Something for (next to) nothing.

We were fortunate in that we lost our broadband and telephone service a couple of days ago. In the high winds a branch was blown off an ash tree and as it fell to earth it brought the fibre optic cable with it. This was fortunate as this was the only real damage we sustained in the gales. It could have been much worse; property could have been damaged, fences could have been breached or livestock harmed. All that did happen was that we lost some communication and our access to the Internet. It ha also be useful and instructive to discover how reliant we have become on the web and how much time I wasted with it.

The first thing I noticed the number of times I could not immediately Google the answer to multiple pointless questions. Was Ed Shearan in Game of Thrones? Is Baghdad bigger than Tehran? When did GK Chesterton die? I am in the habit of checking these as they arise. It is so quick and easy, a trivial task, that I never remember the answers I get and thus never become truly wiser. There were more important questions (Can goats eat Christmas trees?) but we were able to look these up in a reference book where there is a handy reference list(*) which will still be there should the electricity follow the Internet in deserting us. This was a minor annoyance and easily circumvented by more traditional sources of information.

The second thing that was missing was also information. I realised that I was receiving a great deal of my news through this medium. I world start each day reading the news in my bed on my mobile phone and often end the day in the same way. A newspaper, the radio and television not only sorted this problem but also gave me better quality news. It gave me a wider range of information and opinion that had not been filtered down to appeal to my biases and prejudices. This points to a news years resolution – I will wean myself away from reliance on the internet, and especially social media, for receiving my news.

The other things I realised was how much of a toy the internet is for me. I was not using my phone or computer as a tool but as a toy to amuse me. It was something to fritter time away. Rarely was my use actively constructive, usually is was simply as a diversion. I realised how hooked I was on this as it reminded me of when I stopped smoking. For months after my last cigarette I would find myself reaching into my pockets for cigarettes and a lighter. Now I was performing the same motions, patting my pockets, to check my phone rather than my next nicotine fix.

The most fortunate part of losing this distraction was the amount of time it liberated. Not just time spent in pointless activity, but it removed the diversionary attractions which often sideline plans.

I had a large amount of goat dung and bedding to deal with, which is never a fun task and one that can nearly always be postponed or sidelined. With the new free time I felt best to make some use of it. I gathered up some residual side cuts of timber, left over from the last time we were making planks, and decided to make some raised beds. The lining was made of old plastic feed bags and the preservative was two old tins found in the garage (Hence the two different colours). After a couple of days work and no special expenditure I had a couple of fuctioning vegetable beds. These may not look much now but wait until the summer when they start to be productive.

Two tone beds

I think I can say, quite definitely, that I was fortunate to lose the broadband connection. I now have beds, have used some rubbish and have formed a new year’s resolution. It is true that I am not up to date with what is happening with Kim Kardashian’s buttocks but I think I will survive this loss.

(*) They can, in moderation, indeed it can be a useful vitamin supplement.

The Circle by Dave Eggars

The Circle by Dave Eggars

Like many people recently I had been concerned about my growing dependency on social media. It reminded me of may days when I was hooked on cigarettes and a heavy regular smoker. The first thing I did every morning, before anything else, was to smoke my first cigarette and cough. Now the first thing I do, before coffee or anything else, is to check my phone for email or messages.  In the past I used to notice myself checking my pockets to make sure I hadn’t misplaced my packet of cigarettes, now I do the same patting my pockets dance to make sure I haven’t accidentally strayed away from my mobile phone. Before I used to worry about running out of cigarettes and always made sure that I had enough until the next time I’d be at the shops. Now I have the anxiety of battery life and the need to make sure that the phone has enough battery power to take it to the next charger.

When I was a smoker I used to joke that the only place I didn’t smoke (though not for want of trying) was in the bath – with wet hands the cigarettes get soggy and fall apart ! Now with a waterproof phone (IP68) I don’t have this excuse and had noticed occasional times reading an article while having a soak. I realised I needed to break this habit and took what I thought were the appropriate steps. I stopped using Facebook and other social media systems; stopped carrying my phone with me when I went out to work; and read my articles and book on paper rather than as digital editions (Note that paperbacks and reading in the bath  don’t always mix happily as my very thick and curly edition of ‘Brave New World’ will testify).

However, I have been less successful than I thought I would be and the path has been harder than anticipated. Though I didn’t miss Facebook at all I discovered that some of my voluntary work depended on it : the village hall needed it Facebook page to publicise its activities and coordinate bookings,  likewise the Community First Responders used social media for the educational activities and rotas. I also discovered that the main function of my mobile phone was not as a phone (There is rarely any reception outside where I stay) but as a camera. When out and discovering an animal unwell a photograph can sometimes help a neighbour or vet give good advice. So my phone started to creep back into my working trousers. The last hurdle was cost, the various messaging systems are much cheaper than the telephone for keeping in touch with my dispersed family and, as a voracious reader, eBooks are considerably cheaper than their 3D counterparts. Although I have managed to cut down my usage and  recover many hours worth of wasted time I  have realised just how embedded is the new technology in our modern lives. Therefore when I came across this novel about the influence on social media and information technology on our lives my interest was piqued. I bought the kindle version and started to read it as an eBook conscious of the possible irony.

I suppose this book is best described as piece of The_Circle_(Dave_Eggers_novel_-_cover_art)dystopian science fiction. Often science fiction concerns future worlds and it through such novels we can consider what the future may hold for us. This novel does, indeed, consider a dangerous and unpleasant future but it is not about a time many years from now, rather it is seen as the result of choices we need to be making right now.

The story reads as a thriller following the history of Mae who secures a post in the world’s leading technology company. There are nods to all the major players in the current digital environment but the company, The Circle, is clearly based on Google even down to the level of the logo.. As Mae progresses in the company she becomes increasingly aware of the new developments in data acquisition and usage. The immediate benefits of these programmes and systems lures Mae and the public into using them and she, and they, ignore the increasing concerns about the influences these have on personal privacy and the body politic. These dangers are laid out very clearly in the book, perhaps a bit heavy handedly, and the book is a pacey race to see if the baddies can be headed off at the pass. I won’t spoil it and reveal which ending the novel takes.

This is an easy read, the characters verge a little on the stereotypical but they are real enough to keep your interest and attention. The dangers of the loss of privacy, and the growing control of opinion, which can result from a monopoly  provider of digital services are described in such a manner as to be readily believable, many are recognisable as already having occurred. Like all dystopian novels the dangers are presented but there are no clues as to how to prevent them. However, as a holiday read, something to take to the poolside, this is warmly recommended, especially as the paperback version.



Google’s Shame

Google’s Shame

The story of the “Google Manifesto” continues and becomes more worrisome. For those who do not know what this is about it refers to a document written by one of Google’s engineers, in which he expressed his views on gender differences, and for which he was sacked.

The full text of his document is here. I give this link as often this document is commented upon by people who have not read it. They describe it as a “rant”, a “screed”, a “diatribe” or a Men’s Rights Manifesto. While there have been rants about the document and many diatribes about the author (often by women keen to show that they do not conform to any stereotype by using aggressive and hostile language) the document itself is not one of these.

It is an article considering the reasons that gender disparities exist and suggesting that there may be evidence that, at least in part, these differences have biological roots. It further suggests that Google, as an organization, has become to wedded to one world view as to be blind to the possibility of any other divergent views.

Considering first the gender differences; whether he is right or wrong about the relative importance of nature versus nurture in the differences between the sexes, or races, or individuals, he is clearly not wrong that this plays a part. (Anecdote alert n=2) I have recently watched my grandchildren, a boy and a girl, raised by modern forward thinking parents who eschew gender stereotypes, and it was clear that despite their rearing their biology still determines aspects of their behaviour.

The author of the Google Document felt that nature is more important than is generally credited but he does not suggest that individuals are bound by their genes. Further he is clear that these effects affect groups and averages and does not imply that no individuals can outperform others in in

It really would only be either a fool or an ideologue who felt that nature played no part whatsoever. Unfortunately is seems a lot of the latter hold positions of influence inside Google. But it really doesn’t matter whether he is right or wrong on this matter, as long as he is neither abusive or threatening, he should be allowed to express his views. How else can he recognise any errors he may have, how otherwise can others learn what he thinks.

But his views are seen as a heresy – too dangerous to be allowed to be heard for fear that they might damage the faith. Just as the Church of old used to snuff out any discordant views (and often the discordant person at the same time) the clerisy of present day thinking about diversity will not tolerate views that are out of step.

This was the second theme of his paper; that Google was intolerant of divergent opinions. Unfortunately he has proven his thesis is a very sad manner, after the involvement of the Head of Diversity, he was sacked because he “advanced incorrect assumptions about gender”. He had written that he worked in an “ideological echo chamber” and having “shaming culture and the possibility of being fired”. There could not be more proof of this than his own fate. It truly is Orwellian and would not be at all out of place in “1984” to read of the Diversity Officer arranging the firing of the employee for his divergent views.

I am very disappointed in Google. I had often though their “Don’t be Evil” tag meant something but clearly not. I had allied myself with their services for this reason, but it seems it is time now to distance myself.  I don’t want to use a search engine that thinks there is only one truth that can be heard. I do not wish to share my data with an organisation that feels it can decide what is appropriate to be in someone’s mind. So the search is on to find ways to reduce the revenue I generate for them. I’m away to rediscover Edge and DuckDuckGo.