About Mary Hamilton

I'm a journalist-type tech-ish geek person, working in that interesting ambiguous place where reporting the news meets all sorts of peripheral skills. In my spare time I herd zombies, design games and write stuff.

Kurt Cobain: his part in my downfall

I remember where I was when Kurt Cobain died. That’s probably a little unusual for someone of my age, because I was ten years old at the time. I didn’t yet really listen to much music, but I was on a family holiday with cousins a few years older than me, in Majorca, in a wide sprawling villa with ceramic tiled floors and a walk-in pantry in which, one exciting day, we found a centipede.

A huge thunderstorm woke me up scratching in the middle of the night – surprise and eczema are not good friends at the age of ten – and I ripped my arms from elbow to wrist in one half-asleep double-scratch movement, and I couldn’t go back in the swimming pool after that. Instead I sat outdoors and read a book of short horror stories – not Goosebumps but in a similar vein – three times in a week because I’d not brought enough books with me. There was one story in particular about a girl who found a cursed ring that forced her to hear the exact thoughts of everyone around her, including the people who secretly hated her, and it eventually drove her mad.

My cousins were old enough to watch MTV in the cool room where the pool table was, and it was through them that I learned that Kurt Cobain was the lead singer of a band called Nirvana, who were pretty good, and that he’d died. I also learned about Beavis and Butthead. It was a pretty good spring holiday.

Somewhere around two years later I bought my first album. It was the Spawn soundtrack. I hadn’t seen the film but the cover looked really, really cool and it had bands I’d heard of making music with bands I hadn’t. I think on some level I figured that if every song was a remix, every song had two bands, so I’d get twice as much value for money. After that, From The Muddy Banks Of The Wishkah was maybe my second or third purchase. I picked it up from a second-hand record store in York where my cousins lived. I was trying to be cool. Of course I was. I was 12.

I fell in love with that album. I listened to it over and over, poring over the lyrics in the CD insert, trying to understand how you took words like that and turned them into that sound: that rawness, that energy, that emotion. I started all backwards with Nirvana, so I was never really a Nevermind girl; eventually, when I’d picked up every album and gotten my friends to trade me tapes of bootleg tracks and B-sides, it was Bleach I loved the best. In Utero was too raw, too sad, too strange, too close to home. Nevermind was too popular, maybe, or perhaps just not energetic enough. I could jump around to Bleach. I could put on my massive 90s jeans and my skater chain, or my black miniskirt and my striped tights, and dance to it.

When I went to hospital my parents brought in CDs for me to listen to. They gave me a MiniDisc player for Christmas, the Christmas I spent on the adult psych ward, and I copied albums across to it so I could listen to them when I couldn’t sleep. I listened to a lot of In Utero that year. I put up a poster of Kurt Cobain on the noticeboard next to my bed, that one of him in jeans and a grey sweater with a gun in his hand, where he’s smiling. The music therapist taught me some basic chords on the guitar and I learned to play Polly, along with the chorus of “Why Does It Always Rain On Me” by Travis, because it used a lot of the same chords and it was always playing on the radio we had on in the dining room during most meals, to make the whole thing less weird for the anorexic patients.

When I was 14 or 15, I bought a huge long-sleeved T-shirt with the Nirvana acid smiley on the front and a slogan on the back: FLOWER SNIFFIN KITTY PETTIN BABY KISSIN ROCK N ROLL WHORES. I bought a dark colour to hide the blood, knowing there would be blood. These days, sometimes Grant wears it around the house, and I go short-sleeved.

I don’t listen to a lot of music these days. Sometime in my first or second year at university, about the time I stopped self-harming, I also stopped finding new music, and slowed down on listening to the things I’d always loved. Something about music rubs me raw, opens me up too much. I get emotional in ways that aren’t always comfortable, when the emotions come from the music – or from the past. When I made Detritus last year, I hadn’t listened to Nirvana specifically – deliberately, in the non-Spotify-random-playlist way where you actually listen to the music – in perhaps two years. I named each act after a Nirvana song, because that’s what was playing in my head when I was writing.

Pocket Lint #11: fun and folly

A pick of the most interesting things I read this week. If you’d like to get Pocket Lint as a regular-ish weekly email on Fridays you can sign up here or using the form below. Pocket Lint will be on holiday for a few weeks after this week’s instalment.

Is the Oculus Rift sexist? ”[B]iological men were significantly more likely to prioritize motion parallax. Biological women relied more heavily on shape-from-shading. In other words, men are more likely to use the cues that 3D virtual reality systems relied on.”

Facebook doesn’t care about your brand. “You want to achieve reach because you’ve made something good that people want to share. And if you’ve made something good or interesting, then people will be sharing it organically in any case.”

In praise of brevity: “Like passengers in a lifeboat, all the words in a concise text must pull their own weight.”

Clickbait journalism didn’t start with the internet. From 1873: “Our four or five thousand daily and weekly publications have columns of “Nuts to Crack,” “Sunbeams,” “Sparks from the Telegraph,” “Freshest Gleanings,” “Odds and Ends,” “News Sprinklings,” “Flashes of Fun,” “Random Readings,” “Mere Mentions,” “Humor of the Day,” “Quaint Sayings,” “Current Notes,” “Things in General,” “Brevities,” “Witticisms,” “Notes of the Day,” “Jottings,” “All Sorts,” “Editor’s Drawer,” “Sparks,” “Fun and Folly,” “Fact and Fiction”…”

The problem of choice in interactive narratives: The real destination is the creation of meaning, whether that be the reader’s interpretation or reconstructing the author’s intent. The work is not completed by reading the final page but by reading the all of the pages.

How can we preserve Twitch Plays Pokemon?

“Home Depot™ Presents the Police!®” I said, flashing my badge and my gun and a small picture of Ron Paul. “Nobody move unless you want to!” They didn’t.

The definitive ranking of Robin’s 359 exclamations from ‘Batman’

Piipshow, a webcam feed from a Norwegian bird feeder dressed to look like a coffee bar.

This.

Tumblr of the week: Fat birds

Poem of the week: Frank O’Hara, Steps

Free game of the week: Super Hot

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Facebook: news as signal, everything else as noise?

Facebook is taking reach away from brand pages. That much seems pretty obvious from the growing anger of people who’ve spent time and energy building audiences on Facebook, only to find they now can only reach a small proportion of them without paying. Mathew Ingram has a great piece today on GigaOm looking at this in a lot more detail, covering the negative reactions by both major brands and individuals looking to use Facebook to promote their work.

In any case, every successive change or tweak of its algorithms by Facebook — not to mention its penchant for removing content for a variety of reasons, something Twitter only does when there is a court order — reinforces the idea that the company is not running the kind of social network many people assumed it was. In other words, it is not an open platform in which content spreads according to its own whims: like a newspaper, Facebook controls what you see and when.

At the same time as all this is going on, Facebook is giving a pleasant boost to pages belonging to news organisations; the Guardian isn’t the only news organisation seeing a rapid rise in the numbers of page likes it’s receiving, starting on March 18. That’s driven by Page Suggestions, a relatively recent feature that, well, suggests pages to users, generally based on posts they’ve liked or interacted with, though it’s possible Facebook’s changing/has changed the situations when it displays that feature.

It certainly seems like an algorithm tweak that’s designed to benefit news pages by boosting their audience, but not necessarily their reach – while news pages are certainly getting more exposure, that’s no guarantee the posts themselves are reaching more people. It could be a mask; boosting audience numbers for particular types of pages in order to counteract a general lowering of reach, so that news brands end up more or less where they started in terms of the people who actually see their Facebook shares. Or it could be a rebalancing, promoting news pages at the expense of other brands on the basis that Facebook would much rather you got news in your news feed than advertising.

Or, given the lack of transparency of Facebook’s approach across the board, it could of course be a blip; an unintended consequence of downgrading some types of content that leaves news at an advantage, for now. Either way, it’s not likely to last unless it helps Facebook become the sort of Facebook that it thinks it wants to be – and it’s another reminder, even on the up side, that this isn’t a platform that can be controlled.

Pocket Lint #10: wrapped in plastic

A pick of the most interesting things I read this week. If you’d like to get Pocket Lint as a regular-ish weekly email on Fridays you can sign up here or using the form below.

Gunshot victims to be kept in suspended animation, to buy time for doctors to fix their wounds.

The pointlessness of unplugging: “We are only ever tourists in the land of no technology, our visas valid for a day or a week or a year, and we travel there with the same eyes and ears that we use in our digital homeland.”

The pseudoscience of Alcoholics Anonymous, which only has a 15% success rate, and the problems with “Cadillac” rehab.

The overprotected kid, the junkyard playground, and the importance of risk-taking play. ‘The problem, says Ball, is that “we have come to think of accidents as preventable and not a natural part of life.”’

Silicon Valley’s brutal ageism: “an extra burden of proof on the middle-aged to show they can hack it, on a scale very few workers of their vintage must deal with anywhere else.”

What happens as children grow up a little: “Like characters in Dungeons and Dragons, the little ones—with their distinct clothing and high dexterity—can’t carry heavy weaponry, but they can be dispatched to pick locks and fetch magical rings from small places. Sometimes they can heal during combat.”

Australia’s Guantanamo problem: the asylum seekers indefinitely detained on secret evidence without hope of release.

How to use game preorders as a bank.

Women don’t want to work in games, and other myths: perhaps the first piece I’ve read about women in the industry that’s actually, unapologetically, aimed at a female reader.

How we won the war on Dungeons and Dragons.

Tumblr of the week: Shit Private Eye Says

Poem of the week: Louis MacNeice, Snow

Free game of the week: Sleep

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Pocket Lint #9: outsiders

Back after a short break: here’s a pick of the most interesting things I read this week. If you’d like to get Pocket Lint as a regular-ish weekly email on Fridays you can sign up here or using the form below.

Nate Silver and the diversity problem
“What happens when formerly excluded groups gain more power, like techies? They don’t just let go of their old forms of cultural capital. Yet they may be blind to how their old ways of identifying and accepting each other are exclusionary to others. They still interpret the world through their sense of status when they were “basically, outsiders.””

Do psychiatrists think everyone is crazy?
“Though many object to psychiatry’s perceived encroachment into normality, we rarely hear such complaints about the rest of medicine. Few lament that nearly all of us, at some point in our lives, seek care from a physician and take all manner of medications, most without need of a prescription, for one physical ailment or another. If we can accept that it is completely normal to be medically sick, not only with transient conditions such as coughs and colds, but also chronic disorders such as farsightedness, lower back pain, high blood pressure or diabetes, why can’t we accept that it might also be normal to be psychiatrically ill at various points in our lives?”

Why personal change does not equal political change
“I’m not saying we shouldn’t live simply. I live reasonably simply myself, but I don’t pretend that not buying much (or not driving much, or not having kids) is a powerful political act, or that it’s deeply revolutionary. It’s not. Personal change doesn’t equal social change.”

The era of Facebook is an anomaly. The idea of everybody going to one site is just weird. Give me one other part of history where everybody shows up to the same social space.

5 myths about how we use the internet

An illustrated book of bad arguments

A preliminary phenomenology of the self-checkout

Frog Fractions 2 has a Kickstarter, which promises not to give you the game until someone works out what it’s called.

Tumblr of the week: Animals Sucking At Jumping

Poem of the week: Shrinking Women

Free game of the week: 2048, which is essentially Threes, only more so.

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Turning 30

I never thought I’d get here.

I guess for some people that’s a rhetorical thing. That they always understand on some basic level that they’re going to eventually get to 30, barring some horrendous accident or creeping chronic unpleasantness that stops the heart more abruptly than it should be stopped. But me, I grew up with a creeping chronic unpleasantness inside my own head, and when I was younger it tried to kill me. A lot.

So I never really thought I’d get here, in the temporal sense. I certainly didn’t think I’d be here in the spatial sense: about as far from where I started as it’s possible to be on the earth, having an autumn birthday where the cockatoos live. It still surprises me most mornings, even after almost a year – not the fact of Australia itself, but how far it is from home, and yet how many people here have welcomed me with open arms. I’ve made games and art here with very good friends who, a year ago, I didn’t know. Friends who are going to be part of the rest of my life.

Our life. I would not be here without Grant, my husband, and his unending support and love. We tend not to be too soppy in public. But there it is: without him I would be somewhere, and someone, else.

And there is work, too. The Guardian’s Australian office changes every time I turn around, at the moment (literally – while I was on holiday someone took out half the offices and replaced them with more desks, to cope with the new folks we’re hiring). It’s busy, and stressful, and often puts me a long way outside my comfort zone. But it remains consistently the best place I’ve worked, and the most fun I’ve had at a job. I am impossibly lucky to have a job I enjoy, work that’s challenging and rewarding, and such good friends and family to share these things with. I am impossibly lucky to be here, and to be 30, despite thinking that would never happen.

Despite the heartache, the hours and the homesickness it has been, I think, the best year of my life. I have worked very hard to get here. Here’s to many more, and to believing that I’ll get there too.

 

Time vs the news

Jason Kint, in an interesting piece at Digiday, argues that page views are rubbish and we should use time-based metrics to measure online consumption.

Pageviews and clicks fuel everything that is wrong with a clicks-driven Web and advertising ecosystem. These metrics are perfectly suited to measure performance and direct-response-style conversion, but tactics to maximize them inversely correlate to great experiences and branding. If the goal is to measure true consumption of content, then the best measurement is represented by time. It’s hard to fake time as it requires consumer attention.

Some issues here. Time does not require attention: I can have several browser tabs open and also be making a cup of tea elsewhere. TV metrics have been plagued by the assumption that TV on === attentively watching, and it’s interesting to see that fallacy repeated on the web, where a branching pathway is as easy as ctrl+click to open in a new tab. It’s also easy to game time on site by simply forcing every external link to open in a new tab: it’s awful UX, but if the market moves to time as the primary measurement in the way that ad impressions are currently used, I guarantee you that will be widely used to game it, along with other tricks like design gimmicks at bailout points and autorefresh to extend the measured visit as long as possible. Time is just as game-able as a click.

 

It’s worth noting that Kint is invested in selling this vision of time-based metrics to the market. That doesn’t invalidate what he says out of hand, of course, but it is important to remember that if someone is trying to sell you a hammer they are unlikely to admit that you might also need a screwdriver.

In a conversation on Twitter yesterday Dave Wylie pointed me to a Breaking News post which discusses another time-based metric – time saved. It’s a recognition that most news consumers don’t actually want to spend half an hour clicking around your site: they want the piece of information they came for, and then they want to get on with their lives. Like Google, which used to focus on getting people through the site as fast as possible to what they needed. Or like the inverted pyramid of news writing, which focusses on giving you all the information you need at the very top of the piece, so if you decide you don’t need all the details you can leave fully informed.

There’s a truism in newsroom analytics: the more newsy a day is, the more traffic you get from Google News or other breaking news sources, the less likely those readers are to click around. That doesn’t necessarily mean you’re failing those readers or that they’re leaving unsatisfied; it may in fact make them more likely to return later, if the Breaking News theory holds true for other newsrooms. Sometimes the best way to serve readers is by giving them less.

Trigger warnings: a broken system with good intentions

This is an interesting thing: a New Review post that looks at the history and present of trigger warnings, and how they’ve moved out of communities online and into public life and spaces. If you don’t know what a trigger warning is, it’s essentially a note indicating that you might be about to encounter something upsetting, something that could negatively affect your psychological wellbeing; they’ve grown out of supportive communities in which people needed to carefully negotiate conversations about subjects that need to be spoken about, but that also could prove detrimental to readers’ health. The roots, however, aren’t quite as simple as the New Review piece paints it them:

Initially, trigger warnings were used in self-help and feminist forums to help readers who might have post traumatic stress disorder to avoid graphic content that might cause painful memories, flashbacks, or panic attacks. Some websites, like Bodies Under Siege, a self-injury support message board, developed systems of adding abbreviated topic tags—from SI (self injury) to ED (eating disorders)—to particularly explicit posts. As the Internet grew, warnings became more popular, and critics began to question their use.

It’s rare to see an article on trigger warnings mentioning Bodies Under Siege, despite its early adoption of warnings as a way for its users to safeguard themselves. It’s a shame, then, that the piece skips over the ways trigger warnings were used there in the late 90s, when I was an active user. They were not a way for users with PTSD specifically to avoid harm; they were for all users – including those without mental health issues – to avoid subjects that could trigger them into unsafe behaviour, or that they didn’t have the mental energy to tackle. They were carefully considered and carefully enforced alongside a list of verboten things that mods would delete on sight: discussions of weights, calorie counts, numbers of self-inflicted wounds, images. Those things were not done lightly. Bodies Under Siege was a community of vulnerable people struggling with mental illnesses of various degrees, and it was built entirely around recovery and support. Trigger warnings and removal of things that could prompt ‘competitive’ behaviour were not courtesies. They were absolutely integral to the community’s existence.

I used a couple of other forums for people who self-harmed, in my teens. BUS was the one that did not make me worse. There’s a direct analogy between one of those forums and pro-anorexia communities; at its worst, it provided encouragement to hurt yourself, and at best it was simply reinforcing the behaviour, a reassurance that self-injury was an OK thing to do. It was not a healthy space. The second, though, tried to be about recovery, but allowed images and discussions of self-injury particulars. It was a deeply conflicted space, as a result: if you were feeling OK, you could quite easily end up feeling worse after a visit. If you were already feeling bad, you went there knowing it would most likely spiral downwards, playing Russian roulette with your feelings. You would, almost without doubt, stumble across something that would likely tip you from ‘maybe I could hurt myself’ into the act.

Trigger warnings on BUS made it safe from that concern. It was a place you could go while feeling awful to try to be strong. It had thread after thread of distraction games, little time-wasting things you could do to stave off the need to self-injure. It had questionnaires to fill in before you did it, drawn up by users and psych professionals, and questionnaires to fill in afterwards. It had resources for asking for treatment, for dealing with emergency care, for supporting others. It had safe spaces for parents, partners, carers to socialise. It had diary threads you could post in and read, if you were well enough, and those diaries came by convention with warnings about the content. If you didn’t want to engage with the illnesses of others, for fear of worsening your own, you did not have to.

Words cannot express how valuable trigger warnings were to me, or to many of the other users on BUS. Not just those with PTSD, or anxiety disorders, or specific trauma-related illnesses; not even just those who self-harmed or those with eating disorders; all of us who used that space benefitted from its policies on keeping us safe.

Trigger warnings on the web were born in communities trying to balance the need to speak with the need not to hear. Those communities were closed, or at least only partially open; LiveJournal communities where membership rules could be enforced, forums and BBs where mods had control over members’ posts. Trigger warnings do not translate well to public spaces – Tumblr tags, Twitter, even Facebook groups, or some of the real-life scenarios mentioned in the New Review article – because those needs are different for the wider community. Interestingly, some Tumblr tags do take content warnings well – conventions have grown up around those tags, and those who transgress those conventions are essentially moderated out by the existing users. But there’s no system to support that, nothing to stop a sustained invasion, no way to organise that space to support that use.

But just as it is inadvisable to add trigger warnings to everything based on the possibility of harm, it’s just as inadvisable to remove them from everything based on disbelief in their effectiveness. In communities focussed on mental health and recovery, trigger warnings are absolutely necessary for users. Whether college classes, campuses or the Huffington Post need the same level of consideration is a valid question, for sure, but it’s one worth asking. If you want people with disabilities to be able to participate fully in your spaces, you’d better be thinking about accessibility in terms of triggers and mental wellbeing as well as wheelchair ramps and sign language. And that doesn’t always need to be in formal language: sometimes it’s as simple as editing a tweeted headline to include the word ‘distressing’, to give your followers the choice about what they click on.

The New Review piece concludes:

Trigger warnings are presented as a gesture of empathy, but the irony is they lead only to more solipsism, an over-preoccupation with one’s own feelings—much to the detriment of society as a whole. Structuring public life around the most fragile personal sensitivities will only restrict all of our horizons. Engaging with ideas involves risk, and slapping warnings on them only undermines the principle of intellectual exploration. We cannot anticipate every potential trigger—the world, like the Internet, is too large and unwieldy. But even if we could, why would we want to? Bending the world to accommodate our personal frailties does not help us overcome them.

There is no way to stop every vulnerable person from coming across things that will make them more vulnerable. There is, however, courtesy and consideration, and a need for equal access for those with mental health issues. Those are not small things. There is a valuable, important baby being thrown out with this bathwater.

Why blog?

When I started this blog, blogs were dead exciting. They were the Future. They were New Media, and I was a new journalist, and I desperately loved working online. I wanted to throw myself into the exciting new future of online journalism as hard as I possibly could, so I did the best thing I could think of: I started writing about online journalism, as a sort of add-on to my day job, writing in the cracks. I read everything I could find. I used to get home after 10-hour days writing and demand my brain to produce something else, another few hundred words of analysis or a quick pointer to something else interesting on the internet that someone had said, because I thought it was hugely important.

It was. Honestly, it was. I treated it with such seriousness, and I’m pretty sure that without it I wouldn’t have moved on in the way that I have. Blogging made me, in some ways more than newsrooms did: blogging made me think about reaching specific audiences, it honed my research and collaboration skills, it made me capable of synthesising an argument in 500 words for humans (rather than 2,000 words for academics), it stopped me being scared of speaking my mind in public. What it did for me has been invaluable.

Then I moved on. I started work at the Guardian, and that has a certain chilling effect on writing: for one thing, I can’t use this blog to kvetch about minor work frustrations, because Private Eye exists. There’s a tendency for some people to think that if a journalist works for a national or international news organisation, their words in a personal space reflect back on that organisation. And there’s also the fact that a great many of the things I worked on at the Guardian have been the things I couldn’t work on back when I started out. There’s no need to come home and get fired up about online journalism when I can put that fire to action at work. That’s a very satisfying place to be.

But blogging matters. Late last year, inspired by Adam Tinworth, I tried to blow the dust off this place and pick up the pace a little: I forced myself to write about something every day for ten days. Sometimes games, sometimes journalism, sometimes politics, sometimes creative work, sometimes criticism, sometimes just notes – a broader palette than the one I started with, and perhaps a more mature one. (Perhaps a more confusing one; I’ve stopped trying to separate those parts of my life, because each of them informs all of the others, but if you’re looking for a single-subject blog I can imagine the combination can be strange.)

Since then I’ve slacked off somewhat, but since the new year started I’ve been trying to write posts with ideas in them, thoughts or analysis or at least contextualising a link to something else. One a week at least, on top of the weekly Pocket Lint email. In fact, that Pocket Lint links post every Saturday is a deliberate strategy to force myself to write more: I don’t want my blog to only consist of links posts, like the Delicious-powered graveyards that scattered the web a few years back, when everyone stopped writing and just auto-posted links instead.

Adam’s currently doing another challenge: one month of 500-word posts, substantive things, every day. He linked to this post on writing yourself into existence:

Once you have a blog you notice more, you start to think “I might write about this on my blog” “What do I want to say?” “What will people’s reaction be?”. Over time you get better at noticing and the better at noticing you get the more noticed you get! You end up in the wonderful collective web of “Oooh that’s interesting” which I now wouldn’t ever want to be without.

That’s right. When I wasn’t blogging, I wasn’t thinking about what I read in the same way. Now, finding myself falling out of the habit after a couple of months, that’s a useful reminder to keep writing, to keep sharing what I find interesting, as much for the process of finding, thinking, synthesising and creating as for publishing the end result. Blogging’s been very good for me. I should be doing it more.

Spirits Walk

masked person with caption 'spirits walk'
It’s been a busy few weeks. This coming weekend Grant and I are headed to Melbourne to run Spirits Walk with Pop Up Playground. We’re headlining at the Fresh Air Festival, a yearly extravaganza of interesting live games, street games and creative play, and I’m hugely excited about it.

Spirits Walk is going to be a strange game. It’s a game about transgression, about crossing lines in public, about deliberate strangeness and feeling uncomfortable and doing interesting things anyway, because you want to know what happens next. There are spirits hidden in plain sight around the city, and each of them wants something from you: each has a task, and if you complete it you get a token of their esteem, or approval, or even affection. Your tokens open doors to another world, hidden just behind the real one: a place of symbolism and pageantry and a little bit of magic.

It breaks some new ground for us as designers and game makers, and we’re relying a lot on Pop Up Playground’s resources: craft and art and costuming, and the awesome actors who’ll be bringing our spirits to life. The game’s also very much Grant’s baby, in the same way The Trial was mine: he’s taken the lead in crafting and creating it, working with Rob and Sayra at Pop Up to make the whole thing happen. There are lots of moving parts, lots of elements working together, and it’s going to be an interesting challenge to make it all cohere. It’s also going to be a great deal of fun. It’s free to take part, and if you’re in Melbourne and you’d like to come along, you can reserve a space here.

After that, we’re going to try and be on holiday for a few days. It’s been a busy few weeks, after all.