Shut down, log off, fade away

Mini DV TapeWe are surrounded by digital ephemera.

A while ago now, I reactivated the Facebook account (total of friends = 1), just so there would be one place on the internet where you could find me by my actual name. My timeline consisted almost entirely of my Instagram feed. But I hate Facebook, always have, and as Zuck appears to be preparing to run for office (as a Republican, according to one thing I read), it’s time to kill it. So that’s gone.

I still use Instagram. Although owned by Facebook, it’s fairly harmless, and since I stopped using Flickr (destroyed by Yahoo), it’s the only place I upload photos. But my finger does hover over the button sometimes.

I was attempting to put together a Photos book for 2016 the other day, and I had an enormous number of those red warning triangles, because the “original image could not be found”. Massive database corruption in my Photos library – perhaps caused by my use of CleanMyMac. The photos are there – I can export them and re-import them and fix the triangle issue – but the application doesn’t know they’re there. So that is a massive pain in the arse, and brings to stark relief the eternal problem of what is going to become of all our digital photos in 5–10 years. Apart from low-resolution uploads on early Flickr, I’ve got whole clusters of photos missing.

This came up again when I was rewatching my kids’ childhood DVDs a while ago. A couple of years have gone missing, and one of the DVDs wouldn’t play (though I managed to rip the file off it). I noticed an old MiniDV camcorder at work the other day, which nobody (probably) is ever going to use, and it reminded me that I have a case full of MiniDV tapes with my kids’ (unedited) childhoods on, and I have nothing to play them on.

Digital ephemera. We live in a streaming world. Timelines flick by, news churns 24 hours a day, people are up in arms about one thing after another, ricocheting between issues of import and issues of no import as if it were all the same.

I spent half an hour this morning unfollowing a bunch more people on Twitter. People I like and respect, even admire, but I cannot bear to read their political and news tweets, because they make me feel impotent with outrage, powerless, depressed. Muting keywords doesn’t work because things always leak through, and in the end I came to the conclusion that, for the foreseeable future and for my own sanity, I’ll probably end up unfollowing most of the Americans on my feed, and many more besides.

I’ve said it before: complaining on Twitter achieves nothing; the people you need to reach are not on there; it’s not a substitute for activism. Twitter is for jokes, for people-watching, for aphorisms, art, wit, photos, videos, all of that digital ephemera. But it’s not for politics or climate change, or bringing down capitalism or fighting nazis. People get mad about stuff, sure, but never so mad that they put down their phones and do anything.



Shifting paradigms while Rome burns

k41. Copernican revolutions

Changing people’s minds is a hard, hard thing. When Copernicus correctly identified our heliocentric solar system, it was not an overnight “revolution” as it is often characterised, but the culmination of over a thousand years of observations not matching the dominant model. The Ptolemaic model lasted from the 2nd century to the 16th. All the observations, all the maths, were telling scientists that their paradigm was wrong. Geocentric astronomy was the “fake Facebook news” of its day. Copernicus simply made the mathematical model match the observations. Even so, his “revolution” did not lead to an overnight change in the dominant paradigm. Copernicus died 20 years before Galileo, who was still persecuted (albeit for political reasons) when he used his observations to confirm Copernicus’ work. It wasn’t until 100 years after Galileo’s death that the Church lifted the ban on books advocating heliocentrism.

So much for your overnight revolutions.

2. Not feeding the trolls

The lesson that people’s minds are hard to change was learnt – with difficulty – in the first years of the public internet and World Wide Web, when forum and chat room moderators first encountered trolling, flame wars, and Godwin’s Law, which asserts that,

“As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Hitler approaches 1

So it went and so it goes. Whether you’re in a 1994 vintage AOL chatroom, or on The Facebook or the Twitter, you will encounter people who are immune to the figurative Copernican maths. Immune to the facts, or science, statistics, the evidence of their own eyes, or whatever else you care to throw at them.

As Robert M. Pirsig put it in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, the only way not to lose this fight is not to enter the arena. In other words, don’t feed the trolls – especially the ones that reside in your own head.

3. We built our own dystopia

Over the past 25 years, those online virtual spaces that were once called things like Second Life, have steadily leaked into the so-called real world and become not secondary but primary. Second Life is now just life. Those online flame wars have become modern political discourse. The made-up facts, the agent provocateurs (trolls), the inevitable comparisons to Hitler, the trading of insults and disrespect, have become normalised. The leopards have broken into the temple and have now become part of the ritual.

Back in 2010, when Twitter was young and the Arab Spring was in its early flowering, I was naive enough to believe that Twitter was a potential force for change we could believe in. Obama, against all the perceived wisdom and seemingly against all the odds, had been elected President of the United States. Smug Britons, who were used to casually branding Americans as ignorant racists, were brought up short by the realisation that it was eminently more possible for there to be a black US President than it was for there to be a black British Prime Minister.

And then there  were the democratic uprisings across North Africa and in the Arab world, and it seemed as if the people were able to organise themselves more effectively with social media tools, and that the tyrants’ days were numbered. Even here, in the UK, it was apparent that smart protestors could outwit the police and bypass the kettling, by sharing instant information based on tweets and maps. The future was here, the future was a flashmob.

But here’s the thing.

Flashmobs, as conceived by Larry Niven in his short fiction, are dystopian. And the tools that allow students and other citizens to organise protests can be used by everyone, including the nastiest people in the world.

And so – like a monster from the id come to life – an internet troll who starts flame wars and is always, inevitably, compared to Hitler has become the President of the United States. That style of online discourse – driven by anonymity, intolerance, and hate – is now just discourse. And your paradigm, my paradigm, about how politics would be changed by social media, is wrong.

I started to suspect I was wrong in 2010 when – in spite of the economic disaster visited upon the world by the bad actions of the banks – a hard-line neoliberal government was elected in the UK. I knew I was wrong in 2015 when – after five years of malicious cuts to public services and widely publicised suffering – they were re-elected with a proper majority.

And then Brexit, and now Trump.

All of the tweets that shared the suffering of disabled people over the bedroom tax, all of the publicity about cuts to the NHS, or housing benefit, or people being told they were fit for work when they were clearly not: useless. No matter how many times you retweet the fact that thousands of people are depending on food banks: it changes nothing.

It’s not just that you’re living in an echo chamber. It’s that everything you say and do online is a waste of time and energy – and it may even be counterproductive. The people who are doing this to their fellow human beings cannot be made to care. They are conscience free and actually glad to hear that unemployed people are having their benefits cut. They are secretly – and not so secretly – gleeful when the bodies of refugees wash up on beaches. They are full of hate, and they are not listening to your facts about the earth circling the sun. Twitter is just another medium designed to entertain and distract you, like a Soap opera, the news, or Game of Thrones.

4. While Rome burns

Is there an answer? I dunno. I’ve been on the edge of giving up the Twitter, not that I tweet much about politics or expect anything I say to even be seen by most people. (I’m muffled by the algorithms, not important enough to appear in people’s feeds.)

But given what a lot of hot air it all is, I’m suppressing the politics on my feed. Nothing anyone says is going to make me any more left wing than I already am. Nothing you tell me about how awful this government (or Trump) is behaving is going to make my opinion any lower than it already is. What do I do with all the upset and the outrage that these tweets create? I’m as powerless to do anything about Trump’s fascist advisors as I am to fix an earthquake in Italy. It’s just more news, and the ultimate effect is to make me feel helpless. So I’m unfollowing all the political twitterers (most of whom don’t follow me, so no impact there) and muting people who are just upset and angry at the moment and therefore venting a lot.

It takes me back to the last royal jubilee and my feeling that people tweeting about the fucking queen when they clearly hate the monarchy aren’t really helping themselves or the rest of us: giving headspace to your foe is to give them part of yourself.

The only thing that will ever have an impact on the powerful and the wealthy is for people to start smashing things up: not on the internet, but out on the streets. And if that happens there will be gas, batons, firehoses and all the other apparatuses of state oppression, of course there will. Because while they don’t give a shit about people, they do care about property. Which is why smashing it up is the only way to get their attention. Everything else is twittering while Rome burns.

Can Twitter Save the World for Democracy?

img-thingIt’s generally accepted that while Facebook can be horribly right-wing and parochial, Twitter is both more cosmopolitan and more left-wing. A few years ago, I was hopeful that Twitter (as a medium in its own right as opposed to being a mere platform) could become the counter-narrative, the great hope of the counterculture, the voice we needed. I get a bit depressed when it fails to offer me the alternative news agenda I crave, but the hope was there.

Well, we’ve been through a couple of election cycles since Twitter was born 10 years ago, and what do we find? That last time around, in spite of five years of sniping, fact-checking, and counter-narrating  the Con-Lib government and their socially divisive and destructive policies, the British electorate not only didn’t vote for left-leaning parties in significant numbers, but actually allowed the Conservatives another five years with a working majority.

Twitter, it seems, had let us down. And elections, as they ever were, are won by appealing to (a) individual pocketbooks* and (b) xenophobia and (c) class divisions. As long as people think there’s a chance they will be better off than some other people; as long as politicians successfully point to immigrants as a vague threat to our way of life; as long as the narrative blames anything other than capitalism for poverty, then the Conservatives can win.

I used to worry that an independent Scotland would take away any chance that there would ever be a Labour majority again. (I’m aware that Blair would have won his elections without Scottish seats, but I still worried.) And then, last time around, Scotland rejected the Labour party and we now live in a world that’s pretty much as it would have been had Scotland voted for independence in their referendum. In this world, Karl Marx has not been rehabilitated by the 2008 banking crash, and there is a permanent Conservative majority thanks to the voters of England.

So I’ve been ruminating (and fulminating) since the Cons won last year, and I’ve grown thoroughly disillusioned with Twitter as a medium. As a machine to kill fascists, it’s less effective than Woody Guthrie’s guitar was. Retweeting that photo of the Bullingdon boys seems to have been ineffective in preventing their re-election. Pointing out that politicians frequently lie doesn’t seem to stop them from lying. Asking for retweets to save the NHS is not saving the NHS. Pointing out the insanity and corruption of the Academies plan for education doesn’t seem to be changing the horrible reality for teachers and students. Pointing out the blatant gerrymandering of the Conservatives, as they dismantle local democracy and try to weaken trade unions and adjust constituency boundaries, doesn’t seem to be stopping them in their attempt to set themselves up a 1000-year reich.

What Twitter did seem to achieve was the elevation of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader. I haven’t sympathised with a Labour leader more since the days of Michael Foot. But just as they did with Michael Foot, the right wing mediaª have set out to destroy Corbyn (but not too quickly: they don’t want to give Labour time to regroup before the next election). And as horrible as this government is, as incompetent and corrupt as they are, the fact that Labour are at this stage only ahead in the polls within the (considerable, last time around) margin of error is a foreshadowing of the disaster to come in 2020. Doesn’t help than his own MPs don’t acknowledge the will of the Party members, but that was always the case. The professional class of politicians, on both sides of the House, does not reflect the true values of the core memberships.

And here’s the problem. Twitter, collectively, seemed to agree that facts would win the argument. But they don’t. A brief, frightened, glance across the water at the goings-on in the last few US election cycles is enough to tell us that. Failing facts, Twitter seemed to agree that this government could be embarrassed into… changing? Disappearing? I’m not sure, exactly. But you can’t, usually, embarrass these people. Cameron is still there, even after the pig’s head story. Think on that.

Their calculations are all completely conscious and cynical. They’ve already adjusted to a world in which they know they will never get the votes of the majority. They’ve given up trying to appeal to the broad electoral base and are instead ruthlessly targeting the 30% or so of better-off voters who will return them to Parliament with a majority over and over again, thanks to our hopelessly undemocratic electoral system, skewed population, and South-East-focused economy.

People who live in Wales and work in the steel industry are never going to vote conservative. Those who live in the North and see their homes flooded are not ‘their people’. Teachers don’t, on the whole, vote Tory, but pensioners who hate and fear the young, will. And so it goes. You can’t embarrass them into caring about people they know won’t vote for them.

So, Twitter isn’t doing a very good job of providing a counter-narrative. It is, as it’s often accused of being, a vast echo chamber, which I find increasingly depressing to be around. I’d leave, but it will leave a gaping hole in my daily habits that I wouldn’t know how to fill.


*By pocketbooks, we do of course mean wallets and bank accounts.

ª The BBC, as an institution, did use to offer some slight balance in the news media landscape, but they’ve been both running scared about the Charter renewal and (by now) thoroughly infiltrated by right wing journalists/editors, so they’re actually worse than useless. And pointing out how biased they are on Twitter doesn’t seem to have any effect.

Echo Park Life

150388000000000-00-750x750This article by Stewart Lee, ostensibly about Britain’s Got Talent but really about Twitter and its inability to cope with nuance, focused my mind on something I’ve been thinking about for a while: giving up the Twitter.

I’d be no loss to the service, only have a few followers, and I’m not looking for sympathetic pleas to stay. Over the past few months, I’ve felt as if I’m coming to the end of a phase, and come September will be entering a new one. I’ve been teaching a variety of creative subjects for a few years (Media, Film, Creative Writing), but after a sequence of events, that’s coming to an end. I’m starting a new job, and after nine years of teaching Media etc., I’m becoming a bog-standard English teacher. (Nine years, incidentally, is the longest time I’ve done anything.)

I follow many of the people I do on the Twitter for professional reasons. They work or comment upon the media, or they are writers, or they’re into nerdy film stuff. Strip those away and you have a few friends/acquaintances and people I have followed maybe because they follow me, but not much else. Come September, I’m going to be teaching English instead of those creative subjects, and right now it really appears as if the opportunity to teach anything other than English will not come again. The climate has changed. I had hopes that if the Tories didn’t get back in, things might change again, but they did and so they won’t. Another five years of this. Batten down the hatches, focus on the earliest possible opportunity to retire, and try to survive.

One of the things I’ve been telling my students for a long time is that Twitter is really a giant echo chamber. Nobody gets their mind changed on Twitter, and quite a lot of the time people are saying the same things over and over again. And it can be like clockwork. On a Sunday morning, for some reason, a lot of people seem to watch Andrew Marr on telly in order to get enraged. In the morning, a lot of people listen to Radio 4 and get enraged. On a Thursday (?) a lot of people watch Question Time and get enraged. During the week, people get enraged about other stuff. Sexism, racism. Poetry, commentary. Sometimes, people die, and everyone posts something.

An echo chamber. Sometimes you join in, sometimes you don’t. It can get irritating, which added to all the rage just becomes a bit depressing. I’ve been muting so much stuff lately that’s there’s very little left.

It has its positive side. It’s how you know what’s going on in the world. You feel in touch with current events. But – and I’ve blogged about this before – knowing what’s happening in the world doesn’t really add to the sum of human happiness. The best thing that Twitter does is make you laugh, but is that enough?

Maybe I just need a break from it, who knows? Maybe I’ll take a break and maybe I won’t come back. Perhaps it’s such an addiction that I won’t be able to stay away. To be honest, I wonder why I’d bother keeping an iPhone if I’m not using Twitter (for listening to podcasts, but I could do that on an iPod Touch or iPad Mini).

There are five weeks till the end of term. I’ll play it by ear.

Crushing it, or, I’ll do anything for Twitter, but I won’t do that

gnomic-slogans-can-t-help-you-nowMysteries of the Twitter afterlife.

I’m not naïve enough to believe that Twitter gives anything other than the illusion of knowing. There’s quite a lot of philosophy on Twitter, I find. In many ways, Twitter lends itself to philosophy: quotes, one-liners, gnomic comments. Maxims, aphorisms, these are grist to the Twitter mill.

Art also, gets tweeted into my timeline. Photography, not all of it to do with cats. Sometimes an image will strike you. Sometimes, an image, combined with a gnomic comment or two, will slay you.

So it was with a certain Russian tweeter, who came into my timeline via @GuyLongworth, philosopher at Warwick university, who is also fond of tweeting art and music.

As you can see, Ms. EE has a perfect combination of enticing profile pic while scoring a 10 on the gnomic scale.

Now. Let’s be careful. On the Twitter, nobody knows you’re a dog. So a cruel and cunning person could invent a twitter profile, as a kind of social experiment. Pepper it with art and philosophy, a couple of food/drink pics, a few selfies of an apparently stunningly beautiful young woman – then sit back and watch as scores of middle aged men who should know better try to get “her” to notice them.

But what if she’s real? She suddenly becomes crush material. A shoot-from-the-hip public intellectual seeker after truth and beauty who occasionally, and diffidently, posts a grainy photo of herself that offers a view, from here in the cheap seats, of the big leagues. Or, as Jean Brodie might have said, of her with the cheekbones.

Pathetic, I know. Believe me, I know. But here is the antidote to all the stuff on Twitter that would otherwise make me quit. There’s a lot of hate on Twitter, some of it from me. I hate Tories, I make no bones. Always have, and always will. But rather than turn my life into a total immersion version of the Guardian comment threads, I do like to crack open the window into that wondrous and gnomic world of pithy aphorisms and art. It’s not the kind of thing I can really do. Reading it often takes me back to my days on the Critical Theory MA, when I would sit surrounded by earnest politicos quoting Nietsche and Marx. I too could quote Marx, but Groucho, not Karl.

(In the end, I outdid them all, discovering my own favourite pet philosopher/polymath, someone so obscure that none of his books were in the university library, few of them even available in English – but that was later in the game.)

You read lines like, “Hey girl, are you my appendix, because I want to take you out,” and know that you couldn’t come up with something like that in a million years. Hey girl, are you Jesus, because I want to nail you? No? Is this thing on?

When I post something with a typo, I’m mortified. Sometimes I delete and repost, sometimes I post a despairing follow-up. When Ms EE posted an early morning tweet with typo, she followed up with this:

Now that’s philosophy. Anyway, Ms EE posted an ambiguous comment the other day. After posting a picture of her bottom half (not in a dirty way) in her travelling boots (one assumes), she said, “Twitter, I like you, I’m going to miss you.” Now, this could just have been someone wittily signing off for the night. Or it could have been someone about to go on holiday to Roamingchargesland, off-grid for a while. Or it could have been a bit of attention seeking, I’m leaving Twitter forever, okay, bye.

I don’t know, and that’s the point of Twitter, and one of its deepest mysteries. You’ve very little chance of really understanding someone who lives several time zones to the East, who tweets in her second, third, or fourth language, who might not even exist. I personally have “left” Twitter many times, but you’d never know about it, because I wouldn’t announce it in advance. Sometimes you just take a break. Sometimes you really are just saying goodnight, but in a gnomic way, because that’s what you do. I often delete whole blogs and start again, not because I’m committing blogicide, but because I occasionally like a fresh start (and made the mistake, years ago, of abandoning a blog so thoroughly that I couldn’t even go back to edit it – it’s still there). But I don’t announce it in advance, because I wouldn’t fish for those kinds of responses.

Ms EE’s “I’ll miss you” tweet has since been deleted – probably because she was nonplussed by the reaction from her many followers, who responded as if she’d announced a permanent Twitter retirement. She didn’t dignify them with a response, as far as I could tell, and their comments now sit in the ether, footprints leading to the blank door of a deleted tweet.

She’s mysterious, sure enough, but so is everyone else.



Clémence Poésy
Clémence Poésy (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There’s a scene in episode seven of Tunnel, the Anglo-French version of the Danish-Swedish cop drama The Bridge (Bron/Broen – keep up at the back) in which the British cop (played by Stephen Dillane) expresses disbelief that the public would do such a thing as vote on the question of which of two children, potential victims of the series’ serial killer, should survive. But of course, vote they do.

This scene made me think about the themes of the show, and whether it worked as well in French/English as it did in Danish/Swedish. Does the tunnel work as a metaphor in the same way as the bridge, for example?

It was an obvious move, I guess, though any border crossing between any two European countries could have been used, without the clunky bridging metaphor. A bridge spans a gap and offers easier communication and potential peace, love, and understanding. The American version goes straight for a bridge: easy, and much better television. A tunnel, on the other hand, hides under the ground/sea and is a bit of a pain in the backside to use, and instead stands for hidden things, guerrilla warfare, ignorance, being in the dark, struggling towards the light. It’s also cramped and not very visual when it comes to the opening body-cut-in-half sequence.

Clémence Poésy plays Elise as a virtual clone of the Swedish version (Saga), whereas Dillane seems to channel Michael Kitchen in Foyles War. This makes him seem more sympathetic and a better cop, though he makes similar mistakes to his Danish counterpart in the bedroom department. His wife is played by Guinevere from Merlin, who doesn’t look right in 21st century clothing.

The key villain, apart from the actual villain, is a journalist, as he was in the original. This journalist is a tabloid hack, who aims his work at the lowest common denominator, showing nothing but contempt for both his material and his audience.

All of which made me think. There’s no getting away from the fact that this Canal+ co-production is made in conjunction with Shine, which is of course part of News Corp/Fox, and headed by one of the Murdochs.

So. Contempt for the audience? Tabloid journalist as the lowest of the low? The public being asked to vote on something, as in some ghastly reality show? Are these mixed messages, or is there one big one?

Who is to blame, after all, for the low blows of tabloid stories? Why are journalists so underhand, nasty, and venal? While I was watching this, in France, a journalist supposedly disguised himself as a priest in order to gain access to Michael Schumacher’s hospital room. Whose hunger do they feed? Throughout the programme, the killer manipulates both the cops and the general population into acting out on his behalf. He directs anger at capitalist enterprises and the tendency of those in the private profit sector to put profit before people. A laudable message, of course, except in this case it is portrayed as coming from an unhinged fanatic. And those who do his bidding are portrayed as a pitchfork-wielding, molotov cocktail-throwing mob.

Ah, the crowd and the mob. While our killer critiques capitalists, they’re only ever portrayed as doing what comes naturally. Sure, they treat people badly, but only because the public demands low, low prices. Which we do. So when the mob attacks the sportswear shop that sells the shoes made in far-Eastern sweatshops, who is being critiqued?

I think the answer, as always, is the mob. It’s the mob who buys tabloids and swallows their lies; it’s the mob who walks around in cheap clothing made in sweatshops; it’s the mob that habitually votes in trashy reality shows. It’s the mob that demands the Leveson Inquiry, and the mob, on Twitter, who goes baying after stories, real and fake, bullying people into apologies, or worse. (I’ve noticed a new trolling tendency, on the Twitter. Some ass posts a link or a photo, and urges Twitter to “do your thing.”) Giving the people what they want is hardly noble, but we are all implicated. It’s a right wing message: capitalism may be horrible, but we are all horrible together, so shut up. The classic capitalist response to any activist is to fixate on some minor hypocrisy: you shop at Amazon, or you drink at Starbucks, you wear clothes made in sweatshops, so shut up.

So, is the tunnel an apt metaphor? We are deep underground, helpless, out of control, and struggling towards the light. We live in ignorance and struggle to know truths that are true and uncompromised by hypocrisy and lies. In episode eight, the cops are arguing about the relative lack of CCTV in France. One of the French cops says, “But, civil liberties…” and the English cop shouts, “FUCK CIVIL LIBERTIES!”

Yes, because without the cameras, we are all in the tunnel. Fuck Civil Liberties could be the motto of most cop shows, right?

It’s a good adaptation, though bleak and depressing, as these things tend to be.

*Tunnel is what it says on the box for the French boxed set. In Britain, it’s known as The Tunnel, I know. My version was the French one, which had English on the soundtrack, but only had French subtitles – none in English for the French sections. If I hadn’t already seen The Bridge, I might have been lost.

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“Pay some road tax” – a modest proposal

Christ. This shameful incident, if true, should at least lead to a driving ban for someone who shouldn’t be allowed near a vehicle. I’d like to see motorists who hit cyclists forced to cycle for a year or two as part of their re-education. Snip:

I’ve been told to “pay road tax” more times than I can remember, though sadly explaining the intricacies of road taxation – deftly explained by the excellent site I Pay Road Tax – takes longer than the few seconds you get on the road. And when this entitlement dehumanises cyclists to the extent someone is happy to excuse hitting a cyclist by explaining they don’t believe they should be on the road at all, it becomes more than an annoyance – it’s an active danger.

via Twitter hit-and-run boast shows dangers of ‘road tax’ entitlement | Dawn Foster | Environment |

You can’t actually win an argument with someone who is fundamentally irrational in their hatred and ignorant of the facts. This is the problem the teaching profession has with Michael Gove. My own modest proposal re “road tax” would be that road tax (which hasn’t existed for 70 years) should actually be re-introduced, and should be paid by all road users, including cyclists. And it shouldn’t be a flat rate, nor based on carbon emissions as the VED is now. It should be based on the amount of damage a vehicle is likely to do to the road.

I propose a simple formula based on kerb weight (in metric tonnes, as reported by manufacturers) and tyre width. This would mean that lighter vehicles with skinny tyres would pay less than heavy vehicles with fat tyres. It would make road tax really quite expensive, but the surplus over what is raised now could actually be used to repair and maintain roads, which is something that hasn’t been happening for about 25 years.

Example: My VW Touran, which has a kerb weight of 1.5 metric tonnes and has 205 mm tyres, would cost £307 per year to use on the public roads. A lot more than I currently pay, but a reasonable measure of the impact the vehicle has on the road. The amount of miles you drive and your driving style would determine the amount of additional (fuel) tax you pay for motoring.

A Volvo XC90 (2.1 tonnes, approx) with 255 mm tyres would cost £535 per year.

A Honda Jazz (1 tonne, approx) with 185 mm tyres would cost £185 per year.

My bicycle, which weighs about 0.013 tonnes and has 23 mm tyres, would cost about 30 pence per year to use on the road. Which I would, of course, be happy to pay, just so I could wave my tax disc in the face of shit-for-brains motorist fuckwits.

I’ve got no time, by the way, for those who complain about the cost of motoring, and whine about fuel tax etc. Motoring is still too cheap compared to its actual cost to society and the planet.

Non-news update news update

BBC iPlayer
BBC iPlayer (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’m a fortnight into my news holiday. I deleted the folder of bookmarks I have in my browser that took me to the front pages of three of the broadsheets, the BBC, and other news sites. I haven’t switched on the Today programme in the morning, nor the PM programme in the afternoon. I haven’t listened to Richard Bacon or Drive on the drive home from work.

I removed Tweetbot from the home screen of my iPhone and iPad, and relegated it to the last screen, along with all the Apple shit you can’t delete, like Stocks and Game Centre.

I have been on the Twitter, but mainly reading things from people I’ve known the longest. I flick through the updates rapidly, no longer spending the time to read each one. I haven’t followed any links to news stories, opinion columns, or newsy blogs.

I’ve been aware of things happening. Bombs, earthquakes, collapsing buildings. I know about these things, but they seem distant and abstract, like all the other bombings, earthquakes and collapsing buildings there have been in my life. Have I ever been able to do anything about these events, which seem tailor-made for news? Does knowing about an earthquake stop the earth shaking?

It’s odd to see the snarky comments sometimes before being aware of what they relate to. People make jokes about boycotting Primark, and you know it must relate to something in the news, but the connection doesn’t come immediately. You realise how pointless it is to listen to The News Quiz, or watch Have I Got News For You.

Two weeks in, and I don’t think I’ll be putting the browser bookmarks back any time soon. I’ve enjoyed finding things on the Radio iPlayer and listening to them instead of the news. I won’t go back to the Today programme, with its dreadful agenda-setting drivel-driven manufactured debates.

I do miss Eddie Mair. I don’t miss Kermode and Mayo. I tried to listen to their podcast, which edits out the news, but Kermode is so fucking irritating, isn’t he? Labouring and repeating every point like a sledgehammer smashing into a carpet tack.

When the month is up, I will allow myself to listen to Eddie Mair on PM, and I will continue to skim across the surface of the Twitter, but that will be all.

Thatcher was my Vietnam

Flag of former North Vietnam (from 1955 until ...
Flag of former North Vietnam (from 1955 until reunification with South Vietnam in 1976) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Well, they blew up the Chicken Man in Philly last night, they blew up his house too…

Springsteen used to do one of his talks, on the Born in the USA tour, about what it was like to grow up in the 60s, with the Vietnam war on TV every night. America’s defeat in Vietnam was a deep psychic scar, a shattering of the illusion of American invincibility, and it led directly to the election of Reagan and thence the slow but steady erosion of middle class incomes which culminated in the financial collapse of 2008: the shattering of another illusion.

Thatcher and her government blighted my youth. You shouldn’t have to pay forever because you had an unhappy childhood, but I have. Leaving home at 18 because I had to, I experienced 18 months of unemployment – the summer of the 1981 riots – and, right then, my life chances were blighted.

The voodoo economics of the neo-liberals destroyed our industries, our fuel security, but also sucked the life out of whole regions of the country. I live in Buckingham now, a small market town which is steadily expanding as more and more housing estates are built around it. Why do we need all these houses? Because too many people want to live down here in the South, because that’s where (they think) all the jobs are. But there aren’t any real jobs in Buckingham, bar a few anonymous warehouses on the so-called industrial estate and a couple of supermarkets. There are a lot of charity shops staffed by volunteers and Britain’s first private university, fact that makes me feel physically sick. So all these people have to own cars so they can drive somewhere else to work. And why do they have to drive? Because Thatcher and her minions destroyed our public transport system in their rush to privatise anything that wasn’t nailed down.

We live with it every day, the consequences of all that privatisation. Public services being provided by people who are motivated by profit. What do we get? We get mis-selling of gas and electricity, we get continual flooding and water shortages because the infrastructure is so poorly maintained. We get people making profits from the infrastructure we built and paid for. You build all those extra houses and funnel all that waste water into the same sewers: work it out, genius.

I could go on, and have, for ten years on this and other blogs.

When she died I smiled a little because I really did hate the old witch. But I hated Hestleslime and Poortillo and the rest of them, too, and I’m insulted every time I see Poortillo on a train on the television. And I hated Blegh and his Thatcher-lite policies, and I hate Govegrind and the Bullington bully boys. And the spineless so-called Labour party under Milibland. That’s her legacy, and a continual reminder of everything I lost.

When she died, I spent a lot of time avoiding the media chatter, because I didn’t want to hear the tributes, and I don’t need, in the manner of preaching to the choir, to have my own views reinforced. And I muted a lot of stuff on the Twitter, mainly because I don’t want a diet of the same thing over and over again. But also because I wanted time to think about this. It wasn’t that I wanted to censor other people as I wanted the space and silence to think. Because Thatcher was my Vietnam.

Every day, I’m reminded of all that I lost. I won’t say “we” because that’s the point, isn’t it. There is no “we”. We’re all lonely monads, who wait until after the fact to defend have a little moan about the rights of those who have them taken away. I’m surrounded by colleagues who take so much shit so much of the time but feel they have no power, even though they have a union. Thatcher did that, by the simple expedience of introducing compulsory postal ballots. Seventy-five percent of those white envelopes with the ballots inside end up in recycling bins. So the unions lost their power to oppose, and the bankers opened their big fat mouths under the money taps and started to slurp it up. And everybody got worse off, and because they didn’t like thinking about that, they kept extending lines of credit in order to keep funding their illusory lifestyles. Barbecue Britain, with all the little Nigels and Nigellas.

We should all be poorer. We should have fewer cars, we should have slightly crap but publicly owned utilities, and we shouldn’t have companies with shareholders sniffing around our hospitals and schools. I live in an occupied country. I see them everywhere: Tories. White haired Telegraph readers, sharp-elbowed Daily Mail readers, young people drowning in trivia, because Thatcher was my Vietnam, and I live with that defeat every day.

Why do I try to teach students about newspapers?

So the exam marking is over for another year, and that’s a relief.

English: Reading staff for the Daily Mail news...
English: Reading staff for the Daily Mail newspaper, Brisbane, ca. 1905 Reading staff pictured from left: Messrs. J. M. Jeffries, C. E. Marchant, R. Gannon, F. Makin and T. A. Byrnes. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’m not discussing anything specific here, but it struck me as I worked through the pile how obvious it is that almost none of the students have ever read a newspaper.

And furthermore, they never will.

I’ve been droning on for five years about how reading newspapers will help them do better in exams (and it would, given that the exam asks them questions about the newspaper industry), but I’m increasingly thinking that the problem here is not with the students’ lack of interest but with the continued focus on the “importance” of newspapers in their society.

Many of us now rely on Twitter for breaking news, and increasingly I’m following links on Twitter to read news analysis from various sources. Some of them even have a printed version, but why am I expecting my students to know about printed news when I haven’t partaken of it myself (except for a casual glance in the school library) for more than a decade? Give or take the navel gazing of the Leveson enquiry, the print industry has the cultural relevance of a lost cat poster stuck to a lamppost.

As I was marking papers, I kept hearing the voices of teachers, saying things like, “We have the internet now,” and “the internet is having an impact on the press industry.” The students who just sat the exam in question were born in 1995/6. So sentence constructions like that make no sense from their perspective. The internet has been around all their lives, and certainly since they reached the age of reason, very few homes have been without it, and all their schools have had it. It’s a basic utility like water, gas, or electricity.

Teaching them that the internet “is having” an impact on printed news is like teaching them that the telephone “is having” an impact on the afternoon postal delivery. I no longer have to send a mash note to my loved one in the middle of the afternoon telling her I can’t wait to see her in the evening. I can phone her up on Mr Bell’s contraption.

Some of the students thought that newspapers were printed in black and white. Some of them thought the price went up when there were free gifts on the cover. All of them thought newspapers were targeted at older people and had literally nothing inside them that would interest a15-24 year-old. And on that last point, they’re not wrong.

What matters to their generation is the reliability and accuracy of the online news sources they use (via Facebook, Twitter, or various mobile apps). The habit that teachers like me should be instilling them with is the habit of questioning scepticism. There’s an urgent need for them to understand that a press conference announcement or a 140-character headline is not giving them the full picture. But I don’t think they should be turning to the right wing press for the background, nor even the increasingly pathetic Guardian, which panders now to the trivial interests of its readers just as much as the Daily Mail and other tabloids do. Don’t believe the i is offering proper news, either. There’s just as much irrelevant celebrity twaddle in the i as there is in The Sun.

I was talking to a small group of older students the other day about magazines and the not-so-obvious transition to the iPad. So I got them to look at a couple of the mags I’ve got on my iPad, and compared them to the printed versions. One of them immediately said she didn’t like the iPad version. Within 30 seconds, she admitted that she “might warm to it.” When asked, she claimed to prefer a printed magazine. When pressed, she admitted that she never actually bought printed magazines.

I love magazines, always have, but the closure of The Word is the writing on the wall, and the iPad is not going to fill that void. Flipboard is, or Zite. Young people are going to grow up with entirely different habits. They won’t buy albums, they won’t make appointments to watch TV, and they will not fill their house with dead trees, glossy or not.

The exam of the future needs to be asking them, “When you learn about breaking news on Twitter, how do you check whether it is true? Where do you turn for further information? If there is something you don’t understand, what do you do?” And so on.

Ask them to discuss the implications for the future of the print industry? They’ll just shrug their shoulders. Not their concern.