Matt Gemmell

My book Raw Materials is out now!

A collection of personal essays, with exclusive content and author's notes.

★★★★★ — Amazon

Civil comments

Tech & Briefly 1 min read

I’m intrigued by Civil Comments (@HelloCivil), Christa Mrgan’s new venture, which aims to make online comments more respectful and valuable. We all love commenting, but we all hate comments – so there’s clearly scope for disruption. It’s a shame when technology has to a fix problems with how people work.

I’ve written previously (here, here, and here) about disallowing comments on this site, and my reasons. Civil discourse addresses moderation, and possibly impulsiveness. There’s still the matter of identity, but for me the biggest question is whether comments really belong in the same location as the original piece. I don’t accept the democratic argument; my place is mine, and your right of response doesn’t extend to choosing the venue. I think there’s both a dilution of the original, and a reduction in standing of the response, when on-site comments are the medium of reply.

I’ll be watching developments in the area with considerable interest. Having an invested community around your work is obviously a very positive and desirable thing. I’m open to having my mind changed on this – it just hasn’t happened yet.

Clone your drive

Tech & Briefly 1 min read

I’ve written previously about my backups strategy, but I’ve been lucky to not have any disasters – until recently. A failing internal drive in the iMac, then today sending my beloved MacBook in for keyboard repairs. I was saved by having clones of those machines (for the MacBook, “saved” by restoring a different MacBook to the same state, to use temporarily).

You should be cloning your machine. Here’s a great, cheap, silent, bus-powered USB3 drive you could use. To do the cloning, use Carbon Copy Cloner (nicer UI, more features) or SuperDuper (I’ve used it for years). Schedule bootable clones nightly.

You may also want continuous remote backups. I use Backblaze, and keep my work files in Dropbox too. Perhaps consider Time Machine as a third level of safety, especially if you need old versions of files, but full restores from it are slower and less complete than from a clone.

If your machine is OK now and you lose data later, it’s your fault. Do your future self a favour, and back up.

Liberty and cryptography

Tech & Briefly 1 min read

Two-and-counting US states want to require smartphones be decryptable and unlockable by their manufacturer or OS provider. This is the kind of palatable craziness that periodically comes out of America, or indeed the UK’s Westminster government.

Cryptographic backdoors are vulnerabilities; systems are either mathematically secure or they aren’t. Every master key will be found, eventually. Even if you’re not worried about your country’s own security infrastructure – and you ought to be – consider the idea of a foreign power or criminal enterprise being able to get into any of your citizens’ devices. That’s literally what’s being asked for. It’s an inevitability, given sufficient time. There’s no shortage of motivation.

Yes, terrorists and other criminals use crypto. Yes, it’d be easier to thwart them if it could be circumvented. Yes, lives would potentially be saved. But that’s idealistic, short-term thinking. Bad things are always going to happen. If we try to prevent them by doing other bad things, we have two problems instead of one.

We have to find another way round. Current intractability of a social ill isn’t an excuse to pre-emptively curtail liberty, and weaken all of us.

Tiered social media

Business & Briefly 1 min read

Twitter is experimenting with hiding ads from valuable users. Ostensibly, it makes sense: give the minority of “popular” (or whatever) users a nicer experience, because they drive engagement and keep everyone else coming back. Maybe it’s even motivation to get better at Twitter, whatever that means. Certainly, you don’t want influencers to complain about annoyances with your service, because lots of people are listening.

There are problems with that approach, the main one being the tacit admission that their ads are detrimental. If you’re rewarding people by reducing the hostility of their experience, maybe just fix the experience for everyone, and find something positive to charge for instead.

As ever, there’s also their continuing and worrying inability to directly monetise even the most committed users. I’m in the group that doesn’t see ads. I’d pay for Twitter if I could. It has real value for me, both socially and as a promotional tool. This latest move only increases my uncertainty about its future.


Writing & Briefly 1 min read

Every year, I resolve to write fewer words, more often. And every year, I fail spectacularly. I feel a self-imposed pressure to only publish pieces on this site that are of non-trivial length, even though I think that some of what I share via social media has value too.

Accordingly, I’ll now be publishing “brief thoughts”, alongside regular articles. It’s my hope that the new format will allow me to write here more frequently. You’ll find those pieces – including this inaugural one – in the new Briefly category.

My guidelines for Briefly pieces are that they should be 100-200 words, and should take most people less than a minute to read. I’ve also given them a slightly distinct visual style, which you can see on the web, to add a little bit of weight to what might otherwise look truncated.

I hope you’ll enjoy them.

The Dao of the Shell

Productivity & Tech 5 min read

Personally, I prefer the word paradoxical, but my wife – as ever – gets closer to the truth: “You’re a ridiculous human being”.

Be that as it may, I’m a person of tensions and contradictions, particularly in my work. I used to be a software developer, and an unabashed geek. My degree is in that field. I loved to plan and build things almost as much as I enjoyed deconstructing and understanding them.

I loved technology. The thing is, the more you love technology, the more you become involved with it. And the more you become involved with it, the more you start to secretly hate it, alongside your enthusiasm. If you don’t harbour a deep-seated, conflicted, fundamental resentment for tech, well… you’re probably not a very dedicated geek.

Site Membership for 2016

Blog 9 min read

A new year has begun, and I’d like to invite you to become a member of this site for 2016. I believe that supporting creative work is important, which is why I’m a paying member of various personal and professional sites. It gives me a great deal of pleasure to know I’m helping in a small way to keep others writing.

For my own part, I introduced site membership almost a year ago, and I’m delighted with how well-received it’s been. Let me tell you a little bit about it.


Personal 5 min read

I grew up with the knowledge that signs and portents were everywhere.

A lone raven, perched unexpectedly nearby. The hoot of an owl. The colour of the sky as daylight fades. The pattern of tea leaves in the bottom of a cup.

My grandmother believed very much in the invisible world. Her own grandmother made sure of that; the old woman had the sight. She knew of the power of salt, and of images, and of the placement and arrangement of things. Meaning – and often, warning – was to be found by those who knew where to look. And how to.


Personal 4 min read

For me, it was the shrinking of the real world. Down and down and down, until sunset, when nothing existed beyond the boundaries of the house.

For one night, until the Sun rose again, there was nothing else.

In the peak of Summer, absolutely everything lay outside those walls. Friends, holidays, perpetual youth and optimism. Every day was littered with the building blocks of bright possible futures. The daylight stayed past ten o’clock in the evening, dawn came before I ever woke, and the world was vast – and mine to explore.

Winter changes things. Edges recede, and bulwarks are erected. First the windows are closed, then jackets are traded for coats. Gloves are put on. Curtains are drawn. The low, heavy beat of central heating – coming out of its own hibernation just as the animals enter theirs – willing us to remain inside, and sleep. The season of frost and ice carries a message that our blood hears clearly: stay here.


Personal 3 min read

I’ve come to dread the phone calls.

That’s an interesting thing in itself, because ideally they wouldn’t happen often enough for me to learn to dread them. Ideally, they wouldn’t happen at all.

When you write, sooner or later you’ll have to familiarise yourself with something new. Something outside of the normal sphere of your life. That’s fine. Learning is good, and should be undertaken continuously.

If you write adventure stuff, say, and check your research history – by which we all mostly mean wikipedia – it can be arresting. Perhaps even arrest-worthy, if the authorities were to find out. Heavy weapons, security infrastructure, and spatter patterns. I tend to add “research” to the query just in case.

It’s amazing what you pick up.