Party time. Not.

Bill at Newspeak House in a mask, September 2020
There is a splinter of the metaverse in which a few hundred of you are thinking about what you’ll wear this evening as you head over to Newspeak House in Shoreditch to help me celebrate my sixtieth birthday (next Tue, October 6, according to Wikpedia).
It will be similar to the night we enjoyed two years ago, but bigger, taking over the whole building apart from the Fellows’ rooms with music and film and dancing and conversation and cuddles and shared spaces and a sense of being connected to the world.
It will resemble the party we had in June 1982 after graduation when we left 15 Brookside, organised by Daryl, with Chris and Mark and Judith and Julia and Katherine and about 200 other people, a disco in the basement, a barbecue in the garden and the house alive with the promise of our youthful enthusiasm. What little I recall indicates it was a night to remember…
That would have been tonight at Newspeak as my wonderful friends came together and I fell into their arms like a diva diving off a stage, hoping to be caught, that the fall will be broken.
Newspeak is a special place – I’m lucky to have visited a few times recently thanks to Ed’s consideration and care and Covid precautions – and I look forward to seeing it flourish again after these hard times like a tardigrade finding atmosphere after time in vacuum.
But here in what we laughingly call reality there’s no party.
A glass of wine with Katie on our narrowboat on the Cam.
A time to reflect as the earth heads inexorably towards the place in its orbit that marks the anniversary of my being untimely ripped from my mother’s womb at 11am on Thursday October 6 1960 in a maternity hospital in Newcastle. And while I’m at least 440bn km from where I was born, as the solar system moves 7.26 billion km a year around the galactic centre, and of course the whole galaxy is moving too, I acknowledge sidereal year as a unit of measurement and will henceforth tick the ’60 or over’ box on those forms I feel need a truthful answer.
So yes, I’m sixty. Make of it what you will because if I close my eyes then it’s this boy I see in the mirror
1981. First day of Part II Psychology

1981. First day of Part II Psychology

or maybe this one…

At a first year party.

At a first year party.

Juvet and me

Three years ago I woke up in a hotel in the beautiful Norwegian city of Ålesund, gathered my stuff and set off to meet my old friend Andy Budd and a disparate group of thinkers to drive across Norway to Valldal and the  Juvet Landscape Hotel, well known as one of the locations for Alex Garland’s film Ex Machina
It  was to be our home for the next three days to as we tried to figure out some of the  ethical issues raised by AI in an amazing setting, with the best food I’ve ever eaten. It was, as they say, transformative.
I was there with old friends like Dan Hon and Matt Webb, and met a whole group of fascinating people whose thoughts and insights have stayed with me.
Looking back, it’s clear that the three days in Juvet shifted my life. I was about to join BBC Research & Development having spent seven years working to build a model of a  digital public space in the archive development team and as part of the Make it Digital initiative. As a result of the conversations at Juvet I carved out a big chunk of my time to shape the BBC’s approach to AI and ML, and have been running our internal Machine Learning Ethical Design Working Group since.
I want to acknowledge that time, that place, and those people, in these complicated and dangerous days.  I  don’t know when such times will happen again, or how we will decide to live our lives after SARS-COV-2 and wildfires and extremism have burned through the our world. I re-read the Dark Mountain writings, I contemplate Dan Hill’s Slowdown papers, I try to reconcile my concerns about AI/ML with an understanding that the entire edifice that supports these advanced technologies  is fragile beyond our comprehension.
And I live in these two worlds simultaneously, caught between the grim meathook future and a techno-optimist world in which we shape the network for public good.
Hey ho. We persist.
Sitting on the troll bridge

Sitting on the troll bridge (pic James Gilyead)

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It was my sixtieth year to heaven


I’ll be sixty in a couple of weeks. And I always think of this poem as my birthday approaches.

Dylan Thomas started this poem in 1941 for his 27th birthday but it was published in 1944, so the opening line became ‘it was my thirtieth year to heaven’. Some things take a while. Thomas’ birthday is October 27. Mine is October 6 and this year I’ll be sixty

The poem is still in copyright so if the estate asks I’ll take it down, though had copyright terms not been extended from 50 to 70 years in 1996 – despite the fact that dead people can’t be encouraged to write new stuff by giving them more control over their work – it would have been out of copyright in 2003.   So here it is:





Dylan Thomas


        It was my thirtieth year to heaven
     Woke to my hearing from harbour and neighbour wood
        And the mussel pooled and the heron
                Priested shore
           The morning beckon
     With water praying and call of seagull and rook
     And the knock of sailing boats on the webbed wall
           Myself to set foot
                That second
        In the still sleeping town and set forth.

        My birthday began with the water-
     Birds and the birds of the winged trees flying my name
        Above the farms and the white horses
                And I rose
            In a rainy autumn
     And walked abroad in shower of all my days
     High tide and the heron dived when I took the road
            Over the border
                And the gates
        Of the town closed as the town awoke.

        A springful of larks in a rolling
     Cloud and the roadside bushes brimming with whistling
        Blackbirds and the sun of October
            On the hill's shoulder,
     Here were fond climates and sweet singers suddenly
     Come in the morning where I wandered and listened
            To the rain wringing
                Wind blow cold
        In the wood faraway under me.

        Pale rain over the dwindling harbour
     And over the sea wet church the size of a snail
        With its horns through mist and the castle
                Brown as owls
             But all the gardens
     Of spring and summer were blooming in the tall tales
     Beyond the border and under the lark full cloud.
             There could I marvel
                My birthday
        Away but the weather turned around.

        It turned away from the blithe country
     And down the other air and the blue altered sky
        Streamed again a wonder of summer
                With apples
             Pears and red currants
     And I saw in the turning so clearly a child's
     Forgotten mornings when he walked with his mother
             Through the parables
                Of sunlight
        And the legends of the green chapels

        And the twice told fields of infancy
     That his tears burned my cheeks and his heart moved in mine.
        These were the woods the river and the sea
                Where a boy
             In the listening
     Summertime of the dead whispered the truth of his joy
     To the trees and the stones and the fish in the tide.
             And the mystery
                Sang alive
        Still in the water and singing birds.

        And there could I marvel my birthday
     Away but the weather turned around. And the true
        Joy of the long dead child sang burning
                In the sun.
             It was my thirtieth
        Year to heaven stood there then in the summer noon
        Though the town below lay leaved with October blood.
             O may my heart's truth
                Still be sung
        On this high hill in a year's turning.

And I too hope my heart’s truth will still be sung in a year’s turning.

And here’s something as old as me…

June 29 – #AudioMo – The Ways We Talk


For the penulimate day of #AudioMo, June 29, I’m thinking about how language shapes thought, and how the words we use and the metaphors we choose can affect the ways we engage with others, especially when it comes to military metaphors.