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.



All the coverage of the thing currently happening in the UK has me currently waxing introspective about my own writing and what I do.

It’s tricky, because what do I do? At the moment, it’s mainly writing about science. You could say it’s journalism.

On the other hand I’m moaning about the government on my blog and on Twitter, which is hardly objective, is it? Does it matter if my area is science?

It occurs to me that, for all the hot water the BBC and ITV have found themselves in, the criticism has mainly called out a lack of impartiality, even when, lately, it’s been a lack of accuracy that’s been a much more serious issue.

I don’t want to get into the bias of any particular journalist, but I will say that the BBC seems to be hamstrung by its impartial remit. On the one hand, if it doesn’t get all sides of a story across, it’s going to come under fire for bias. But on the other, in doing so, it can be accused of lending a megaphone to extremist or objectively incorrect views. And it’s probably impossible for any one report or reporter to have zero bias.

Maybe it’s time the beeb got out of the news business. They’re so good at so many other things. Of course, I can’t say I’m impartial, but I try not to hide my biases: I believe there’s a climate crisis. I believe the rise in right-wing ideology is dangerous and I think the rise in a polarising leftism to combat it is also dangerous. And I believe in calling out bollocks. And yes I’m a remainer, and no, I don’t vote tory.

I think I’m comfortable at squaring all of that and writing about science, but it’s a conversation I’ll keep having with myself in the days ahead. But I’ll try to stop moaning about politics. Not because of bias but because I know that it’s incredibly boring for people.

Stop all the crooks (poem for polling day)

Stop all the crooks, get on your phone,
Vote Margaret Hodge in Barking, vote out Peter Bone.
Silence the liars and the Eton plum,
Bring out the pencils, let the voters come.

Let the papers print on their bloody mastheads
The desperate cry: austerity is dead.
Hold up placards for the public droves
Put up signs in street-facing alcoves.

Vote North, vote South, vote East and West,
Vote for schools and the NHS.
Deconstruct the elitist throng:
They thought Universal Credit was for ever: they were wrong.

This government is not wanted now: vote out every one.
Pack up The Mail and dismantle The Sun.
Vote anyone but Tory if you would,
For none of them have ever done us any good.

With apologies to W. H. Auden.

Me me me me me

Because I’m properly freelancing (rather than longer-term contracting) again, I thought I’d better write a professional-sounding About page like what professional-sounding people have. I’m probably all the more in need of one as I binned my LinkedIn account because, well, I just couldn’t stand LinkedIn any more.

Anyway, this is all very embarrassing, and unless you have some interest in giving me money, I’d genuinely prefer it if you didn’t read it. Anyway I don’t want your money. You’re my friend. This is more for people that get here from a link I put in an email, the credulous idiots.

Honestly, I don’t know how people suspend the shame long enough to write one of these well. I splatted mine out in about two minutes, and mostly with my eyes shut. Actually, I’m even sorry I’ve made you read this post. I feel I ought to palm you off with another joke. Here it is: Why do cows moo? Because maa, mee and mii would sound stupid, and muu has a somewhat ambiguous pronunciation. Boomtish.

Tripod rescue: a true story

I knew something was up when J approached me with some fish on a stick. It was tinned mackerel on what appeared to be a fencing slat. “It’s under number 3’s shed.”

There was no doubt as to the identity of the it in question. About half an hour earlier, a neighbour had asked to have a look around our garden. About a fortnight before that he’d come to ask if we’d seen his cat – a cat with only three legs.

I’d wondered what had become of Tripod, as my inner monologue had taken to calling the cat, in the intervening period. I hoped that, had it met its end, it was a merciful one, rather than, say, being scared out of its wits by our pair of whippets and bolting under a hedge into the maw of a passing plough .

But it turns out he, for he he was, had set up camp under next door’s shed. The neighbour had been leaving food out for it, and it was being eaten. And he knew it was eaten by the cat and not rats or the village peacock because he’d come over all Chris Packham and set up some motion cameras in his garden to prove it.

Judging by the sound it made under the shed, Tripod was terrified. Who knows what trauma caused the loss of limb, but one had to feel for him, seeking retirement in these quiet, pastoral lands only to be housed with three small children, almost certainly rather too keen for feline entertainment. No wonder he’d escaped.

J enlisted my help to man one corner of the shed, should Tripod bolt for it. Between them, and in defiance of all conventional mathematics, J and Tripod’s owner somehow watched the other three. Partly by tempting Tripod out with the fishy stick, partly by encouraging him out with a pole and partly by stamping on the shed floor, we managed to sufficiently scare the shit out of Tripod to the point at which he did indeed make a run for it – it being absolutely anywhere else.

At this point, two things surprised me. One was the speed with which three-legged cats can move. I don’t know if Tripod is representative of all three-legged cats, but he moved fucking fast. I can only conclude either that three-legged cats are faster than four-legged cats, or cats that live with a 1:1 ratio of their own legs to cohabiting children are forced to be rather fleeter than others.

The other thing that surprised was that, while in exile, Tripod had clearly gained a detailed knowledge of the fences and hedges all along our row, and knew exactly where to gain ingress to the next garden. Mind you, the neighbour was just as spry. Every time I turned around he seemed to be in a different garden. I assume he was vaulting fences, but the evidence equally suggests that he was apparating. (He does own a cat, and all that.)

Clearly I had underestimated Tripod, so I slunk inside to mentally regroup. By this point he was three gardens along and his owner was lying unceremoniously under a tall coniferous hedge trying to retrieve him. By this point other neighbours had gathered. J came to retrieve me, took me to said garden and told me where to stand – blocking Tripod’s potential exit from the garden via the gate behind me. I felt a bit like I imagine Alec Stewart felt keeping wicket for England.

Success! Our neighbour had caught hold of Tripod, and was hugging him close to his chest. This was in spite of a flurry of dubious advice from another neighbour in the build-up, like “you’re going to have to be brutal with it.” The only problem now was that he was completely stuck, so low was the hedge he was under and so deep was the extent of his penetration.

J and I were forced to pull him out by his legs which was awkward because we were wedged in by a shed and lacked the necessary room to do this effectively. And it was awkward because we barely knew him.

When we pulled him out he looked like he’d been pulled through a hedge backwards, mainly because he’d been pulled through a hedge backwards. At this point he thanked us and took Tripod home, presumably to be locked in the cat dungeon he’s had two weeks to construct. (He seems quite handy.)

We offered the neighbour the rest of the tin of mackerel. Actually, we were offering it to Tripod, but we used the neighbour as an interpreter.

“Just pop it on his box,” the neighbour said. So we did. And that, friends, is the story of how we, in a very small way, helped in the rescue of a three-legged cat by pulling a man out of a hedge.

How to lose 6,000 Twitter followers

By any meaningful modern measure of success, losing 6,000 Twitter followers is a bit of a fuck up. Or at least it would seem to be. In my case it was losing 1,000 that was the fuck up. The other 5,000 was one of the best things I’ve ever done. Yes, there’s some hyperbole there, but it was definitely a good thing. What on Earth am I talking about? To answer that we need to journey back to the halcyon, sun-kissed days of 2006.

As fate had it, I was taking a break from the internet when Twitter launched. I’d just moved flat, and I had no connection. And to be honest, I was in no hurry to get one. I was, still being honest, enjoying not having the internet. I didn’t have a mobile phone for a bit then either. Genuinely, it was bliss. But you have to have the internet, don’t you? And so I sorted that out after a month or two. And when I did, suddenly everyone I knew was on Twitter.

By everyone I knew, I mean everyone I knew on the internet. Back then, most people I knew online were very internetty, and very likely to be an early adopter of internet stuff. In fact for a while there, it felt like that was something of a gang of usual suspects that would descend upon whatever the latest web 2.0 thing was to land – if it passed muster, that is. Which probably meant that one of the gang knew, or at least knew of, had worked on the thing. I’d still recognise about two-dozen usernames, I reckon.

I missed the Twitter party. Not in the grand scheme, you understand, but so far as the gang was concerned. In the grand scheme I was an extremely early adopter. But, outside of the grand scheme, if indeed that’s a thing, I was late. But it didn’t seem to matter. I don’t know why I mentioned it. Anyway, being rather on the fringes of the gang I probably kicked around with a few dozen followers for a few years. Maybe it got up to a few hundred. I don’t remember.

But Twitter changed for me in 2011. I’d become a journalist and I was writing for Ars, and when you write for Ars you get a steady tick-tock of new followers. Then I got a few jobs in the tech industry that I suppose raised my profile a little bit, and I got some growth merely from following colleagues and them following me back. I worked with a lot of different people during 2013 – and since.

At over 1,000 followers I think I panicked a bit. Why were people following me? I had my original followers of borderline actual friends who, bless them, probably didn’t care what I tweeted, but I thought I probably owed silly jokes. I had the journalism followers who, at that time, might have seen me as a science and environment writer. I had my corporate colleagues who I guess knew me more for plain English and bullshit-free communication.

I didn’t know (and I still don’t) how to tweet in the same language of your leading lights in the sphere of digital business. It’s not that I don’t have shareable thoughts on those issues. It’s that they’re brilliant, inspiring people. But I, very definitely, am not. Thing is, some notable exceptions aside, they never seem to crack a joke. And I simply can’t understand that. I don’t care if the jokes are good or bad, but for heaven’s sake, let your guard down once in a while. Of course, I tended to go too far the other way. I’d tweet quite openly about whatever shit was running through my head, was not above dropping the c-bomb here and there. It added to this sense of dissonance – not knowing what the hell Twitter was any more.

Simultaneously, life decided to get a bit shit for a few years. Or, at least as likely, I subconsciously decided to make it shit for a few years. So I made the decision to bin off that confusing mess of a Twitter account. Because I had another one with 5,000 followers, and this was going to be the answer to all my I’m-centre-of-the-universe Twitter problems that existed only in my increasingly ill mind. (Warning: possible mental health-oriented posts to come.)

See, around 2007 there was this very minor phenomenon of parody Twitter accounts – Twitter accounts purporting to belong to celebrities or fictional characters. A subset of the latter category was Star Wars parody accounts. Except they weren’t parodying Star Wars. Or even having fun with Star Wars. They were taking it all just a bit too seriously for my liking. So I signed up for one, and wouldn’t you know, @stormtrooper was available.

So all the while I was tweeting under my real name, I was also tweeting stupid Star Wars jokes under @stormtrooper. At this point, remind me to write a blog post on the extent to which I’m not obsessed with Star Wars. Because I’m really not. You just wouldn’t know it from this blog so far. Sorry about that. There’s plenty of non-Star Wars stuff coming, I promise.

And the follows rolled in because my jokes were so fantastic and I was so brilliant. Except it wasn’t because of those things, because I wasn’t those things. The follows rolled in because my account was @stormtrooper. And the reason I know that is because, if I signed in to the account after 8 months off telling shit Star Wars jokes; I’d have an extra thousand followers regardless.

At this point you can probably anticipate the stupid mistake I made. I binned off my proper Twitter account and changed my @stormtrooper account to my personal account. And in doing so I dumped 1,000 followers who were, to whatever tiny degree, interested in me, in favour of 5,000 people who didn’t know me from Admiral Ackbar, and who didn’t give a shit about my non-Star Wars dumb jokes, my thoughts on plain English or anything else I had to say.

Of course I followed my internet friends with that account and, bless them again, they followed me back. But other than that I haemorrhaged followers. We’re talking dozens a week. And of the thousands I still had, I think almost all were either spam or abandoned accounts.

To add insult to injury, I’m convinced that the increasingly arcane workings of Twitter were putting some hoodoo on me. Years after it had ceased to be a Star Wars-related Twitter account, Twitter was still recommending spectacularly unfunny Star Wars parody accounts to me to follow. And, paranoid as it may be, I’m fairly convinced many of my tweets were disappearing into the ether.

So, having lost some 1,500 followers, I binned that account off too, which I think, on balance was a good decision. After some useful months away I’m back on Twitter. I know what I want from it now. I know who to follow, and who not to follow to avoid the rubbish I don’t want to see. It’s ironic that, over the last six or seven years I’ve advised companies and organisations on how to use Twitter, and even done it for them from time to time. I like to think I’ve done it quite well. This despite making such a colossal bag of cocks of my own Twitter.

In my defence, I struggle to remember a time that I really took Twitter seriously. I think it was always at it’s best when it was whimsical. I’m quite happy with silly jokes, swears, and miss people tweeting about what they’re having for lunch. It used to be derided as puerile because of that sort of thing. But compared to the toxic mess it has become, those were lovely little specks of gold.

At the time of writing I have 13 followers on Twitter. And I can honestly say they are worth an infinite amount more than the 5,000 I thought I had before. I never really did.