My mum doesn’t like cats

Posted December 9, 2018 by gryphon
Categories: Uncategorized

Tags: ,

My mum doesn’t like cats. When her broken daughter moved in with her, the cat came too.

My mum doesn’t like cats and she doesn’t like clutter. When the cat moved in, she came with a food bowl, water bowls, countless toys, a litter tray and a scratching post over 4ft high. My mum allocated a special drawer for the toys.

My mum doesn’t like cats. She bought the cat a new toy to chase and was dismayed when the cat ran away from it.

My mum doesn’t like cats. She booked a man to fit a cat-flap in the back door so the cat could explore the world outside. She was overheard telling the cat: “Guess what’s happening Friday?”

My mum doesn’t like cats. When the cat ignores her cat-flap and mews at us to let her in through a different door, we all laugh at her dramatic face through the glass…then we open it for her.

My mum doesn’t like cats. Every now and then the cat sits on her lap, or cuddled up next to her, and it’s the only time my mum actually sits still.

My mum doesn’t like cats. She’s given the cat a taste for delicacies like tinned tuna, but is pretty firm about it: no second treat unless she “does the look”.

My mum doesn’t like cats and she doesn’t like clutter. She left a Christmas gift bag on the living room floor to see if the cat would hide in it.

The cat did.indie gift bag 1

Ghastly-Brewer and the rudeness of rejected bids

Posted August 15, 2017 by gryphon
Categories: conversational tactics


A couple of days ago, “journalist” and all-round ghastly person Julia Hartley-Brewer tweeted:

My Uber driver just proudly told me that his car has “zero emissions”. I replied “I couldn’t care less.” Now he’s looking sad. #fromAtoB

People asked her why she had to be so rude. She responded:

“I was perfectly polite and friendly.”

I’m a bit concerned that some people might be doubting themselves at this point. “Maybe the posh lady knows more about etiquette than I do? Maybe what she said really is acceptable?” Nope. I can’t speak about other cultures but I can say with absolute authority that responding to a piece of information with the words “I couldn’t care less” is fucking rude.

Why? Because when the driver offered her that piece of information, it was a conversation-opener. It was an invitation to respond.

Drs John and Julie Gottman came up with the concept of “bids” to describe when someone in a relationship reaches out to their partner for affection/attention/approval/whatever. They claim (and I believe them) that how you respond to bids is the strongest predictor of whether or not your relationship will go the distance.

Of course, people make “bids” in other contexts too, not just romantic relationships. I’ve written in the past about social initiative, about the difficulty and importance and underratedness of making the first move.

“I’m no Oscar Wilde myself with my conversation-openers; it’s usually something along the lines of “Great to see you here,” or “What are you drinking?” or “God, it’s a bit cold today, isn’t it?”

And nine times out of ten, the other person will recognise the lifeline you’re throwing them. They don’t care if you’re pointing out the obvious about weather or traffic or the décor. They just see the smile and the intent to welcome and they appreciate it. They will grab that lifeline and before you know it, you’ve got a conversation going. And, again before you know it, other people are joining in, people who were terrified to make a move before.”

But no first move will work, no “bid” can be successful, if you’re in a one-to-one conversation and the other person chooses to reject it. And – make absolutely no mistake about it – saying “I couldn’t care less” is a rejection. It shuts the conversation down before it’s begun.

Obviously the really polite thing would be to show some interest, however mild. (Last time I got a taxi, the driver started out with some boring story about cricket and my feigned mild interest meant that he got on to some interesting local history stuff.) It’s not like you’ve got anything else to do while you’re trapped in a metal box with this person. But sometimes your social barrel is empty and you really can’t summon up a proper response. As dozens of people pointed out in Julia’s mentions, in that scenario you just say “Oh” or “Right” or “That’s nice.”

I know some people prefer the “absolute silence” gambit, because you get a bit of plausible deniability. Maybe you didn’t hear! Maybe you replied appropriately and they didn’t hear! Maybe you’ve gone into a psychic trance and any minute now you’ll have ectoplasm coming out of your mouth followed by this week’s winning lottery numbers. But I personally find the silence thing kind of cowardly and annoying – you’re forcing the other speaker to second-guess you. So I go for the standard British nothingy response.

“This widget looks like a 23-B, but it’s actually a 22!”

“I managed to get 10 packets of mince nearly half price. It’s not the mince I normally buy, but I expect it’ll be similar.”
“That’s nice.”

“Looks like Crystal Villa are going for a six-way transfer in the mid-season boilerplate.”

I’ve already written a whole blog post on ways to respond politely when people talk about sport and you literally can’t understand what they’re saying, but they all require a bit more energy and imagination – I’m talking today about when you’re completely tapped out.

So what do you do when you really can’t bear to hear any more about the widget? When you’re afraid that even the most half-hearted “Oh” will open the floodgates and send forth a stream of thoughts on mince?

I’d say: go with the bland nothingy response and then change the subject immediately. The only way to reject a bid or kill an existing conversation without looking rude as fuck is to immediately do some work of your own. Show interest. Ask a question. Make a bid.

“The thing with cheap mince is it has a high water content, so you have to be careful when you’re cooking it…”
“Yeah. So have the kids started their holidays yet?”

“You get all these 22s that look like 23-As and 23-Bs and would you believe, the lads in the shop can’t tell the difference. I say to them, ‘A 22 is oblate and not spheroid!’ but you’d think they had jam for brains.”
“Oh dear. Has the Queen ever come in to buy anything?”

I mean, bonus points if your new opener has any relevance to what’s been said already, but don’t sweat it. The key thing is that you do the work. Saying “I don’t care” or “I’m not interested” is a refusal to do the work. It is an asshole power move based on the assumption that the other person is not as important as you.

Someone as well-brought-up as Julia Hartley-Brewer almost certainly knows all this. She knows when she’s being rude and she’s choosing to be rude.

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


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

Tags: ,

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.