Sunday, January 27, 2013

Phantoms are Amongst Us

There are creatures that walk the Earth remaining largely unseen; shadows, heat-haze, corner-of-the-eye stuff. I know this because I am one of them.

I went to a training event as a part of my new job, last week. I arrived at the venue a little late due to planning to be fifteen minutes early and not counting on it taking twenty-five to find a place to park. I entered the room we were to be in for the day shortly after proceedings had begun and, sure enough, during the second presentation of the day, that fearful phrase I am going to ask you to get into pairs was uttered. Being, as I am, me, I'd already clocked that there were an odd number of people present and sure enough within the next thirty seconds I was standing in the middle of the room trying not to look slightly lost as everyone had, naturally, paired off in the opposite direction from me. Throughout the day we were asked to get into various groups, each of a size by which the total group was not equally divisible, and each time I found myself being the extra one, tagging on to the group which seemed most happy giving in to their pity.

It is only recently that I have come to realise that I am not actually alone in whatever nameless social affliction this is. It's simply the case that, unlike Jedi, vampires and immortals, we don't have an innate ability to sense each other; we're just as invisible to one another as we are to Normals. Even as a fairly successful teacher for six years, I never attained that hallowed, respected and ultimately undefinable attribute Presence.

I know people at the other end of the spectrum who, within minutes of walking into a pub, are chatting with others at the bar as if they've known them all their lives. I can walk through the middle of a party populated with people I have known all my life and manifest my presence as nothing more than a chill about the collar.

I am told, on occasion, that the solution is simple: you just talk to people. As if it's the same as putting an apostrophe in the correct place, finding the sum of the squares on the other two sides, or reading a number expressed in standard index form*. I have a 'networking event' scheduled in a few weeks' time: I'm terrified. I can fully imagine being the only person present who doesn't manage to so much as discuss the weather with anyone.

It's not just offline, either. I use twitter, and I like to help out when people post questions: it's often a good way of finding out something new if I don't already know the answer, and nice to find a use for knowledge that I do already possess. But if I post a question it's rare if I get any kind of response at all.

Before I get the inevitable flood of one or two comments from both people who will read this, I'll state that yes, I do know it's something I'm doing wrong. I have some vague ideas about what, but nothing all that concrete, and I have no idea how to put any of them right. People will offer shining insights into how to fix the problem, always along the lines of "you've just got to talk to people!", but this is, to me, a lot like telling me that the solution to really wanting to wear two hats at the same time is "you've just got to grow another head!" I don't know how to do that, and there's very little in the way of helpful advice floating about.

Anyway, if you find yourself reading this and thinking "that's me! That's me!" Then I hope you're reassured to some extent by the fact that you're not alone.

And say hi, if you know how.

* See what I'm getting at here? These three things are simple, but only if you already know how to do them.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Seven Things That Get Right Up My Nose

I've been tagged. This doesn't happen very often, and even when it does I'm usually inclined to ignore it: I don't like continuing memes very much. But Heidi was so very nice* when she tagged me in her post I can't possibly ignore her, so this is what I'll do: I'll change the plan a bit. The meme is this "seven things about me" thing that's doing the rounds. I'm going to post seven things that piss me off instead***. That's kind of about me, right?

These are in no particular order, and this is by no means an exhaustive list...

1. Other drivers
I've done a lot of driving recently. I did fourteen hours of it alone between the day before Christmas Eve and the day after Boxing Day. This one is on the forefront of my mind. There are so many things that other drivers do that just get my middle finger flexing, and my vocabulary reducing down to words of four letters. Not indicating properly flies first into my mind: that includes not indicating at all when you're using a junction or turning off a roundabout, but it also includes indicating and then not going the way you've indicated. I also hate it when drivers do their utmost to get their car into your boot while you're overtaking someone, then when you pull back in they take an age to get past you and then slow down after pulling in front of you. No! Why?!

2. Apostrophe abuse
And other spelling, grammer and punctuation misdemeanours, while we're at it. It make's me drool with anger when I see poor apostrophe's being abused relentlessly and remorselessly, and when folks could of thought a little bit about what their saying but havent thought about how your supposed to understand what the hell there talking about. It doesn't take a lot of effort to work out how to get this stuff right, especially not if you're typing it on the bloody internet and Google is just a click away.

3. Guilt-trip status updates
You've seen them: "97% of my contacts won't repost this." 97%? Yeah? Can I see your original study? Is the raw data you've collected in order to quantify that statement available in the public domain? Maybe, if your contacts are all such heartless bastards you should think more carefully about who you let into your little circle of perfection. Or maybe you could get up off your arse and actually do something about the cause that your pointless little post is whining about. Do you know what effect your two-clicks have had on that particular cause? None whatsoever. Wake up and realise that you've shared it just because someone else shared it and you fell for the guilt-trip. Stop wasting my time.

4. "I don't get it."
This little statement is, without fail and entirely without exception, simply a short way of saying "I can't be bothered to think about this and I want you to do it for me." I've had this one thrown at me not only as a mathematics teacher but also in my role as technical support for my family and friends, and it always makes me turn green and rip my trousers (on the inside, at least). If I'm honest, the thing that annoys me with this one is not the phrase itself, but what it represents: absolute indifference towards the problem at hand. Y'know, if you really care that little about what you're trying to achieve that you're happy to deal with it by sucking your thumb and hoping that someone else fixes it for you, then feel free to fail. Do without your printer. Don't pass your GCSE. Deal with not being able to get your holiday snaps from your digital camera onto your computer.

5. Logical fallacies in arguments
Logical fallacies are glaring flaws in a piece of reasoning; leaps of idiocy in somebody's assurances that they're right and you're wrong. An absolutely brilliant site for finding out about the different types of logical fallacy available for use by your common or garden numpty (or figuring out which ones you use and making sure you don't do it again) is . It's worth getting a handle on these because not only do numpties use them to try to convince you of stupid things when you're at the pub with them, they're also rife in the media. The worst thing is that so many people fall for them. These are some of my favourites:

  • Circular arguments: These are arguments that require themselves to be true in order to prove themselves to be true.
  • False correlation: Assuming that just because one thing happened after another thing, that means the first thing caused the second thing. This happens a lot when people take medicine and then they get better: they assume that the medicine made them better, which is not necessarily the case. A slightly more obvious example is the idea that a lot of people who have yellow teeth go on to die of lung cancer. This means that yellow teeth causes lung cancer, right?
  • Appealing to authority: This is when somebody says something must be true because someone clever said so. I know certain people who are absolutely convinced by something's authenticity by virtue of it appearing in the Daily Mail. I once knew a guy who had all sorts of nutjob conspiracy theories about global warming (and other things) and his way of 'proving' them was to send me a link to a YouTube video**.

6. People sharing ridiculous things without doing the most basic of fact-checks
You've seen these too: "such-and-such is happening today, and it only happens once every fourteen million years!" But thirty seconds of basic thinking reveals it to have happened only last Thursday. And the Tuesday before that. That one about typing your bank card's PIN in backwards alerting the cops to your plight if you're standing there with a knife against your throat. Tosh. Easily discovered tosh at that. Those ones that come up every couple of months about this meteor shower or that one being really really rare, when the predictable ones are all annual events. That photo from space of all the fireworks over Europe at midnight on New Year's Eve? Except switching your brain on for five seconds allows you to think "hang on, the whole of Europe doesn't hit midnight at the same time..." For crying out loud, I prefer all the pictures of cats.

7. Shopping centres on Saturdays
If you want to be reminded of the feats of ignorance and mindlessness that can be exhibited by civilised societies, go to any British shopping centre on a Saturday between the hours of 10am and 4pm. If you can locate an entrance through the haze of fag smoke that camouflages the entire exterior and get inside in the first place, you'll be battered by folks looking in every direction except the one in which they are walking. You'll suffer people pushing you out of the way and walking in front of you only to stop suddenly for no particular reason. Other people will attempt to kneecap you with their trolleys, walking sticks or shopping bags, and then tut at you for daring to get in the way of their unpredictable whirling. Approximately none of them will be following any kind of sensible course between shops; the routes when watched from afar remind me more of grains of pollen in the Brownian motion demonstrations of my schooldays than of any particular attempt at intelligent navigation. If you're stupid enough to actually attempt to buy anything you'll no doubt get stuck in front of the giant man with dubious personal hygiene and a natural tendency to stand far too close to people, and behind the lady who's trying to pay with luncheon vouchers, postage stamps or string. Those who are close enough to sanity to actually try paying with coinage will almost certainly attempt to do so so with foreign coinage. They will definitely not think to get out their purses and wallets until they've been told the price of their purchases, and they certainly won't have the correct change ready and waiting to be handed over. Most won't even remember which pocket they put their wallet in that morning, and will spend an inordinate amount of time patting themselves down in search of it. The only positive of the whole experience is that after the sweat and the grime and the huge lungfuls of second-hand cigarette smoke, the air of the dingiest city backstreet smells sweet and fresh and clear.

* I'm an astronomer, yeah, but apparently I'm also witty and have cool hair (it seems). I'm just hoping she doesn't notice the evident mistake she's made and correct it.
** I love this video, not least because it has been sent to me in all seriousness on more than one occasion.
*** Oh yeah, I'm not going to 'tag' anyone either because it's just too damned mainstream. If you feel inspired to vent about seven things that jolly well get you riled like a rotter, please let me know about it because I love the smell of vitriol in the morning.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Hello, Goodbye.

2012 was, for a number of people I know, an anus* horribilis.

It's been a year, as they all are, of endings, beginnings, and rather more middles than I'm entirely comfortable with. Friendships have begun, ended, reignited, and redefined themselves, just as they always do. There have been births, illnesses and deaths, just as there always are, and work has had its ups, downs, and back-to-fronts, just as it always does. Somehow, though, this year has arranged itself into a form that, to say the least, I'll be glad to see the back of.

So goodbye, 2012, and good riddance.

Not a single aspect of my life has been left unchanged from one end of 2012 to the other. Some for the better, some for the worse, and some... are too new to understand the impact yet.

Hello, 2013. How can you be of service?

I'm not going to make any resolutions because I just don't keep to them. There are some things I want to achieve, though. Things like happiness at work, some kind of social life and the usual ongoing intellectual progression. I want to find time to read, time to write, time to shoot and time to stare at the sky. I want to spend time with friends, and figure out which friends are the ones who want to spend time with me.

I'd really, really like for a few people I know to be given a break, and have a much better 2013 than the 2012 they've been dished out, and I really hope that everyone reading this has a great and mostly positive 365 day adventure lined up ahead of them!

How about you? What do you want from 2013?

* No, that's not a typo, or even an honest mistake. It's been a real arsehole of a year.