Australian informality

Posted February 8, 2017 by gryphon
Categories: Uncategorized

From tumblr:

Australia’s reverse-formality respect culture is fascinating […] Australians could not be trusted with a language with ingrained tiers of formal address. The most formal forms would immediately become synonyms for ‘go fuck yourself’ and if you weren’t using the most informal version possible within three sentences of meeting someone they’d take it to mean you hated them.

Twitter user Louise Johnson wrote in 2012:

I’m loving the Aussie habit of cutting long words down to no more than two syllos. It is not a nation of sesquies.

I grew up in the UK in the 1980s, so for a long time Neighbours was my main source of information about Australian culture. Like many of my peers, I was equally baffled and charmed by the new words I learned. I used to “play Neighbours” with my friends, and when we’d finished fighting over who got to be Scott and Charlene, the street would echo with cries of “Rack off!” and “Stickybeak!”  Some of the words were normal words shortened for no apparent reason – I was quick to work out that “arvo” meant “afternoon” but I was an adult before it dawned on me that “ute” isn’t just the name of a car make – it’s short for “utility vehicle”. Then I was lucky enough to gain some wonderful Australian friends, and that’s when I realised that word-shortening is a quintessentially Australian speech habit.

There’s so much that could be written about the politics of shortening words. (I wrote a few years ago about shortening place-names.) Sometimes it’s about reinforcing in-group status by excluding and confusing out-groups. Sometimes it’s about saving time and ease of reference in an established group. Sometimes it’s about claiming ownership of the thing whose name you’re shortening. Sometimes it’s about affection. Sometimes it’s about contempt. My original hunch about the Australian compulsion to shorten words was that it’s not exactly about contempt, but that it shows a desire to stop people (or things) getting above themselves. And that hunch got stronger when I learnt that Melbourne’s La Trobe university created an area of campus called the Agora, only to find that students immediately renamed it the Ag.

But now? I wonder if the Aussie shortening of words is linked to the “reverse-formality respect culture” described above. Maybe the Agora is the Ag because people like hanging out there. So the name is shortened partly through laziness and affection, but maybe also because there’s a sense of respect for the space? I suppose for that hypothesis to be true, there would have to be examples of people, institutions and things that Australians do not respect and therefore always do call by their full names. And I don’t know enough about this to know if any exist. I would love to hear some more perspectives on this.

Long and self-indulgent post about my month off Twitter

Posted February 2, 2017 by gryphon
Categories: silence

Tags: ,

This year I decided to do Twitter-Free January. (I just googled it and apparently it’s not a thing. I’m glad I didn’t know that before I did it.) I would like to share what changed in my life and what I learnt during that month off Twitter.

My anxiety noticeably reduced. I still get anxious, but I discovered that if you stop spending huge chunks of your day reading bad news and people’s angry/terrified reactions to bad news, you feel calmer. Who knew? A friend wisely commented: “If you’re going to take a month off Twitter, this was a good month to choose.”

Almost certainly related to this: I became less politically aware. During my month-long Twitterbreak, my main sources of news were BBC radio, the BBC website, the LRB, Private Eye, the Guardian (online), Facebook and tumblr. That sounds like enough to be going on with, but I honestly think that being off Twitter meant I still missed a lot of important news and perspectives.

I also missed out on friends’ news. People update Twitter on their lives and think that’s the same thing as updating their entire friend circle. I think some people were a bit confused or annoyed with me for not keeping up with their lives. But that didn’t apply to more general news, because:

People enjoy sharing news from the wider world with people who haven’t heard it. Remember at school when one person was off sick and everybody would ring them in the evening to “ask how they were”, which meant “fill them in on the day’s gossip”? That doesn’t seem to be a thing any more, because even if you’re ill enough to be hospitalised you’ll probably be taking your smartphone with you. But people like being bearers of news. Saying: “I’m taking the month off Twitter so I’ve been missing loads of news, what’s been happening?” turned out to be a great conversation-starter.

Twitter drains your social batteries. I’m an introvert, and I’ve always seen Twitter as the easy alternative to “real” social interaction. What I didn’t realise until I stepped away is that Twitter drains your social batteries too. Twitter-free me was way better at coping with things like work-related networking and house-guests arriving at short notice, to the point where I actually enjoyed things I would normally dread.

I made more social effort during my time off Twitter. Instead of hanging out on Twitter hoping vaguely for connection, I reached out to specific people. I went out a lot more than I’d normally do in January, I made more phone and Skype calls and I sent more emails. I was expecting to feel a lot more lonely but that didn’t happen.

It’s still lonely and boring being the only person in the room who isn’t staring at a screen, but I knew that before the Twitterbreak, because I already thought it was rude to stare at your phone in company and tried not to do it. During January I accidentally discovered a positive aspect to having everybody around you glued to their phone – you can eat really messy food without being embarrassed, because it’s basically the same thing as eating alone. Nothing to do with my Twitterbreak really, but a good revelation to have as you scoop up the fallen filling of a collapsed burrito with your hands.

(Sometimes I wonder if being the only person in a social group who isn’t occupied by a screen is like being the only person who isn’t drunk. Hard to judge because I’ve been the only person without a phone or tablet in their hand literally hundreds of times, but I’ve been the only sober person at a party maybe twice in the past 15 years. Now looking forward to the comments suggesting that I should have done Dry January instead of a Twitterbreak.)

Yes, if your friends use Twitter to organise meeting up, being off Twitter means you’ll miss out on seeing them. I missed out on the kind of casually-organised thing where someone says “Hey, who’s coming to the pub tonight?” But that was OK, because overall I had more social interaction than usual and it felt like the interaction I did have was more enjoyable.

Facebook is still quite boring. I will never get addicted to Facebook in the way I was addicted to Twitter. There’s something intensely un-addictive about it. I think it could be because the content keeps being moved around and hidden. If Twitter ever switches to a Facebook-style dicking-around algorithm, I think lots of people will find it very easy to leave.

Most of the good stuff on Facebook is screencaps from Twitter. The best stuff on Twitter is screencaps from Tumblr.

I went to four protests during January, which is more than I’d usually do in one month, but I think the Twitterbreak meant that I was slow to hear about things happening locally. So I guess I’d say you feel more motivated to get out and do activist stuff, but you don’t hear about things so quickly.  The fourth protest I would never even have known about if my partner hadn’t mentioned it a couple of hours beforehand.

Nothing bad happens if you take a social media break. A couple of people used Twitter direct-messaging to contact me while I was away, but I’d set up email notifications for that, so I didn’t miss any attempts to get in touch with me specifically. But most people didn’t notice I was gone. And that nebulous feeling that the world will somehow collapse if you’re not keeping up with the shitstream of terrible news in real-time? That feeling fades after a few days away from it. And the world doesn’t collapse. Well, it’s collapsing right now, but I truly don’t think it’s because I took a 30-day break from refreshing my feed.

Towards the end of my month off Twitter, the internet connection to my house was disrupted by dickheads digging up the road outside. Those four or five days with a flaky connection were very stressful and reminded me just how much my work depends on the internet, how much important information I keep online with the expectation that I’ll be able to access it pretty much instantly. I think I could easily live without Twitter, but my life without an internet connection would have to be wildly different. And that’s partly because…

You can totally waste time on the internet without Twitter. I would love to say that my Twitterbreak freed up the time for me to double my billable hours, write a sonata and embark on a round-the-world yacht race. Instead, I archive-binged on blogs, browsed Tumblr and Facebook and Pinterest, read lots of online news. Yes, I did get more real-life stuff done, but I still spent plenty of time staring blankly at the internet. However, I felt as if I was making a slightly more conscious choice about what I read. My habit of going automatically to Twitter meant that I’d been using it as a news source, a feed reader and a social club. I’ve decided I don’t want one social media channel to be all those things for me any more.

Could I break the staring-at-the-internet habit entirely? I don’t think so. I was getting into trouble at school for daydreaming before the web was even a thing. I still find it easy and frankly tempting to just stare into space for longish periods. This is just the person I am. I need to gaze vaguely at things. If the internet stopped existing tomorrow, I would just gaze at other things. When I’m not on the internet and my brain goes into dreamy mode, I stare vaguely at things like trees and passers-by and my snoozing cat. Maybe it’s “better” to gaze at those things than at a screen, maybe it isn’t.

The ableism of “on the go”

Posted January 19, 2017 by gryphon
Categories: corporate speak, cultural narratives, domestic, eating, euphemism, lies, media, women's magazines

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What does “on the go” actually mean? Various online dictionaries, all of which seem to be plagiarising each other, say that the phrase has been around since 1843 with the meaning of “in constant motion”.

But we don’t say the moon is “on the go” around the sun. We don’t talk about Robert Fludd’s “on-the-go” machines. These days, “on the go” is a marketing phrase. And by that, I really mean a phrase that people use to tell us stories about ourselves, stories told with the intention of manipulating us.

Some people genuinely believe that products and devices marketed for use “on the go” really are used mainly by people in a hurry. I’ve heard stories about the early days of designing software for smartphones, where the assumption was that the user would be “on the go” (and indeed “out and about” and other such stock phrases denoting busy-busy-busyness), so they would use the phone for quick, simple things and save the complex stuff for “real” computers. As late as February 2015, a research paper about grocery shopping on mobile phones was entitled On the Go: How Mobile Shopping Affects Customer Purchase Behavior.

What’s the reality? Developers now understand what users have known for a long time: that someone accessing the internet via a tablet or smartphone is more likely to be slumped on their sofa or sitting in bed than “out and about”. Which means they want to use their device for the complex things too – maybe it’s the only internet-connected device they can afford, or maybe they spend most of the day in bed and a lighter device is easier to manage. Either way, their reasons for using a tablet or smartphone have bugger-all to do with being “on the go”. Did the researchers of the paper I cited above really believe that people doing a whole grocery shop on their smartphone are putting toilet roll in their online basket while physically dashing from place to place?

It’s a similar thing with e-readers. They’re marketed for their portability, with the implication that otherwise you’d be throwing War and Peace in your bag before hiking the Machu Picchu trail or jumping on a train to Paris. But I do all my e-book reading at home. Other people tell me that they love e-readers because you can make the text bigger, or because you can hold one and turn the pages with the same hand while the other arm holds a baby or rests in a a sling.

Another example: snacks marketed as “on the go” because they don’t require preparation or cutlery. Are they mostly bought and consumed mid-jog? No, they’re mostly bought by people who don’t have access to a kitchen, or who never learned how to cook, or who are too disabled/depressed/tired to prepare food from scratch. The consumers of “on the go” snacks are probably doing just as much sofa-slumping as your average tablet user.

My point here: things marketed as “on-the-go” make life easier because they compensate for missing resources. Sometimes those resources are financial, which is why so many low-income people access the internet through phones and why insecurely housed people eat more convenience food than most. But a lot of the time those resources are about health and what we can broadly call “cognitive resource”: attention, energy, intelligence, knowledge.

But to talk about that would be to talk about poverty and arthritis and poor education and depression. It would be to talk about insecure housing and chronic fatigue syndrome and failing eyesight. So we reframe it all as being about the frantic pace of modern life. That’s why the marketing for TENA Lady pads explains that the typical buyer needs them because she’s “always on the go” and loves to “keep busy”.

Up to a point, it’s nice to look into the marketing mirror and see someone prettier looking back at you. You buy urine-absorbing pads because that’s what sporty women do, and definitely not because you keep leaking urine.  You buy ready-grated cheese because that’s what busy executives do, and definitely not because your hands hurt.

But wouldn’t it be nice to look into that mirror and actually see yourself sometimes? The marketing concept of “on the go” erases people with disabilities and people in challenging but unglamorous circumstances. They’re replaced by imaginary people who can’t stop dashing around. That erasure is, of course, ableist as hell. It also means that we miss out on more interesting, realistic advertising – and the marketers miss out on telling us the real reasons why we should use their products.

Some great advice on decluttering

Posted January 11, 2017 by gryphon
Categories: Uncategorized

Tags: ,

If one of your goals for 2017 is to declutter your home and/or conquer your hoarding tendencies, you might find it helpful to read the clutter-themed blogposts by by LiveJournal’s Issendai. I particularly liked a post from January 2010 entitled 2009: What I Learned About Stuff; or, Killing Clutter with Fire. The practical tips in More Cluttering Advice (also from January 2010) are useful too.

There’s a lot of internet advice about decluttering, but it seems to fall into two unhelpful categories. There’s lifestyle-y advice aimed at averagely tidy non-hoarders who want a minimalist living space (or who want to dream over pictures of other people’s minimalist living spaces) and there are resources on what to do if someone in your family is a hoarder. The assumption is usually that the hoarder themselves won’t seek help. (I sense a linked assumption that hoarders don’t have any self-awareness.)

It’s so refreshing to read something written by someone who admits they’re a hoarder and understands the psychological stuff behind it. When I had my revelation about the link between decluttering, microdecisions and the draining of cognitive resource, I thought I was maybe the first person to get it; but in 2010 Issendai wrote:

Making decisions is hard. It takes energy. Studies show that there’s a specific area of the brain that handles decision-making, and it can make only so many decisions a day before it gets tired. If you clutter or have hoarding tendencies, there’s an excellent chance that part of the problem is that that part of your brain tires unusually fast. Work with it, not against it. When you feel decisions getting harder or you start getting frustrated more easily, stop.

Ghostbusters headcanon

Posted December 16, 2016 by gryphon
Categories: Uncategorized

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From tumblr:

Thor: Banner, I desire to act like a normal human for a time. How should I accomplish this?
Bruce: Well, um, normal people don’t have your speech pattern, for one. They, um, have jobs and hobbies…
Thor: Hobbies?
Bruce: You know, photography, video games, puzzles…
Thor: And how does one acquire a ‘job’?
Bruce: Most people use the inter… you should probably look in the classifieds in a newspaper. Also, try shaving the beard and cutting your hair- you’re a bit recognizable.
Thor: *sees Superman/Clark Kent costume* A disguise? Like that man?
Bruce: Sure, yeah, glasses work.

-later, above a Chinese restaurant-
Thor: Hello? I saw your ad. I’m Kevin.

This scenario, from a friend of Viking Sheep, instantly entered so many people’s headcanon. Why? Because Kevin in Ghostbusters is stupid, sure, but he’s not stupid like a normal person. Kevin’s stupidity is on a kind of epic, otherworldly scale. Normal stupid people drive without using their indicators properly, say “muriel” when they mean “mural” and vote for Brexit. Kevin manages to mess up things like answering the phone and wearing glasses. There’s a surreal element to his stupidity, like it’s bending the normal rules of reality.

There is a good, non-Norse-god-related reason for this, though. In the scene where Kevin meets the Ghostbusters, Chris Hemsworth was improvising a lot of his lines. The bizarre stuff came from a “crazy run of improv” that took the other actors by surprise. They struggled to get through the scene because they were laughing so much, and it didn’t help matters when Kate McKinnon farted. Learning all this just makes me want to see the film again.

Laura Vanderkam and the cult of early

Posted November 23, 2016 by gryphon
Categories: Uncategorized

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It won’t surprise regular readers to learn that I have some issues with Laura Vanderkam, the time-management guru who wrote 168 Hours and cult-of-early classic What The Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast.

What bugs me about the “before breakfast” advice is exactly what bugs me about Lean In: it’s advice aimed at individuals that doesn’t scale if everybody follows it. You’re supposed to jump-start your day by getting up before anybody else, so you can focus on your latest important work project without any interruptions. OK, but what if everybody else has the same idea? How can you enjoy a solitary coffee in your local coffee shop if it’s packed with other early birds? How can you clear your inbox before 7am if your colleagues all pick up their smartphones at 6am to ping replies right back at you?

I’m speaking from experience: I once tried the early-bird thing as a way of buying myself alone-time to focus on work when sharing an office with an extremely attention-seeking colleague. To reach the office before she arrived, I had to both beg her to come in later than usual and get up at 6am, which for me is nausea-inducingly early. I got a grand total of 15 minutes alone in the office before she walked through the door. I realised after trying it just once that I couldn’t win this way, couldn’t fight an early bird by trying to be even earlier. (Not when my commute was over two hours long and hers was a few minutes, not when she had a naturally “lark” body clock.)

What did work, magnificently, was coming in to the office on a Saturday when she wasn’t due in at all and nobody else knew I was there either. I only needed to do it once, because in those two or three blissful hours on my own I did more work than I’d normally manage in a week and got ahead on everything so I felt a lot calmer. After that, I secured permission from the directors of the organisation to do more work from home.

I have actually read What The Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast. And the most surprising bit is the intro, where Vanderkam casually admits that she’s naturally a night owl and wrote most of the book late at night. Suddenly it becomes obvious that she’s not really talking about getting up early; she’s talking about carving out time when nobody is demanding your attention. I’m assuming she put an early-bird spin on it because the cult of early is a powerful thing. But really, as her other writing makes clear, she’s just talking about being proactive in securing uninterrupted time for your important work.

Maybe you can do the same as Vanderkam and create time for yourself by staying up late. Or maybe you need to spend more time working from home, or maybe you need some time away from your home, or maybe you need a babysitter or an accountant or a PA or just permission to switch your phone off for a defined period. There are countless ways to get yourself interruption-free time even in the busiest life, it’s just that most of them involve a certain level of privilege. But if you’re reading this, maybe you have more privilege than you think.

If your life tends to involve a lot of demands on your attention but not your intellect, a lot of short-term memory stuff and busywork and emotional labour, you may well find that you can do amazing things with a few guaranteed hours away from all that.

But it’s worth remembering that the carving-out-time thing doesn’t scale on an individual level any more than the getting-up-early thing scales on a group level. What do I mean by that? Well, if you’re normally juggling orders in a restaurant or looking after a baby or answering several phones at once, you will probably find that you’re amazingly productive given a few hours of peace. In three hours you’ve probably have deep-cleaned the house, written a sonata and come up with a coherent strategy for fighting fascism. Given another three hours? Meh, you’ll probably check Facebook and maybe make a start on dinner. Because most humans can’t be amazingly productive and creative for very long, no matter how much time we carve out. That’s why novelists with full-time day jobs write almost as much as novelists whose day job is the novel-writing. It’s a lovely fantasy that  the demands of daily life are keeping us from being our true amazing selves, but the reality is that our brains need downtime.

The turkeys who vote for Christmas

Posted November 16, 2016 by gryphon
Categories: Uncategorized

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It is entirely possible to celebrate Christmas without killing any turkeys. I’m a vegetarian, so for me, Christmas has absolutely nothing to do with eating turkeys. My meat-eating relatives also tend to enjoy a turkey-free Christmas because turkey isn’t one of their top ten favourite meats. Most meat-eaters don’t seem to actually like turkey that much; they just eat it at Christmas because it’s traditional. (There’s a Royle Family scene where everybody says they don’t like turkey, then the whole family is shocked by Barbara’s suggestion that they have something else in future. It’s one of several moments where the sitcom resembles a documentary.)

So you’d be forgiven for thinking that it’s not just theoretically possible, but practically achievable and generally desirable to have Christmas without killing turkeys. When you balance the really strong desire of the turkeys not to be killed against the only mildly pro-turkey-dinner feelings of the humans, it looks as if the overall feeling is anti-killing-turkeys. If you rationally calculate the benefits and harms involved, a Christmas free of turkey dinners is not just the best moral choice but also the choice that best represents the wishes of all stakeholders. So that’s probably what will happen, right? If you’re a turkey who keeps hearing about how wonderful Christmas will be for “everybody”, maybe it’s tempting to make this kind of calculation and then vote for Christmas.

Of course, if you are a turkey, perhaps you will not grasp that nobody gives a fuck what you think. The cost-benefit analysis doesn’t include you, because you count for nothing. You are not part of “everybody” and you never were. That’s why a mild human preference for turkey dinners overrides your extremely strong preference not to die.

Siderea’s writing on The Two Moral Modes is the best explanation I’ve ever read of Donald Trump’s mindset.