On the usefulness of words

It’s an odd thing for me to say, maybe, but I find I’m putting less and less stock in the usefulness of words. You’ll often see writers say words are powerful, and that’s true, but often they’re powerful for the wrong reasons. These days, we’re more likely to read words on the recommendations of algorithms than people.

Unless used carefully, words can have a tendency to divide rather than unite; to mislead rather than inform; to push readers to the fringes rather than draw them to the middle. Writers are told to drop qualifying words that might soften the impact of their message, as if we don’t live in a world of infinite nuance. Perhaps the message isn’t the all-important thing. Compare the power of words to end an argument to the power of a hug or putting the kettle on.

I used to have faith in the potential of words to perfectly encapsulate ideas, but I think I’d rather read words that spark ideas rather than contain them. We expect the reader to interpret meaning exactly as the author intended – a burden we’d never place on the audience of a painting or symphony.

But I don’t despair. In some ways this is liberating. I’ll keep writing, because it’s probably too late for me to start something else. But forgive me if I approach the empty page a little differently than I used to.


I turned 40 a few months ago. That brings with it a certain amount of introspection, and that’s a good thing. Add to that the inevitable new year’s resolutions and things are in danger of getting out of hand. And there’s a new job coming up to boot, which is great. Very exciting.

So what’s going on? Well, I’ve resolved to put what can now only be laughably referred to as my youth behind me once and for all and embrace, if not absolute teetoalism, then a very close approximation. It’s been a blast, or it seemed to be a decade or more ago, but alcohol in any sort of volume quite simply doesn’t agree with me any more. So that’s an easy one. By which I mean obvious, not actually easy, but I’m optimistic it won’t prove too tough a change to make.

We’re eating a lot less meat these days, for health, ethical and environmental reasons (that’s if the last two are in any way different). So that’s good. Really enjoying it too.

Lastly, I’m resolving to double down on dadhood as the most important thing I’ll ever do. I’d like to think I’m a good Dad but there’s always room to do better. I’m very lucky to have a wonderful daughter, and she’s nearly 6 now. I say that like that’s an important milestone, which it isn’t. It’s all important, obviously. But now is the best time to try harder, to make time, to be, er, “present” and, crucially, to plan doing lovely things.

Loosely in that ballpark I’ve decided to level up my media consumption to consume way less stuff created solely or predominantly by straight white men – i.e. people like me. I’ve made efforts in this direction for some time, but nowhere near enough. I hope this will help me be a better Dad. I may talk more about this.

Lastly and most wankily, I want to stop treating zen as an academic interest and actually do some routine meditating. I know, everyone’s at it. But yes, after years reading around it, I’m sold that zen as a philosophy makes a lot of sense as something to actually put into practice. If there’s one thing all the theory has taught me it’s that you can throw the theory out of the window. All you need to do is sit, ideally in a lotus or half-lotus, concentrate on your breathing and let the inevitable thoughts go as readily as they come. Forget progress. Just do this, and everything else should fall into place. So: time to sit.

So there we are: many wagons for me to fall off in the coming months. Watch this space.

A lovely thing

A journalist once asked me what I would like my epitaph to be and I said I think I would like it to be, ‘He did very little harm’. And that’s not easy. Most people seem to me to do a great deal of harm. If I could be remembered as having done very little, that would suit me.

– Paul Eddington

Recently listening to…

Some semi-recent musical noticings in case you’re on the lookout at the moment. It’s all electronic stuff, or at least in that ballpark, sorry, because, you know…


Boards of Canada’s old track XYZ was added to Spotify a few months back. They played this when they appeared on John Peel eons back, but it didn’t make the accompanying release because, I think, there were sample clearance issues. Lovely bit of vintage BoC, and unusually uptempo for them.

Societas X Tape

Another bit ’o BoC: Societas X Tape was their radio mix for the Warp Records NTS Radio takeover back in June 2019. This is a beautifully hypnogogic and otherworldly mix. I’ve been contemplating doing a podcast/mix, probably on Mixcloud because I’d want to use other people’s tunes, and this would definitely be a reference point, as would Blue Jam.

Random playlists

Curated Spotify playlists seem to be where Spotify shines lately. Here are some good ones I’ve noticed:

  • Relax Your Mind is lovely laidback fare assembled by Coldcut
  • WXAXRXP was put together by user Robert Bernardin, assembled from Warp Record’s various WXAXRXP radio sessions releases over the years
  • This is Plaid, being Spotify’s official best of Plaid playlist should by all accounts be an uninspired collection assembled by an intern after an afternoon’s Googling (or so I cynically imagine). But the choices are inspired. This on shuffle is my go-to listening at the moment
  • Okay, so not a playlist but a live set, but Autechre’s AE_LIVE_DUBLIN_191214 set is something a little different for Spotify

And that’s it really. Is it me or do people not talk about music as much as they’re used to?

Pinboard linkroll

Hey! Turns out WordPress’s RSS widget works really nicely with Pinboard if you want to add a sidebar of recent links. Be sure to include descriptions if you want your own added descriptions to appear with the link. I’ve added a “Recently noticed” section to the sidebar, but perhaps I’ll blog proper summaries every once in a while for the RSS Massive. Anyway, just a little parp into the ether in case it helps somebody somewhere. Ta.

CVs of failure

Came across this a month or so back, and was quite taken with the idea: a CV of failures. A number of scientists have picked up on the idea of compiling a CV of career failures to highlight for others just how much rejection seems to come bundled up with a career as a scientist.

Princeton’s Johannes Haushofer caught some media attention with their CV of failures (a PDF link, I’m afraid), which includes unsuccessful applications for degree programs, fellowships and funding. There’s also a section on rejections for paper submissions to academic journals.

But Haushofer credits Melanie I. Stefan for the original idea, published in Nature. Here’s an extract:

For every hour I’ve spent working on a successful proposal, I’ve spent six hours working on ones that will be rejected. I don’t mind the extra work — after all, if I abhorred tedious tasks with low chances of success, I would not be in research.

Even so, this means that for every endorsement, there are about six challenges to my ability, my determination and my vision. I find this harder to swallow. Perhaps this is because I have generally succeeded so far. I did well at school and later at university, earned the PhD position of my dreams, and have published several papers. This is the story that my CV reveals.

But that is exactly the problem. My CV does not reflect the bulk of my academic efforts — it does not mention the exams I failed, my unsuccessful PhD or fellowship applications, or the papers never accepted for publication. At conferences, I talk about the one project that worked, not about the many that failed.

Excellent stuff. And here’s Stefan’s actual CV of failures (again, a PDF).

And now I’m furious with myself for not bookmarking the excellent example I first came across on the very frank and funny website of a scientist that deserves repeat visits. I’ll rack my brains and come back with a link if I can.

Anyway: it occurs to me the nearest equivalent for a freelance writer would be failed pitches. I suppose it carries the risk that someone better at pitching will pinch your ideas so maybe I won’t actually do it, but I can see value: my failed pitches outweigh my successful ones by an order of magnitude, I imagine. I’m sure some writers find more success, but maybe it would be reassuring to others, and particularly brand new freelancers, to air that in public. And it would certainly be useful to me to keep a record: I’m sure your professional professionals do that sort of thing, if privately.

Otherwise I think my litany of professional failings would be unwise to share. The examples scientists pick out are from systems which have failure built in, perhaps to the point that it isn’t even failure – not really. Runners up don’t win, but we don’t call them failures after all. But I suspect the professional failings of most of the rest of us are murkier, interpersonal messes that are best simply moved on from.

But I love the idea, and applaud the people have taken the time to put a CV of failures together. You can find more examples with a search engine, I’m sure.


Quiet web

Happy new year to you!

Things have been quiet here for a bit, you lucky devils! Christmas and all that. And, to be honest, the election.

Ah, the election. Politics aside, I found myself slipping into some old bad habits. Too much phone. Too much social media. Too much news.

On that score, I found myself creating a few home screen icons of websites to go to when I wanted to read something and didn’t want to check social media and news yet again (or, er, at all).

One was the articles section at hermitary.com, a lovely collection of writing on all things hermit. I must confess to a slightly eremitic bent, so these are right up my proverbial cul-de-sac.

The other page was Oliver Burkeman’s Guardian column, which I sort of interpret as a subversive attempt to make Eastern philosophy relevant to modern life.

On a side note, I’ve done a lot of reading on Eastern philosophy in the past few years, particular Taoism and Zen. For me, this column is much nearer the essence of that stuff than any number of so-called Zen blogs out there, which seem to me to be productivity blogs in disguise.

I don’t think you have to know much about zen to know it’s not about striving, and it always seems to be your modern Western Zen writers are trying very hard indeed.

And though I’ve fallen out of the habit of looking at it, Maria Popova’s Brain Pickings, which you probably already know, but which never fails to delight.

Until I’m able to retire to a remote island, these are the sorts of things I like to read other than day-to-day news. And it’s not that I’m not interested in your social media offerings – it’s just that checking in once a day or so is plenty for me.

This was all meant as a preamble before a blog post about work, but that’ll do for now, I think.