Be careful what you say…

Yesterday, I wrote a post about my trip to Poland and describing how much fun my first faltering steps with the Polish language were.  Make no mistake, if you want someone to say “with rum” in Polish then I am your man – but otherwise, the language remains very much an undiscovered country to me.

It would seem that Twitter is reading this blog and taking some of its text to heart.  From this morning, they have started adding adverts into my timeline which are written only in Polish.  Now, I will admit this is geographically much more relevant than their usual offerings, which apply (at best) to those living on the other side of the Atlantic – so a good 2000 miles better targeted.  Congratulations Twitter!  However, none of these ads has yet used any of the limited vocabulary I acquired in Krakow – so they remain a complete mystery.  So, Twitter is still totally failing with even the most basic requirements of an advertisement – in this case, the vaguest hint of reader comprehension (or is this a cunning new take on subliminal advertising?).  Still, according to Nicholas Parsons many a foreigner has learned English from Just a Minute, so perhaps I could learn Polish from mis-directed advertising?

I wonder if I claim to be fluent in Euskara, I will start receiving ads aimed at the Euskal Herria?  Or maybe I should stick closer to home (and my roots) and claim to be fluent in Welsh?  I did watch the excellent 2014 BBC Wales production of Under Milk Wood yesterday and so find myself very tempted by the language of my fathers (look you).  So much so that I have been proof-reading this post in a cod Welsh accent (please feel to try this yourself, it’s a lot of fun!) – so in deference to my forebears, I shall stop now.

GofaDM’s Weekly Heroes

I have observed, while listening to the radio, how useful recurring “features” or “spots” can be to the creativity-strapped presenter (or producer).  These allow new content to be generated on a regular basis with far less effort than creating something original would require.  You may be surprised that it has taken me so long to steal (sorry, adapt) this idea for GofaDM.

In a further act of homage, I have noticed that Twitter has something called “Follow Fridays”: apparently not a question to which the answer is clearly “Saturdays”.  I believe this is intended to give users of Twitter the opportunity to recommend other users to their coterie of followers.  This activity is indicated through use of the hashtag #FF – which frankly, in a better-run universe, would be mine and earning me a decent income by now.

So, taking these two observations – and in lieu of a protracted court case with Twitter over its use of an important part of my family name – I have created GofaDM’s first recurring feature: Weekly Heroes (please try and imagine a fanfare and/or drum roll as you are reading).  Well, I say “recurring” but for the time being it is a “one-off” but with an intent to recur (however, this statement should not be used to impute any warranty, express or implied).

Now, if I’m honest, I don’t really have heroes in the established sense, so instead this “feature” will offer an excuse to gather together vague recommendations and/or gobbets (goujons?) of approbation that I am too lazy to develop into a proper post.  This first outing will be even more of a cheat, as I have a backlog of “heroes” to clear.

OK, I think that should have managed your expectations downwards to a sufficient degree that I feel able to continue into the main body of the feature.

My first hero is Helen Castor.  She has presented a number of entertaining and informative BBC4 series on the Middle Ages – curiously, history does seem to be an acceptable place for women to appear on television.  She also had a small cameo in the “DVD Extras” which preceded the live broadcast of the RSC production of Richard II to my local cinema – actually, I wonder if it would be more accurate to say that these extras are in lieu of a programme?  However, it is for her use of the C-bomb, entirely unbleeped, on BBC4 that she came to the jury’s attention.  She was quoting from an historical source, but even so I wasn’t entirely convinced I hadn’t misheard or just imagined it – but I have subsequently been able to confirm the bomb was indeed dropped.  We, the audience, were actually treated like proper adults – and even I, a maiden aunt-in-training as earlier established, was merely surprised and impressed.

My second hero is Michael Brooks: author of 13 Things that Don’t Make Sense.  The book is really quite interesting, but he is a hero for the final paragraph.  This paragraph provides the best reason for why humans do science (and why they should continue to) that I have ever read.  I’d recommend the whole book, but if you are very short of time you could read the end first – and with no need to worry about spoilers!

Today’s final hero is Nate Silver, author of many a forecast and The Signal and the Noise.  As a professional prognosticator, I found the book really fascinating – though at times it does assume rather more knowledge of baseball or poker than I can muster (or was willing to DuckDuckGo).  It helps to confirm things I had previously suspected and gave me new ways of thinking about how I do my job.

By the way, I do realise that many will find it “sad” that I read things related to my work for pleasure: I like to think it shows I am lucky enough to do something which interests me (despite my occasional railing against “the man”) and thus contributes to my generally sunny disposish.  Anyway, if you thought that was “sad”, I probably shouldn’t tell you of the power station spotting fun that can be had on a rail journey on either of the east or west coast mainlines.  On my last journey back from Glasgow, by the time we reached the Midlands, I had the pensioner couple sharing my table pointing out Rugeley B to me as they had seen it first.  I like to think they are continuing with this new hobby – but then self-delusion has been a close friend for many years.

Leaving that digression (though in this blog, talking about myself is never truly a digression) and returning to Mr Silver, it is for his chapter on climate change that the academy has recognised him this week.  Wonderfully lucid and perfectly living up to the title of the book by separating the signal (arising from the scientific community) from the noise (arising from the scientific community, media, politicians, vested interests and the frankly barking).  It should be required reading, and requires no knowledge of American sports derived from rounders!

Targetted advertising

Our privacy is under threat as never before – or so we are told – either by governments spending our money to spy on us or by mega-corporations trying to flog us stuff we neither need nor want.  I think I would find this much more terrifying if either group had shown themselves to be even remotely competent in using the information they have managed to inveigle (or just plain steal) from us.

Governments seem incapable of delivering any IT system larger than a small Excel spreadsheet without the cost over-running by multiple billions and the system arriving so late that being merely obsolete is a pipe-dream.   As a result, I shall focus my attention on the mega-corporations which our governments see as a universal aunt to solve all societies ills and to which stock markets attach quite extraordinary values.

I am a member(?) of Facebook and occasionally post my thoughts upon its willing platform – mostly whilst on long train journeys (any TV execs reading: I could be the next Michael Portillo – though I may struggle to seem quite that smug).  In return for this “free” service, Facebook delivers to my incredulous eyes a series of adverts which it has chosen specially for me.  It would seem that I am in need of a high-value divorce, a bevy of single girls (in my area!) and a discrete catheter.  I don’t recall ever mentioning problems with the female sex – either an excess or a lack – or any infirmity related to my bladder.

Twitter is no better: it too offers me soi-disant “promoted tweets” as compensation for offering me the ability to infrequently post poor quality jokes.  Most of these, along with many of the offerings from Facebook, could only be of interest to a reader resident in the US – and I have made no secret of the fact that I am not a US resident to both social networks (it is one of the few pieces of “personal” information I have vouchsafed to them).

If this is really the best they can do, I must wonder at (a) the due diligence performed by those advertising using their services and (b) their current stock valuations.  I fear the leader of the empire may be in state of some undress.

I don’t see a lot of advertising on the television, as I tend to record programmes on commercial channels and then fast forward through the ads.  This both spares me the generally tedious efforts of the advertising industry and allows me to watch two hours of television in around 90 minutes – so much more time efficient!  However, when at the cinema, I am a captive audience and see most of my moving ads (as opposed to the more static bill-board) there.  Theatre and classical music remain largely ad-free (if you ignore the programme).  This seems to be missing a trick as you have actors and/or musicians available who could usefully indulge in a bit of selling while the audience hobble to their seats.

I rather miss Pearl and Dean, and do wonder if they are still together – or just another one of this country’s rising divorce statistics.  Once, in the ABC in East Grinstead in the mid 80s, I was the sole audience member for a film entitled Turk 182.  Prior to the film beginning, we had the usual Pearl and Dean ad reel – but the film had been fed into the projector the wrong way round and it ran backwards.  The famous P&D theme sounds pretty much the same in reverse – these is no hidden demonic message (in case any readers had been worrying).

Nowadays, most of my cinema time is spent at a Picturehouse and so I have made study of the ads which are felt appropriate for an art house cinema audience.    We would seem to be in the market for broadband, moderately to very expensive cars and vodka – there is always an ad for vodka (drinking and driving seems to be positively encouraged at the flicks).  We are also subjected to an ad by a firm called Prime Location which I find actively offensive and which has convinced me never to use their services: I presume it is paid for by a consortium of other estate agents to wreck their business.  The catalogue of ads seems entirely independent of the choice of film – but my own anecdotal evidence would suggest that the choice of film does affect the audience (and, indeed, the film trailers shown).

Frankly, advertising seems only to be targetted at me in the sense that any projectile cast into the air at less than 11.2 km/s is being targetted at “the ground”.  Both will encounter their target, but not due to any virtue imparted by their method of delivery.  There is an old saying that those that can do, and those that can’t teach.  I have heard this extended to administration if teaching is too tricky – one can only imagine that marketing is all-too-often a very long way down this chain of possible careers.

Trust Twitter (sometimes)

It is very easy to wonder about the point of Twitter: particularly if you have the misfortune to read my occasional productions (or are awaiting the next chapter of my Twitter novel).  It is often seen as the haunt of trolls and a good place to find idiotic young people for the police to arrest in a blaze of publicity (and poppies).

It offers me an outlet for my shorter pieces of written stupidity and provides the occasional chuckle at the witticisms or pictures tweeted by the select(ish) few that I follow.  However, it can also offer real world utility to the user (well, this user anyway).

As has been established, it introduced me to 10 Greek Street which I visited yesterday evening.  I was in town for work, but manage to tack on some pleasure after my duties to “the man” were complete.  It was a particularly good visit in a number of ways:

  • Most practically, I learned a whole new way to prepare curly kale or cavolo nero to avoid introducing excessive stalk into the final dish.  It was a technique I would never have thought of for myself (I might even tell you what the trick is one day, but only after I’ve tested it myself – it looked easy, but that may have been down to the skill of the chefs).
  • The starter also gave me some ideas for something different to do with the squashes that are in season at the moment – and included that 10GS favourite, burrata.
  • The meal was accompanied by a particularly lovely (and reasonably priced) glass (OK, two) of red wine: a Costières de Nîmes.
  • Finally, such is my trust in the food there that I tried a main course that I would never have risked elsewhere (even at home).  I made the right choice!  The onion tart was absolutely sublime – containing halved onions so sweet and delicious I would never have imagined it possible.  It also avoided generating the adverse side-effects which onion-ingestion can engendered in your author.  A fact much appreciate by the later theatre audience and those sharing my train home.

The same chap who introduced me to the delights of Greek Street had also made reference to Albam Clothing – who, all too rarely in this day and age, sell clothing and related items which are manufactured in the UK.  Yesterday, I finally made my way to one of the London shops and left with a smart Aiguille rucksack made in the Lake District, so it should be able to keep my stuff dry even given the rather moist climate which now seems to dominate South Cambs (very much a new lake district in the making).  I also acquired a navy cardigan (the colour rather than the armed service), well I am middle-aged: what did you think I wore?

Before this orgy of food and shopping, I made time for some art.  I decided to check out some of the gear my membership of the Art Fund had helped to secure for the nation.  Can’t say I was wildly impressed by the Titian’s – his heads seem too small for their bodies – but that is probably my fault rather than his.  Still, I did see some very interesting stuff at the National Gallery and could feel that the odd square millimetre (or more likely, micron) of it was, in some way, mine!

Before that I went to a gallery in an area of London never previously graced by my presence – the area between Dalston and Haggeston.  I had previously though this was some sort of post-apocalyptic wasteland – and was pleasantly surprised to find that areas were really rather beautiful.  It also led to my first trip on the London Overground – which spent most of its time underground, but then again my immediately preceding journey on the Underground mostly took place above ground – much swankier than the East London line it replaced and hugely extended.

My destination played host to an exhibition I had discovered through Twitter – though I can no longer remember who brought it to my attention.  The exhibition was entitled Horrorgami and was a set of 13 kirigami works – each an iconic building from a horror film – in a light box.  Kirigami is like origami – it is made by folding paper, but you are allowed to cut the paper.  I have no particular interest in horror films, but the “models” were incredible and very beautiful and must require the most incredible planning and cutting and folding precision.  I am now wondering where I could fit one at home: I have narrowed it down to shortlist of four works, but it will need to be installed near a mains supply.  I would thoroughly recommend going to the exhibition – but you’ll have to hurry as tomorrow is the final day!

My final event of the day was unrelated to Twitter, but was vaguely trust-related.  I went to see a play which was very highly rated in reviews when it was on at the Royal Court earlier in the year, but tickets were impossible to come by.  Yesterday, it started a short run in the West End and I managed to snag a ticket for the first night (though at rather higher cost than it would have been at the Royal Court).  The play, Constellations, was very good – and pleasingly brief and interval free (so, home to bed at a reasonable time) – funny, sad and thought provoking.  No real scenery but an amazing set comprised of light globes and balloons and very clever lighting design to capture jumps between the many-worlds involved.

Sometimes, I feel my life is pretty good – but then again, I am a pretty cheap date: my ambitions and desires can generally be met on a pretty modest budget.

Electronic era etiquette

New electronic ways to communicate and share one’s life with the world at large seem to be created every day.  I largely fail to keep up with most of these: let’s face it I still think Pinterest is a degree of fascination with a transcendental number derived from the geometry of the circle.

The vast majority of my engagement with the world of social media (I’m still waiting for a ring) rests with this very blog.  I suspect I am drawn to its more pedagogic format: you may like to imagine me in gown and mortar-board speaking from behind a desk on a raised dais.   I do occasionally dabble in Twitter and Facebook, but mostly as an outlet for material too brief, too transient or of such poor quality than even I’d be embarrassed to make it into a post.  This dabbling has been exacerbated by ownership of a mobile ‘phone which permits me to share such material when out-and-about: the ‘phone may be smart, but the operator is as limited as ever.

Twitter seems to me like a one-to-many version of the old SMS text, though does not seem to have acquired the same degree of vowel elision.  Of course, trying to fit your message into a minimum number of characters is nothing new.  The telegram, and I assume the telegraph before it, encouraged brevity – though, I’m not aware of a 19th Century version of txt-spk (however, I am extrapolating from the work of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, so am willing to be proven wrong.  STOP).

Even in the more recent past when I started work, email (if it existed at all) was only available to members of CERN or DARPA.  Fax had been invented, but was thought of as fearfully expensive, so any need for rapid, text communication in the office was handled by Telex.  Telex only allowed capital letters and almost no special characters (so, for example, the £-symbol was rendered as GBP or BPS) and you were charged by the letter, so the incentive was to keep ones natural loquacity in check .  Once again, little use was made of abbreviations back in my telex days – text-speak would definitely have saved money, though may have confused the foreign distributors who were the normal recipients of my terse communiqués.  Hard to believe I know, but when I first started work – after three years of pure mathematics – my writing was extremely short and to-the-point, verging on the career-limiting when used in memo form.  I do wonder if my subsequent writing “career” (including GofaDM) is some sort of overcompensation?

Be that as it may, this post was supposed to be about Twitter – and my less than competent use thereof.  Readers who have glimpsed Condensity will have seen my occasional use of the Tweet – these are cast out into an uncaring world and I think nothing more about them (certainly, there is not even the briefest pause to consider the suffering they may cause).  Earlier in the week, my clumsy fingers working in conjunction with a soi-disant smartphone brought up a previously unfamiliar part of the Twitter “app”.  This revealed that two people, neither followers of my Twitter “feed” (though, there is little nourishment available at that particular electronic teat) nor known to the author, had replied – and both to the same Tweet!  I have, inadvertently, ignored this response from the world beyond Fish Towers for several weeks – and feel this probably represents appalling Twitter etiquette.  Where is the DeBrett’s for the modern social media whore?  In the world of near-instantaneous communication, I am operating like the mail before Thomas Telford (or worse).  Can the situation be salvaged?

Both response were positive reactions to my idea for an android private detective, A.I.P.I. – though I can no longer remember what prompted this particular thought – and can only guess as to how they stumbled across it given my tendency to eschew the hashtag.  Also, in Twitter-space, I have a stalled Twitter novel to complete and this too involves a gumshoe.  Could there be an opportunity here to weld these two ideas together into a winning format?  Let’s face it, if there is one format the world needs more of it’s detective fiction (well, that and talent, cookery, property and antiques-based TV programming) and I owe it to the fans to reveal what that delivery contains… (oh yes, I do know – though what happens thereafter is a little nebulous).

The frivolous (social net)work of polished idleness

Given my use of this blog, Twitter and Facebook it would not have been unreasonable for you to assume that I have embraced social networking.  Well, perhaps given my rather erratic use of both Twitter and Facebook, it might be considered more of a wave across a crowded room than a full-on embrace.  In fact, I tend to view both Twitter and Facebook as an adjunct to GofaDM: as repositories for material too brief or transitory to make it into a full post.

They do have other uses: Twitter does deliver the occasional well-formed witticism and only last week provided me with me first, definitive sighting of Venus (no doubt I’d seen it before, but for the fist time I both saw it and knew what I was seeing!).  Facebook is, I have found, quite handy for keeping up with the lives of friends who are now parents.

Both are, of course, nominally free at the point of consumption – though, we are giving away precious details about ourselves to be sold to “the man” for his nefarious commercial ends as part of this Faustian pact.  I feel fairly relaxed about this – if any commercial concern is able to learn anything useful about me from a combination of dodgy jokes, a somewhat stalled novel and an attempt at a haiku then I say “good luck to them!”.

The presence of location services on my cellphone (retro or what) might cause the worry that “they” can track my movements.  However, whilst sitting in an Australian cafe near Goodge Street (W1) this past week, Facebook thought I was in Biggin Hill (some 18.2 miles away by foot according Google maps, which does not seem to provide a crow-flying option) – so whilst Big Brother may be watching me, he would seem to be either a very long way away or wearing the wrong specs (or both).

However, use can be taken too far.  There are individuals who provide a commentary on their every action (or inaction) – a degree of sharing which I have (so far) managed to resist: if I do start sharing details of my breakfast (the usual) or bowel movements (perfectly satisfactory, thank you), please feel free to stage an intervention.

A huge range of products and companies now want us to follow them on Twitter or like them in Facebook.  I’ve just had a quick scan of my larder, and whilst some products mention a website or even a real address, I couldn’t spot any which encouraged me to start adding them to my circle of friends.  This may be because I tend to buy basic ingredients and make more complex fare myself (through a mix of culinary skill and egomania, I am convinced that I can make something more appetising than that which is produced by piercing a film and sticking a plastic tray of gunk in the microwave for 2 minutes).  My flexible attitude to the Use By date also means that much of the contents of my pantry pre-dates social networking (and in some cases, the internet).  As a warning to marketing departments everywhere: if I spot a foodstuff seeking to become part of my social life I shall discontinue its purchase forthwith and seek some less pushy alternative.

Many companies seem actively to seek cupboard-love by attempting to bribe me to like them on Facebook.  Whilst I am eminently corruptible, I will need to be suitably insulted first: a trip on the corporate yacht might be tempting, some minor discounts and early details of special offers really isn’t.

But, for me, the final straw was being asked to visit the BBC Radio 3 Facebook page when trying to listen to some classical music.  I don’t won’t to live in a universe where Radio 3 would have a Facebook page – let alone visit it.  I realise I’m on thin ice here (as I fully intend to grow old disgracefully) but it’s rather sad when a middle-aged or elderly acquaintance attempts to be trendy in this way.  Is this part of a plan to poach some yoof from the 1Xtra massive?  I know from attending classical music concerts that there is a definite shortage of age and ethnic diversity in the audience (though, plenty of walking aids), but I hardly think that this is the way to address it.  Or am I just showing myself up as a fuddy-duddy while the typical Radio 3 listener has the dextrous thumbs (or would one of them have to be sinistrous for a normal pair?) of a teenager (in a glass jar, perhaps?) and is a social-network addict?

Metablog: the Flattened Fifth

Or, from a certain point of view, the Augmented Fourth.  Either way, the mental dissonance should leave you craving resolution: a resolution which can only be delivered in the form of the later, fabled, sixth metablog – though, I suspect the real challenge may be reaching number ten (I was thinking by analogy to symphonies, but I suspect Downing Street may also lie beyond my grasp).

I would say, “always leave the public wanting more,” but that would suggest an initial public appetite for weapons-grade inanity (actually, that is probably a safe assumption given even a cursory perusal of the TV schedules or magazine racks of this septic isle) and, having seen my contribution to the stockpile, the continued desire for more.  In my defence, I would ask where else you would see cannibalism, pony-based, young female-reader directed literature of the 1950s and the electrification of the railway to Anglesey sharing a stage – that has to be juxtaposition at an International level!

However, do not fear that I will begin to rest on my laurels, I think I can keep that particular fear at bay for you.  (I do wonder if should I explain the bay is a laurel – Laurus nobilis – here?  Or would explaining the pun in some way diminish it?  Can something that weak be further diminished? I suppose that would depend if pun strength is a continuous variable…)  No, stung by recent criticism, I will be turning over a new (bay) leaf.

In an attempt to keep the hypocrisy below the blog-based critical mass (a hypocrisy melt-down can thus be averted), I have turned off Ratings on the Home page (which has magically removed Liking as well) – but you can still rate by opening each post.  However, this is a personal choice – between each reader and their conscience.

The heads of the GofaDM Quality Assurance department have rolled so many times now that they are (a) almost perfectly spherical and (b) now actively repelling moss (if only I could say the latter about the greensward here at Fish Towers).  I can only say that they will try and do better in future – less late-night blogging for me!

There have also been suggestions – not without foundation given my continued failures to deliver – that many promises made within this blog are for purely rhetorical purposes. Well, no more!  Before the week is out, my Twitter novel, which I proposed in the comments to “Staff Room”, will be launched on Condensity.  It will be called “Divine Comedy” for reasons that may become apparent (though it is likely to lie at some distance from the divine – or, indeed, the comic).  Due to the limitations of the medium, this will not entirely follow the model laid out by Charles Dickens – and so characters will not have names like Martin Chuzzlewit or David Copperfield, but will instead have much shorter appellations (not the mountain range in the US).  The story will also mine the near-exhausted theme of detective fiction – with our main protagonist being a gumshoe. Each micro-chapter will start with a special character to indicate that it is not a run-of-the-mill Condensity entry – and the story will develop tweet-by-tweet into a searing examination of the human condition.  Well, it might – I’ve only written the first 5 or 6 micro-chapters so far, so anything could happen!  Quite literally!

Prepare yourselves for the literary sensation of the millenium!  This could be your children (or grandchildren’s) set book in years to come – but you, the lucky few, are in at the beginning…