Land of No Nod

Just when you think you’ve cracked the sleeping problem, 3 am hits and you’re tossing and turning once more. It doesn’t help if your partner has developed a snoring habit compelling you to don earplugs either.

We had a bit of a dramatic day yesterday in our sleepy-ish corner of Loughborough; two road accidents 500 yards apart. The first was on the main road where a man on a mobility scooter was hit by a lorry; he’s now critically ill in hospital. Ashby Rd was closed nearly all day while police presumably do what they do in that TV series, ie try to figure out what happened. There ought to have been witnesses; it’s a busy road with shops on either side, so we’ll see. I hope the man pulls through but there’s no further news at the moment.

Then lo and behold in the afternoon our street was closed by a couple of fire engines. Turns out a car had flipped onto its roof on one of the side roads, no mean feat as the side roads are not exactly wide; there’s barely room for one car to travel between the parked vehicles. Apparently the driver had collided with one of these vehicles but how exactly the car managed to flip onto its roof is a mystery. It seems likely he was going at some speed – but I’m just speculating. The guy went to hospital but is not thought to be seriously injured. Here’s the story in the Mercury. And here’s a pic from Facebook:

May be an image of road
no copyright breach intended; image removed on request

In between all the drama I sussed out another bike shop yesterday. Cycle Trax was a bit of a find; a small local place that does repairs and sells all the accessories. The guy was very helpful and said that due to lockdown (or I guess it could be Brexit) the supply of bikes has all but dried up. But he says he’s got some new stock coming in at the end of the week which sounds like just the ticket, so he’s going to give me a ring when they arrive. Exciting!

Thanks for all the encouraging comments about cycling yesterday. And now it’s time to get on with Tuesday.

Kirk out

Book, Book, Book. Can You Kindle My Interest?

I was thinking this morning as OH perused yet another volume on Kindle, about why it is that I so dislike reading a book from a screen. I know it’s cheap, I know it’s easy and I know you can get hundreds of books on one tablet, but I just can’t get along with Kindle. Why not?

First, when reading from a screen I have a tendency to scroll; this comes from a habit of scrolling through stuff on Facebook or email and it’s a bad habit but a necessary one: I simply don’t have time to read closely every communication that comes my way so I scan to see if it merits closer reading and if it doesn’t, I’ll move on. There’s so much information out there and you can look something up on Google and get sucked into a rabbit hole before you know it. It’s not so much that we take in more information than our forebears, but that what we do take in is more scattered; rather than reading the paper over breakfast or sitting in the evening with a book, we check the news online, switch to Facebook, scan our emails, begin the crossword and then maybe dive back into to a news story, perhaps with the radio or TV on in the background – all of which can be randomly interrupted by texts or phone calls and don’t even get me started on adverts. You could say our attention is being stolen moment by moment, but we are also giving it away: we are butterflies fluttering from flower to flower picking up a little bit here, a little bit there and never fully digesting what we read.

A book is something I hold in my hand, and there’s something about the relationship between brain and hand that makes the holding of a book into something more serious than scrolling with a mouse. There’s an intention; you take down the book from the shelf and open it, you settle in your chair and hold the book in your hand, all of which sends a signal to the brain saying ‘this is what we’re doing now’. Result: the brain sits up and pays attention like a class of children when a teacher walks into the room. When I’m reading a book I don’t do anything else but read: I might sip a cup of tea or glance out of the window but I don’t flip back and forth between emails and Facebook because they are not accessible to me. Then when I’ve finished I mark my place and put the book back on the shelf; another signal to the brain saying we’ve stopped reading now.

This is what I’m doing now has become a sort of mantra for me. If my mind becomes scattered or impatient I stop and say, This is what I’m doing now. Sometimes I’ll even narrate: Now I am going into the bathroom. Now I am sitting down... yeah, OK – I’ll spare you the rest.

The most important thing I learned from yoga is to be present in the here and now: I’m also a great believer in seizing not just the day, but the moment. To pay attention to one’s desires and impulses is the key to not being dominated by them. If Trump had learned this when he was younger the world would have been spared a painful four years. More on that story tomorrow… gosh, I’m organised this week.

That’s all for now folks.

Kirk out

post and jam, butter fingers, gloves

There’s a theme emerging in my mind today but I can’t put my finger on it. Aha! That’s what it is – fingers – well, fingers and toes, to be precise. This morning I had a slight margarine mishap when, trying to prise some from the tub which OH had polluted with yeast extract (OH complains loud and long if I leave so much as a homeopathic trace of jam in the marge but yeast extract is fine apparently) and promptly dropped a wodge of margarine on my slipper. I tried to pick it up with my fingers but it slithered away from me and in the process smeared itself all over the toes (I think they’ve change the recipe; it never used to be so slippery *.) Cursing as my rapidly-cooling toast waited on a plate, I proceeded to wipe it up with kitchen towel but only succeeded in deeper embedding the greasy spread into the pleated seams of the slipper. I gave it up and spread my toast with margarine (from the other tub) and jam, then I attacked the offending slipper with a wet wipe; I’m still not convinced that I got it all.

*the marge, not the slippers.

I’ve just finished knitting a hat for a friend in some lovely rainbow wool and since I have some left over from this and other projects I thought I might make myself some fingerless gloves. They’re not actually fingerless of course; they just have short fingers keeping the hand warm but enabling the wearer to actually do stuff. I’ve always been a fan of fingerless gloves but I’ve never actually knitted any so we’ll see how that goes. I would promise you a picture but it’s ages since I’ve actually been able to post a picture to this blog. Anyway however they turn out they will be wondrous. I’ve decided…

Happily I slept a lot better last night (a walk in the country often helps) so my brain is rolling up its sleeves and preparing to tackle the day’s work. And on Facebook I came across a story I’d written years ago as a writing exercise and I’ve decided it has potential, so I’ll be working on that. I’m going to leave you with Sesame Street, one of my favourite songs which is not quite about fingers and toes but as good as:

video removed on request

Trying to get the hang of Thursday…

Kirk out

Mind the Gap

Anyone who’s ever lived in London prior to 2012 will probably hear those words in the same voice that echoes in my mind, which is this one:

I didn’t know until I started looking into it that there’s a genuinely lovely story behind this Mind the Gap message, and a reason why since 2012 the voice saying it is different on Embankment from that on other Northern Line stations. It’s this: the messages were originally recorded by a man called Oswald Laurence, a RADA graduate, but he died in 2007 and in 2012 the voices were changed to digital ones (why? Just because they could, I guess – the old ones were clear enough but hey, that’s progress) – then one night in 2012 the staff at Embankment station were approached by a woman in a state of distress asking what had happened to the voice. They must have thought she was psychotic at first but to their credit they listened as she explained that the Mind the Gap voice belonged to her husband and that she’d often lingered on the platform to hear him speak just one more time. The staff explained that the recordings had been changed, and you might think that would have been that, but no; they tracked down a copy of the original recording for her and not only that, they switched back to it on Embankment station. So if you travel on the Northern line be sure to listen out for Oswald still telling us to mind that gap. Here’s the Guardian story from 2019.

That phrase has become iconic, particularly in London where it’s used to refer to all kinds of gaps. There’s the gap between rich and poor, the gap between knowledge and understanding and the gap I was going to talk about, between echo chambers.

I think it’s high time there was an overhaul of Facebook and Twitter; the fact that they foment controversy like a cook stirring an evil broth, the fact that they encourage the manufacture of outrage; and worst of all, the fact that they have allowed powerful people to spread disinformation and fake news unchecked. True, they can’t monitor every story put on their sites but when someone in a position of such power and influence uses that influence to manufacture a false scenario they should do something about it. Mainstream news media, though more responsible in checking stories (mostly) are not blameless in this regard; they encourage adversarial debate and try to provoke interviewees into saying something controversial which then becomes the headline.

The gap between world views can sometimes be staggering. I’ve recently been debating with someone I know in real life (I wouldn’t bother otherwise, but I know and like this person) who has totally bought into Trump’s narrative. They’re a Christian who believes Trump was sent by God and part of that narrative is not particularly how virtuous Trump is (that’d be hard but I’m sure they’d give it a go) but the supposed evils of the Democrats, whom they accuse of all manner of vile practices (Communism’s the least of it) and have now decided that Mark Zuckerberg is a Marxist for suspending Trump’s account. I pointed out that if that were so Facebook would be owned by its employees and Zuckerberg would earn about £30,000 a year. Wouldn’t that be nice? (Just for the record, I’m a socialist not a communist, but if people are going to use words like Marxist they should know what they mean. Otherwise everyone is going about being Humpty-Dumpty and words have no meaning any more.)

The gap is vast and it’s getting wider. Trump’s supporters are now fragmented but the more extreme among them are developing an ever-stronger martyr complex and preparing for armed attacks on inauguration day. Warnings have been issued and I certainly hope they take them more seriously than they did last Wednesday. I don’t know what you’re supposed to do with people who don’t accept facts. There’s no common ground for debate at all.

Mind the gap, indeed, especially the gap between the ears.

Kirk out

Antisocial Media

I got caught up in food waste this morning and completely forgot what I was going to blog about. It was this; last night I finished watching a deeply disturbing but thoroughly convincing documentary about the negative effects of social media and how its monetisation brings about a profound disharmony in society. We all know about echo chambers but I tended to think it was because birds of a feather flock together, because you’re more likely to have friends who agree with you and they suggest more friends who have the same world view, and so on. But it goes way beyond that; Facebook’s algorithms are like currents which push people together by suggesting products, stories, groups and people which are likely to reinforce your world view. All manner of things result from this, such as the manufacturing of outrage (I think it was the perpetual raising of my blood pressure which finally convinced me to stay off the pernicious blue pages) which has got so bad it’s become like the two minute hate. But unlike 1984 this all seems to be coming from the free and open dissemination of information by individual citizens. It ain’t. It’s coming from advertisers.

The effect on politics is devastating. There’s little or no nuance any more: TV and radio debates are basically boxing matches where people shout ‘boo’ words and ‘hurrah’ words and try to signal that they are on the right side and their opponents are villains. There’s always been some of this, especially in party politics, but it’s now far worse, since as the documentary says, ‘we don’t talk to each other any more.’ I’m as guilty of this as anyone, which is why I’m staying off Facebook.

Perhaps the most insidious thing that the endless blue pages do is to hook you back in. If you spend too much time away, it’ll wow you with notifications and suggestions; it’ll tell you someone has messaged you when they haven’t (see yesterday’s post) and when you look to check, there are all your other notifications, along with suggestions, friend requests, videos and – ‘oh, we care about you and your memories. Take a look at this photo from ten years ago.’ Aaaand – you’re back. I have found it extraordinarily difficult to stay off Facebook. Of course I could delete my account altogether but then I lose one of the platforms for this blog, I lose updates about local events – and most importantly, I lose a free and instantaneous way of communicating with my friends. So I’m hovering around the edges, dipping a toe in now and again and trying to stay clear. But I can testify that social media is very addictive. It appears to give you everything but in fact gives you nothing. So every time I’m tempted I keep repeating this mantra:

If you’re not paying for the product, you are the product.

And here’s the documentary.

Kirk out

Unsocial Media and Mad-Eye Mice

Lately I’ve been trying to stay off Facebook (I’ve never been on Twitter) but it’s hellishly difficult – and last night we began watching a Netflix documentary on how this stuff works; how much time and energy and manpower they spend trying to get and keep our attention. For example, this morning I noticed a little red figure on my Messenger app. A notification. I generally check these as sometimes I have friends who need help, so I looked. As far as I could see there were no new messages – but eventually I found something unread going back a couple of weeks. More puzzlingly it was highlighting my reply to a friend’s message. Do I need notifying that I sent a thumbs-up to Sarah two weeks ago? I do not. I’m convinced this is not accidental; I’ve noticed of late that if I’m not messaging much it will notify me of something I’ve sent, just to keep me engaged. If you stay off it for too long they will do something to hook you back in.

This is the essence of Facebook’s strategy and a key part of their monetisation programme. There’s a saying in marketing: If you’re not paying for the product, you are the product and I think that’s very true. Why would they give us so much stuff for free? It’s because they are taking our attention, constantly throughout the day, and harvesting our data. We are lab-rats kept stimulated 24/7 so that people can make money from us.

The temptation is when watching such a programme, to say to yourself: ‘I don’t respond to adverts. I’m very careful. And you may be – but I have to acknowledge that I’ve responded to several ads on Facebook recently and have even bought a couple of items. This gives Facebook information about what I like so that they can advertise more of the same. I never stop getting ads for recyclable toothbrush heads, for example. I have an add-on to my browser called Privacy Badger which stops people tracking you across the internet but even Privacy Badger can’t prevent Facebook from doing so within its own borders.

I’ve only watched about a third of the documentary so I’ll write more when I’ve finished. Meanwhile my mouse is still playing up. It seems to need cleaning about three times a day and I’m going to christen it Moody because it’s like Mad-Eye Moody from Harry Potter; it whizzes all over the place, especially when it’s been cleaned.

Here’s Mad-Eye’s first appearance in the Potter films – though of course fans will know it isn’t actually Moody at this point…

Kirk out

Hamlet is not Quite as Funny…

Image result for withnail and I open source images

I take as my text today the script of Withnail and I: yes, all of it – for as I have so consistently pointed out the entire film is basically a collection of quotes linked by a somewhat haphazard plot.

But my subject this morning is not the film per se, but the Facebook group.  It is my contention that The Withnail and I Appreciation Society is one of the healthiest groups on social media.  Why?  Because it allows people to hurl the most terrible insults at each other with impunity.  When someone calls me a terrible c**t, I chuckle; when a man declares that he means to have me even if it must be burglary, I laugh uproariously and when people ‘feel unusual’ I’m not a bit spooked.   Because the film licences this rudeness, which is not about the person you’re talking to but about your shared enjoyment of the film.  And this is very healthy I think.

This is what happens: people post pictures, memes and links to news stories on which to hang their references to the film.  And because the film has a thousand and one quotable bits, it just keeps on going.  As a youth I used to weep in butcher’s shops.  I’ve only just begun to grow last year.  The joint I am about to roll can utilise up to twelve skins.  It is called the Camberwell Carrot.  This will tend to make you very high.  Bollocks, I’ll swallow it and run a mile.  That wouldn’t wash with Geoff.  Imagine getting into a fight with the f***er.

It’s not all insults: you can offer sherry, fulminate about cats or eulogise root vegetables.  You can talk about garlic, rosemary and salt or good quality rubber boots; you can tell Miss Blennerhasset to call the police or demand the finest wines known to humanity.  You can even go on holiday by mistake.

The film ends with a soliloquy from hamlet, another play that’s full of quotable bits.  Though Hamlet isn’t quite as funny…

Marwood out.

Just When You Think It’s Safe…

Just when you think it’s safe to get back into bed at 4 am after doing a pee, you get bashed on the head by an all-lights-blazing, 100% full-on supercharged bout of wakefulness. At four o-bloody clock! What sort of time do you call this? I asked my brain as it insisted, like a toddler on Christmas Day morning, that it’d had quite enough sleep and was now bouncing around ready to start the day and unwrap all its presents. Except that there weren’t any presents. Go back to sleep! I told it grumpily. It’s not time to get up yet. So I lay down and tried all the usual tricks: putting my hands in the sleep mudra:
Image removed on request

counting down from 300 and reliving yesterday backwards whilst talking to myself in a very drowsy voice. Nope. Not having it; nothing worked – until about 6.30 just after OH got up when I finally lapsed into a sort of hallucinogenic doze with some spangled dreams which I can’t now remember, then when OH came in with the tea trying to calculate how much time spent in spangled hallucinogenic dreams counteracts two and a half hours of solid wakefulness. I am not a happy bunny.

In other news, after a long war of attrition in which OH tried every which way to debate with a friend on Facebook about BLM and other issues (I unfriended this person after they made rude jokes about orthodox Jews) OH has finally broken ties and unfriended them! Kudos to OH; this was a long time coming and whilst nobody wants to live in an echo chamber, this particular guy had crossed so many lines that he definitely had it coming. Would that it were so easy in real life… I’ll leave you with Al Stewart’s thoughts on the subject.

Kirk out

A Very Happy Thursday

One blustery day Winnie-the-Pooh and Piglet set out for a trip around the forest to wish all their friends a Very Happy Thursday. And here I am to wish you the same, only sans Piglet as sadly he is self-isolating.

How are you getting on with the lockdown? For me it’s pretty much business as usual; I get up, do my yoga, make a drink and head for my desk. I work till about 12.30, go for a walk before lunch, read a while, then get back to my desk till around five or six. Evenings are spent reading or watching TV (tonight it will be a live streaming of the National Theatre’s ‘One Man, Two Guv’nors‘ with James Corden.) And yet I miss things – things like not being able to go to the cafe, not going to meetings (or Meeting), not seeing friends, not going to the cinema, not going to the pub or the folk club or Friday Room discussion group, not having a meal out. I may not have had a welter of social events but when you have none at all you notice the difference.

On the other hand, it has meant less time spent organising for meetings and Meeting and discussion groups and seeing friends. So what have I been doing with my time? As I said, I’ve been reading Hilary Mantel; I promised (or threatened) a review and I will get to that in due course; I’ve also been reading a Paula Hawkins novel (she of ‘Girl on a Train’ fame) which is deeply, horribly yet fascinatingly dystopian and of course I am still ploughing on with Ducks, Newburyport (only 350 pages to go…) And on Britbox we’ve been watching Rev, which has to be one of the best sitcoms ever. I also chat to my friends online and get frequent phone calls from friends (and Friends). I attended my first online Meeting yesterday via Zoom, which worked quite well, all sitting in silence in our own houses… Oh, and I nearly forgot – I’ve started learning ancient Greek! I can now recite the alphabet from memory and write a few actual words (shut up about your bloody evening classes Gerald!)

So that’s me. What have you been up to? Let me know – I’d love to hear.

Kirk out

This Post is Virus-Free

Apart from the brief mention in the title, this post will not contain any mention of the C-word. The number 19 will be absent, as will the words virus, flu, statistic and Cummings. Well, apart from the times I just mentioned them of course. Starting…. now!

So, my absence during the last week has not been due to the unmentionable, at least not in any direct way. I have simply chosen to take some time out, since Everything Is Cancelled, and do a mini-hibernation as I often do in the summer and over Christmas. It is a balm to the soul to be out of contact for a while, so as everyone else was frantically getting online to connect via Zoom, Facebook, Twitter, Whatsapp, Facetime, Messenger and email, I just Beed. I simply were; in short, I existed. I divided my time between the study and a blessedly sunny garden; I went for a short walk each day and I read. God, how I read!

More of that anon. But the first couple of days I was so exhausted I mostly stayed in bed and watched Netflix serials Safe and The Stranger, both written by the same guy and both utterly gripping while you watch but leaving little impression afterwards. My exhaustion was I think caused by thinking too much about everything; not only the unmentionable but its repercussions and the uncertainty caused thereby and what we might have to do to make sure of supplies etc. My brian simply couldn’t take any more; I needed sleep. And sleep I did.

So now I am ready to enter the digital world once more and update you on my reading. I have now finished Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light (I’ll post a review anon) and am 2/3 of the way through Ducks, Newburyport by Lucy Ellman. This is a stream-of-consciousness novel, 997 pages in length (just call it a round thousand) featuring a mother-of-four in Ohio who bakes cakes for a living. She has far too much to do and a million and one things occupy her mind, from her business to the thousand tasks of caring for children and house, to the horrendous state of the environment (seemingly worse there than it is here) and of course the even worse state of national politics. 9/11 keeps recurring but the main theme is the loss of her mother which has something to do with the ducks of the title. Seeing as how Americans have such weird place names, I assumed that Ducks, Newburyport was a small town (do Americans have villages? I fancy not) but it is in fact an incident to do with Ducks in a place called Newburyport which has a great emotional impact. But we haven’t got to that bit yet.

I’ll probably post a fuller review of that in due course as well.

So that’s me. How have you been? I hope you’re keeping well and safe.

There! A virus-free post. Perhaps it’ll go viral.

Kirk out