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I'm a writer. I write about life with bipolar disorder - also known as manic depression - so my eponymous alter ego is MaNic Grant.

I've written more than 1 million words: it's the world's longest suicide note.

twitter.com/ManicGrant

nick@manicgrant.com

facebook.com/manicgrant

 

New Website

3 min read

This is a story about dusting off the keyboard...

Dusty keyboard

If you are reading this then something fairly major has been achieved - I've managed to migrate 1.1 million words and 10,000 photographs from one one part of the internet to another. For anybody who uses Wordpress or Blogger dot com or some other type thingy, you might not find that very impressive, because your website is hosted by some mega-corporation and all the technical complexity is hidden away from you, but my website uses a piece of software written by some old school-friends - it's a startup - and it's now hosted by little old me, typing undecipherable commands in green text on a black screen, in scenes reminiscent of The Matrix.

I made a commitment about 4 years ago to use my friend's new startup as my home on the internet, and it still my home to this day: his startup powers my website, but it's now me who's responsible for "keeping the lights on". My friend kindly used his time and money to keep me running, but I always felt guilty about it, especially as my site has grown and grown in size.

"The cloud" is a bit of nebulous concept. Basically "the cloud" just means "other people's computers". My website is hosted in "the cloud" which means that if the power fails at my house, or somebody breaks in and steals all my computers, then my website doesn't go offline - security and uninterrupted power are somebody else's problem.

Your eyes are probably well and truly glazed over by this point, but it's a big deal - I did some stuff which I usually get paid to do, which I'd really rather not have been doing in my spare time, unpaid, and now I have the ongoing responsibility of maintaining my own little bit of "the cloud".

There's a great fear that I might have lost something precious during my migration from my friend's hosting to my own hosting. It certainly wasn't a straightforward procedure. Everything appears to be working OK, but given that it's just me myself and I, it's hard for me to do much testing - I'm relying on regular readers to report anything that's not working.

You might notice that my site is now "secure" - complete with a little padlock up in the browser bar. All this means is that if ever you were commenting on one of my blog posts, the data that's being sent would be encrypted, which is useless given that your comments would appear publicly anyway, but people like to see "secure" sites, even if they don't store any personal data. It feels a bit more professional that I've properly "secured" my site with encryption.

So, this is the new old. Everything should look pretty much identical. If it's 100% identical, then I've done a great job and I'm really happy.

It's a strange thing, to have done lots of work "under the hood" but nothing that anybody can really see, but that's what I've done for a living for the past couple of decades, so I shan't bore you with the details... although I already have.

Bear with me if there are any teething problems and do drop me a line if you spot anything not working - I'd be really grateful, because you readers are my beta testers.

If you're reading this, then great!

 

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Brute Force

10 min read

This is a story about feeling vindictive...

Brute force

Several nights this week I've stayed up late. I am usually very strict with my bedtimes and routine, but when some major stressor triggers an episode of mania, I struggle to stop working on whatever particular thing has obsessed me, at any particular moment. I feel as though I have spare brain capacity with which to use for a whole range of projects, virtually simultaneously. I feel as though I'm close to making a breakthrough, and with just a little more effort, I will have achieved something great.

There is some truth to what I am saying, but there is also the thing that I didn't mention: What goes up must come down. You have to pay to play.

My attempts to automate the harvesting and analysis of data from Twitter has been reasonably successful. I have managed to extract and store a significant amount of useful information, which could be analysed. The achievement is no small one, considering that I had zero knowledge of any of the technologies involved, nor did I have approval to use Twitter's developer API, which I'd never seen before. Since Sunday, I have written code which can rummage through Twitter's data and find what I want, in order to then gain the insights I want. Obviously, I also got my code to Tweet "hello world" as well as send some messages to a group of special people. Not bad, considering I had to learn a whole bunch of stuff before I could actually start building stuff.

My attempts to stay in touch with a number of friends, and to also start letting friends know that they can [and should] come visit me in my new house, have been time consuming, but incredibly worthwhile, because I'm now in touch with lots of friends - old and new - and that makes me feel very loved and cared for, during a week following a break-up, when I might perhaps have been at risk of feeling somewhat isolated and lonely. Not bad, considering that only two friends have ever made the trip from England to Wales to see me, during the whole 17 months that I've lived here. That's a long time, especially considering how few friends I've managed to make locally. I live a very reclusive life, but not particularly through choice.

My attempts to impress my colleagues and make myself useful at work have been hit-and-miss. A sense of humour driven by mania is not well matched with an open-plan office full of fine upstanding members of the community who are very quiet and mild-mannered. I made a dreadful misjudgement, which caused some upset to a very senior person, but then something else I did was recognised as really valuable, so perhaps the good and the bad cancelled each other out. I still have a job, for now.

My attempts to write something interesting and entertaining - with my usual unflinching honesty - turned into manic rants, some of which were approaching 2,000 word impenetrable essays about nothing in particular. My 'excess' energy was ploughed into writing, but I can't say that I achieved much except for maintaining my daily writing habit, which is an achievement in and of itself, not to be dismissed lightly.

My attempts to prepare for moving house were particularly demanding. Mail redirection, changing the address for several bank accounts and other financial services, arranging broadband internet installation, ordering furniture to be delivered, arranging a van to transport my belongings, boxing up my stuff, signing contracts, paying various huge sums of money to various people and keeping my current rented place tidy so that new prospective tenants can be shown around, has been an arduous task. However, my ducks are almost all lined up.

Then, there were the very many things which I became briefly obsessed about, but were a complete waste of time and effort. I was inventing jokes about theoretical physics. I was making a playlist of all the 80s synth-inspired music that I like. I was writing long ranting Facebook posts about the anti-Semitism accusations flying within the Labour party, and about the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance's definition of anti-Semitism.

I was chatting with some people who are massive fans of my favourite musical artist - Fear of Tigers - and there was an album that they were trying to download, but they were having problems. Me, being 'a little bit technical' decided that I would take a look, and quickly discovered that the website is simply purporting to have content to Google's crawler bots, which is actually untrue - the content does not exist. Angered by this honeypot, which is designed to get unsuspecting and non-technical internet users to give their name, date of birth, email address and home address, it then tries to trick the user into doing a number of other things, all of which would result in some remuneration for the owner and operator of the honeypot - the "ultimate beneficial owner" to use the legal term.

Angered by the injustice of would-be music pirates being misled by this honeypot, I decided that it would not be unethical to probe this fraudulent website for any vulnerabilities. I quickly found a couple, which I have set about the task of attacking by brute-force, in order to sabotage the fraudulent site and troll whoever set it up. I had the theoretical knowledge of how I might go about this, but it felt suddenly very important to me to learn the skills of a highly-experienced and sought-after internet security engineer (known as a pen-tester - i.e. penetration tester) or perhaps one might argue, the skills of a white-hat hacker.

Given my propensity for never abandoning tasks until I feel I have completed them to my satisfaction, I would not be surprised if my current attempt to use the most common 13,000 passwords found on the internet to break into the target server, would escalate to a full-on distributed attack to exhaust ALL possible passwords until finally I 'crack the safe' and I can then set about my act of supposedly ethical sabotage.

It's rare that I pause and think "should I stop" and even when it seems very obvious that to continue further would be inadvisable and entirely pointless, I continue, for unknown reasons. It must be something about my personality and upbringing. I particularly relish problems which are generally declared as "so hard" that they're equated with being impossible, which is untrue. Some of the very hard things I've achieved have had surprisingly positive unanticipated consequences, such as giving my life new meaning, purpose, and skills that have later turned out to be incredibly valuable.

If you imagine a lonely isolated child who's been given a hugely complicated task - perhaps even no task at all - but has a huge number of tools at their disposal and lots of raw materials, by trial-and-error that child might create something... perhaps because of sheer boredom. As that trial-and-error learning technique becomes more innate, those tools and those materials start to become understood to that child, in a way that no teacher could teach. If you can self-direct your own learning and you have developed the attitude required to keep trying and failing, but carrying on regardless, then eventually you can start to finish projects that you started, no matter how hard they seemed when they were first conceived of.

What I'm doing could be considered a vindictive vendetta, based on the false premise that the person who set up this devious honeypot 'deserves' to have a person like me vandalise it, because it's become an absurd crusade. Not a moral crusade, but a crusade against the technology that's been put in place to stop mindless vandals from doing what I'm attempting to do: To crack the security that's there to prevent total anarchy on the internet, where somebody with a grudge could cause damage to whatever they wanted, very easily.

What I'm doing is not easy. It's hard. That's more the reason why I'm doing it than any other reason, even though that reason doesn't make sense.

It was hard to get where I am, so it makes no sense to stop doing hard things. In fact, when I'm stressed I actively seek hard problems, which is why I'm always drawn back to things like theoretical physics when I'm suffering from stress-induced mania.

It seems unlikely that my knowledge of theoretical physics will ever be of any use in my everyday life, but a lot of the side projects I've busied myself in this week have very real tangible benefits, although I suppose I could technically find myself being extradited to the United States to face charges of computer trespass or some other vague and nebulous bit of US law that I've fallen afoul of, depending on whose parade I'm pissing on and how far they're prepared to to to get me back.

One thing I would advise you though: Don't get on the wrong side of the geeks, because they're the ones who look after that folder of photos you sent to your lover, which you think is well-protected. The geeks are the ones who look after all those messages you send to the person you're having an affair with. The geeks are the ones who know the most about the dark side of human nature, because the geeks suddenly got put in charge of keeping everyone's secrets. When people think they're doing stuff in private, they act very differently. When people think they're protected they do things they'd never dream of doing without the protection they assume that they have.

I like to think I'm a good person, but I'm also an unusual person. Sometimes I do stuff just to see if I can do it. Sometimes, I take things too far, but I find it hard to stop because I'm a completer-finisher, and sometimes I have to dismantle a huge complex piece of apparatus, to satisfy a mere curiosity, when in actual fact I'm terrifying the hell out of a whole bunch of people who like to believe that their barriers are impregnable. It's disturbing for society to have its incorrect notions of concepts like privacy and secrecy, openly challenged.

We feel safe, searching for whatever we want via Google. We click "private browsing" buttons that give us an extra sense of reassurance that we are entering a "safe space" where we are completely anonymous, and our privacy and secrecy is guaranteed.

Whatever contact you and your personal data have had with digital devices, you can assume that it's as good as public knowledge, I'm afraid. If somebody is determined enough, they will walk right through every barrier that supposedly exists to protect you and your privacy. If somebody is determined enough, your secrets will be known, if you've been so foolish as to let them leave your brain.

Be warned.

 

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Why I'm Building NickBot™

8 min read

This is a story about projects...

Nick Grant

I work with a whole bunch of people who will automate anything you can possibly imagine - they're obsessed with automation. I suppose I'm an unusual engineer in the sense that I don't share the enthusiasm my colleagues have for robotic, repetitive, automated processes. If I do something just once I'm often satisfied, so I start looking for the next new and novel experience. I suppose that's why my skills are always in demand: Because most engineers want to build something that they think is going to last forever, but in reality there are always unforeseen problems. I take particular pleasure from diagnosing and fixing the gremlins that were never supposed to exist, making software scale up in ways it was never designed to do, and doing the dirty work of keeping the lights on.

How I came to be working as a software engineer and how I came to be a writer, has nothing to do with the pursuit of a childhood dream. I was simply inspired by a schoolfriend. Whatever he was interested in - which was writing, journalism and computing - was something that I became interested in.

It seemed obvious to put my programming skills to good use, once I'd found a problem that I wanted to solve: How do we let people who feel worthless and suicidal know that we care that they're still alive? It seemed like technology could easily solve this problem.

I built something.

It was just software. There was a Facebook page and a Twitter account, and behind it was a little piece of software.

It worked.

But, nobody really cared.

People build cool apps every day. In fact there are thousands of new apps being released every day. When I started building iPhone apps in 2008, there were just a handful of new apps every day, and everybody with an iPhone could check out the new apps to see if there were any good ones. Now, there are not enough hours in the day to download and try out all the apps that are released. We are completely overwhelmed with a deluge of new apps and websites that spring up every single day.

So, I decided to build something that very few people could build: A project so ambitious and substantial, that nobody except an eccentric rich fool would embark upon, because it was nothing but a folly. I decided to write.

People write every day. There are millions of people who call themselves writers. Some of them will actually publish. There is vastly too much published each day, to be able to read it all: It's the same overwhelming deluge problem, faced by anybody hoping that their new app will get noticed, in a crowded market.

However, the combination of vast amounts of experience, with an enormous variety of different technologies, plus the hard work of having written and published a substantial body of text, could provide a reasonable launchpad for something.

It takes next to zero effort to set up a Facebook page or a Twitter account. Thinking of a name, choosing a profile picture, writing a short bio... all those things are easy.

Building a following is something that's fairly easy to do, but is not quick to do. You have to offer something that people want, and you have to keep giving people what they want, so they keep coming back, until you reach the point where growth becomes organic; viral.

So, writing every day is the bait; the lure. You'll see it all the time - suddenly your favourite funny meme page, cartoon strip, inspirational quote tweeter or Instagram influencer is trying to sell you something. It's the old bait-and-switch trick. Sometimes you follow artists, but artists need to eat. You might be offended that they try to sell you a T-shirt, a mug, a book or some other branded merchandise, but how the hell do you expect them to pay their rent?

So, that leaves me.

I've kinda got the time and money - as well as the skills - to take on a ridiculous project that has no profit potential: Build a folly.

But what is this folly?

Perhaps it's already built, for me, at least. I tried to kill myself but strangers from the internet saved my life. When I was about to go bankrupt, a stranger from the internet lent me money. When I was about to become homeless, a stranger from the internet offered me shelter. Lucky me.

I can't tell you to follow the same path that I did, if you're in trouble, because that would be recklessly irresponsible. I nearly died so many times. I could so easily have ended up penniless and sleeping rough.

I need to do something I hate doing: automating stuff.

It seems like a nice problem to have, to have gathered a group of people who have enough empathy and compassion to go out of their way to save another person's life, but I also know that I ended up in the situation where I was totally alone in a strange city, and I tried to kill myself. I've had enough brushes with death to know that those people we sorta-used-to-care-about can drift away and become I-wonder-what-ever-happened-to people. In fact, it's an inescapable inevitable part of persistent depression leading to suicide, that the people whose lives are at risk, will withdraw from actively staying in contact with their support network.

After a while, we get tired of tagging our friends in the Facebook comments section of things which remind us of a certain person. After a while, we get tired of sending messages that go unanswered. After a while, we get tired of 'liking' their stuff, but seemingly getting nothing back. All the attention dries up very quickly, when we go quiet and disappear into the darkness.

What I want to build is something that accumulates the longer somebody has retreated inwards, cutting themselves off from the world. What I want is to build something that focusses the attention and reminds those-who-used-to-care that there's somebody slipping away. What I want to build is something that aggregates all those people who care into a miniature ad-hoc crisis support group.

Am I explaining this well enough?

When I was in a coma on a ventilator, in a hospital intensive care ward, I had no idea that I was being discussed. I had no idea that people from all over the world had been in communication with each other, trying to find out if I was OK. Friends, old and new, learned of my predicament and they tried to find out what they could: Where was I? Was I OK? Was I alive? What happened?

However, I had a very poor prognosis. My chances of survival were 30 or 40% according to the medical team who saved my life, when I spoke to them afterwards.

It occurred to me that technology and automation could do a lot of the "heavy lifting" of figuring out who's drifting away, allowing us to respond and bring the people we care about back into safety and security, away from the dark place and the death.

Prevention is better than cure.

Suicide prevention is better done before somebody is suicidal, in my opinion, from my personal experience.

It's very hard to answer that "I wonder what happened to..." question for everybody we've ever cared about, because in the modern world we tend to travel further and move more often, in order to study, work, find love and find a place that suits us in an individualistic society, where traditional families and communities have almost ceased to exist.

The answer to the problem is to use technology to sift through the noise and find the really important pieces of information, while that information is pertinent.

It's no use finding out that somebody was horribly depressed, while at their funeral.

We have busy lives, and if I build anything, it should make our lives easier, not be another nagging, pestering and irritating thing, like spambots, chain emails and invitations to play Farmville on Facebook.

I am blessed with, what amounts to the time and the money to work on the project, as well as the people I need, insofar as I'm already well remunerated for work which I find very little effort. It will be a pleasure to work on something which I feel like the world needs, although I appreciate that sounds horribly arrogant and conceited. I apologise for the worthiness which accidentally spills from my mouth, when I speak on this topic.

Anyway, consider this a declaration of intent. My first fumbling stab at a plan. Some doodles on a napkin, so to speak.

Please write and tell me what you think of the idea.

Thanks,

Nick

 

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Open Source, Open Data

6 min read

This is a story about hacking...

PuTTY

How do we reconcile the concept of privacy, and our supposed desire for it, with the moden practice of sharing images of ourselves and our loved ones and publishing intimate pieces of information about ourselves and our identities, so publicly on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook?

Some people choose to maintain several versions of themselves. They have decided how they wish to present themselves - digitally - for different audiences, and they presume that the computer systems they use have sufficient privacy safeguards so that those worlds will never collide. Incredible trust is placed in those who build those computer systems and guard that data.

Those of us who are living double lives, or perhaps even triple, quadruple, quintuple or more lives, must have a shape-shifting and highly demanding existence as they constantly context-switch between their different identities.

How do they remember the different lies they've told to different people? Which parts of their life are common to all their identities, and which parts belong only to one distinct segment? How must it affect these people - psychologically - to maintain so many alter-egos, avatars and characters that they have created, which add up to a life with extra pieces left over if they were all combined into a single identity? Which are the pieces that don't fit? Which bits would that person have to give up if they were forced to unify themselves into a singular entity?

I can speak only for myself.

At work my identity is an open secret. Any of my colleagues can quickly and easily find this website, which contains every bit of information that most people would consider worthwhile keeping private. We generally don't want our colleagues at the office knowing about the less flattering things which have happened to us in our lives. We generally seek to avoid the prejudice which is still prevalent in a society where we live with the mistaken belief that our data is held safe and secure in computer systems, and the foolish notion that secrecy is assured.

Secrecy is not assured. Quite the opposite.

My knowledge of the limits of what is possible with a computer system, in terms of keeping data safe, comes from the place which society would deem most important: the bank vaults where all our money is kept. Capitalism's biggest fear is that a hacker could penetrate the inner sanctum of the banking sector and annul all our debts. The banks quite literally have all the money in the world to keep that money 'safe' which means they have manyfold more resources than any would-be bank robbers or philanthropic debt-erasers, keeping everybody out of their vaults.

I often wonder if my stance is due to the fact that the man who has nothing, has nothing to lose.

However, the origin of my exhaustive efforts to document the most private details of my life, came from when I had a lot to lose. In fact, the fear of loss is what nearly drove me insane. I realised that the threat of the dreaded event - losing my money and damaging my reputation - was sufficient to create a great deal of paranoia, which was impossible to control because of the insatiable appetite of people around me for the gory details of my private life. I became a human interest story and the only solution I could see was to take control of the story by writing it myself.

Writing a little bit isn't going to help.

Writing your version of events isn't going to help.

Writing the story of your life isn't going to help.

I decided that the only way that I was going to regain my sanity and my dignity was by making myself into a publicly accessible resource. I have emptied the contents of my brain into the public domain, but this is an ongoing process. Unfortunately, I can't just upload everything in my head to the cloud. I have to type it. Even if I typed until the day I die, there will still be things that die trapped inside my head, but at least I tried.

The more I have gone along with this journey of emptying out my head onto the pages of a public document, the more I have seen the benefit of doing so. The more honest and open I have been, the more candid and frank, the more comfort I have felt knowing that the greatest amount of data generated which pertains to me and my life, has come from my brain via my keyboard.

Before I started to write this blog, the bulk of my private intimate personal data was held by private companies and government institutions, who knew where I spent my money, where I travelled, who I spoke to, what I went to the doctor about, what medications I took, what my credit score was, where I had lived and where I was living and an enormous amount of other things too, such as how frequently I visited websites, what kinds of things I looked at on the internet and just about every single word of communication ever exchanged between me and another human being.

This sounds like paranoia. This sounds like insanity.

All I know is that I'm glad that I live a single life with a single identity and I've made myself publicly accessible. I'm glad I've published all my so-called secrets. I'm glad I've put my unflattering side into the public domain. I'm glad that those who would like to quickly and harshly judge me, so that I could be easily dismissed and cast aside, have a repository of all the dirt they'd ever possibly want to find, if only they weren't so lazy and stupid as to not bother to think to look in the most obvious place for it.

I enjoy living my life in plain sight. I enjoy having open secrets. It gives me pleasure and a sense of security.

I'm in the process of migrating my website and all my 1.1 million words to a new home, which will hopefully be a seamless transition for my readers - I've decided to utilise my technology skills to cement my digital legacy. I hope that I can move what I've written to a place where it can be easily migrated to newer technology platforms as and when they emerge, much like old cine films were transferred to VHS tapes and then transferred to DVD discs, to preserve those memories for posterity.

It might seem horribly arrogant and conceited to think that anybody gives a damn about what I've written, and that my writing should be preserved, but there it is: The modern age, where we take photographs of our food and share them with the other 7.6 billion people on this planet via the internet.

I've found the internet to be a place of friendship and connection, and of people who do care about what I write, so it's with little embarrassment that I admit to my efforts to preserve my own legacy.

 

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Training Artificial Intelligence

12 min read

This is a story about computer brains...

Screens

Let us imagine that I want to set my computer a simple task: I want it to point to the end of my nose. My computer doesn't know what a face is, what a nose is, or even that it can and should point to a certain part of my anatomy. I could write a program which tells my dumb computer exactly what to do - how to divine the position of my nose from an image, and then the relatively straightforward job of then asking the computer for the co-ordinates of the end of my nose, once the nose has been located. I could also use artificial intelligence, and more importantly machine learning.

Why does milk taste sweet?

You might not think of yourself as having a very sweet tooth, but in fact you used to have an insatiable appetite for sweet things. Your body is programmed to seek the wet, fatty, sweet goodness of milk, which provides the perfect sustenance for your growing brain and body. The reward circuitry is self-reinforcing and gives you a hit of dopamine every time you suck on the tit and get a mouthful of your mother's milk, which causes the neural pathways in your brain to become stronger, while others are pruned away. Eventually, you become hard-wired to stuff fat and sugar into your mouth, when to begin with you had only the reward part.

That's machine learning.

We need to give our machine - our computer - a reward. Let's say that for a high-resolution digital photograph of perhaps 8 megapixels, assuming that most of the photos we give the computer will have the nose tip somewhere around the middle, the worst possible guess would be somewhere near the edges. We can set up a super simple reward for our artificial intelligence, giving it a hit of computer dopamine every time it guesses a point somewhere in the middle of the photo.

Obviously this is very flawed.

Very quickly, our artificial computer brain will learn to make guesses in the middle. Even though our computer doesn't know what "middle" is, it will quickly become hard-wired to guess in the middle of the photos we show it, because that's how we set up our reward system.

The guesses are not close to the tip of the nose, but they're a lot closer than if we just let the computer guess completely at random.

We need to refine our reward system.

So, we take a library of thousands and thousands of photos of people's faces, then we record the location of the tip of the nose by manually clicking on the tip of the nose ourselves. We create a huge database full of the correct locations of nose tips, created by humans.

Then, we set up the reward system to reward guesses which are close to the correct location of the nose tip. The closer the guess, the bigger the reward.

Now, we train our computer system with the big database of photos and nose tip locations. Every time the computer guesses, it gets a reward based on how close the guess was. We can run the training millions and millions of times. We keep doing the training until the computer gets really really good at guessing the location of the nose tip.

Remember, the computer has no idea what a face is, and it has no idea what it's really doing. Nobody wrote a program instructing the computer how to do anything. The truth is, nobody really knows how exactly the computer is getting better and better at figuring out where the nose tip is. Nobody could predict how the computer brain is going to wire itself up. The computer sees all those thousands and thousands of photos, which are all very different in immeasurable ways, and somehow it begins to make associations between what it 'sees' and how it should intelligently guess the location of the nose tip.

That's a neural network.

The really interesting thing that happens next, is that we show the computer a photo of a face it hasn't seen before, and it's able to guess where the nose tip is. We use the same artificial intelligence with a brand new face which the computer hasn't been trained to locate the nose tip of, and it's still able to figure it out, because the neural network has hard-wired itself to be really good at fulfilling the rewarding task of pointing to nose tips.

There's nothing particularly amazing or hard to understand about machine learning and artificial intelligence. We're simply training our computer slaves to do simple tasks, by setting a quantifiably measurable reward system, so that the neural network can practice for long enough to get good.

The predictive text suggestions on your phone come from machine learning, which has seen vast quantities of stuff written by people, such that it's fairly easy to guess the word that's likely to follow, based on what you've just written.

So, what about training a computer to be more human and be able to have a conversation? How are we ever going to pass the Turing test and trick somebody into thinking they're talking to a real person?

We need to come up with a way to train artificial intelligence to speak just like a person.

Every time you use a text-messaging service to have a conversation, that data is harvested and analysed. Quintillions of messages are sent between people every year, and all that data can be fed into a machine learning system to train it to come up with typical responses to things people say. Google Mail makes absolutely brilliant "canned response" suggestions, which are usually totally appropriate for the context, because Google has seen quadrillions of banal emails saying little more than "thanks and kind regards". Google employees don't read your emails because they don't have to - a machine does it and it effervesces the very essence of your exchange, such that it knows whether you should reply "love you too" or "see you in the office tomorrow".

It's of no particular use - beyond the present applications - to have so much aggregated data, unless we want to have a very bland, homogenous and unsatisfying experience of life. We we slavishly obey the conclusions of vast pools of data which have been analysed, we'll end up in some sort of dystopian nightmare where are life outcomes are decided at birth, using available data, and reality will become like a piece of text composed by the predictive suggestions your phone came up with.

As an example, I'm going to generate a random number between 1 and 437, which corresponds to the page number of the novel I'm reading at the moment, then I'm going to generate another random number between 1 and 50 and use that word as the 'seed' for the predictive text feature on my fancy brand new iPhone Xs.

Let's go...

Ok... page 35 has been randomly selected.

And... word 17 has been randomly selected.

The 17th word on page 35 of my novel was "of".

OF COURSE IT WAS "of".

Chances are, it was going to be "a", "an", "of", "the", "is", "as", "to" and any one of a zillion different super common words. Let's use the word "sycamore" because it was on page 35.

Here's what my phone just generated:

"Sycamore is a good one and I have had to go back and I get the feeling of being able and then they are taught to work and they have had to do it a little while I’m not gonna was a very long and I have a very good relationship"

Clearly, machine-generated text leaves a lot to be desired.

Critically though, do we really want a single machine mind which can spit out decent text, or do we actually want personalities? Do we want a single generic face which is composed of the average set of features from all 7.6 billion people on the planet, or do we want variation?

Thus, we arrive at the conclusion that we should all be training an artificially intelligent system capable of machine learning, to be just like us, as an individual. It's no use that Google harvests all our data, because it aggregates it all together. It's no use that all the messages you've typed on apps from Apple, Facebook and Google, all the emails you've written and all the documents you've created, are absolutely fucking useless because they contain very little of your personality. Most of the messages you wrote were about food, sex, your children and your pets. Most of the emails you wrote were about the bullshit made-up numbers you type into spreadsheets all day long, which you call your "job". None of it is any use to train an artificially intelligent system to think and act like you.

I haven't figured out the reward system yet, but I'm building up a huge database of stuff I've thought. This stream-of-consciousness seems like utter madness, but I've very deliberately expressed myself in a certain manner: pouring my inner monologue out onto the page. It's ridiculous egotism and something which lots of writers have fallen foul of over the centuries, believing they're immortalising themselves with their words, but we are in an unprecedented era of exponentially growing computer power, yet most of our efforts are diverted into meaningless exchanges which expose very little of the interior of our minds.

173 years ago, Henry David Thoreau built himself a cabin in the woods, lived alone with his thoughts and wrote perhaps 2 million words in the journal he kept for 24 years. It's highly unlikely that his handwritten text will ever be digitised because of the incredible effort involved. By contrast, my 1.1 million words have been extensively search indexed by Google and other search engines, and my digital legacy is conveniently stored in 'the cloud' with perfect fidelity. While most people have been wasting the gifts of the information age by asking their partner if they need to buy bread and milk, I've been gaining what can only be described as a head start in the race to be immortalised by advances in machine learning and artificial intelligence.

How the hell did you think they were going to get the contents out of your brain and into another [artificial] one? Did you think it was going to require no effort at all on your part? Did you think that somebody was going to invent some kind of data-transfer cable?

Yes, it's horribly arrogant to think that anybody would have any interest in spinning up a digital version of me, but you remember that bullied kid at school who everybody hated and ostracised? You remember that you called that kid "nerd" and "geek" and generally abused them because they were good at maths and physics? You remember how you made it your mission in life to make their life as thoroughly miserable as possible?

They're your boss now. They're rich and you're poor.

Those geeks and nerds are suddenly on top of the pile.

You thought you were top dog when you were a kid, but now you're getting left for dust. You're being left to fester in your own filth. You're the underclass.

All of those skills you developed in bullying and abuse quickly became redundant, when all that geek stuff became highly lucrative.

Those late-gained skills of using Facebook groups to share your vile bigotry amongst your fellow thick-skulled dunderheads, has done nothing except line the pockets of the geeks. The geeks have been using the internet for decades to discuss the creation of a better world, where the knuckle-dragging primitives who thought they owned the playground, have somehow been left unaccounted for by 'accident'.

I'm not a big fan of the social exclusion and elitism which is emerging at the moment, but I'm damned if I'm going to stop keeping my technology skills up to date and investing my time and energy in my digital persona. Having put up with a lifetime's worth of bullying during my childhood, I'll be damned if I'm gonna meekly shuffle off into a quiet corner now. I'm sorry that you weren't paying attention when the world went digital and now it's super hard for you to catch up, but that's what happens when you're too busy making vulnerable people's lives a misery, to notice that you're wasting valuable time.

Every word I write is harvested by thousands of computers which comprise part of 'the cloud' and although billions of webpages are lost every single day, content is king and my 1.1 million words can be easily copied from one place to another, unlike the contents of your brain.

This might be a core dump of the contents of my mind, hurriedly written down in a state of kernel panic but it's taken a huge investment of time and effort, which unfortunately has always been required to achieve anything. Without the large databases manually created by humans, the machines would have no datasets to learn from and artificial intelligence wouldn't even be a thing.

 

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Lies, Damn Lies and Statistics on #WorldMentalHealthDay

7 min read

This is a story about data science...

Non bank threats

What the hell is big data anyway? Well, some companies - particularly well-known dot coms - have amassed huge data sets capturing the online behaviour of their millions of users: particularly the journeys those users took to discover products, discover and view media - and to see advertising of course - before eventually making purchases. If you like that, you'll love this.

Did you ever think that Google is kinda clairvoyant in being able to predict the question you're asking it before you even finished typing it - its suggested searches are almost always on the money. That's because Google has such a ridiculously huge dataset, while the range of dumb questions asked by idiots is quite narrow, such that Google 'knows' what you're asking it before you even finished typing "where do babie...?". Yes. So many other people asked that very same question before you.

With big datasets, there comes the temptation to believe that we can predict a person's future. If we see a high degree of correlation between rates of absenteeism at school and exam grades in our data, it might be tempting to assume that high absentee rates are a good predictor of poor exam grades. However, correlation is not causation, and it's entering dangerous territory to attempt to predit future outcomes, just because there are statistically significant findings in our historical data.

The financial services industry is particularly interested in your past behaviour as a debtor, as a predictor of your future likelihood of reliably making your loan repayments. Your credit score is - in essence - a number which tells loan sharks how much of a compliant and obedient slave you are.

You will spend the most healthy, energetic and productive years of your life, making student loan repayments, mortgage payments, car loan repayments, overdraft payments, credit card payments, store card payments, loan payments and other regular instalments, payable in return for the privilege of being alive. Try living your life without a mobile phone and some sort of internet connection for a few months, and you'll soon see that there's a high price to be paid for the oxygen you breathe.

The burden of debt is not trivial.

Debt is natural to us, whereas altruism is not. Every act of apparent altruism can be unmasked as a selfish act, when analysed using statistical methods across large datasets. Unfortunately, your momma's so-called unconditional love for children and your daddy's obsession with sex, are two sides of the same coin. Your poppa wanted to shoot his love snot and your dear mother wanted to receive it, with the genes of both individuals aiming for a pregnancy - neither asexual partner can claim that they were intent on giving the so-called "gift" of life. Your parents were simply obeying the will of their genes, in much the same way that any mould, slime, bacteria, worms, fleas etc. will multiply with impunity, given favourable environmental conditions. Sex is sold, not given freely.

We often think life conforms to some kind of natural order and mistakenly hold the belief that there is stability and equilibrium in the world, when in fact the very polar opposite is true: the world is an erratic and unpredictable place, with evidence of continuous events considered cataclysmically catastrophic for whole species, with or without human intervention. We are prone to succumb to the gullible belief in the divine right of kings, and law & order, such that the majority of us meekly comply with the oppression of the many by the few and our general exploitation. There is nothing natural at all about a handful of individuals tyrannising and enslaving so many.

The so-called miracle of the information age - often called the fourth industrial revolution - can perhaps be unmasked as nothing more than a fancy way to tell you what other products you might like to buy after making a purchase. It's unquestionably true that Amazon will make a very accurate prediction of something else you'd like to squander your dollars on, but to suggest that this advances the human condition in a positive direction is demonstrably ridiculous and downright wrong.

I can't really imagine a worse time to be alive.

While the threat of death from diahorrea or a bacterial infection - arising from the tiniest of skin punctures - has receded dramatically, we must be mindful that the single biggest cause of death amongst people like myself, is not road traffic accidents, drug overdoses, cancer, or any disease. Suicide. Suicide is the biggest killer of men like me. Suicide is preventable. What kind of advanced society are we living with, when the thing which kills most of its biggest economic contributors, is 100% preventable? Does that sound like an advanced society to you; a paradise?

Fundamentally, you've been reduced to a handful of numbers from the very moment you were ejected from your mother's womb, and your destiny was foretold.

Birth weight is the number one best predictor of your life outcome. Hands down. No argument.

Second, household income.

Right there, before you even got to suck on your mother's titty, are two things which have absolutely nothing to do with you or your life choices, or even your unique DNA. You could have the greatest genes given to a baby in the history of humanity, but because you were underweight and born into a poor family, you're destined to be used, abused, forgotten and discarded, as a minimum-wage McJob worker who can barely make your rent payments.

Statistically, we can predict whether you're going to get those all-important "A" grades, graduate university and enter a highly paid profession. Statistically, we can predict whether you're going to reliably repay a big mortgage, and hence be able to buy a big house to fill full of genetic clones of yourself. Before you've even sat down to take a single exam, big data has predicted that you're going to be a no-good washed-up good-for-nothing piece of worthless human trash.

Surely there's been a mistake.

Is it right that 98% of humanity will wake up each morning with a heavy heart, knowing that they are heavily in debt and they have been economically enslaved? Even those who did not directly incur the debt - by knowingly and willingly signing contracts - have incurred massive amounts of financial burden, because their governments borrowed against their predicted economic potential. We are sold into slavery before we're even born, because of our anticipated life-preservation instincts.

Economics, statistics and data science are indeed dismal sciences, which are corrupted by financial incentives to tease out the most efficient ways of exploiting humanity. We are ill-equipped to deal with the vast investment in the academic pursuit of knowledge, which equips the wealthiest elites with a suite of tools to push our buttons and make us dance to the beat of their drum.

If we are looking for a single cause of the epidemic of mental health problems which sweeps the globe, we should look no further than the vast quantities of data which have been gathered on us, and the treasure trove of insights which can be exploited by those who are so lacking in ethical contraint, that they're prepared to consign the majority of us to a living hell, in pursuit of material gain.

Yes, it's quite possible to use every bit of data available to predict the life outcome of an innocent child - a blank canvas - before they start school, and to consign them to the reject bin... but should we even look at that dangerous data? I say that the temptation to believe that we hold good predictors is too great, leading us to playing god, ruining countless lives.

Past performance is not a guide to the future.

 

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What Have I Got To Do To Get Sacked?

5 min read

This is a story about biting the hand that feeds me...

Water cooler

This colleague of mine was holding an object which looked so much like a sex toy that I was compelled to take a sly snapshot. Trying to be as subtle as possible and not arouse any suspicion, meant that I did not compose my photograph as well as I could have done, but I offer you the cropped image below so that you're better able to imagine what I saw.

Zoomed in

Is that any better? Attempting to photograph a colleague waving around a dildo-like object while filling a bottle from the water-cooler in my office, was somewhat hampered by the fact I spend my days on a secure campus with high fences and guards manning the gates, in a building which you can't gain entrance to until you've been through various in-depth background checks, to ensure you're the right sort of chap.

I'm sure there's something somewhere written in a contract or a code of conduct I've signed, which could be twisted and misinterpreted to mean that I shouldn't irreverently make light of my privileged position in the world.

People tell me I have a "good job".

People tell me to watch my step and button my lip, because "they" are monitoring my electronic communications and every word I speak and write.

We are well aware that GCHQ's mass-surveillance invades millions of law-abiding UK citizens' presumed automatic right to privacy, in the name of national security. We are all well aware that the police are using undercover officers to infiltrate groups of UK citizens who intend to exercise their right to unionise, strike and demand better pay and conditions. We are all well aware that the police share dossiers of intelligence with private companies, black-balling individuals, preventing them from being able to work in certain industries, because they are labelled as 'agitators' who are likely to attempt to turn the tide of worker exploitation by wealthy capitalists in favour of a fairer society. The oppression of the 98% by the 2% is state-sponsored, as proven by an overwhelming number documents compiled and paid for by the UK taxpayer.

This is paternalism in action.

Don't be distracted by the "patriarchy" BS - that's a clumsy, flimsy, pathetically obvious attempt to divide and rule. If there's one thing that the Brits are good at - empire builders - it's dividing people up into groups using arbitrary and imaginary lines. The British civil servant who drew the borders of Iraq and Kuwait had never visited the Middle East in his life.

Civil servants have decided that you're not allowed to privately own a snowplough; they've decided that an ambulance is not allowed to have an electric engine. Why?

Why the fuck are civil servants making these rules?

The Great Game.

It's all a great big game for a highly educated bunch of toffs who've had their egos massaged their whole lives and been told they're destined for greatness, but ultimately what they're left doing is creating a massive and impenetrable rulebook of totally arbitrary made-up regulations, which exist for no other reason than justifying the existence of a bunch of paper-pushing desk-jockeys, meddling in the affairs of every citizen of the kingdom.

I actually think the civil service is somewhat of a benevolent dictator for life; mostly harmless and well-intentioned.

I'd be a bit gutted if I was kicked out.

[Please note, that this is not an admission of where I work, who I work for, what I do, or any other overt statement which might tie me to my employer or client]

Even though it's not a real job, making up rules for other people to follow, enforcing those rules and generally policing other people's behaviour - perhaps even on spying on private law-abiding citizens - it's a little bit hard to argue the contrary position, that we don't need the organisations and the huge number of people who keep the country running. I'm not as much of an anarchist as I claim to be. I live a very happy sheltered secure wealthy life because I'm the right sort of chap and they tend to see me as one of their own and assume I'm on their side. Everyone assumes I'm a well-behaved conformist patriotic stand-for-the-national-anthem Queen-saluting fully-indoctrinated and sufficiently economically incentivised member of the paternalistic guardian class, such that I'd never be so insane as to step out of line and bite the hand that feeds me.

Do I plan to make mischief? Do I plan to commit sabotage? Do I have treasonous intent?

No.

You got me there.

I am a humble servant of Her Maj.

To connect my name with search terms such as "civil service" and "government" is recklessly stupid, one might say, but on careful inspection - by reading what I've written more closely - you can see that I have not revealed for a single instant who I work for and what I do for a living, specifically.

Meanwhile, I promise you that every single day I give dedicated service, to the very best of my professional abilities. I care about what I do. I want to make a difference.

For Queen and country. Ich dien.

 

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A Streak of Arrogance

7 min read

This is a story about hypomania warning signs...

Cambridge Union Society

If I was pressed to justify why I have any self-confidence and why I think I add any value to humanity - anything useful or interesting to say - then I could reference a number of achievements which I'm very proud of, indicating that I'm not completely delusional and grandiose. My sense of self-importance and pomposity is not entirely driven by perturbations of my sick mind. There are a few little things which mean I shouldn't think of myself as a complete waste-of-space, I hope.

Of course there are plenty of people in the world who will shout and scream: "YOU'RE A SHITTY WORTHLESS WASTE OF SPACE WHO SHOULD SHUT UP AND MAKE ROOM FOR ME ME ME AND ONLY ME. GET THE FUCK OFF THE STAGE YOU TALENTLESS FUCKWIT AND LISTEN TO ME ME ME. SHUT YOUR MOUTH AND LISTEN TO THE IMPORTANT STUFF I'VE GOT TO SAY BECAUSE IT'S ALL ABOUT ME ME ME".

I've had to endure plenty of these sharp-elbowed puffed-up pompous idiots, in love with their own reflections; quite convinced that they're brilliant people. I'm not exactly the shy and retiring humble type, but there's got to be some kind of middle ground unless you're happy flipping burgers in a minimum wage McJob and otherwise being trampled by precocious little shits; being shouted down by fucking airheads and their entourage of sycophants who believe the world owes them a stage and an audience.

...and breathe...

I realise that an arrogant streak within me rears its ugly head whenever I'm stressed and exhausted; whenever I'm scared and insecure.

I'm feeling very scared and insecure at the moment.

I know that I'm good at my job and I make a big difference to the teams and organisations that I'm part of, but I can see that a nasty side of my personality emerges when I'm under extreme pressure and stress. I can start to believe my own bullshit and see those around me as dead wood. I can start to become irritable and impatient. I can start to treat people unpleasantly. I become horribly arrogant.

It's a reaction to circumstances.

I'm not comfortable. I'm not secure. I'm not happy.

I'm exhausted.

I'm tired.

I'm scared.

At work, I know that I've proven myself yet again. I know that I've gotten to grips with a huge complicated system and a gigantic organisation in record time, and I'm making myself useful. I'm highly productive. I feel needed and I feel like I'm delivering good value. That feeds my fragile ego. My ego is incredibly battered and bruised because of the rollercoaster ride I've been on during the last few years, and because I don't feel at all secure.

I can point to things from the past which hint at my potential and clearly indicate that I'm not an idiot or a nobody, but how far back do I have to go? The picture above of me doing a Dragon's Den style pitch at Cambridge Union Society is about 7 years old. It feels like my life has been a complete mess since then. I feel like a fraud. I feel like a washed-up has-been.

For all my achievements, I've also repeatedly had problems with hypomania, where I've become impatient and irritable and I've spoken to people really badly. My arrogance has raged out of control at times. There's no justifying that behaviour.

I'm acutely aware that I wrote a very boastful blog post yesterday, and that I'm starting to become quite irritable by the amateurish stuff I have to deal with in my day job. I have to try very hard to avoid being harshly critical of my colleagues' work, which is perfectly mediocre and acceptable in the humdrum corporate world. I have to frequently remind myself that although I'm right it doesn't matter; although I could build a much superior system and do things so much better, I'm just one team member on a big project in a huge organisation. I need to recognise that I'm prone to the cyclical pattern of being smashed to smithereens and ending up destitute, only to get back on my feet and able to become high productive again with unbelievable speed. I need to stop being so dazzled by my own remarkable ability to pull myself up by my own bootstraps, because it's horribly arrogant.

There's a mountain of evidence that proves I can achieve exceptional things, but there's also a mountain of evidence that shows that I can become a right pain in the ass and I can be thoroughly unpleasant to deal with, when I'm consumed by hypomania. I need to remember that it'll be beneficial for me and everybody who I work with if I can rein in my arrogance, keep my lip buttoned, be kind, be patient and be as humble as I can possibly be.

It doesn't help that two people who I very much admired and respected have left my team, leaving me as the de-facto top dog, but I work with smart people and I need to work as part of a team or else I'll burn out. I need to get into the habit of learning to be more tolerant of the mistakes which people have made and the "varying abilities" in a diverse team, which is diplomatic double-speak for learning to put up with dullards. It's an essential skill in the workplace I think, to accept that there are more people who are undoing your good work and generally thwarting your ambitions to build utopian perfection, and to recognise that there are a huge amount of advantages of being a member of a big team of people who really don't care too much about the gigantic heap of useless crap they're very handsomely rewarded for fucking up. Striving for perfection has really messed me up very badly in the past.

So, I need an attitude adjustment. I need to acknowledge that when I've been given carte blanche - a clean slate - I've been lazy and sloppy and cut corners. I need to recognise that even though I have single-handedly built great big complex systems and profitable businesses from nothing, it's always fucked me up and burnt me out. On balance, it's the same net result - the tortoise and the hare.

I want to work really hard. I want hard work to accelerate me forwards. I want there to be a direct relationship between how hard I work and how much money I earn, but there isn't. No matter how brilliant and ingenious I am, I'm basically paid for being bored and keeping my mouth shut. The more dumb and numb I am, the more I get paid and the more people love me at work.

It's a really tricky time, because my mood viciously see-saws between suicidal depression, extreme boredom, insecurity about my value as a human being and a mountain of evidence that I'm very capable and competent at pulling off death-defying stunts and overcoming very difficult challenges, which clearly hints at a kind of troubled brilliance... although I'm not wanting to pat myself on the back too much or otherwise pump up my already excessively over-inflated ego.

If I'm going to make it through the coming weeks and months without disaster, I need to remind myself of past mistakes and attempt to curtail my arrogance; I need to recognise the cyclical pattern of my mental health and remember that it's always disastrous when I start getting impatient, intolerant, irritable and generally full of myself.

I need to keep my arrogance in check.

 

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Paranoia: So Close But Yet So Far

8 min read

This is a story about being thwarted...

Social Media Training

If I was prone to paranoia, I could swear that I've had more than my fair share of bad luck while trying to get back on my feet. Things should have panned out for me several times, but I've so far been thwarted by some asshats.

In September 2014 I was beginning to sort myself out after my divorce. I took a quick holiday before starting a new job. I was making good progress with the new project, but a couple of asshats took offence to me getting ahead and conspired to screw me over. Mercifully I took 'em down with me, although it was a hollow victory.

In September 2015 I'd had an eventful summer but I'd achieved a lot and proven myself to be a valuable member of the team on the project I was working on. It was a friend who rather unreasonably expected me to help him get a job and get out of the dive he was living in, which pushed me beyond my limits and made me unwell. There was also excessive pressure on me at work, but I could have coped if I'd have had a more settled personal life, such as having a secure place to live and some financial assistance.

In September 2016 I was starting to believe that I was finally going to get back on my feet, but the project I was working on was cancelled unexpectedly. With hindisight I suppose it was obvious that the project was going to get cancelled and that it was a dead-end job. It's my own fault for taking my eye off the ball. It's my own fault that I didn't immediately attempt to get another job, but I'd been so bored and miserable, and I felt like I'd been de-skilled by all the time off work I'd had. I hadn't learned anything, gained any new experience or developed at all on the project, so my self-confidence was at rock-bottom.

In September 2017 I was sacked because I was in a coma on life support and the asshat I was working with thought that unconscious people are able to make telephone calls to phone in sick. He still owes me a lot of money. Obviously I had a lot of different problems that year, but successfully delivering software projects was not one of them - never has been and never will be.

I've been working for 10 consecutive months without a holiday and I've delivered two software projects successfully into production. I got sick in May, but I was given the benefit of the doubt because I'd proven myself to be a valuable member of the team, like I always do. I was sick in January/February time and barely limping along, but because I'd already completed my project in record time nobody much cared. That's the way I work - I'm blazing fast when I'm well, but I get sick too. You don't get to have me only on my good days - you've gotta take the rough with the smooth - although I don't charge my clients for the days I'm not productive.

Even with all the gaps in-between projects and time off sick, I've still delivered a hell of a lot of software in the last 4 years and I've impressed a lot of clients and colleagues. I've achieved a huge amount, despite not being very well. What I've managed to do in the workplace is all the more remarkable when we consider that it's set against a backdrop of homelessness, near-bankruptcy, drug addiction, mental health problems, hospitalisations, being sectioned and kept on locked psych wards, suicide attempts, moving all over the country, being estranged from family, social isolation and a whole host of other things which are toxic to a person's chances of succeeding in life.

I don't want to pat myself on the back too much, but I deserve a break. It's time I made a breakthrough. It's time I'm allowed to make a breakthrough.

Every time I get close to making a breakthrough, something goes wrong which is beyond my control.

It's making me paranoid.

If I can get to the end of the month, I'll have hopefully proven my worth sufficiently with my colleagues on my current project, such that I'll be able to relax and take a holiday in October. It would be incredibly cruel and unlucky if something went wrong, such that I'm not able to go away on holiday and relax, knowing I've got a job to come back to. That's what happened to me earlier this year, when I'd booked a holiday in June but then my project ended and I found myself looking for work again.

It's good that I've been able to work for 3 different organisations on 3 different projects this year, without any asshats screwing things up, yet. Not having huge gaps between projects has been crucial to my recovery. Also, it's important to note that this year I haven't - yet - been screwed over by anybody and I've been recognised for my talents and experience which I have to offer. It's nice to feel confident in my own abilities and to feel like I have proven myself to be reliable and dependable, beyond any doubt.

Obviously, I'm very exposed - my colleagues have seen the semicolon tattoo behind my ear and must have wondered if and when I'm going to get sick, but hopefully they've now started to see that I'm very capable and productive; hopefully they're enjoying working with me and they value me as a team member. However, if I need to take any time off work sick, it will obviously raise doubts again about whether my mental illness makes me a useless loser who should never be allowed into civilised mainstream society or permitted the dignity of getting back on my feet.

I'm probably pushing things too hard for too long. I should probably have a holiday sooner rather than later, before I have a breakdown; before I burn out. However, I also want to get to the end of the month, because it's a significant milestone and it puts enough cash in the bank to leave me safe from any unexpected bumps in the road. I'm so desperate to get back to a position of security as quickly as possible, having been on this agonisingly drawn-out journey with so many dashed hopes.

Everything is set up very well for me to be able to continue working and improving my life, but I'm paranoid that something's going to go wrong and screw everything up.

I spend a lot of time thinking about the consequences of a work colleague discovering my blog. I wonder if I might be the architect of my own destruction by writing this. There's nothing here that's unprofessional though. I'm not naming my client or divulging confidential details about the project I'm working on. I'm not guilty of misconduct of any kind.

As you can see from the screenshot above, I've been trained to be paranoid. I've been trained to keep my mouth shut and pretend like I don't have any problems. Despite the walls of the office being plastered with posters which proclaim "it's OK to talk about mental health problems" they really don't mean ME. I'm expected to be faultless. If and when my faults are ever revealed, it will be the end of me. The tiniest blemish is career-ending for those of us who work in the corporate world, where we must maintain a fake professional façade of perfection at all times.

If I'm feeling optimistic I like to think that my valuable contributions would outweigh the stigma and shock of realising that my colleagues have been working with a homeless, junkie, alcoholic, bankrupt with mental health problems all along - I should never have been allowed to get past the gatekeepers and rub shoulders with those who inhabit the fit-in-or-fuck-off corporate world.

When I'm feeling paranoid I feel like I'm only tolerated because I'm reasonably good at pretending to be a regular guy - any hint of who I really am and what I've really been through, and I'll be swiftly ejected onto the street to suffer destitution and homelessness.

It's so frustrating right now, because I've almost but not quite got enough money to complete my transformation from homeless, junkie, alcoholic, bankrupt with mental health problems, back to somebody who's indistinguishable from any other corporate drone. I'm so desperate to prove that it can be done - to get back on my feet from a terrible situation. It'll crush me if I'm thwarted.

Keep your fingers crossed for me. The next few weeks are crucial.

 

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Context Switching

8 min read

This is a story about screen time...

Phone icons

The button to silence my smartphone has broken so I leave it permanently in "do not disturb" mode, which suits me just fine. Hardly anybody ever phones me except for agents and other cold caller sales types. My time is mostly spent in the 12 apps pictured above. Perhaps I'm not on my smartphone all the time, but essentially I'm context-switching non-stop throughout my waking hours, so I thought that warranted a little examination.

Starting with my 35,225 unread emails, my inbox has gotten rather out of control. Email has become such a victim of its own success that no IT professional I know even uses it anymore - we're all on Slack. Most communication is entirely transient and there's no need to have a record of anything except some kind of chat transcript to catch up on - anything old can be archived and forgotten. I spend all day every day chatting to my colleagues on Slack, including colleagues from organisations where I don't even work anymore.

Messages comprises SMS messages - mostly telling me about voicemails I haven't listened to - and a handful of iMessages from people who aren't using WhatsApp for some reason. WhatsApp deserves special note though, because of the group chats. I was removed from the only group chat I was a member of - discussion between cryptocurrency enthusiasts - and I was usurped by a guy who screwed me over last year when I was on my deathbed, which is kinda besides the point but it galls me.

Instagram I don't actually use very much. I live in a text-based world and the photos I take are in 4:3 or 3:2 aspect ratio, not 1:1. I don't take very many selfies.

Facebook Messenger is my most active chat app, but I only use it to chat to one person - my guardian angel - and we mainly exchange memes about suicide, mental health problems and the ruined economy. Facebook messenger also makes calls - as do many of the apps - and I occasionally speak to a friend in Poland, which is about the only time I speak to anybody on the telephone.

Recently I've been using Tinder and Bumble in an attempt to meet girls. It adds additional complexity to my context-switching life.

I'm not really sure what I use Facebook for. I do browse through the feed once a day - not on my smartphone - and I occasionally like and comment on things which are especially noteworthy, but I generally try to avoid over-investment in that particular walled garden. I used to share a lot and indeed I've managed to rather make a fool of myself in front of all my friends and scupper my chances of ever working in some organisations, because I dragged my own good name through the mud. I don't put my dirty laundry on Facebook much, only for it to be conspicuously ignored. Instead I write over a million words on my blog and broadcast my ups and downs to thousands of followers and anybody who does Google searches.

I don't use Twitter properly. I don't generally retweet stuff and I don't spend enough time reading the tweets of the 6,000+ people I follow. How anybody could sift through it all I have no idea - Twitter is a pretty noisy place. Generally I just look to see if anybody I know is tweeting about any of the trending topics, and I otherwise rely on an email I receive in the morning each day, which tells me what my favourite people have been up to. I must admit, it's sometimes a struggle to stay on top of my notifications and DMs and then I turn turtle and hide for a while until things quieten down.

I don't bother with LinkedIn much. I don't struggle to find work. I don't much see the point in ploughing much time and effort into my corporate image - I've got a perfectly professional CV and LinkedIn page, and otherwise I rely on my contacts, skills, experience and references to be able to get work when I need it.

I wake up in the morning and I quickly scan through my notifications - mostly Twitter - to see if there have been any comments, which I make a mental note to reply to later in the day. When I get bored around mid-morning, I have a glance at my inbox to see if there's anybody demanding money with menaces or otherwise harassing me. Approaching lunchtime, I might kill a bit of time with Facebook, but I don't want to get too engrossed in my phone when I'm at work. If I'm having a really dreadful day, I might reach out to a couple of friends via Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp and see if I can get them to send jokes, memes or anything that might provide a moment's distraction from the boredom. After leaving the office and generally before my evening meal, I write a blog post. I often scan through my website analytics to see if there's anything notable going on. If my mind is busy and distracted I frequently find myself flipping between half-watching something on Netflix and several tabs in my browser - a mix of Facebook and Twitter. Sometimes I read the news, but I find that I spend less and less time engaging with current affairs at the moment, because I've been stressed out of my mind with basic survival. A new part of my routine is chatting to girl(s) via the dating apps and if I'm ever lucky enough to get a phone number, then chatting on WhatsApp.

The amount of context switching is pretty remarkable. In any given day I might have to switch between fully professional mode, with colleagues who I want to present with a squeaky-clean corporate-friendly version of myself, and a more relaxed but still guarded version of myself which allows a little bit of my personality to show, but hopefully keeps my bad not-safe-for-work (NSFW) stuff hidden. I might be chatting to somebody who I've known for a long time online who's in a different timezone - ahead or behind - and they'll know an incredible amount of personal stuff about me and we'll be talking very frankly and honestly about everything and everything... then I'll be talking to a girl who I've just started chatting to who doesn't know me at all... then I'll be chatting to work colleagues who I spend 40 hours a week in close proximity with and they think they know me but they don't [and I don't want them to know everything]. Then, there's the image I present and the interactions I have via my blog and social media. and all the people who I have frequent and infrequent contact with, and the different ways I know people. Facebook is a particularly weird melting pot, where former work colleagues mingle with people who I know through kitesurfing, my startup days, the time I was homeless and living in parks and hostels, people who I've just randomly friend requested when I was mentally unwell. Facebook is kinda the worst, because I never know which guise I should be in, so I'm probably too honest and I'm tarnishing my own reputation and good standing that I once had with friends.

My brain has to switch between survival mode - where I've been worried about money, housing, addiction, alcoholism, transport, sex, isolation, suicidal thoughts, self harm, depression, anxiety and odds that have been very much stacked against me - and professional mode - where I'm expected to perform at a very high standard and navigate extremely complicated large organisations and know all the ins and outs of massive and complex software systems and the infrastructure they're deployed on, plus all the many teams and the zillions of people and the processes and procedures - and my digital identity which I'm cultivating - which needs me to compose a blog post every day and stay on top of any replies, messages and emails, and generally keep in touch with an ever-growing list of friends who I've never met in person, but who've been amazingly kind and supportive during rough times - and Mr. Eligible Bachelor mode, which requires me to present myself in the correct sequence, so that I can be understood without at the same time being overwhelming and off-putting.

To some extent my life looks quite simple. I have a job and not much else - I don't socialise and I'm not in a relationship. To the casual observer, all I do is move between my home, the office and a hotel, and I'm always in front of my laptop, tapping away at the keys quite furiously.

I suppose my life is quite simple, if we imagine that my fixation is the screen and the keyboard, but the screen time is a red herring - it's a window to an unimaginably gigantic and complex world of thousands of interactions with people all around the globe.

The context-switching is pretty hard though. I've struggled to stay on top of everything during the last couple of days.

 

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