Words and wars

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Whilst catching up with my backlog of queued podcasts earlier this week, I heard a phrase in reference to the current global war on terrorism that caught my attention.  I don’t remember it exactly but it went along the lines of:

“There are only ever conversations and then wars”

The point being that all we ever have to secure peace is dialogue, discussion or negotiation and once that ends all we have is a reversion to violence on some level.  It’s when talks stall that violence starts, and that’s true whether it’s a local neighbourhood dispute over loud music, or two nations disputing the ownership of land. The magnitudes and implications may be very different, but the processes of negotiation on every level lead ultimately to only one of two outcomes:

negotiate -> compromise or agree -> resolution
negotiate -> fail to reach solution -> violence

It’s rather obvious I guess, but I’d never looked at it in this way, that at a very basic level, all we have in life, to safeguard our desire for peace, safety and happiness, comes down to words and exchange of ideas. Just that. Nothing else.

Whether spoken or written, words give us the ability to set ourselves apart from all other species, to truly become great. Carefully constructed groups of words form ideas and underpin arguments and reason, leading to cures against disease, improvements in technology that lead to improvements in the quality of all of our lives, and the ability to change opinion, to reach consensus, to compromise and reason, ultimately underpinning the very fabric of civilisation as we know it.

And given the importance of words, it is becoming increasingly worrying how social media echo chambers are distorting how we all perceive the world, and therefore how we communicate and interact with the world in our daily lives.

Such echo chambers have always existed, albeit in slightly different forms. Some people always buy The Daily Mail because it satisfies their right wing leanings. Most importantly and most dangerously, it closes the circle by emphasising and endorsing  pre conceived thinking and opinions. If you read The Daily Mail, you read how immigrants are to blame for the economy, lack of housing, demise of the healthcare system and so on, because you read it day after day after day in your newspaper.

Of course this isn’t just a right wing phenomenon. If I care about animal welfare, with a few clicks of a button, all I see all day are stories of cruelty to animals. If I believe the world is run by an elite lizard illuminati I can surround myself in conspiracy stories to back up and endorse my concerns. If I believe man never landed on the moon and it was all a hoax, there are over 137,000 online articles to immerse myself in to ‘uncover the truth’.

And today we don’t just have newspapers to construct our echo chamber, we also have Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat etc, where we get to select and customise our feed content to suit. We determine who makes up our timeline, and so if I am a racist I choose to follow racists who also follow racists, so when I wake on a morning and turn on my smartphone I am bombarded by memes, opinion pieces, photographs and videos that underpin my pre-formed views of the world. Many of us get most, if not all, our information from such places these days. And with fewer and fewer news corporations with increasing levels of power, we are starting to see this also on our TVs and radios.

With very little effort at all, before long, we are all cocooned into our own customised, polarised, filtered views of the world. We experience the same world events but have our own personalised echo chambers to do the interpretation for us, serving it up to us on a 4.8″ super AMOLED HD touchscreen platter.

And if you are President of the United States of America, you follow just 43 people on Twitter, most who either have the word ‘Trump’ in their surname, or who conform to the very same views of your own.  27.7M followers, following the most powerful person on the planet, who in turn follows just 43 people.  This is Trump’s echo chamber. This is the source of his words, the cradle of his ideas. This is where his opinions are formed, where legislation is constructed. This is Trump’s World.

Words and wars – Ne’er a truer word.

The Versatile Blogger – nominated x 2

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I am flattered and honoured to have received two nominations for the Versatile Blogger Award so a big, big thanks x 2 goes out to mythinkout and also pointless & prosaic who were kind enough to nominate me. As an Englishman this delights me and makes me feel very awkward, in equal measure. I confess I contemplated ignoring the nominations, but that would have been very rude and impolite, so thank you once again from the bottom of my blogging inkwell you two!

So, in accordance with the VBA rules, here are 7 things about me:

  1. I look like the Before photo in every Before/After fitness transformation photograph that was ever photographed.
  2. I’m 51 years old, but I think I’m about 34.
  3. I was born, grew up and still live in England, but have also lived in Munich – Germany (’97-’99) and Virginia – USA (’00-’02)
  4. I have an INFJ personality type which means I’m in the smallest, most select group alongside Gandhi (good), Plato (smart), Wittgenstein (wow, cool), Dostoevsky (get me!), Hitler (awkward), Bin Laden (wtf …?)
  5. I hate mushrooms
  6. The last time I cried was when our family dog died. He was called George. He was ace.
  7. I’m listening to Joni Mitchell as I type this (Court & Spark album)

My nominations are all bloggers who have either 1) blogged about something that made me go “wow”, 2) made me laugh or 3) inspired me to carry on blogging.

In no particular order:

Antondotreks

Emma Fleming

Cars and cooking

fromroad2trail

3389 miles & further

dazz22

Greater than gravity

 

 

The idiocy of being me …

I’ve been set an assignment by my Blogging101 course, to ‘write a blog to my target audience, on any subject, but with an interesting twist’.

I immediately panicked, I don’t have a target audience…

Target audience -> all human beings

That feels a bit vague …

Target audience -> people like me

This is hard, really hard.

The Blogging101 students have a common room, an online chatroom. I’ve already been on there several times and seen that loads of people have already done their homework and this is just like school all over again, all those feelings I used to have, have come flooding back. I’m more obsessed by how far others have got on their assignments than actually doing my own, and the more I procrastinate, the bigger my crisis becomes.

And yet it feels ever so slightly comforting and familiar, like slipping into an old pair of jeans. Part of me likes being told what to do, part of me likes to rebel, I will do my homework assignment but not without a small drama, a quiet rebel yell, a Tim Henman-esque fistpump.

It’s getting late, but here I am, doing my assignment, writing about not doing my assignment. This is like a bloody John Le Carre novel.

And this is a picture of a twisty snake, next to Tim Henman, fist-pumping. Pretty interesting huh? My classmates are gonna love this …

 

twisty snakeHenman

Unchaining the digital slave

Browsing Facebook is easy, playing candy crush is simple, building my SimCity takes very little effort. I can easily burn several hours a day doing these things, and I can do them anywhere – on a plane, on a train, at my desk, in a meeting (!), on the loo, in bed. Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night and do them. I think of something funny, something that I think will make people laugh and so I make a mental note to post an update on Facebook in the morning. Sometimes I do it there and then in the middle of the night, in case I forget, and whilst I’m on my phone I may even sell some items on SimCity to get more money, to build a bigger city. I’m a terrible sleeper.

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I’m currently stuck on level 500-and-something of Candy Crush Saga. I’ve been stuck on it for weeks and it’s really hacking me off. I contemplated paying for extra moves, or buying additional booster packs but I thought better of it. I’ve paid before, 69p, doesn’t sound a lot but each time you do it a small piece of your soul dies and your kharma shrivels up, like a slug exposed to salt.

I’m on level 15 of SimCity BuildIt, but I’ve only been on it a couple of weeks. I look enviously at my SimCity neighbours, some who have row upon row of shiny skyscrapers and beaches and airports and beautiful people and … how do they do it? I’m so envious, I must work harder at mine, so I load it on iPad as well as iPhone allowing me to build my city anytime, anywhere, any place, it’s the right one, it’s the bright one, it’s Martini.

Facebook brings out the worst in me. I update my status at airports, that’s cool, and foreign restaurants, and cinemas, and concerts. I like to tell jokes to make me look funny as well. Basically I’m a show-off and an attention seeker. I also only choose to share select parts of my life – I choose my photos carefully, need to look good, need to look cool. I like to talk about my kids, but only the good stuff, the funny stuff. I don’t mention the arguments, the screams and shouts, the tantrums, the door slamming.

And possibly worst of all, when something exciting happens, I have this urge to take a photo and upload it to Facebook, often lessening the experience of the actual life moment itself as a result. I see life’s exciting events through a lens rather than just experience the event itself.

I also, rather ironically, get really annoyed by other peoples updates – people that show-off, people on beaches, people in schmalzy restaurants, people in airports mysteriously omitting their destination, making us guess where they’re heading. People posing in a selfie, people posting YouTube songs, like we care!! Yes that’s right, people identical to me, I’m a hypocrite.

I try and justify this nonsense to myself and it goes something like this – I work hard, I need to relax, I deserve to relax, and so this is my relaxation, playing SimCity. Therefore I wake at 3am to fill my factories with metal and wood, to build tools and equipment, ready for the morning. Perhaps I’ll even play a bit of CandyCrush too, then realise I haven’t played Words With Friends for a few days either and my Scrabble friends will be getting annoyed with me, so I’d better do that as well. I’m exhausted, but hey this is my relaxation time, I deserve it.

How warped and flawed is that thinking?  Of course work is hard, and yes family life can be hard – thinking ahead and planning meals, cooking, cleaning, all this on top of a draining and demanding job takes time and effort, but it’s the same for everyone. So why then, when I have so little time for anything these days, do I feel the right thing to do is sit down and check my SimCity? My hammers and spades are ready – Yay! So I make more, but oh no my SimCity police force is understaffed and my SimCity citizens are getting antsy, my mayor approval rating is falling!  So I switch to Candy Crush but this is such a hard level …

And no matter how hard I try, my SimCitizens are always pissed with me, because that’s how the game works. I built a police station but now they want fire protection, I build a fire station but now they want improved sewage and waste collection. It’s so insidiously stressful and it’s 100% self inflicted.

Meanwhile, I’ve only got 3 bloody likes for that YouTube video I posted on Facebook? What the HELL is wrong with these tone-deaf idiots? And on and on it goes.

All these things we do seemingly for pleasure, but somehow I manage to make them my life. I become enveloped, my head is spinning – what to do next? Water my strawberries on Farmville or build more chairs to sell in SimCity? Those candies won’t crush themselves and if I’m not careful I’m going to lose at scrabble again. I’m not good enough, I’m failing at everything. Now I have traffic jams on my SimCity streets – sadface #sadface :-(.

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Of course, to any sane person, none of the above is real, none of this is life, none of it is living. In the meantime, outside of my self-promoting digital world, out there in the real world, real people are feeling ignored, real bills are left unpaid, real relationships left untended, real problems unresolved. Life is hard, Damon Albarn was bang on, modern life is rubbish, so adding to this with digital nonsense is so utterly, unspeakably facile, I think my head might explode, and so it’s time to make some changes.

Click, whirr …

Facebook – deleted
Messenger – deleted
SimCity (BuildIt) – deleted
CandyCrush – deleted
Words with Friends – deleted
Google+ – deleted
Snapchat – deleted

=== The End ===

The School Reunion

It was 34 years ago when I left secondary school, and 32 years since I left sixth form college. As I lost touch with everyone when I headed off to university in 1983, that means it’s been at least 32 years since I saw anyone from my schooldays, and so you can imagine my nervousness as I went to my first reunion last night. Inside the pub there would be a small group of people, all of whom were between 16-18 the last time I saw them, and now were all aged 49 or 50.

I imagined the worst, I always imagine the worst. I worried about whether I would recognise them (although I had prepped by studying Facebook photos), and I worried if they would remember me. I imagined walking in and being met by a dozen blank faces attached to a dozen youthful, slim bodies that had cheated the ravages of time. I imagined in-jokes which I wasn’t privy to, memories and recollections that didn’t involve me, stories that were unknown to me. I imagined chatty, confident, bright sparkly people and I thought of how I would stutter over my words, finding little or nothing to contribute. I imagined being the outsider because part of me always felt that way at school. I wondered if I had repressed bad memories of school, memories that would spring forth the moment I walked through the door. Were there 10 bullies waiting to confront me for one more playground bullying session? Then there was my accent, I had lived ‘down south’ for all the intervening years and my northern brogue was softened at the edges. To southerners I had a northern accent, to northerners I had a southern one, I didn’t fit in linguistically anywhere, but here I was, on home northern turf, on their turf, more proof, if proof were needed, that I was the outsider. Why was I even here? I started to panic as I approached the door and had to muster all my strength and courage not to just walk away. I had lived without these people for 30+ years, I could do it for a few more surely?

As I entered the pub I saw small groups of people gathered at tables and instantly I panicked. I was looking at them and thinking to myself, ‘is that them?’ I flushed, and started to panic some more, but then in the distance I saw the group.  I recognised Dave first, he hadn’t changed much, here goes nothing.

My homework had paid off, I could put names to faces, we shook hands (boys), we hugged (girls). There were only four of them, I was the fifth and in that moment all eyes were on me. I seriously wondered if they were all looking at me and thinking ‘who the fuck is this old bastard?’ but then Dave said “Tha can lose that posh accent nar Andy”. I was in and I headed to the bar for a much needed pint of courage.

They all looked very familiar. Obviously older, but their faces, especially their mannerisms, hadn’t changed. Others arrived and the group grew, and along with it, my confidence.

Some faces were more familiar than others, although all were known to me and it felt nice. As time went on, drink helped melt away any lingering inhibitions and stories unfolded, memories were unearthed as synapses fired in the dark recesses of my brain for the first time in over 30 years. I wanted to chat with everyone, in detail.  I wanted to know where they lived, who they lived with, who they still knew from school. I wanted to know who had kept in touch with whom, and who, like me, hadn’t. People I hadn’t thought of for several decades were mentioned, brought back to life, brought back to my life, all wrapped up in newly found and rediscovered memories.

Best of all was meeting Dave and Andy again. Dave and Andy were in my gang, we did everything together from the age of about 6 to 16. We shared lists of our favourite girls, we went to parties together, we copied each other’s homework, we listened to records together and went to concerts together, we did most things together. And even though that all stopped for over 30 years, within seconds of seeing them it was back, just like it always was. The banter, the in-jokes, the nods and winks, the nudges of familiarity, it was all there just like it always had been.

At the end of the evening, when it was time to say our goodbyes, I felt a real sense of kinship, a bond, not just with Andy and Dave, but with all these people.  It wasn’t a great school, in fact it was pretty grim and shitty if truth be told, but we all got through it and had made something of our lives.  We shared a life as children, and we had a common string of mutual experiences that no-one else knew or understood, and that made us a special group.

All my earlier fears had been unfounded.  It was, in reality, a true and genuine pleasure to meet every single one of them again.  To renew friendships no matter how tenuous.  With 50 yr old heads on our shoulders and a lifetime of experiences behind us, I got the feeling we all felt better for this.  This was like therapy and it felt great.

I can’t wait for the next one now, bring it on.

You have deactivated your Facebook account … (again)

I have, and it feels good.  I deactivated Facebook before, and I said it felt good then too, but I went back, I caved in.  Here’s what I wrote last time:

http://wp.me/p38zNH-n

Re-reading it, I still agree with every word and wonder why I ever went back?

Main reasons for leaving:

1) I dislike my own updates.  I’m mostly trying to show people how witty I am by forwarding other people’s jokes (impressive), and if I’m not making a joke, I’m self publicising by posting from some glamorous location so I can show everyone where I am.  Look at me!

2) I dislike (some) other people’s updates.  Many people use Facebook to show off.  Facebook is like one big pissing contest around exam time/holidays/christmas.  And yes, I’m guilty of this – see 1) above. Look at you!

3) I waste an enormous amount of time on it.  I checked if before bed, I checked it each morning and if I woke in the middle of the night I checked it then too.  I also checked it at work, on the train and walking down the street.

4) It stole my creativity and it stole my time.  Why bother expressing your feelings in a thought out, considered piece of prose, when you can do a short FB update instead? Why work hard at producing something original when you can upload a photo or share an article?

5) It spoiled great occasions.  So addicted to Facebook was I, that if I was at some fantastic event, my first thought was to capture it and share it with Facebook.  As I wrestled with technology, tried to take photos in the crowd, or struggle to login to wifi or get 3G access, the ‘event’ unfolded in front of me, and I was missing most of it as I viewed it through the lens of my iPhone instead of with my eyes.

6) It’s anti-social and it’s become so insidious it’s changing society and how we interact with each other, and that scares me most of all.

Knowing my track record of anything, I will give in and go back at some point, but then if you’ve been reading this blog you already knew that.

This is me

Progress, what progress?

My Grandma had it tough.  She told me stories about her life as a small child with something like 9, 10, 11 siblings.  I’m afraid I don’t remember the exact number, but she often told me the story of how her dad would tell them that it was time for bed, and they all raced in unison upstairs with all the energy they could muster. Why? How odd! If I ever tried to get my kids to bed they resisted, rebelled, had tantrums, so why was my Gran and her brothers and sisters so conformist?  Turns out they raced to secure the middle part of the bed where you were warm, and safe.  On the edges of the bed, 9 children wide, the latecomer faced being exposed to the brutal elements, often pushed out in the middle of the night onto the stark cold, cockroach infested floor.  In the morning, when the light was turned on, there was a scuttling noise as the cockroaches headed for the dark recesses of the room.  You bet your fcuking ass they ran to bed. And let’s face it, listening to Winston Churchill on the World Service wireless ain’t no Beyonce concert on YouTube.

I can’t imagine that life my Gran had.  It fills me with dread and horror.  And yet I remember walking to school in deep winter, for miles.  I remember PE in the freezing cold, so cold I couldn’t do up my shirt buttons as my fingers were too numb. The PE teacher marched you into the communal showers and flicked your bare arse with his towel if he felt you hadn’t showered properly. He stood at the exit of the shower, watching, barking orders.  Sometimes he got the table tennis bat and smacked you so hard you had DUNLOP emblazoned on your cheeks for several days after.

When I tell my kids that, their reaction is similar to my reaction when I heard my Gran’s stories about cockroaches under the bed.  A reaction of incredulous horror.  How could life have been so stark?  My kids didn’t even shower after sports at school, it wasn’t seen as socially acceptable.  Life progresses, and life becomes more protected, softer, more cushioned, more safe, more predictable, more sterile.  This is progress after all. Studies have been commissioned that say hitting kids with table tennis bats is cruel, just like sleeping 9 to a bed is inhumane and is now more or less outlawed, consigned to the middle pages of the Daily Mail pouring scorn on the working class or foreign immigrants.  Progress.  How lucky we are these days.

And yet, sometimes I wonder if we are now really living. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t miss those showers, and I would never advocate smacking with ping-pong bats, but it was a life full of living, whereas life these days sometimes feels so sanitised, so protected. We seem, these days, to wander around in a kind of haze, a fug, conforming to an expected ideal, the modern ideal of modern living. We have all the trappings. I have a satellite feed, I have a broadband feed, I have unlimited, plumbed, sanitised water, I have electricity and gas, heat, as much as I can ever muster and more. I have a car and can afford to put petrol in the tank whenever I want. I have a large wall mounted TV, I have smartphones, tablets (prescription and electronic variants), I holiday in the sun, I occasionally ski, I have all that. I have become comfortable. And comfortableness brings freedom, freedom to choose from all these rich pickings at my table, all within arms reach. Progress. And if I as much as see another of God’s creatures in my house I whip out my credit card and call Rentokil who come out to destroy them with the latest man made toxins. Awesome.

But really, am I any happier, any better off, than my Gran was? Had my Gran been asked to predict what would life be like if it had been full of heat, light, cleanliness, more than you could ever imagine, she would of course have grabbed it with both hands. She would have probably imagined a life of unimaginable pleasures, a life filled with joy – parties, feasts, mass rallies of people, social gatherings, debates, more parties, unlimited travel, and yet here we are – with all these comforts, and what do we do? We choose to watch others through the medium of our televisions, our modern drug of choice. We surf the web looking for wheatgrass juicers or frictionless drawers for our kitchen. We watch, ostracised from others, viewing reality TV and becoming angry by the behaviour of the ‘celebrities’ within. We crave the life of our heroes – footballers that earn £200k a week, movie stars that have had surgery to keep them beautiful.  We desire the renovated house, we watch with green envy as the TV chef cooks a feast to astound and amaze their friends. We go to bed mentally exhausted, yet physically moribund, corpulent and unfulfilled.

My Gran went to bed exhausted, and if she wasn’t on the edge of the bed she grinned herself into a deep slumber, wiped out from a day of stark but real living.  She lived to a ripe old age too, and I remember seeing her on her death bed and I thought to myself, now that was a character, that was a life well lived, a life full of stories, of experience, of interaction.

And I wonder if we will feel the same.  Progress, what progress?

Facebook holiday

I’m taking a Facebook holiday.  Not sure for how long yet but I’ve reached a point where I’m not enjoying it, and its starting to feel slightly addictive and intrusive.  But more insidious is the fact that it makes me feel melancholy more often than it makes me feel happy, a sure sign that something is awry.
Over the weekend I ‘unfriended’ around 40 ‘friends’, the main reason being because they weren’t actually friends at all, they were vague acquaintances at best.  Two of them I’ve met just twice.  One of them I have only spoken to in a larger social group and never on a one to one basis, and, to my shame, one of them I have never met (they were a friend of a friend and I felt guilty).  The other 30 or so were a mixture of business acquaintances (I have LinkedIn for them) or people who never, ever used Facebook.  The latter group weren’t doing any harm just sitting there, at least they weren’t filling my newsfeed with dross, but I found the notion slightly creepy that people were maybe reading all about me, seeing my photos and updates, without actually giving anything back.  What’s social about that?  Doesn’t social imply two-way? It felt too much like stalking, so they were gone too.
Of the 160 or so I have left, I would estimate there are still 30 or so I would like to get rid of but feel too afraid to, as it could be socially awkward or embarrassing if I run into them in future.  People I see but don’t really care for much.  My fault for ‘friending’ them in the first place I hear you say, a moment of folly for sure, but we are where we are, so now what do I do?  And this is one of things I dislike about Facebook most.  Caught in my own trap, trapped in a web sown by my own vanity.
But worst of all, is the self-promotion, people clambering over each other to tell all about their latest exploits.  And the reason I hate it is that I have found myself doing it too.  Why else would I post from a foreign airport?  Or upload a photo of my Texan breakfast?  I like to think I post updates from far flung places so friends and close family know where I am, but my close family know that anyway, and if they don’t, they shouldn’t have to rely on a social network to find out.  The rest of you almost certainly don’t care and I don’t blame you.  I don’t care about 90% of the stuff in my newsfeed, yet I seem to log onto Facebook first thing in the morning, last thing at night and several times in between.  I have even uploaded photos from my walk down the lane with the dog and I don’t really know why I do that, but it can’t be for good reasons and must have a lot do with vanity.
I also post jokes that I have read on Twitter or heard on TV.  Why? To make people laugh certainly, but there’s a part of me that wants to be seen as being funny.  Yes, I copy jokes, ergo I am funny.  I also copy YouTube links whenever I hear a good song.  I post a good song, ergo, I am musically gifted too.  Aren’t I?  Aren’t I?  What do you mean I’m living my life vicariously through others?  I can’t write songs or crack original jokes so I post other people’s songs and jokes. I’m awesome me. 
If you have read my very first blog you will know I have an ever so slightly addictive personality, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise to you that I sometimes walk down the street experiencing things and immediately thinking “I must put that on Facebook”.  As I type this I am watching England struggle on the fifth day of the first test against West Indies.  They are 29-3, Trott is out, and my first thought is that I must post that on Facebook.  Let’s think about that for a moment.  Most of the world don’t like or are highly disinterested in cricket, and out of my 160 or so ‘friends’ probably 10-15 care anything at all about the noble game.  Ten of those won’t be on Facebook, so I am ‘talking’ to about five people all of whom will most certainly be following the cricket themselves!  
People who post live updates on BGT or X-Factor please take note.
Groucho Marx allegedly once said that he wouldn’t ever belong to a club that would accept him as a member.  Billy Connolly once said that anyone who wants to be an MP should automatically be banned from ever becoming an MP.  And for the same reasons, I’m thinking that if ever I feel I need to post something on Facebook, then I probably shouldn’t.
This isn’t a sulk or a dig at anyone.  I applaud the majority of Facebook users, people like you, who can enjoy it and use it responsibly, in the same way as I applaud the casual drinker, people like you, who can have one glass of wine and then stop. 
So knock yourselves out Facebookers, enjoy.  And of course to many of you we will find a way to stay in touch using more conventional means.  If you enjoy the blog you will subscribe to it, and if you don’t enjoy the blog then you won’t have to wade through any more of my status updates.  And if a relationship withers because we are no longer connected on Facebook, then it probably wasn’t a relationship worth caring about anyway.  Beautiful isn’t it?
And when I feel I can behave myself and use Facebook responsibly, then I will be back.
Andy
PS/ England are now 57-4, Pietersen out, do I have time for one more update?