Epilogue: Leaving one life behind

Tying up loose ends

Mark Burgess
19 min readMar 30, 2024

It used to be a kind of joke that, every five years, I would make a major life change–that I’d lived numerous lives already in very different worlds. The time, it seemed, was ripe for another.

Some difficult times followed. It took a year to resolve Mum’s estate, to sell her house and force an amateur solicitor to complete the necessary legal transactions. Mostly that fell to my nephew Sparky, as only a resident of the UK was allowed to front these machinations.

Back in Oslo, it was time to move on.

The large but secluded apartment I’d discovered and celebrated during the early days of CFEngine “The Company” had become a liability. Years before, when I had moved into my rooftop apartment in Åsengata, during those early days of the company, it felt like an adventure. I somehow imagined I would share it with many guests, enjoying the large space as a resource to entertain. I imagined I might become a professor or a company boss who led a group through dinner. I had no idea that neither a university nor a company would any longer be part of my life–or indeed that I would end up a kind of recluse with no contacts at all to speak of. Now, it was costing a small fortune to maintain and Lynn wasn’t happy being far from civilization.

We considered moving to the UK, but needed a plan. We would sell the large apartment and downsize, hopefully leaving enough to buy a smaller one perhaps in the UK. With work in the balance, perhaps we could even raise some money by renting out the second apartment. We searched high and low for a smaller place in Oslo, as a stepping stone. There are lots of weird buildings in Oslo, not all of a high modern standard. After a few missteps, we found a brande new one that was in the midst of being built. That meant we would need to put up some money in advance and then pay it off when it was completed and we sold the old place. There were six months in between, but house prices were rising so we stood to get a good price for our flat

For the avoidance of doubt, as lawyers say, I continued to enjoy the old apartment, that wonderful space–waking up each morning to the light of a hollow sun beaming in through all the great windows. In the evening, the light from the kitchen or living room would spill from one side to the other. The open air was filled with flying birds, and the pitter patter of rain, the whirling of wind. It was like living in an aquarium of nature, watching the world from a cabin in the mountains, except that it was in the middle of a town. But all good things must come to an end. Some of my happiest moments were in that space, but it was time to move on. We had a partial plan.

Then Russia invaded Ukraine, energy prices and interest rates spiked and the economy started to slide backwards. At one point, we were paying 50 times the usual rate for electricity. There was unemployment and work cancellation. Worse, as the bills came for the new apartment, it was very difficult to get a bridging loan to cover the payments. Only by some intense negotiation and accepting horrendous rates were we able to pay off the new apartment. At the same time, the housing market crashed and we were unable to sell the old one! The monthly bills were far more than I was able to earn, and things were dicey for a while.

It came to April 2023, and we took over the new apartment. Lynn was stir crazy from being boxed up in Oslo for several years waiting for her residence card and had booked a flight black to China the day after takeover. We spot rented vans and moved everything we could manage to the new apartment on the 4th, and she ran for her flight on the 5th leaving me to sort out the rest, We had no furniture to speak of as none of the old furniture would fit into the new apartment, For a while, I was living on a mattress.

Lynn ordered new furniture as we could afford it from China and I would drag it into the apartment and assemble it. A bed packaged to weigh 200kg left me quite exhausted. Every day I was talking to the estate agent, hoping for news of someone who would make an offer on our old apartment, but the months rolled by and no one came. The agreement on our bridge loan expired and we had to argue for special circumstances to keep it going. The banks had no sympathy for the difficulties people were facing in the new market conditions. Just as we were drowning in payments, some money from Mum’s estate came through from the UK, and the exchange rate was (for once) favourable.

The weeks passed, Lynn returned, and I was unable to concentrate on any work, adding extra pressure to the finances. I was able to pay off part of the loan to make the monthly payments manageable. A small reprieve. I rented out the old apartment for a few months to an Australian who was very easy going. Only in December were we able to sell the apartment, but for a million kroner less than what we’d planned for. On the day we finally received the balance and our debts were erased, I was numb with gratitude.

Thankfully Mum was spared the stress of these tricky times.

The nine challenges

I try to keep busy. After finishing several exhausting books, I was done with writing for a while. Floating in the limbo between mum’s passing and selling the old flat, I was unable to find work so I kept myself busy revisiting the music I’d made and by revisiting old topics that I hadn’t had time to think about. I wrote a few articles on medium about topics that had languished in my mind. One feels guilty about not working, but a quick slap focuses the mind on the importance of just using time well.

I studied topics that I’d wanted to learn about like quantum computing and knot theory for a few days each until I was certain I knew just enough to not be completely ignorant of what these lingering topics were about. A couple of years earlier, I had started to work loosely with a Hungarian who had had an idea he was struggling to make people understand. He reached out to me via social media. When I heard it, I immediately recognized what he was saying from bits of my own work. We formed a loose alliance to try to turn his work into a startup, and I wrote a paper based on the discussions. It was a technical topic about data consistency. Part of me was enthusiastic about the simple solution to a longstanding problem in tech, while another part of me wished to be finished with its unforgiving world. We kept our connection going until today and step by step the vision comes to fruition.

For the most part, I lived in music during those days. Every day I would wake up, not sure what I should do, but knowing what I wanted to listen to. I studied pieces of existing music that I admired, wanting to understand how they worked. Lynn and I had fallen into the habit of binge watching Japanese animé series during the lockdowns. I learned a huge amount about Japanese music–so rich and varied. I wanted to write my own animé music. So I started with a song, because every animé starts and ends with a song.

Songs are difficult for me. Melody doesn’t come naturally to my musical brain, so I worked at it. By the time the first song was done, my symphonic brain told me that there was enough thematic material to write a whole suite of music from that one song. So I did. It became Valentine Skies, an imagined story of two girls who discover a giant robot in the age of Gundam. The initial song became the final epilogue, in which one typically covers all the themes while the credits roll.

My old computer was struggling; it couldn’t quite hack the challenges I was putting to it, so I decided that I should invest in better equipment. I bought a more powerful Macintosh computer and a professional sound library through my company and began the slow process of rerecording my music more properly. It was a labour of love in many ways, quite time consuming to adjust every badly captured note.

To cut a long story short, I ended up making nine albums of music over the next couple of years, chipping away at the process of making them acceptably imperfect. They were too late to show my mum (who might have been more enthusiastic than anyone else) but these have meant a huge amount to me,

Nine album covers as of March 2024

The digital art for the covers was drawn mostly by me–another experiment. I loved to paint, but electronic drawing is a different skill. It felt harder. For my symphony I asked a professional artist in the UK if I could use her art, a lovely red starry sky. Lynn helped me with the graphic design of the text, and drew the cover for our 1001 L-days anniversary music.

By the time of writing this, I’ve now made nine albums of very different material. That’s nowhere near the end of what I’ve written, but I had to take a break once work beckoned.

I suppose, in the end, I am a kind of DJ. after all.

Trust and the Dunbar number

During the year we downsized to a new flat, money was very tight. You imagine life getting wealthier and more settled, but now the opposite was happening. I was not getting any lasting work as the short projects set up by larger companies floundered and there were fewer people coming to me. I was beginning to worry and even considered starting again in some other area. A couple of friends held me back, telling me I should have more confidence and keep my integrity. People smell weakness and despise it.

An online acquaintance I’d met on Twitter, and later on my travels through Europe, Edmund Humenberger from Austria, told me about the NLnet Foundation–a Dutch organisation that funds work in open source development and research. I’d developed an aversion both to software development and to seeking funding for projects, but I was ready for anything at this point. The perils of EU funding was one of the reasons I’d left the university. I didn’t want to beg for handouts: they always came like a devil’s bargain with some inflicted torture and suffering that largely outweighed the benefits they pretended. Nevertheless, I was bleeding money and desperately needed some income at this point. The NLnet process was surprisingly lightweight and the people were suspiciously reasonable, unlike the usual bureaucrats who ran funding agencies. Even better, as a Foundation, the NLnet money was considered a tax free gift so I would not have to give away most of the money directly to the government (just the bank). But what could I do? I looked over their “call for projects” and found an item about trust for the Next Generation Internet that caught my attention.

By chance, as a corollary to my work on virtual motion and social systems I’d written some notes, a kind of quasi paper, about the role of trust and how I suspected it played the role of an energy parameter in social systems. Notes on Trust As A Causal Basis For Social Science had been read by several hundred people on Researchgate, which was a good sign. It felt like an idea that needed to be developed. I had the idea to do just that as a proposal. However, the funding was clearly for open source programming development, not for basic research. I began to wonder how one could actually develop the idea in code.

By chance, someone had just contacted me about the dire state of the Wikipedia page about Promise Theory (and also the one about me), not realising that it is strictly forbidden by Wikipedia for persons to be involved in editing anything that they themselves have had a hand in. I wasn’t able to help them, but I could see the vitriolic interactions between well meaning editors and authors on the open Wiki platform, so mistrusting of one another. It felt like an opportunity to study trust somehow. I didn’t know exactly what I could do, but I rushed a proposal to use the Wikipedia data to study trust as an energy-like measure. Quite remarkably, it was accepted! So I had to make it work!

I have plenty of failings, but I’m quite good at figuring out problems that most people dismiss as impossible with a little systematic tenacity. It’s something like rock climbing. You don’t know how you are going to reach the top, but you know that you probably can if you’re patient and systematic and don’t go too far out on a ledge. I began by laying out ten points to force myself to keep things moving forward month by month. I made a project Web page to gather the resources and results and started with a literature review to see the length and breadth of what people had written about trust before in academic. It was a remarkably repetitive experience. For all the years of looking at such a common topic, only a tiny handful of authors had even made any progress in understanding what trust was about. I was shocked to discover that they had no methodology for measuring trust except to ask people in a questionnaire: do you trust this person or not? They started by assuming that everyone knew what trust was!

I developed the Promise Theory behind my own thinking more carefully. One problem in coming back to things I worked on in the past is always my terrible memory. I can spend weeks realizing that I already solved the problems earlier. I gathered all of the references I could find into the web page and began to search for how social science researchers studied trust. The energy model I’d already discussed at least gave me ideas about how I could do better. In physics, energy is related to time and effort. Those were things I could measure.

As the months went by, and I wrote code to read the web logs of Wikipedia, a pattern began to emerge in the data that intrigued me. I’d imagined that authors came to write about their passions and that perhaps people worked together to divide and conquer and make the information better. However, the data told a very different story. Every web page’s history was rife with conflict. What actually happens is that someone begins to alter a page, others see something going on and come to nitpick and even fight them. This lasts for a while and eventually they tire of it and the episode peters out. Crucially, I realised that the usual nice story about trust was actually turned on its head: people didn’t come to work together because they trusted one another, but the opposite: it was suspicion and mistrust in one another that drove the interactions. That was completely the opposite of what everyone else had assumed about trust. What’s more, I had data to support it.

Using the Promise Theory model I’d developed, I predicted that if mistrust was a kind of energy of attentiveness, that the process would have a certain shape. I derived a formula for the probability of there being a certain number of people before a group fizzled out:

When I compared this to the data, the match was astoundingly good! But this formula makes no sense from the point of trust being an attractive force.

This result was more than I could have hoped for. In the end, I couldn’t have been happier that I’d taken on the project. And there was one more happy twist of fate.

Years ago, during the 90s, when I was reading every popular science book I could find, I’d read a book by (for me at the time) an unknown scientist called Robin Dunbar, a British Psychologist and Anthropologist. His book Gossip, Grooming, and the Evolution of Language explained how our modern neocortical brains likely developed to navigate the treacherous waters of social relationships. He plotted the brian masses of primates against the numbers of animals in their packs and found a straight line. He then extrapolated that for humans and found a number of about 150 expected acquaintances for humans. The so-called Dunbar Number is now famous in Internet circles as people argue about its validity. This book made a strong impression on me. I’ve revisited the notion several times over the years.

Something about the numbers I’d found in my data reminded me of Dunbar’s work about neocortical mass and the sizes of social groups. My groups had a very specific size–not at all random. Why should that be? It suggests there is something innate about the human experience, about our tolerance for working together.

Social science studies rarely study more than a few people at a time in a repeatable scientific manner, but here I had a method that involved hundreds of thousands of users on Wikipedia and gave very good agreement between theory and experiment. It felt unprecedented. I saw that the group sizes in the episodic encounters were exactly what Dunbar had predicted for short lived conversations.

As I always do when I’m excited, I reached out and contacted Dunbar to tell him the news. I found him in semi-retirement living close to where I grew up in the Wirral, across the Mersey from Liverpool. He was a very nice man and we quickly discovered that we had a silly amount in common. We were both from the Wirral, we both went to schools near Banbury (within a few miles of one another) and we’d both been expats, coming back to an interest in studying social issues. Clearly our thinking as well as our geographical journeys were aligned.

We wrote a couple of papers together about the results. Finally, there was a theoretical reason, based on social network processes, for why groups would reach a certain size. It wasn’t just about brain size, but about conflict too! This was the first prediction for Promise Theory and its legacy.

After being initially sceptical of what I could do with the trust project, it had turned out to be a lot more scientifically interesting than I could have imagined. I don’t think it will create any immediately useful technology but it had brought to light the answer to a real mystery–the kind of puzzle that I got into science to solve!

Perhaps, more importantly, for Lynn and me, the money it paid allowed us to keep our heads above water during an exceptionally stressful and challenging year. After months of haemorrhaging money to no other purpose than to sustain bankers profiting from other’s misery, we managed to sell our apartment and finally had a surplus of money again, albeit a million kroner less than we’d planned for.

It was time to live again.

Epic Voyages

The Trust Project came to an end just as we sold the apartment. Lynn and I decided we would get away from the prison that Oslo had become and explore our growing nostalgia for home. First of all, a trip to the UK. We would visit mum’s grave and lay some flowers, so that Lynn could pay her respects in person. And I wanted to see the places I yearned for, from my past: Liverpool, Newcastle Upon Tyne, York, The Lake District, and also places I had never been to like Bristol and Cardiff. Then, after that, we would spend a month in China doing the same.

For each trip, Lynn drew us on a map of our journey.

We travelled first to London for a concert given by acclaimed Japanese drummer/composer Yoshiki. He is famous for playing the Japanese rock metal band X-Japan and spawning a whole genre of Japanese rock industry. Ironically, his own mother had died at the same time as mine and he was also sad for her loss. He told the audience: “I would go back to my mum and hope she would be proud of my accomplishments, but she would just say–are you looking after yourself? Do you eat properly? You’re looking thin!” Kindred spirits from across the globe.

Royal Albert Hall, Yoshiki on Drums and Piano

We took a train to Bristol and rented a car there. We drove Northward through Nottingham and Leeds to York. Lynn is a master of experience. She arranged for us to fly a plane over the Yorkshire dales. Our adventures together are always mainly thanks to her.

My first flight …

Visiting York, where my aunt and uncle had lives, was always special to me. York is a cozy Viking settlement, “where the streets are gates, the gates are bars, and the bars are full” as they like to say.

York, the Shambles
York Minster is a large cathedral, seen from the city walls

My main goal in the North was to revisit Newcastle Upon Tyne, my home for six years of university. Much had changed, mostly in a good way, but the old places were still there. It was sad to see many homeless people on the streets now. The university was the same as ever.

Newcastle University gate

When I left Newcastle, they shut the doors on the physics department and moved everyone to other places. Now it was back in the same old building!

The old Physics Building, Newcastle University

We stole a second concert at the new stadium in Gateshead, just across the Tyne river. Europe, the Swedish hard rock band gave a fantastic performance–real pros.

Europe at the Gateshead Arena

Crossing the north of the country, we drive through the Lake District.

Lake District

The famous viaduct as filmed in Harry Potter, in the Northumbrian highlands.

Liverpool cathedral.
The Liver birds and building on the Mersey in Liverpool.

After a brief respite in Oslo, we left the cold and headed to China for December 2023. By ironic chance, it was in the midst of the coldest weather in 40 years, so our plan was thwarted until we could reach warmer latitudes. From Shanghai, we went West and then South tracing the treacherous border with Myanmar and Vietnam where kidnappings and gang violence cause trouble for Chinese security.


In the old capital Nanjing, our hotel was a converted dignitary’s home.


The Chinese New year of the dragon was approaching.

Nanjing, old capital
Chongqing (Cheungking) fog city and mountain city.
Chongqing (Cheungking) fog city and mountain city.
Blade Runner? Or Chongqing (Cheungking) fog city and mountain city.

In the West, we found the many minorities who live in remote regions of China. All with 5G coverage.

The miao people
Guangdong park.
Shenzhen light park at the OCT bay.
Shenzhen downtown from the park

The massive 115 story skyscraper in downtown Shenzhen has light art painted across it each weekend.

Travelling through China was like living in a science fiction novel for a month. There were so many things to say. It has to be a separate story.


So, we’re up to date. These recollections have gone on for long enough. I have some order to my past. I have a new world to live in now and this is surely more than anyone else needed to know.

When my mum passed, I felt an incalculable sadness. Not with tears, but in the shape of an emptiness that had been chipping away at me since first my Uncle and Aunt died,starting the inevitable cabal. The beginning of an end. She had kept all of the family alive in me, in a sense, but then a rug was pulled out from under us without warning and everything was gone. For a brief time it brought me closer to my nephews and to my sister, but then the truth of it dawned. I just have Lynn now. My connection to a childhood past that had been filled with excitement and adventure now was severed. I was adrift now, albeit with my new love to guide me.

So I find myself in a different world. Past family and friends have moved on. I feel my body getting older. My arthritis stops me from doing things I used to enjoy: cyclic, playing guitar. The degradation disgusts me. I feel less capable, weak, and even ugly. The disappearance of that past reality is bewildering. Lynn and I will often remark: “Ah, we can’t tell mum. We show mum anymore.” Who can we share our pleasures with now?

Those ties to that past are gone. I may never again drive along that road, to that village where I grew up, where I cycled for adventure, where I played along the river. I may never need to remember those times that made me who I am. So what am I now? What’s left? When I listen to Vaughan Williams I still think there are parts of the British landscape that I no longer feel are familiar, that I no longer feel part of or “understand”. Views that I never experienced. I can’t capture it all, but it’s my nature to try. There are people I never knew, places I never felt were mine. Who am I? Surely, I’m some kind of fraud…not from any place, not going anywhere in particular. Others seem to have a place. Where is mine?

Some days I ponder that fateful drive through the English country road to sort out some of mum’s affairs; it started me on the long path of writing these memorabilia, of trying to capture this series of biographical snippets. I’m not finished with those places. Copmanthorpe, Cotswolds. The country lanes.

The sunlight dancing on the branches and stone walls. All gone. What am I doing here? I really can’t say. I write to understand these things better–it’s my process. I started so I’ll finish, as they say on Mastermind. I hate leaving things unfinished.

I suppose we’ll see what happens next.



Mark Burgess

@markburgess_osl on Twitter and Instagram. Science, research, technology advisor and author - see Http://markburgess.org and Https://chitek-i.org