Retweeting to the scene of the crime

sysk-crimesceneselectWelp, it didn’t last. But being away from Twitter for a few days was helpful in focusing my mind on just what it was about the place that vexes me in particular. Sure, Nazis etc., but there were a thousand other things that niggled at me too. Many of these things also niggled at me on Mastodon.

So I feel like, coming back, I want to clear the decks a bit. I think I absolutely have to be ruthless about certain things, even if it means I lose some followers (I’ve lost one already – although I don’t use a service that tells me just who it was), and so I’m going to be unfollowing or muting a lot of accounts. It really is about the content, often in the form of retweets, rather than the people.

Let’s start at the top of the list, with the hate. I’m fairly liberal as far as free speech is concerned. I draw the line at harassment and inciting violence, but I think there’s another line I’ll draw, which is something that my brief time on Mastodon made me think about. On Mastodon, the interface doesn’t have an option to quote-retweet. I’ve used this feature on Twitter a lot, but I appreciate now that in certain cases there has been a power imbalance. For example, if someone with half a million followers quote-tweets someone with 250 followers, it’s like pointing a klieg light towards them with potentially unpleasant results. So I’m kind of done with people who misuse the power of their following. Anything that encourages the pitchfork wielding twitmob, in other words, whether that’s directed at political opponents, or poor customer service from brands. I did unfollow radio presenter Danny Baker some time ago because of his worrying tendency to get publicly mardy about a poor retail or customer experience. By all means, take it up with the organisation concerned, like the rest of us have to, but stop invoking a mob. Stop using your clout.

The twitmob has always been the absolute worst part of Twitter: everyone piling in. It doesn’t matter which side of the culture war you’re on: the majority is always wrong. And I’m not holding myself up as a paragon: I’m sure I’m as guilty as anyone of piling in at times. But I’ll try hard not to.

It wasn’t just Mastodon’s no-quoting policy that brought this home to me, but the very fact of viewing a more or less unfiltered Mastodon timeline, on that first couple of days when a lot of twit-refugees were turning up. There were a lot of in-jokes, and a lot of jokes about toots, which is what the Mastodon equivalent of tweets are called. And watching all these people having their fun by all piling in and making the same kind of jokes over and over, well, it kind of irritated me. Because I’m not, as you know, a joiner. And when I see this kind of phenomenon, I just think, groupthink, yuk. And I turn away from it.

So twitter mob mentality is out, and when I encounter it, I’ll be unfollowing.

I also went through my follow list and cleared out some dormant accounts (at least two of the people I followed were dead 😔).

Temporarily, I have more followers than I am following. Wonder how long that will last?

A final word on Mastodon. In that unfiltered timeline, there was an awful lot of neediness and attention-seeking, disguised as joining in the fun. No different from Twitter in that respect. And there were a lot, as I’ve said, of passive-aggressive “helpful” messages to “new users”.

And I’ve been thinking about the final staw(s). One was just another passive-aggressive set of rules for new users (actually, the site already had a set of rules, so this was just a redundant set of snarky rules designed to put people in their place). The other was a message from one of said new users, asking for recommendations of people to follow, “who aren’t men”.

Well.

This new user appeared to be a man, first of all, from his profile pic. So it looked like a certain amount of self-loathing was going on. Now, I’m not going to go down the “not all men” route, but I am going to point out that one of the main problems with Twitter is/was not that men didn’t follow enough women. The problem has always been that men would choose to follow a lot of women, and then harass them endlessly. I mean, there are so many accounts that were essentially middle-aged white men following a lot of younger women. It’s a thing, on Twitter.

So the “problem” that this newbie was trying to be so right-on about was simply being reproduced in his self-loathing toot. He might as well have asked, “Please direct me towards some hot chicks I can follow.” So. My eyes continue their rolling journey back to their origin.

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Leaving (Twitter) on a paper plane

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Time to die

I just deactivated my Twitter account. I have 30 days to switch it back on if I change my mind. This post won’t be publicised on Twitter.

I’m doing this partly because I was encouraged to do so by the D-Day 17th August campaign, which I don’t think has gained much traction. I guess we’ll see about that. I’m only barely aware of Al*x J*ones and his conspiracy theories. I’ve been muting and blocking political Twitter for a while anyway, because it makes me miserable. I’ve never been abused or doxxed or anything like that. But I feel like unless Twitter does something about these issues, it’s not a place I want to be. It’s become increasingly clear that, actually, the people who run Twitter have no problem with nazis and purveyors of confidence trick conspiracy theories, and in fact might actually sympathise with them. At the very least, they see them as being good for business, like the proverbial fire fighter who is also an arsonist.

And I’m partly leaving because of Twitter’s continuing attacks on 3rd party clients. I get it: we users of Tweetbot and other clients don’t see any ads or promoted tweets. The problem, though, is that the official client is a horrible experience for other reasons. It’s not about the ads. It’s about the way Twitter has fucked around with the Timeline so that it’s not just in reverse chronological order. Instead you see boosted tweets by prominent people at the expense of regular users. In my own case, looking at Twitter on the web (on a Mac, so no other choice), I sometimes don’t even see my own tweets in my Timeline. That’s just humiliating.

And you see what other people have privately liked, which shouldn’t be on the public timeline at all. So I’d consider using the official client if it wasn’t for that, but Twitter doesn’t seem to understand how much some of us hate what they’ve done. Changing favourites from stars to hearts was bad enough. Now it looks like you “love” something you’re just bookmarking to read later. They’ve been doing stupid stuff like this for years, and those of us who use 3rd party clients have been somewhat insulated. But now they’re coming for the clients, making them less and less functional, so maybe it was time to leave anyway.

And finally, I’m doing it because Twitter hasn’t really been much fun for a long time, and maybe I need this push. A platform that hosts nazis and abusers and inciters of violence is not a good place to be, even if your own corner of it is relatively free of that stuff.

I’m trying Mastodon (I’m The_Obald@mastodon.social), but: it just brings into focus how little I enjoy this kind of thing. And it’s a bit of a ball-ache to set up, and nobody I care about is on it. Time, perhaps, to let it lie die.

Car bore: 80

I’ll start by saying that I don’t really mind the new 80 kph speed limit. I’m rational enough to know that in terms of journey time and arrival time, taking into account 50 kph villages, acceleration and deceleration, tractors, lorries, the timid and the hesitant, it’s not going to make much difference. We’re not travelling interstellar distances. But the limit “lacks public support”, according to the media. Ask damn fool questions and you get damn fool answers.

FRANCE-ROAD-SECURITYI’ve been trained by my commute, along a so-called A road with a 50 mph speed limit, to feel that speed is perfectly fine. Plus, you don’t use much fuel at that speed, do you?

When I saw the announcement earlier this year, that for safety reasons, the French government were introducing this 80kph speed limit, I was as skeptical as anyone. As I said then, speeding is just one of the terrible habits of French drivers, and the scofflaws who ignore 90 kph will continue to ignore 80 kph. Maybe the fines will be bigger though.

One problem I foresaw was signage. I kept mentioning it to my French other half and she just shrugged it off and said it wouldn’t be an issue.

There aren’t that many 90 kph signs in the country, but they do exist, and they’re more common than the British equivalent of 60 mph. But the French really do have a problem with signage because of the complicated nature of the new law. You’re restricted to 80 kph on two-lane roads where there is no barrier in between the lanes. Fine, if barriers weren’t a thing, but they are. Quite a lot of roads introduce a barrier, or a third lane, for the odd stretch, to enable overtaking of tractors and slow lorries, or to discourage any overtaking at all, even by idiots who ignore road markings. For the three-lane stretches, the speed limit reverts to 90 kph but only in the direction of the two lanes. So the same stretch of road has two speed limits, depending on which way you’re going. And then if the two lanes swap over, so do the speed limits.

Does this seem overly complicated to you? It does to me, and I’m paying attention.

Driving from Haute Saône into Haut Rhin, I noticed that the former department had bothered to signpost these stretches, but that the latter had just removed all the signs that used to be there, leaving you unsure.

Perhaps the real problem with 80 is that there is still a 70, which is the French equivalent of the British 40 mph (it’s actually around 45 mph). In other words, there’s a 6 mph difference between the safety limit on bendy bits or in places that aren’t villages, and the maximum allowed on a two lane road. Does 6 mph seem worth it?

I feel like the logical step is to reduce 70 kph to 65, giving us 15 kph increments. But can you imagine the outcry from the people who are currently ignoring 70 and will then have to ignore 65? Also, they’d have to install a lot of signs. The other move would be to do away with the 70, which I can’t see them doing.

How is it working in practice? Well, I think I’ve been tailgated (even) more often than usual, which is about what you’d expect. But speeding is still anti-social and therefore immoral, and I am still a cyclist, so.

On being blacklisted

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Yes, I downloaded it all from the National Archives

I felt a kind of weary recognition when I saw this story in the Guardian the other day. I don’t remember what the precise occasion was, but I remember vividly being told that I was on “the list” by a trade union acquaintance of mine. At the time, I greeted the information with the kind of youthful bravado you’d expect of someone in their mid-20s and in the thick of the kind of grassroots activism that feels like nothing but actually is the most effective means of creating change.

By matching staff records against MI5 files, the SPL came to the conclusion that there were 1,420 “subversives” in the civil service, including 52 in Customs and Excise, 169 at the Inland Revenue and 111 at the Ministry of Defence, many of them at the Royal Naval dockyards at Rosyth. The largest number, however, 360, were said to be at the Department of Health.

Privately, I figured that if MI5 were targeting me, then they were even more incompetent than their poor reputation suggested. This was the era of Peter Wright’s Spycatcher, the banned memoir that revealed that the British Intelligence services had been  fucking up operations for decades. I bought my copy, illegally imported from Australia, at one of those second hand book stalls under Waterloo Bridge on the South Bank, a half-hour walk from Gower Street, the then-headquarters of MI5.

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Yeah, this is not me

But pause with me a moment to look at the picture the Guardian used to illustrate this news story (above). Did I resemble the floppy haired young man depicted? My hair was curly and frequently dyed blonde. I never once held a copy of Militant in my hands; and I would have fled in terror if someone offered me a loud hailer. On the other hand, I might well have considered a stripy jumper.

Apart from being told by a reliable source that I was on this list, I have other evidence to offer.

  1. I worked in the tax office (Inland Revenue) in those days, which meant I had signed the Official Secrets Act. I was a very lowly clerical assistant (or the Revenue’s equivalent), a position for which I was overqualified. And yet, it took me fully six years to gain a promotion to the next grade above. If you knew me at all, you’d know this could not possibly be because of incompetency on my part. To illustrate this latter point, I will refer you to the time I went on the Tax Officer training course when I finally got that promotion, six years in. I was taking a cigarette break with the trainer that day when he said to me, “This must be very boring for you?” “Why do you say that?” “Because you obviously know this stuff already.” This wasn’t, in fact, the case. But, I’m very quick on the uptake. And so, yeah: it took six years to get promoted from my filing job.
  2. Aha, you say. Why then, did you not just go and get another job? Good question. I applied for many: very many. I got many interviews. I took many intelligence tests and got the highest marks. But, you see, I was blacklisted.
  3. One job I applied for, at the Abbey National building society (or was it already a bank by then?), I passed the tests with flying colours, passed the interview, and was told I’d be receiving a job offer “subject to references”. Well, one of my referees, Norman, who was my line manager, sat opposite me in the office. And he would have told me if he’d been asked for a reference. But he never did because he never was. And the nailed-on job disappeared into thin air.
  4. Finally, I was arbitrarily moved, in my lowly clerical position, to another one in another tax office that was just around the corner. It separated me, on that day to day basis, from my immediate circle of radical trade union buddies. Apart from that, there was no reason to move me.

“Most “subversives” were found to be working in junior clerical positions. The SPL recommended in its initial report that they should, where possible, “be identified and distanced from such work”.

It added that mounting a purge of suspect individuals would not be possible, but “it might sometimes be possible covertly to move individuals to posts where they would have less potential for disruption.”

Anyway, that blacklisting blighted my career prospects, and held me back for years. Eventually I got out of the tax office only by getting a place at University. My life is divided into the before and after in that respect. Things went pretty well after that: although I still consider those nine years struggling against the machine to be lost.

It was all so unnecessary, really. All the “list” consisted of was names and organisations. In my case, it would have been the IRSF, the Inland Revenue Staff Federation: a trade union so radical that it wasn’t even affiliated with the Labour Party.

And I only really got involved in the union because I was pissed off with the way I was being treated (early on in my glittering tax office career, I was criticised for the way I walked, and the way I looked for files, and for not wearing a collar and tie, and, when I did wear a collar and tie, I was told by my manager that he didn’t like my collar and he didn’t like my tie). And I’d been a little radicalised by 18 months on the dole: to the point that I had values at odds with most of the management class. When they were throwing post away in confidential waste sacks in order to meet targets, I was kinda muttering that if they left their targets unmet, maybe some unemployed person could be given a job.

But I hadn’t read a word of Marx or Militant, hadn’t joined any organisation apart from my union, and (ironically) my first exposure to such reading would come at University, which only happened because of the blacklisting.

So what did I do to get on that list?

I did once sign a petition at a CND rally. With hindsight, I did come to believe that the stunningly pretty girls who were circulating with the petition were probably MI5, harvesting names from the many bus trips.

But my real activism was small and local. I went to Branch union meetings, first as office rep and later as Branch Organiser. I sold raffle tickets to help the striking miners in ’84 and ’85. I was the Organiser who organised a crucial vote on the union having a political fund.

Which brings us to the crux. The Tory project in the 80s was principally about crushing the unions, who had so effectively destroyed the Heath government of 1970-74. All forms of collectivism (public transport, public utilities) were out, to be replaced by privatised companies who would make life hard for unions. And all strikes had to be approved by an expensive postal ballot, thus ensuring forever more that no strike would be called on anything over a 25% turnout, which was all the media would need to call foul. And, the most evil step of all, members would have to vote as to whether their union could make political donations. This policy was designed to kill the Labour party at its roots.

As I said, the IRSF wasn’t even affiliated with the Labour party, but we did believe, us union chaps, that we ought to be able to fund research and so on, or support candidates. So we organised the vote, and we got it approved.

Which, one suspects, wasn’t supposed to happen.

Possibly the most damning thing I did was organise the publication and distribution of a branch newsletter. This was my idea because it was clear then that the government, through their managers, were trying to bypass the unions by offering, for example, newsletters of their own. Going direct to the workers with new initiatives and spinning information without considering their elected representatives. So, I said, if they’re going to be “communicating” with our members, shouldn’t we offer an alternative?

Thus the Conscientious Op was born, a newsletter title that punned on a collection of Dashiel Hammett short stories (Continental Op). It was reproduced by typewriter, letraset, cut ups and photocopier. It was, probably, pure punk.

I don’t remember a single thing I wrote in it.

But one suspects that something upset somebody. (It was a similar story when I left school at 18.)

So, blacklisted I was. And what have we learned? First of all, those small-time local activities you can get involved in do have an impact, and do scare the bejesus out of those in power, who know full well that they only get away with stuff because we let them. To give you an across-the-Atlantic example, it has been local politicians working at District and State level who have been gerrymandering election boundaries in the USA, and bringing in voter registration laws to make it harder for people of colour to vote, and harder for opposition candidates to win seats. So, yes, grassroots politics really matters.

Finally, I think we’ve learned something I think I’ve always known: that the real “enemies within” in this country are those who create and share such lists, who treat legitimate political opposition and perfectly legal trade union activity as criminal, and who maintain unfair power structures unfairly and undemocratically. The construction industry blacklists during the Olympic Park construction led to legal action and big payouts. The trade union movement began with people being transported to Australia. It ended with a postal ballot that you chucked in the recycling.

Give me this at least

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This.

If I could make a bargain with the universe over what I was allowed to eat without causing an eczema flare-up, I wouldn’t ask for much.

It turns out, if I don’t eat butter I eat a lot less bread, and if I eat a lot less bread I eat a lot less cheese. I miss it, but most of it isn’t a deal breaker. The vast quantities of mature cheddar I used to get through were just gluttony.

It also turns out that the only thing I really miss about milk is the tiny amount I put in a morning cup of tea. I like to drink. Just one. Cup. Of. Tea. Per day. I’m not your typical British person (or teacher) in that respect. I don’t even like it in the afternoon, unless there’s a Fortnum and Mason Dundee cake in the vicinity.

So I will set wheat bread* aside. And I will forego butter. And I will put oat or almond milk on my cereal and peanut butter on my glutard toast.

But if I could have the following, please, universe:

  • Mozzarella (*on pizza, yes, made with wheat flour), no more than once a week;
  • Parmesan (with glutard pasta or in soup);
  • A tiny drizzle of milk in a single mug of tea, once per day.

That’s it. I’ll stir oat cream into my soups and try not to think about cheese on toast, and I’ll drive to Woburn Sands for glutard fish and chips, if I could just have a carbonara occasionally, and a Saturday pizza made with my own hands, and a mug of Yorkshire tea.

Is that too much to ask?

(Eczema is substantially reduced – currently getting by with aloe vera gel and a nightly Benadril.)

The Great Flickr Shitr

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The first picture I uploaded to Flickr, taken in July 2004

Flickr was one of the earliest social networks, starting in February 2004, and, among other things, pioneered the use of the hashtag, which later became a key part of the Twitter experience. It was a place where you could upload photos/descriptions, connect with other users, join groups, make comments, and create themed collections of your own photos.

I joined in July 2004, and it really felt like a small and friendly community in those days. Of course, it was hard to see how they would ever make money.

They were acquired by Yahoo in 2005, and the long downhill descent began. There are three things that Yahoo did that are variously upsetting and annoying.

The first was that they neglected it, allowing its performance to get worse, and were particularly slow to respond to the smartphone revolution. Even as the iPhone became the most ubiquitous camera used by Flickr photographers, the Flickr app experience was kludgy. As Instagram demonstrated how simple a photo sharing social network could be, Flickr’s was complicated and slow. Even today, if someone shares a photo from Flickr to Twitter, it loads extremely slowly, making for a poor user experience.

The second thing was that they tried to drive Flickr users towards Yahoo as a web portal at a time when the very idea of a web portal was becoming ridiculous. But Yahoo are an advertising company, and that’s what they wanted to do. So they loaded an ugly, clashing Yahoo menu bar at the top of the Flickr site, and they forced everyone to use a Yahoo log-in rather than their old Flickr log-in.

Which is when the problems began for me.

The third thing was that Yahoo did what all these tech companies do: they tried to avoid their user support responsibilities by pushing people towards forums, where the same questions get posted over and over again, with similar answers, and nobody ever gets helped, and the secret portal into actual technical support is hard to find and opaque. All of which is the inevitable result of a free service that clearly doesn’t stand a chance of making money through advertising and which becomes a white elephant, or a millstone hanging around the neck of a slowly dying corporation.

Yahoo is acquired by Verizon, Flickr slips further down the list of priorities, and more and more people find themselves in the same situation as me: unable to resolve the log-in, or successfully recover lost passwords. In 2013, Yahoo was hacked, and 3 billion user accounts were compromised.

Around the same time, my Flickr log-in and password corrupted in some bizarre way and went from being a recognisable email/password to being long strings of random characters.

Like this: 0753036973656d61dc27j2gs1s29h4g8

That’s not my own corrupted log-in, but mine was very similar, and so was the password. I mean, it’s not even an email address. In time, I was unable to get in at all, and after a fruitless run-in with Yahoo support, I ended up creating a new Flickr account so I could continue to upload pictures.

But it was never the same, and I was never happy, and I eventually stopped using the service.

Screen Shot 2018-05-03 at 20.54.00The screen grab left shows a sample of the many Flickr users who are having issues accessing their accounts.

My own problems were exacerbated by the way my Yahoo identities seemed to burgeon. When Yahoo acquired Flickr, I already had a hidden Yahoo identity, because my then-internet provider, BT, used Yahoo as the backbone for its “brinternet.com” email service. But somehow, I ended up with yahoo.com and yahoo.co.uk identities. Over time, and attempts to log into Flickr, these have expanded, and I now appear to have four distinct ways of logging into Yahoo. Four!

But here’s the thing. Every single one of them connects to the new/replacement Flickr account, and none of them will connect to my 2004 vintage Flickr account. So I have four Yahoo log-ins, and no way to get into my old Flickr. In my mind, at least one of the log-ins should resolve to the old 2004 account, but no longer does. So it’s an orphaned account, is what it is. There’s a case here for keeping hold of all of your old computers, phones, and other devices, because account details might be cached/stored. O for the iMac that used to be in the garage.

And it has been five years.

I’ve tried on a couple of occasions to get help from Yahoo. When I saw the news that Flickr is being sold to Smugmug, I thought it was time to try again.

Yahoo’s response is basically robotic. You give them the details of your account(s) and you still get a response along the lines of “I cannot find the account with the details you have given. Please give…”

I got exactly the same automated response as last time. Replying to their emails rarely elicits a human response. They send through a link to “security questions”, which ask you things you could only know if you had access to the account. It’s enraging, and obscure:

  1. Name five private groups or private albums on the account
  2. Give the date of the last charge in the format dd/mm/yyyy
  3. Name the 3rd party services that are linked to the account (apart from Facebook/Tumblr)

My response to (1) is, I don’t know, I haven’t been able to see inside the account for five years.

My response to (2) is, I don’t even know what this question is asking.

My response to (3) is, I don’t know, I haven’t been able to see inside the account for five years.

We went through this three times.

Each time, I replied to their email saying I didn’t understand and couldn’t possibly answer their questions. Each time, I didn’t get a response until I filled in something on the security page. Each time, I was then told that my responses were inadequate.

In the end, they refused to give me access to my account—but they did offer to delete it on my behalf. Consider the warped logic of that: no, we can’t verify your identity, but yes, we will delete all these photos that might not belong to you, because why not.

Meanwhile, I still have four different Yahoo log-ins that all give access to the wrong Flickr account. Meanwhile, I continue to receive communications to my secondary email address which are aimed at my original identity.

The only solution appears to be for me to click through 3,600 photos and manually download them, then add them to the other account, and try to live with the knowledge that the kudos attached to being a 2004 early adopter of this pioneering service is no longer mine.

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And this is probably my most popular Flickr photo, taken in 1998 but scanned in 2005

Loaded

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A pile of steaming bullshit, yesterday

It’s time for one of those periodic I’m-not-one-to-blog-about-work-but… posts.

Teacher workload has been in the news, and I was just momentarily nonplussed by the reporting of a speech given by some empty suit to a head teacher’s conference. The reporting of this speech is along the lines of, this bloke promises not to introduce any major new reforms of examinations so that teachers can catch a breath.

Here’s a quote from the Graun’s coverage of the speech (which, to be fair to them, takes a different angle than the BBC’s straight parroting of whatever they were briefed to say):

Hinds had earlier earned applause when he said there would be no new tests imposed on primary schools and no overhauls of the national curriculum, GCSE or A-levels for the remainder of the current parliament, beyond those already announced.

So let’s unpack this. He said, no overhauls of the national curriculum, GCSE or A-levels for the remainder of the current parliament. Ha ha! So how long’s that? Does he mean current parliamentary session? In other words, no new reforms until, oh, at least until after the next summer holidays? So We have a whole seven months of respite? Or does he mean until there’s a general election? Which, given the state of this government, might be sooner than he thinks.

The sting in the tail of the Graun’s coverage of course was that phrase beyond those already announced. Because the inconvenient truth is that, with the exception of English and Maths, most subjects are only just starting to deal with the new back-to-the-50s specifications forced upon us by Gove. So teacher workload caused by new specifications isn’t going away for the remainder of the current parliament. It’s only just begun.

The other thing that bothered me about all this is that the audience, while they seemed fairly hostile to this particular Tory suit, were the people largely responsible for teacher workload: head teachers. They can pretend all they like that it’s the government who force all the shit upon teachers, but the truth is that the biggest problem in schools is school leaders who are susceptible to gimmicky ideas, don’t understand their own job, and cover up their ignorance with wave after wave of accountability nonsense as part of a target-drven culture of fear and conformity.

The worst thing they do is not acknowledge that each new initiative comes on top of the last new initiative. And because they would never admit that anything they introduced was a waste of time and effort, everything remains in place, festering away under the big pile of Things That Must Be Done. This pile of steaming bullshit, more than anything, is the source of workload pressure, and this is what’s driving teachers out of the profession. Every new school year begins with a long list of Things That Teachers Have To Do, and, from then on, new shit is piled on top of that on an almost weekly basis. These head teachers, let’s not forget, are all careerist bastard shitbirds.

Anyway, as Refusenik in Chief, I take pride in ignoring most of it. What you can’t get away with not doing, you learn to game. This has always been the main issue of Accountability Culture: everybody just games the fucking system to survive, so what’s the point?

If you switch your focus to self-preservation, you can survive teaching. Don’t be tricked into going the extra mile or bullshit about how to create inspiring lessons. Don’t take work home, don’t work more than 40 hours a week (stick to 35 unless there’s a parents’ evening) and never, ever volunteer for anything. And print this on a t-shirt: if their parents (and grandparents) cared, they wouldn’t vote Tory.

Prenez-le à la limite

 

My wife drew my attention to this news, which I missed when the Guardian covered it a month ago. In short: from 1 July 2018, the speed limit on a two-lane French N- or D- road is being lowered from 90kph to 80. This is a reaction to an increase in road deaths in 2016, and a steady rise since the historic low of 2013.

90kph is 55 mph, which (if you stick to it) already feels slow compared to the British equivalent of 60mph. On the other hand, I’ve always admired the rationality of French speed limits, which rise in 20kph increments, from the town-centre pedestrian friendly 30kph (which most people ignore) to the standard 50, then 70 for built up areas on open roads and 90 for two-laners in the open country side. Hit a dual carriageway, and you get 110kph or 130kph on a motorway in fine weather.

Throwing in a new 80kph limit feels wrong, for a lot of reasons. I think that most of the avoidable accidents come down to the bizarre habits of French motorists.

Statistics show that 32% of the 3500 road deaths in 2016 were caused by excessive speed. That’s the way the Guardian article reads, anyway, although it’s ambiguous enough to suggest that we’re talking about a smaller subset of 32% of the 55% of deaths that occur on N- and D- roads. Which is more like 18% of the total. And the French government says that the lower limit could save up to 400 deaths per year, which is an even smaller percentage.

I’m no defender of speeding: it’s irrational and anti-social, and generally the marker of an ignorant or nasty person who feels no empathy. If you’ve ever lived anywhere where motorists regularly pass your windows doing inappropriate speeds, you ought to be mindful when passing other people’s windows. Think of the children, and the pets, and the grown ups, too. Speeding not only destroys lives, it damages infrastructure. You get more potholes in heavy breaking and acceleration zones, and on bends, where the mechanical grip of tyres tears at the road surface.

We’re talking here not about speeding through villages or towns but open road speeding, which is another matter. I’ve been driving in France for long enough and regularly enough to know a number of bad habits of French motorists, including but not restricted to speed. While speed is always a factor in a road traffic accident (how could it not be?), the insanely bad judgement of many motorists is to blame for most of them. These bad judgements include:

  1. Following too closely (tailgating)
  2. Driving in the middle of the road
  3. Dangerous overtaking – usually from a position of (1)
  4. Drink-driving
  5. Mobile phone use
  6. Speeding
  7. Not knowing how to signal at roundabouts

(1) is a habit I’ve been observing for nearly 25 years. They do it to intimidate, often, especially on motorways, especially on those mad “black weekends” when everybody in France is driving to the South (or back to the North). But they also do it thoughtlessly, or because they don’t understand that thing about dropping back from the slow lorry in order to see past it in order to overtake it safely and give yourself more room to accelerate. To achieve (3), your typical French driver will follow excessively closely, then swing blindly out into the opposite carriageway and hit the gas.

I’ve observed (2) with puzzlement for the same period of time. Because I’m driving a right-hand-drive car, I can of course judge my position relative to the verge/shoulder more easily. But French drivers seem to have a phobia about being close to the verge and instead drive everywhere in the middle of the road, with two wheels on the white line or even in the opposite carriageway. Points (1), (2), and (3) together are why huge stretches of road heading towards the Dordogne have been fitted with fixed bollards down the middle of the road (many of which, of course, have been mown down). They will even remain on the wrong side of the road when taking a blind bend at speed. I have long adopted a passive approach, where I am prepared to take evasive action at all times. It’s a wonderful life.

It’s also astonishing, in 2018, how blasé French people still are about drink driving. This is the country, of course, where it’s compulsory to have two self-test breathalysers in your vehicle, but that doesn’t stop people. They still act surprised when I refuse a drink because I’m driving. And the fact that so many French people still take two hours for lunch means that two o’clock in the afternoon is prime time for being shitfaced on the road.

But speed, (6), the disease of motorists everywhere, is as big a problem in France as it is in the UK. Frankly, until all of us deal with our attitude to speed, our righteous outrage over the American gun problem is pure hypocrisy. People are so affronted if you slow down to the speed limit when you hit the village. I had one lorry driver, a couple of trips ago, try to overtake me – in a village – on a hill, just because I was still doing 50kph and he wanted to prove something (I guess?). You end up being tailgated by a possibly drunk truck driver who really wants to make a point, like being in Duel.

So will slowing the already-ignored 90 limit to 80 make a difference? Who knows. There are already many stretches of 70kph limit for zig-zag sections or junctions, and unless there’s a camera, they’re generally ignored. There’s a bridge near our place in France where an Argentinian general died in the river on a bend in the road, and in spite of the enormous marble memorial that marks the spot, people still end up in the river there, including a truck driver recently, which prompted the introduction of a 50kph limit (which was subsequently raised to 70 when people ignored it – logical).

Me? I’m busy calculating the impact on our journey time. The truth is, that over an 11-hour, 600-mile drive this new limit won’t make much difference. It’s in the day-to-day shorter journeys that it will have an impact, and even then, you’re talking about one or two minutes on a 20-minute drive, aren’t you? Maybe it will make cycling more pleasant, but I wouldn’t bet on it.

It’s the irrationality of speeding that gets me in the end. The insistence on doing it as if you have a right to do it, and wilfully ignoring the reality of what happens when you do it. We’ve all been there: you overtake the slow lorry and go screaming up the road, only to encounter another slow lorry a few km ahead. And then the slow lorry you overtook is behind you, in your rear-view mirror, reminding you of the futility of your manoeuvre. You can do that three or four times, and you don’t really get anywhere any faster, but you do stress yourself out.

But when you’re looking for your freedom, nobody seems to care, do they?

Tappety tap tap – How The X-Files disappointed us all and how it’s all somehow Elon Musk’s fault

It’s no surprise to anyone that the 2018 season (11 of that parish) of The X Files started badly. What the producers should have done, if they really wanted to make more, was to throw away the unresolved story arc from the 2016 edition (Season 10), write it off as a bad job, and just give us a few monster-of-the-week episodes of a similar quality to Mulder and Scully Meet the Were Monster, which was the only decent one to come out of the revival.

Instead, they gave us Scully in a hospital repeating, ‘We have to find my son,’ and Mulder being irrational and Cigarette Smoking Man saying, ‘Mind if I smoke?’ And a lot of monologuing and frowny faces. Oh, and either an alien pathogen that will wipe us all out or a secret space programme: those are your choices. Important to remember that.

Anyway, it’s all bollocks, and its a shame to see that pioneering beacon of the Platinum Age of TV – the TV series that led some of us in the 90s to argue that, “TV is now better than the movies,” and to really mean it – reduced to the level of a bedroom farce. And please: turn the bloody lights on.

Nowadays, I even wonder why Netflix bothers to put movies on its channel. They dropped The Cloverfield Experiment this week without much fanfare. Judging from the reviews, it’s about as good as The X-Files, and I’ve no interest in watching it or the hundreds of other Netflix Original movies on the service. I took up an offer of a year of Sky Movies on NowTV, and I can barely find anything worth watching on it that was made after 1975.

Which brings me to Elon Musk and why this is all, probably, his fault. Musk, lest we forget, gave us PayPal, which is literally the worst way to exchange goods and services for money. He’s also working both sides of the extinction/space programme equation with his claim to be saving the world with electric vehicles/batteries and also ensuring humanity’s survival when that fails by enabling a Mars colony.

But both of those things, like a bad X-Files episode, are dangerous fiction. The idea that you can save the planet by (a) building and selling big, ugly luxury cars to rich people and (b) increasing the use of current battery tech is a joke. The cheapest Model X in the UK is over £86,000, for which money you could buy, oh, three or four second-hand Priuses. And lithium-ion batteries require the extraction of finite resources from the earth: not just lithium, but cobalt and nickel too. The price of cobalt has increased from just over $20 per tonne in 2015 to around $60 per tonne in 2017. As the dollar signs spin in the eyes of mining company executives, there is certain to be a rush to extract these minerals cheaply. Last time I looked, the mining industry did not have the best environmental record. They’re not averse to blowing up mountains and pumping filth into the water supply. Increased demand for Lithium means that a smaller proportion is extracted from brine using solar energy and more is extracted from hard rock.

Which is before you get to the dead animal skin seats and farting occupant. If Elon Musk was building buses and mag-lev trains, I might view him more positively (I’m aware of the Boring Company, but private cars are the problem, not the solution).

Which brings us to Space-X and its rocket programme. I’m not one to argue that this is a waste of resources which could be used to alleviate human suffering. We can do both, just as we could have done both in the 1960s. Governments can always do more, and human suffering results from ideology, not scarcity.

No, my problem with Space-X is that it is both a pointless project with no chance of success and an elitist scheme for the rich to indulge their Ayn Rand fantasies about building a citadel to ride out the apocalypse. The notion that there can be an offworld human outpost to survive a catastrophe here on earth is as insidious as the idea of an afterlife. Both give believers permission to let this world, here and now, go to shit. Space-X is going to be used to launch spy satellites, woop de do.

Furthermore, I am sick to the back teeth of how our culture makes heroes out of billionaires. The worship of ‘successful’ people is another fiction, ignoring the factors that really enable them to get where they are. They’d be nothing without the society that supports them. The infrastructure, the education system, the facilities that their companies depend on to exist. I mean, did Musk build the internet? No, that was built with taxpayers’ money. The billions of dollars in taxpayer subsidies from which Musk’s companies benefit are rarely spoken of. It’s the welfare state, same as it ever was, for billionaires.

And as for the David Bowie music and the “Don’t Panic” cuteness, I’m not buying it. I was reminded of a Baudrillard quote last night, watching the launch: Behind these smiling eyes, there lurks a cold ferocious beast that’s fearfully stalking us.

Finally, yes, I did watch the launch, and the two-booster touchdown, but as the Space X presenter said everything was, “Awesome,” I couldn’t help thinking we were a long way from James Burke and the Apollo landings.

Tyresome

s-l300Following the Catastrophic Pothole Incident, I have been paranoid about the car and the tyres and the wheels and the suspension. The Touran vibrates at speed. I was especially aware of this on the continued motorway journey home, but wasn’t sure if the vibration was being caused by the roofbox and the high winds. You never know.

I don’t use the car much in the UK, but when I went out shopping in it, I was still convinced that it was vibrating, so I took it to the tyre place in MK to be checked out. Two of the alloy wheels, they told me, were borked, both beyond repair, one of them, “Like a 50p piece.”

“Yeah, he said it had been vibrating.”

“Well, it would.”

I happen to have a set of VW 16″ alloys that I took off the Polo, because driving a car with low profile tyres on these roads is a mug’s game. But they were just the wrong size. So.

I wanted a benchmark for replacements. Ebay has sets of 4 – used – for around £200, but caveat emptor and all that: I could be replacing damaged wheels with damaged wheels, and that’s if I found the right size. I phoned the local VW garage. Volkswagen’s price for replacement OEM rims? £480.

For a set of 4? you ask.

No.

For just two replacements, then? you ask.

No. That’s the price for each wheel. So to replace the two damaged wheels, the best part of £1000. VW do offer after-sales rims, starting at £130 each. Or steel wheels, starting at £80 — plus, they would want to gouge you for £40 for a branded wheel trim. Or hubcap, as we used to call them. You know, those things you see lying in the grass at the side of the road.

£40 for a set of four wheel trims? you ask.

No. That’s the price for each one. Making a steel wheel plus trim cost more or less the same as an alloy.

Anyway, I was just benchmarking. A quick internet search turned up a set of steel rims for £133, so that’s what I’m getting.

£133 for each wheel? you ask.

No. That’s for a set of four.

I’ve never understood the fetish for alloy rims. You can’t see them when you’re sitting in the car. Sure, they’re probably not as precisely engineered as alloys, but I don’t think it’s really much of an issue. But it’s the last days of the Roman empire, isn’t it? They continue to sell pups and we continue to buy. Have you seen the state of Teslas? They look like they’ve been bolted together by blindfolded chimps wearing mittens. Their stark interiors look as inviting as a building site portaloo, and the giant touch displays look like someone threw a cheap television at a Model T’s dashboard. As for the leather seats: have you heard about the DFS Sale?

Volkswagen’s price gouging is no worse than any other manufacturer, I suppose, though I’m still bitter about the extortionate amount they want for replacing the old 30-pin iPhone adapter with the Lightning equivalent. I read last week that BMW are trying to charge people £80 a year for Apple Carplay, which Apple supply to manufacturers free of any fees, so good luck with that. And in the days of Google Maps, the fact that built-in sat nav can cost up to £2000 is a joke. The latest hilarity is the premium they charge for fitting a £5 Qi charging mat to a modern vehicle.

So, the increasingly shitting looking Touran will look a tiny bit shittier, and my unalloyed disdain for motor manufacturers endures.