I’ve Removed All News From My Facebook Feed

On Saturday, last week, I got annoyed. I was staying with some lovely friends in Belfast for the weekend, and in a moment of downtime, I went onto the Facebook app on my phone to see what was going on. The feed ran approximately like this:

Guardian article; BBC article; Guardian article; Guardian article; advert; IFL Science article; Guardian article; BoredPanda article; BoredPanda article; post from a friend; Guardian article; BBC article; advert;

And so on. I scrolled and scrolled and scrolled until I hit another post from a friend. It took me a long time. So, I got pissed off and hid all of them from my feed.

I got annoyed at the Facebook algorithm deciding what I should see. Yes, I can prioritise certain people, certain feeds, if I want, but that takes a lot of time and besides, I like to see what’s happening with everyone. Partly because I’m nosey, but partly because it makes me happy to see that someone I’ve not had much contact with in years is enjoying life and getting on with things. Maybe they’ve had a child, or got married, or started a new job, or gone on holiday. Alternatively, if someone I know is struggling, I can leave a supportive comment.

Facebook jumbles everything up every so often as well, so that if I am on a particular page – maybe a friend, maybe an article – that I’m not finished with yet, it will back right out, go to my feed and refresh (read: randomise) everything. Thus, I can’t now find what I was looking at. Great.

I got annoyed about the way in which the articles are promoted by the BBC, Guardian, and so on. There’s a tone of voice, a style, which subtly mimics the frequent hysteria – positive or negative – that one sees in tweets. I’m not on Twitter largely because of that style of interaction. I just can’t be doing with it.

It’s hard to describe, as well. There’s the “10+ epic text FAILS” style of description, which is innately infuriating. There’s also the “Man gives BEST REPLY EVER to rude waiter” style (to give a made-up example); the humblebragging, “it’s nothing much, just a full-scale replica of the Titanic” style; and the “something big is happening, we don’t know what it is yet, but it’s BIG” style. Whatever it is, that off-hand, lazy way of referring to stories is fairly common and specific to social media, is targeted at Millennials, of which I am one, and is really irritating. You see it when the headline is unambiguous and straight-laced, but the comment on the Facebook link is a slack, hand-wavy reference.

It’s bad enough that there are so many news articles now which lazily copy and paste what people have said on twitter about something. Obituaries, big news items, funny events, memes – whatever the subject, usually someone in a news office who can’t be arsed to do their job properly anymore will fill a page with this garbage. Most of them should be titled, “What the Common Man Thinks”, to get across the low-lying, half-baked condescending cynicism that underpins it.

I got annoyed at the comments underneath. Oh, the comments. I know that the golden rule of the internet is “never read the comments”, and some people have made great comedy from taking the piss out of them, but still, sometimes one can’t resist looking. They are always completely ghastly. And when it’s a story about whatever evil Trump has spurted today, or whether Theresa May has inched closer to the end of the plank, or global warming, or #metoo, or whatever, there are always dickheads around. Always. Like flies around a mouldy pear, they just can’t help themselves. I don’t need that on my feed.

Mostly, though, I got annoyed at the fact that I just couldn’t easily see what’s going on with people who make me feel happy. These get pushed out and interrupted with negative stories about all the bad things happening around the world, and there’s more than enough of those. It feels like an intrusion of these things into areas where I don’t need them. If I want to read the news, and overwhelm myself with 95% pessimism, I’ll go to their websites or buy a paper. If I don’t, I’d like a place where the news is far, far away.

Ignorance is bliss. I don’t advocate total ignorance, but it’s good to have somewhere you can be blissful for a short while. Even if bad things are happening, there’s so little I can do about them that it doesn’t usually matter if I know.

So, they’re gone. I’ve hidden them from my feed.

And now? It’s wonderful. One of the best decisions I’ve made recently. I feel like a weight of stress has been removed, and I can see people, things, stories I actually like for a change. I can scroll down and not feel oppressed by the apparently imminent end of the world. I’d recommend it to everyone.

News is good, but you don’t need it everywhere you go.

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An Open Letter to People who Write Open Letters

Dear People Who Write Open Letters,

Please stop writing open letters. Open letters are shit. They very rarely achieve anything.

Open letters change very little. They are typically a passive-aggressive way of signalling opposition or intent at an audience that’s already on your side. They’re preaching to the choir. They change no one’s mind, affect nothing.

Open letters aren’t actually read by the people to whom you address them, only those who already think the way you do. And in doing so, they are a deliberate attempt not to sway the argument of those who disagree or are undecided to your point of view, but rather to invite congratulation on being just so fantastic and wonderful for having rebutted something or fought something. You made an effort. Well done you. Aren’t you brilliant? Give yourself a biscuit.

That effort, though, is usually wasted, I’m sad to say. The most you can really be congratulated for, perhaps, is marshaling lots of arguments into one place, in an easy-to-read way. Of course, you could have done that in a simple article or blog, without the words, “An open letter to…” in the title, the words “Dear …” at the start and “Yours [ironically],” at the end.

Open letters are an interesting form of writing. In allowing such a wide use of the second-person, typically accompanied by an accusatory or perhaps righteous and smug tone of voice, they usually give themselves away. They are a vent, a piece of theatre, a performance piece, not directed towards those with an opposing perspective, but simply awaiting the applause at the end.

You could make an argument for certain examples, where the wide circulation of an open letter makes sense, and where the writer cannot be accused of self-interest: here is one such, though perhaps can be more accurately described as a standard article, topped and tailed with lettery parts – nonetheless, its purpose is clear. The use of “you” allows us to witness a one-to-one connection. Sometimes the need for a vent is absolutely understandable given the circumstances described. More often than not, though, open letters are self-indulgent, unnecessary bilge. Frequently they aren’t even letters – they’re just blogs which are titled as letters, but contain no direction to anyone, no sign-off, nothing lettery in the slightest. Often, the tone shifts through the letter, as the writing becomes less directed at the flagged “recipient”, and becomes more just a rant about a thing.

Obviously, I am knowingly and smugly aware of the nature of this open letter in the light of all this. I am, quite clearly, writing something I know to be self-indulgent pish. In reaching such a level of irony / hypocrisy (delete as appropriate), I am of course fishing for shares, wanting my great glory to be spread as wide and far as possible. Similarly, I am aware that this letter will, like most open letters, be read by very few people, most of whom may respond, unseen, in a mildly appropriate way and then move on with their busy lives. But I just have to vent, you see.

Under everything, one can’t help but feel that with the rise of social media and the need to share everything, open letters have become an accompaniment to the standard clicktivism trend of believing that things you do on the internet achieve something. Rarely is that the case. Open letters are, in almost all cases, pointless, indulgent, and facile. Please stop.

Yours ironically,

Sam

The Worst Mug In The Entire World

I was given a present late last year. It is a mug. Here is the mug:

Mug1

It was a lovely, thoughtful present, from my sister-in-law and her husband who, on a trip to the Cotswolds, saw it and thought that it looked like a really nice novelty gift for me, a man who likes his tea and biscuits. I really do ♥ biscuits. It was gratefully received.

The mug is quite big, mind. It’s a hefty size. And that’s a bit of a problem because our kitchen is very wee and we don’t have much room for mugs. This fact combines poorly with my wife’s awesome ability to continually bring home more mugs, rather like a cat’s heart-warming yet seemingly urgent need to share its latest decapitated sparrow carcass with you. Not that the mugs themselves are as ugly as a decapitated sparrow carcass – they are beautiful mugs, all of them. There are just quite a few of them. And yet, this mug, with its awkward semicylindrical shape and greatly protruding handle, needed to squeeze its way into the already packed cupboard.

This fact, plus laziness and lack of access to biscuits, led to me not really using the mug for a while. It remained at back of the cupboard during the early part of winter, lurking like a  hibernating bat.

In the new year, I spotted that we had a spare digestive biscuit, and decided to give it a whirl. Whilst it may not be the best looking mug in the world –  I thought – by jove it looks handy for a heavy tea and biscuit session.

However, I was very wrong. It is only when you try to use the mug that its design flaws come to the fore.

It is terrible.

Really terrible.

To understand why it is terrible, turn your attention once again to the picture above. You can see that the biscuit pouch isn’t quite big enough for a digestive biscuit, which as we all know, is laid down under law as the default biscuit for dipping, and therefore sets the standard for how big your biscuit pouch should be. Surely you would make this pouch big enough, no? Even if you’re not so much of a digestive fan, hobnobs and rich tea biscuits are roughly the same size, so presumably wouldn’t fit in either. Not that you’d have a rich tea biscuit, of course, seeing as they are Satan’s wank-wafers.

I actually tend to drink my tea with my left hand, mainly because it leaves my right hand free for more important tasks, such as changing channel, browsing the internet on my phone, or scratching my bollocks. You can see, though, that the digestive sticks out above the lip of the mug, meaning that only people holding the mug with their right hand can drink, unless you sip from the nearest corner, which makes it look as if you have a problem with your joints.

However, at least the biscuit is easily retrievable. If one put a smaller biscuit in there that actually fits in the pouch, such as a Maryland chocolate chip biscuit, I imagine that the biscuit would leave just a small segment sticking out above the pouch top, making it difficult to grab and use for dunking.

The biggest problems, though, can be seen in the following picture.

Mug2

There are several things to note. The most important thing to note is the little hole above the tea-line where the handle is. Do you see it?

Unforgivably, as part of the cheap Chinese manufacturing process, the handle is hollow. This might be fine to have in the design when thinking how to create a cheap mug, but then people buy mugs at all sort sof price ranges, and none I have seen have this feature: it is not, after all, a watering can. In the real world, people put hot drinks inside a mug. And then the hot drink fills the handle. And then the handle gets hot. And then a chap, dutifully carrying his mug of tea and biscuit into the lounge from the kitchen, feels his hand burning and starts swearing like a bastard whilst trying to find a coaster to put it down on.

Next, there is a lip on the mug. Most mugs, you’ll find, don’t have lips, because they make it difficult to drink stuff. I can only imagine that the lip on this mug exists as an artefact of the manufacturing process, like the hollow handle. The result of the lip is that you either have to give maximum suction, and slurp your tea really loudly – something that has, when heard in others, driven me to visions of homicide – or you allow hot tea to gently trickle down your chin. Being forced into a choice between wearing a napkin to drink tea or being noisily uncouth is not something I am happy with.

Then, onto less important things, you can see that it’s already chipped in the nearest corner. There are a couple more chips as well. Also, the mug is not dishwashable, and it’s not very easy to wash up by hand – the lip gets in the way of cleaning the main cavity, whilst the strange shape, with its various corners, holes and pockets, make it very difficult to clean properly. A dishwasher would do a good job, handwashing doesn’t. Eventually, over time, you’ll build up a brown patina which can’t be removed. Plus, bacteria would very much enjoy the handle hole, and the biscuit pouch, and the chips, and the lip, and the corners.

The conclusion is that it’s not really meant to be a mug for actually drinking out of. There isn’t enough good design and thought underpinning it to make it properly usable, which is a shame. But neither is it a mug that sits easily on a display shelf – especially not in a house which, like ours does, sees a constant battle between aesthetics (my wife) and function (me). If you did let it sit there as a trinket for people to comment on, people would ask, “oh, that’s brilliant, isn’t it? Have you used it?”. My innate honesty would lead me to respond with the truth, at length.

The saddest part, though, is the story of how it was bought. My wife eventually explained all this to my sister in law, and whilst she was disappointed that it hadn’t been very good, she also explained its cost. A standard novelty mug would set you back perhaps a little more than a normal mug. This, however, was purchased from a little gift shop for roughly double the price of a normal mug.

I honestly didn’t think it was possible to create a mug with so many design flaws. We have, through trial and error, ended up with a modern, 21st century Britain with mugs that have no hollow handles, lipless rims, and symmetry through the axis defined by the handle, so that lefties and righties can all use the mug with equal vim. Never, ever take your mug for granted again. They are all tiny examples of the wonder of good, simple design.

Terry Pratchett and me

I was thirteen years old when I got my first Terry Pratchett book. Thirteen years to the day, in fact – my godmother Rosie had bought me The Colour of Magic in paperback for my birthday. Pratchett books were one of those things that, as a child, I had noticed in bookshops but had always ignored or even disdained because I didn’t like the look of the covers. They seemed a bit… removed, distanced. Uninviting. A thing for Other People. I have rarely been more wrong.

Terry Pratchett, 1948-2015

The gift of the book broke that mental barrier, and after waiting a month or so until I had finished whatever book I was reading at the time, I began. I don’t remember when I grew past Blyton’s Adventure, Secret Seven or Famous Five series, though it may have been around that time. I was still of an age where I would often wander down to the library and pick up Asterix or Tintin books. I think I came to the Lord of the Rings a couple of years later.  I was a pretty voracious reader: the excitement and wonder and passion that could be passed onto me from the mind of some of the wonderful authors whose works enthralled me opened up my mind more than any computer games or music or play.

I remember, after reading the first few pages, being rather disappointed that the opportunities of fantasy fiction had been discarded – non-humanoid dominant life-forms, the creation of strange creatures and unexpected behaviours. Instead, a human Wizzard called Rincewind ate some chicken and ran away. Nonetheless, I persevered.

It turned out that any reservations were so much horse elbows – the Discworld quickly had me hooked. My sister got married the month after I got that present, and I remember being bored, as many children will be at weddings, whilst the photographs were being taken after the service. Leaning against a tree, I read the book that I had put into my suit jacket pocket and escaped into another world, only resurfacing when I was required to stand still and smile at a lens for a short time. I ignored everyone and hungrily absorbed the story until the food arrived.

The adventures of Rincewind, Twoflower, the Luggage, and all the other incredible characters brought me in and held me captive. The delight was of the existence of a fantasy world where magic could make anything possible, yet had to follow rules; where the practical held sway over and above the fantastical, where realism dominated over unhinged invention (though where unhinged invention, in the guise of Bloody Stupid Johnson, could be described so hilariously that you would be giggling and chuckling for hours), where characters were described with a flair and a technique that made you love them. That was as a teenager – there were still more wonders to come. On the Discworld, things worked.

My sister’s wedding is one of my fondest memories of being 13, and one lovely thing I remember is my new brother-in-law’s brother, James, noticing that I was reading TCoM and kindly lending me the next in the series, The Light Fantastic. I unwittingly stole the book, inasmuch as I loved it so much I failed to give it back. That was devoured in a few days as well.

Mostly I read the books in order, though Hogfather jumped into the fray early on, being released that year in hardback – I enjoyed it, but for obvious reasons it made more sense on a re-read after stories introducing many of the key characters, such as Mort and Soul Music. I acquired the books in whatever ways I could – borrowing off friends and family (TLF, Pyramids, Guards Guards), borrowing from the library (Mort, Wyrd Sisters), asking for them for Christmas (many of the later books after Hogfather in hardback) or buying them myself with my limited pocket money. My books, in turn, got lent to other people. I’m not sure where my Colour of Magic has gone, nor several others. Recently, I rescued several Pratchett books not in my collection from the inside of a skip at our local tip, sacrilegiously discarded by someone else. I still have nearly two whole shelves for Pratchett:

20150313_062845

Each story came to be a half-yearly treat, a little golden nugget of warmth and beauty and treasure that I could absorb into myself to hold on to over the years. Only rarely did each book last more than three or four days in the reading, though those days would be spent apart from other people. I would be so esconced in the Discworld that it was hard to come back to the Sphereworld to keep my body going with pesky things like food and water, like some odd version of the Matrix.

As I read on into the series, Pratchett’s world firmed up – the Colour of Magic described a brutal proto-Discworld in a way, a chaos of ideas that had not yet solidified in Pratchett’s mind. Only later did he develop it into a satire of our world, rather than a satire of fantasy fiction. This satirical bent – with a keen eye for the absurdities of our lives – reflected and warped threads or ideas on a range of topics including film, opera, football, Australia and music, into hilarious mirror images, teasing out conclusions about their importance and purpose.

Many is the time that the hairs on my neck have stood up and my spine has tingled due to the build-up and release of tension authored so perfectly. I have cried deeply, laughed for hours, and understood so much about the world around me because of the made-up world in Terry Pratchett’s head. Sam Vimes being too angry to punch the wall in Men at Arms, or screaming “WHERE IS MY COW?!” in a frenzied panic at being unable to fulfil his promise to his son in Thud!; Esme Weatherwax defeating the elves or the vampires through “headology”, or shoving her arm into a torch to set fire to the voodoo doll of her being pinned; Magrat Garlick finally uncovering her strength when donning a “magic” hat in Lords and Ladies (spoiler: the hat wasn’t magic, it was just a hat); the magic computer Hex jumping into life in Hogfather, with its Anthill Inside, a mouse and various other parts that just turn up one day but without which the machine refuses to run; the stupidity of war in Jingo.

One of the joys of the Discworld I only really came to much later was the allusions and hints. The detail of the Discworld is absolutely littered with hilarious vignettes, ridiculous names and silly allusions to the real world. The L-Space website attempts to document these. The musical genius Imp Y Celyn (Bud of the Holly) from Llamedos (read that backwards) in Soul Music is described as looking a “bit Elvish”, and plays “music with rocks in” – he ends up working in a chip shop; Vimes is carefully stone-faced when his new dwarf recruit to the Ankh-Morpork City Watch in Feet of Clay turns out to be called Cheery Littlebottom; Mrs Palm (with her daughters) is a “very respectable lady” in Ankh-Morpork whom Nanny Ogg is shocked to discover Granny Weatherwax is friends with; meanwhile the “Seamstresses Guild” of Ankh-Morpork is a carefully euphemistic establishment which does, on occasion, have to cater for those poor souls who have mistaken it for a Guild of Seamstresses. Probably my favourite one of these was the moment that I realised who the little fairy folk called the Nac Mac Feegle, with their blue tattooed skin, tiny homes and rare females were parodying. I have only read Equal Rites once, and before I read LotR – lines such as ‘Hmm. Granpone the White. He’s going to be Granpone the Grey if he doesn’t take better care of his laundry.’ make me chuckle with understanding now.

This level of detail is something that can get you going back to the books again and again and again. As I see more movies, read more books, understand more of history and see more of life, I can enjoy more and more of the little peppercorns of brilliance that Pratchett packed into his writing.

Pratchett has also been the source of some wonderful friendships. At university, in the first year of my doctorate, I met a friend of a housemate, who was nice and lovely to sit in whilst her and my housemate chatted. A few days later, passing her house, I decided to knock and see if she was in. The front room was her bedroom, and seeing the Discworld Mapp on her wall (I had it merely in jigsaw form) and her collection of Pratchett books, I knew that we would become friends, and eleven years later, we still are. Every time I meet someone who is a Pratchett fan, I know that I am on safe ground with them, that I can trust them. His fans are a wonderful array of weirdos and nerds, people who may have felt on the fringes of life prior to his writing, but who, thanks to him, discovered others of a similar bent, who came to feel less alone, who gained the confidence to feel comfortable being odd.

I still haven’t read all of his books – many of the earlier ones or non-Discworld ones have passed me by, though I shall now make an effort to read them. I also haven’t read Raising Steam, the last full Discworld novel published before his death. Whilst it is remarkable that he was able to write so far into his diagnosis of Alzheimer’s, his later books lacked a certain je ne sais quoi, a certain punch, that was so important to the earlier ones. I shall certainly give it a go though – one thing I have learnt from him is to relax a bit more about these things, not to deify people or forget the context. Each one of those later books, whether punchy or not, was a miracle that we should be deeply grateful for.

I am devastated by his death. I have read again and again and again from fans of his who, despite the diagnosis and Pratchett’s openness about it, despite knowing that it was coming, still didn’t really think he would go, still hoped in spite of themselves that he might somehow just keep on. I feel the same way. It has stunned me. I have cried lots of times, sometimes in inappropriate places, about his passing (in some ways this makes up a bit from the many times of laughing heartily in inappropriate places). I have spoken to friends about it who are similarly reduced. For me, it is only the second time I have grieved the passing of a celebrity (the other was Robin Williams), but it is the deepest and most difficult.

The thing is, I mentioned getting the Colour of Magic for my thirteenth birthday. It came less than four months after the death of my father from a heart attack. It is only now, on reflection, that I can see how much Pratchett has embedded into his work his deep anger, his deep sense of politeness and ethics, his hatred of sexism and racism, his love of culture in all its myriad forms. These have been thus passed onto me. The spirit of generosity that weaves its way through his books, his understanding of the importance of the institutions that he reinstated in Ankh-Morpork, his disgust for evil, or “treating people as things”, have taught me so much and stood me straight in the world. I never met the man, but he was like a father to me. Had I ever met him, I would’ve been treated with time and dignity – he felt it very important to connect with his fans. He spoke about the importance of listening to them – though perhaps not necessarily heeding them.

I have read no author’s works as much as Pratchett. No author has had more impact on my life, or got me more excited about a forthcoming book. No author has taught me more, made me respond as strongly to a book. It now feels as if the door to his world has closed, as if our knowledge of its future will never now develop. We shall know no more of the Witches or the Watch or the Wizards (unless, as Pratchett is said to want, his daughter Rhianna takes up the mantle – but one could forgive her for leaving it well alone), but we can go back again and again to his works and remember good times. I cannot, though, describe the pain of losing contact with those friends like Vimes and Nanny that I had come to love. Their ship has passed over the horizon.

Goodbye, Terry. Thank you for everything. I hope you knew how much your fans loved you, how truly sad we all are that you have gone, and how deeply we will miss you.

To finish, my favourite quote of his:

“All right,” said Susan. “I’m not stupid. You’re saying humans need… fantasies to make life bearable.”

REALLY? AS IF IT WAS SOME KIND OF PINK PILL? NO. HUMANS NEED FANTASY TO BE HUMAN. TO BE THE PLACE WHERE THE FALLING ANGEL MEETS THE RISING APE.

“Tooth fairies? Hogfathers? Little—”

YES. AS PRACTICE. YOU HAVE TO START OUT LEARNING TO BELIEVE THE LITTLE LIES.

“So we can believe the big ones?”

YES. JUSTICE. MERCY. DUTY. THAT SORT OF THING.

“They’re not the same at all!”

YOU THINK SO? THEN TAKE THE UNIVERSE AND GRIND IT DOWN TO THE FINEST POWDER AND SIEVE IT THROUGH THE FINEST SIEVE AND THEN SHOW ME ONE ATOM OF JUSTICE, ONE MOLECULE OF MERCY. AND YET—Death waved a hand. AND YET YOU ACT AS IF THERE IS SOME IDEAL ORDER IN THE WORLD, AS IF THERE IS SOME…SOME RIGHTNESS IN THE UNIVERSE BY WHICH IT MAY BE JUDGED.

“Yes, but people have got to believe that, or what’s the point—”

MY POINT EXACTLY.”
― Terry Pratchett, Hogfather