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CJlHrWGUAAAig8hThe white leather ball looked like a perfect shot, for all of two seconds. If there had been a crossbar it was even odds whether it would have hit it or sailed perfectly in through the corner. The problem was that with jumpers for goalposts there wasn’t actually a post, or a crossbar, so the ball continued to shoot through the air and vanished through a hedge in a shower of leaves, dislodging a particularly peeved pigeon.

“Bollocks,” said John, who – at the ripe old age of eight, had mastered the dark art of swearing. “I’ll go get it.”

“No!” cried Rob, at the head of a triangle of other, suddenly bashful and ashen-faced kids.

John turned, mid step and nearly fell over. That ‘no’ had been particularly forceful.

“Why the bollocks not?” that was the trouble with swearwords, when you mastered one you felt the need to use it all the time.

“Ol’ Mr Gaiman lives there!”

“So?” John was genuinely confused. Maybe they’d come up with this silliness while his mum had him at her house for the first half of the summer.

“He’s a monster!”

“No such thing as monsters.” His dad had told him so and his dad worked in a pub, so he knew things.

“He is one! He’s a witch with crazy grey hair, and he talks funny, and he has a human-skin jacket and he’s married to a banshee!”

“A what?”

“It’s an Irish ghost, only this one’s American. Anyone who hears her singing, dies!”

“Bollocks,” said John, again, though it was more heartfelt this time.

“No, it’s true! Toby’s nan kept complaining about her singing all the time, calling her a banshee, and then she died.”

“Of an anti-rhythm in her brain!” offered Toby, helpfully from behind Rob’s legs. He was only four. “Though dad said it’s just because she was angry all the time…” he trailed off, less helpfully.

“And the first week of summer break,” Rob continued. “Luke lost his toy plane over there and went looking for it and nobody saw him again.”

“Didn’t the police come?” John hesitated by the gate to the Gaiman house, hand on the handle, feeling a little unsure.

“He paid them off with his book money to leave him alone! Please, don’t go in there!”

“Nah, it’s bollocks.” John stuck out his chin – you had duties being the big kid – and in he went.

***

“And that,” said Ol’ Man Gaiman, picking young, delicious meat from his teeth with shards of the broken dreams of lesser writers. “Is where I get my ideas.”

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208B-002-040So if you’re on Twitter or Facebook, you’ll know your feed zooms along pretty fast.

You’ll also know that you end up seeing a hell of a lot of crap.

‘Inspirational’ tweets, ‘motivational’ image macros, nonsense.

Part of the reason I’m pretty active on social media is that it’s stimulating, the cut and thrust of witty commentary, the opportunity to make someone smile by adding a joke or a double entendre.

Sometimes that goes horribly wrong…

So what appears to be a Hallmark comment comes across my feed, something that appears to be the kind of trite homespun wisdom you see a hundred times a day. Something like…

‘Whoever said laughter is the best medicine hasn’t heard of cancer’.

To which I replied…

‘That’s just because you’ve got no sense of tumour’.

Which, come on, is a pretty goddamn funny line.

Unless the person you say it to has had their tweet retweeted out of context and is actually talking about their child, who has cancer. That’ll take you from wryly amused to your heart sinking through your boots in a moment.

Before you can type an apology someone’s retweeted it and their followers are on you like Nicholas Witchell’s tongue on a Royal boot, only the opposite of obsequious.

Fortunately, as bad as things could have gotten we sorted it out immediately with me apologising and the various tweets getting deleted, but it strikes me as a good example of how we need to be careful and how we need to develop a new set of social rules for interacting online.

The internet has the immediacy of conversation and the longevity of the written word and, at the moment, we treat it like whichever one of those is the worst.

That’s got to change.

‘No sense of tumour’ is still a good line though.

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london_fogNight security jobs are unmitigated shitness. You sit – alone in a little room in a huge building, all alone, and stare at flat-screen monitors upon which nothing happens for hours and hours and hours.

A smart phone and a solitary television with the sound turned off the only respite from black and white pictures of an empty building. Twitter and scrolling headlines across the bottom of twenty-four hour news a welcome distraction from mind-numbing monotony.

These people online and the newsreaders become your next-door neighbours after the world’s gone to sleep.

It’s easy to imagine you’re all alone up here, tucked away in your little room. Once it hits three in the morning even London goes quiet. There’s nobody out there on the streets. The ones who are still awake are street sweepers or tucked away in the clubs and pubs far away from the business districts.

This is the time it’s hardest to stay awake, eyes drooping. Your body knows its not supposed to be awake and everything is at its lowest ebb. If it weren’t for the unceasing news and internet chatter – bless you time-zones – it would be easy to think you were the only person in the world.

Even that blurs into one though. An endless parade of far off disasters that lose their impact. What’s one more atrocity or war when they happen every day? Sometimes something makes you prick up your ears though, or your eyes. Maybe you hear something about a place or a person you give a damn about. Not some ambassador from a failed or failing state, but a celebrity or something you have a personal connection to.

That doesn’t happen often though. Most of the time you sit and stare, drinking cup after cup of coffee, fiddling with your phone, staring at the screens and wishing you were home in bed.

Sometimes something weird happens though. It has tonight. So I’m writing it down and printing it out. Even if I am on camera, even if I’m going mad. I just need to have a record.

I handle the night security for London’s latest, greatest, newest skyscraper. The Prism. Eighty floors of empty glass and steel. It’s still being fitted out so there’s nobody there at all, save the workers during the day. Everything works, there’s just no offices yet and the bathrooms are all bare bones.

It was a bit past three and I was nodding half asleep over the monitors, not paying too much attention to them. The air conditioning in the building was on but it felt a bit close and humid despite that. If you don’t have it on the buildings get weird, internal micro-climates, some of the big ones even form ‘clouds’ in the atrium. They didn’t want that here, so the moment the building was sealed, on went the air conditioning.

It wasn’t like I could open a window, but I had a desk fan. That helped a bit, fresh air blowing across my face. It woke me up a little, a start and jump like when your chin hits your chest when you’ve fallen asleep sitting up.

That’s when I noticed a scrolling headline across the bottom of the television, for some reason it caught my eye amongst everything else.

“London threatened with thickest fog since 1952.”

Meteorology wasn’t a big news item and its not like fog was unusual, even today, but I hadn’t seen even a hint of it on my way to work. The main news item was some update about some economic conference, nothing of interest to me. There’s a little camera watching me all the time, quis custodiet ipsos custodes indeed, but I decided I’d risk it and go for a look out of the window.

I had to cup my hands against the window to see through the light glare, but it was true. There was a thick fog running down the Thames against the current like a cheap smoke machine and starting to flow over the sides into the streets. Why they thought it was so bad I don’t know, it was thick, but nothing worse than I’d ever seen before, so I just went back to my desk.

In the five or ten minutes I’d been away from the monitors nothing much seemed to have changed, but there was a picture of London Bridge in the box-out. I tried to turn the sound on, but I realised it didn’t have any speakers. I’d never tried to turn the sound on before so I’d had no idea.

I was too cheap to get mobile broadband, so streaming the news to my phone wasn’t going to work out. Not with a flaky 3G connection in the bowels of a giant Faraday cage. I was stuck with the scrolling text, I couldn’t even turn on the subtitles, I had no idea where the remote control was.

I switched to the internet on my phone, even though it loaded at a crawl I could get a couple of pages up. There was only a small update and a few pictures from the unlucky sods up as late as I was. It looked like it was spreading rapidly, even just in the short time I’d been away from the window. That or it was much thicker elsewhere, downriver from me.

The page didn’t tell you much, just that the met office were mystified as to the cause, it was the wrong weather, there was no pollution to account for it, though it had a sickly stink apparently, and they were trying to work it out and asking for more pictures from people around the city. It was local news really. There was some early speculation that it was down to algae or something else, but nobody really had a clue. This late at night the news and the met office – and everything else – was running on the ‘B’ teams.

Twitter wasn’t that much help either. Only people outside my time-zone were awake aside from a few people out late clubbing and they were wasted. I sent them a couple of feelers. Something was making me feel really uncomfortable about the whole thing though I couldn’t really put my finger on it.

I didn’t want to get up from the desk again, that would mean a reprimand if it got noticed. I started flicking through the cameras trying to get a view of outside through the glass, but the only one that worked was a view of the entrance and I couldn’t make out much from there, just a few wisps of mist.

Back to Twitter, there was a tag now #FogDoom – typical nonsense like #snowpocalypse and all the rest. It wasn’t that busy yet but one thing stood out in the slowly scrolling messages.

Woolwich Witch : Got off Skype with my BF. Bunch of sirens and lights on the road and river.

That seemed strange so I thumbed out a quick message back.

Night Wotcha: What’s going on there? Stuck in central London and can’t get the news.

I flicked through the cameras again while I waited, trying to see anything else, even a speck of outside through the window. Still nothing, but the mist was thicker out the door, even through the camera.

Woolwich Witch: No idea, but the river’s high. I can barely see outside. The noise stopped though. Don’t see the lights.

Night Wotcha: Can you get a better view anywhere? Sounds freaky! 🙂

Woolwich Witch: Yeah, I’ll step out and have a look. See if there’s anyone around.

Police aren’t unusual, but a whole lot of them charging through the night down there? Close to the Thames Barrier? That seemed weird. Was it a terrorist attack? Gas or something? It didn’t make much sense to me but it would explain the police. If the river was coming up that could be bad for the city as a whole. Grandad had used to run one of the river taxis. I thought high tide would hit sometime after four in the morning. There was a while yet before that happened.

It was no good, I had to go for another look.

This time the river seemed higher, even from all the way up in the building. It was hard to tell of course, the fog was even thicker now and it was flowing up over the banks and spilling into the streets beyond. It was weird looking, moving in all directions at once, almost like it was alive, questing for a path between the soulless, empty, lifeless buildings.

The BBC news scroller was now talking about a flood warning now, but being not very specific as to why. My desk phone went off with an automated warning, but I didn’t really have to worry here. It was all automated and the building should be well able to resist any sort of flooding. All I’d have to do would be to wait it out until low tide – a matter of hours.

The Woolwich Witch hadn’t gotten back to me again, but I didn’t know her and she didn’t owe me any sort of explanation.

I started thumbing through the hashtag and its all weird nonsense. Drunk and stoned people talking nonsense. More pictures but a lot of them were weird looking. Artefacts and stray pixels, like when it rains hard or a pigeon decides to have a nap on your Sky dish. Some of them were half uploaded, like the image had been cut off halfway through my download, but it wasn’t me.

After the mangled images there were no more posts by that person. Any of them.

I don’t scare easily and I try not to get panicked over nothing but I was scared now. The signal quality on my phone was dropping every ten minutes or so, bar by bar, ‘3G’ to ‘H’ to ‘E’ and even that kept dropping out. The last few tweets I saw on the tag before the data connection completely cut out were even weirder, people who’d gone out to check out the fog and going missing. People not able to get the police.

The TV was all about the fog now. The presenter, someone you wouldn’t see unless you kept my hours, was clearly out of his depth, trying to cope with it. They were calling it a chemical spill, telling people to stay inside because of the fumes, even if it flooded.

Even the TV signal was breaking up now. Weather can do that, but fog was too low on the ground to disrupt any signals. Maybe I was imagining it, but there was a sickly scent, even behind sealed glass and storeys into the sky.

I took the lift down to the great void of a lobby, so empty. Here the smell seemed, paradoxically, less bad. It didn’t make sense to me. Beyond the doors I couldn’t see a bloody thing, it was all thick fog faintly yellow in the dim night lighting.

I about jumped out of my skin when there was a loud bang against the doors. There was a shape there, banging against the glass. The knock loud, but whatever screaming sound was out there dimmed by the thick glass so it sounded distant.

As I got my breath back from the fright I stepped towards the door, and then jogged, fumbling for my keys. Even pressed against the glass I could barely make out who it was, but it was a man. Maybe a policeman, I thought I saw a cap. Just in the seconds it took me to get to the door the banging got quieter and quieter though the shadow looked just as manic and violent as ever.

As I got there it was abruptly silent, a shape in the mist that could have been a man or just dappled shadow, blown away. I fumbled the keys and yanked the door open, shouting out into the fog but there was no answer and the stink made me gag on the words even as I tried to give them voice.

It was hard to breathe, to think, so I got back inside and shut and locked the door again. Back up the lift to my little nest, the only place I might feel safe. The lift seemed slow and the lights kept flickering all the way up, coming on again as I got back. Everything still seemed to be working but the TV was black now, on every channel I could get and the phone was useless.

From the window everything was dark now. I couldn’t even see street lights now. The light from the building made it nearly impossible to see beyond the glass and the moon was dim, a sliver behind grey cloud. I couldn’t see anything.

The smell was getting stronger. I was sensitive to it now, noticing it – or imagining it – behind every smell in the building. New paint, plastic, epoxy, all of it seemed to carry a hint of that stinking fog in it that made me queasy.

It was the air conditioning. It was sucking in the air from outside and the fog with it. It was seeming to rise, shorter buildings disappearing beneath it, the fog seeming higher around the taller buildings as if it were trying to climb them.

I don’t know the first thing about air conditioning. I went as high as I could in the building and cut cables, jammed pipes and stuffed ducts with whatever I could find. Tarp, sacks of cement, plastic, silicon gel from the builders. I think I sealed the building and its only me here. I’m not going to suffocate.

There’s a little computer in my nook. Turns out the tower’s running on generator power now, so I turned off all the lights I didn’t need, and the pumps. Sat and wrote this. I don’t know what’s going on but I’ll save it. I’ve print it out. I’ve put texts to everyone I know into my phone so they’ll send when the signal comes back. I don’t know what else to do but sit and wait.

I’ll go and seal the air conditioning better I suppose, but if there’s nobody out there, what’s the point?

I’m alone.

***

fog-448188Mr Morgan is still missing and has not been seen since the night he caused millions of pounds worth of damage to the Prism Tower, setting back the opening of the tower for at least two months, flooding two basement levels and all but destroying the air conditioning system.

These writings, apparently left by Mr Morgan – though there’s no way to prove that – seem to suggest an impaired state of mind which may have insurance implications. With Mr Morgan missing it is likely that a settlement can be garnered from his estate, though it is unlikely to make much of a dent in the costs.

Without finding Mr Morgan it is hard to know how to proceed further, though it’s clear from his confession that he caused the criminal damage. Given the long term importance of the account I believe the claim is genuine and that we should pay out.

Sincerely,

H Arnold,

Claims Department
Xebi Insurance Co.

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personal_trollface_hdThere’s been – yet another – blow up about trolling on Twitter but the context provided by the UK porn filter discussion makes this a slightly different debate.

It is my bitter experience that while I hate to condescend to people, assuming too much reading comprehension skill on the part of the internet as a whole is to invite misinterpretation and problems further down the line. So if this post comes across as a little patronising it’s not because I intend to be, it’s because I don’t want to be misunderstood.

Let’s get a few things said up front to provide some context:

Misogyny is bad
The word gets overused a bit, but in its original meaning ‘irrational hatred of women’ yes, it’s absolutely a terrible thing. Anyone promoting or engaging in misogyny deserves little or no sympathy and like any other irrational prejudice or hatred it’s unacceptable. I am against misogyny and everyone should be in my humble opinion.

Trolling is bad
Like misogyny, the term ‘trolling’ gets overused to include anyone who vehemently and passionately disagrees or gets into a heated argument. Still, genuine trolling does still exist and it is destructive, problematic for debates and more and more of a problem because people don’t seem to understand that they’re being trolled.

As defined in: “Trolling in Asynchronous Computer-Mediated Communication,” by University of Central Lancashire lecturer Claire Hardaker, a Troll is:

…an individual “who constructs the identity of sincerely wishing to be part of the group in question, including professing or conveying pseudo-sincere intentions, but whose real intention(s) is/are to cause disruption and/or to trigger or exacerbate conflict for the purposes of their own amusement.”

How do you deal with it?:

“Trolling can (1) be frustrated if users correctly interpret an intent to troll, but are not provoked into responding, (2) be thwarted if users correctly interpret an intent to troll, but counter in such a way as to curtail or neutralise the success of the troller, (3) fail if users do not correctly interpret an intent to troll and are not provoked by the troller, or, (4) succeed if users are deceived into believing the troller’s pseudo-intention(s), and are provoked into responding sincerely. Finally, users can mock troll. That is, they may undertake what appears to be trolling with the aim of enhancing or increasing effect, or group cohesion.”

Women bloggers, columnists, article writers etc who keep bringing up the trolling they get as a serious issue are giving the trolls what they want by virtue of ‘4’.

Again, nobody – I know of – is arguing that trolling it a good thing.

Let’s also be clear that this isn’t a uniquely female problem. Express a political, social, religious or even an artistic/critical opinion and you’re likely to attract trolling. The major difference seems to only be that – for some reason – women take it more seriously than men.

Trying to control the internet is also bad
Internet sites that allow users to post their own content – such as Twitter – are more akin to paper manufacturers than they are to TV channels. Given the sheer amount of content and the problems with automated processes expecting Twitter or Facebook or even a website host to control or monitor the content ‘written on their paper’ is a mug’s game. It should not be their responsibility but rather the responsibility of the person using their ‘paper’. The ISP or host can help once abuse is correctly identified but doing this is frustratingly slow – so long as we provide decent protection against false reporting.

Kafkatraps & False Dilemmas
Whether it’s the proposed porn filter or asking Twitter to police ‘harassment’ this is presented as a kafkatrap. Any response at all is interpreted in the worst possible way and as support for the proposed stricture.

  • Oppose the porn filter? You must be a creepy paedophile or an abuser.
  • Oppose pointless efforts to control or censor Twitter? You must be a misogynist.

It’s an emotional appeal on an emotional issue from an emotional reaction.

It is perfectly possible to both oppose child porn, or abusive harassment and to oppose proposed tools or controls to deal with it.

The cost of control & abuse of control systems
The internet routes around censorship and control as though it were damage. Like DRM or the porn filter trying to control abuse/harassment/trolling will have virtually no effect on the trolls and will have a big effect on normal users. Indeed trolls are likely to use and abuse any such system to silence people themselves.

This already happens.

As part of the #atheist community on Twitter I regularly see people who are merely strident or effective debaters getting their accounts suspended due to organised abuse of the spam report button that already exists. The process seems to be somewhat automated (volume of communication is too big to expect people to go over it all). Enough spam reports and your account is suspended. It takes some time to get it back. As a case in point I present @RosaRubicondior, an active Twitter atheist currently knocked offline due to abuse of the report system by a Catholic apologist with multiple accounts. There are even whole groups that coordinate spam reports to knock people offline.

Adding an abuse button – as is being proposed – will just provide another means for legitimate users to get knocked offline and it’s likely to be used against the very people asking for these controls and tools.

Will it stop a determined troll?

No. They’ll make multiple accounts, they’ll use proxies etc to get past any protections that are put down. To be even moderately effective any tool will have to identify the user (which presents its own problems). Remove anonymity and you don’t particularly stop a determined troll. Anonymity has a cost in terms of cyberbullies but it also has a big positive side that lessening anonymity would hurt:

  • Political dissidents use twitter and other online media because of their anonymity.
  • Homosexuals – still criminalised in many countries – are able to get a sense of community and support only because of anonymity.
  • Battered spouses and victims of real life abuse can seek help through anonymity and safety.

That’s a tiny few examples of many. You threaten to destroy that by changing things.

You already have options
‘Don’t feed the trolls’ is getting a bad rap for some reason, but it remains the best way to deal with it. The payoff for a troll is getting a big reaction a twitterstorm, newspaper articles, people wringing their hands and even making blog posts like this!

We play into their hands by doing so. Block the person, ignore them and they get no payoff from you.

I don’t see any other way to deal with it that doesn’t have a massive cost in terms of free expression, abuse of the system and loss of the upside of anonymity. We don’t seem to be able to change the trolls so we need to change ourselves (or at least some of us do).

  1. Block ’em.
  2. Don’t take ’em seriously – after all, how many online ‘threats’ actually come to fruition?
  3. Understand what trolling is and change your reaction to it.

1. Almost every social media platform has a block function. Even outside of social media there are plugins for browsers that will block forum trolls and even cut off  whole websites. You can set your email spam filters too and most newspaper and other, similar hosts are much more heavily moderated.

2. Come on. Really. How many internet threats go flying around every day? I’ve been trolled, harassed and threatened by a combination of trolls, true believers, social justice warriors and militant Islamists. I’ve been threatened with burning, stabbing, beheading, ruination, maiming etc etc. Here I still am. Why should I take these threats seriously and why should you? Why do you? The only people that have come close to following through are the supposed progressives!

3. A troll is a parasite who gets an emotional high (and a salve to their boredom) from provoking you and making you react. If your reaction is to take them seriously and demand changes and censorship you’re doing what they want. ‘Ur doin it rong’. You simply cannot control or stop trolling in a way that allows us to preserve the upsides of the internet. The only thing you can change is your reaction. I think it’s somewhat telling that men don’t seem to react in the same way. Perhaps due to a culture of ‘joshing’ and ‘friendly insults’. This does seem a healthier way to react though.

These kinds of kneejerk reactions to what absolutely is reprehensible behaviour threaten to cause more harm, not less.

Take a breath, think about it as a whole.

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There’s a new start-up business which could turn out to be very useful to indie authors, game producers etc.

Gumroad is a sales service where everything is contained within a link. This seems, to me, to be perfect for indie authors and game publishers as a short-link is eminently sharable and essentially allows the ‘shop’ for an individual product to go viral across Twitter, Facebook etc. It also means you can code a ‘store’ with basic HTML by listing the sales links and while it lacks a shopping cart for multiple it seems bloody useful otherwise, particularly because of the immediacy.

You’ll lose 30 cents plus 5%, which for cheap items (smallest price is a buck) is not really any worse or better than most middle-man storefronts (35% being a typical cut taken). As your prices rise though, the rate of return improves quickly until it outstrips the offerings of most storefronts.

For people with a pre-existing, built in audience and a strong social media presence, this could be a fantasy solution.

I’m testing it out, but I don’t know that I have the audience to make it work yet, I’ll let you know how it goes. So far my only problem is that it seems to create every link twice! That’s probably just me being a spooner though.

Doubletap: Two short pulp stories, $2 https://gumroad.com/l/UcZf

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