Dickerson, Cal Henderson, Simon Batistoni, Rebecca Blood, George Oates, Aaron Straup Cope and Heather Champ. And many others who also rocked. It was a good week that calmed many of my gut-wrenching horror nerves about the practicalities of moving to the US, which is now very much on the table and which I’m trying to work through my final neurotic issues about. More about that another time.

But now I’m back in the UK and I’ve been hit by the jet lag monster and I’m reminded again just how unpleasant an experience it is travelling this direction. When I get to the US everything is always shiny. I collapse in the middle of the evening and wake up stupidly early, but there’s something about being awake at three or four am that makes you feel super productive and creative. The work day is normally fine. I don’t flag too heavily until late afternoon, and then the day’s basically over. Being on that timescale makes me feel like those people you read about in magazines who are insanely productive and who you really hate because you know that you too could accomplish way way more if you could just get up a couple of hours earlier and spend that time profitably rather than foraging for day-old pizza and watching South Park.

In contrast, coming back from the US transitions you from feeling super early-riser productive into a situation where it’s three am and you can’t sleep and you lie there looking at the ceiling. And then your alarm rings and screams at you to get up but you hurl it across the room in rage and sob to yourself that you can’t possibly be expected to get out of bed and do something useful. And then you wander around the office feeling like you’re moving through a forest of duvets, always a little too warm – like your body has just decided that it’s asleep in defiance of all the evidence. And everything is woolly and your brain doesn’t work properly and nothing flows and it’s all completely infuriating. Travelling to the US makes me feel like a productive superhero. Travelling back makes me feel like a time-wasting slugabed. Astonishing how much impact your sleep state can have on your self-image.

Design Humour Life

On Space Art in Sebastopol…

This is so much fun. Where to start? Okay. So in September last year a few of us went to the O’Reilly FOO Camp. It’s an invitation-only event in Sebastopol in California where everyone’s expected to present what they’re thinking about or working on and where lots of fascinating conversations happen. It’s an honour to be invited and my favourite event of the year. I wrote about last year’s experience extensively with this post in particularMaps, Invaders, Robots & Throwiesbeing the most directly relevant to what I’m about to show you.

Anyway, one of the fun things that happened over the weekend was that Chris DiBona announced that Google were going to be doing a flyover of the campus and that we should take the opportunity to make some interesting art projects that would subsequently be visible from Google Maps and Google Earth. So we did.

The rumour is you’ll be able to see this in context on the sites and services concerned sometime in the middle of February, but Chris has been gracious enough to send me a Creative Commons-licensed snapshot of the entire campus showing both the project that Cal, Simon, Paul, Heathcote, Suw Charman, Biddulph and I put together (with help from lovely people like Jane), and the competing project that Chris and Jane masterminded themselves. So here they are. First off the Space Invaders that Cal, Biddulph, Simon, Paul, Heathcote, Suw, Jane and I put together:

And next up the Cylon raider created by Jane, Chris and their team:

You can see the whole photo here for the moment (be warned, it’s a couple of meg in size) and here below are some pictures of the building process as it happened. All photos are from Julian Bleecker’s FOO Camp set.


Good luck, Simon Willison!

The most important news of the day as far as I’m concerned is that it’s the last day of my little colleague Simon Willison‘s stint at Yahoo!, which means that our little inpromptu dysfunctional family that started with Simon and I locked in a room with each other a little over fourteen months ago, and which was extended by young Mr Hammond‘s arrival in March, is now back to two again. That Simon and I have managed to be pretty much solidly in each other’s company for over a year now without killing each other is probably a testament to how cool he can be. I have to confess that I will miss him terribly.

He’s going to be spending two days a week doing freelance work and public speaking and living in Oxford with his lovely girlfriend, so if you need anyone with an astonishing grasp of Python, Django, CSS, HTML, Javascript, Ajax, OpenID, Web APIs and about a thousand other things, then this is the time you should be contacting him and begging. There may be some form of drinks this evening. Contact Simon or maybe Norm (who I’ve decided to nominate for the job of organising said drinks) if you want to know more.

Generally, though, it’s a time of significant change, which is why I’ve not been writing much recently. It’s all a little overwhelming. More when I’ve got some perspective on it all.


To live in interesting times…

I just thought I should probably post something to say that I’m not dead, that instead I’ve just managed to hit tax season, tight deadlines, a few small speaking engagements in a row (more on those later) and one pretty terrifying life-changing decision all at the same time. More on all of these later, but at the moment it’s nose back to the grindstone.