Two: The Lancaster Canal

Lancaster Canal, originally uploaded by meganknight.

This is a picture of the Lancaster Canal, which runs only a block or so away from the house. It’s a rather sad canal, it was built in the late eighteenth century, and ran from Preston docks to to Kendal, in the lake district. Unfortunately, as with the docks, there had been so much wrangling and arguing over the plans that by the time it was built the railways had taken over, and it never really came into its own. This is apparently a common state of affairs with Preston development projects.

Some time in the seventies the end of the canal was cut off, and it now ends abruptly about half a mile south of where this picture was taken. The canal does still run most of the way to Kendal, although it is impassable at various points, having been crossed by motorways and the like.

I often walk to work along the canal, although it is rather rubbish-strewn, and has more than its fair share of dog shit along the path, it does have ducks and coots, and even some swans. In the spring it is very pretty, but right now it’s still frozen, and there is rubbish strewn across the ice, so I cut that out of the picture.

One: The dregs of Christmas

1/365 The dregs of Christmas, originally uploaded by meganknight.

We’re not that into Christmas, really. We’re not Christians, and having spent considerable time being Christians, quite seriously I’m uncomfortable with the idea of celebrating Christmas now that I’m not. We do like Christmas food, but then, to be honest, we like food. Since moving to the northern hemisphere, and to a place where winter actually means something more than the name of the ‘special’ sales on at the local mall, we’ve discovered the true meaning of holiday spirits: candles and green things and warm lights and rich, special food are essential for preventing suicidal depression and psychotic cabin fever among the population. So, this year we actually bought Christmas lights, and I acquired some ivy from the garden, along with some spruce boughs and bright red berries, and set up a display with candles on the mantelpiece.
It was very festive, and went well with the roast beast and all the trimmings, and the mountains of Christmas cake we went through. Now, of course, it’s the new year, and the display is looking a bit sad. I’ll take it down later today, and maybe replace it with something else, or maybe not. The mantelpiece does tend to get cluttered with stuff, though, and I do prefer a display of some kind, rather than assorted random things.

The first post

So, I’ve been dithering about doing the 365 project this year, and after a day of indecision yesterday, have decided to do it, but with a slight twist. You see, I should write more on the blog, but I battle to write short simple things – each post is like a newspaper column. So, I’ve decided that I will do the pictures, but the challenge is to write at least 200 words on each picture, so the point becomes writing, not photography. I’m not a great photographer, although would like to be, and way limits the pressure on me to produce great pictures (which I would rapidly find frustrating), and it also means I can probably get away with using the occasional picture from my mobile phone, since in my mind, the point is the writing.

And yes, I am starting on January 2nd. I could claim I’m being quirky and original, or that I’m refusing to participate in the collective delusion that some random point in time, some arbitrarily determined date is meaningful, but not really: I just didn’t get it together yesterday. In fact I didn’t leave the house yesterday (although I did get dressed, and make supper from scratch, so there is that).

The photostream is here.

There’s something about trains that makes me feel like an adult. Combine a commuter train with a paper cup of coffee and I’m overwhelmed with a sense of being an important and accomplished person, on my way to do something meaningful and significant.

It’s always winter in these kinds of situations, it seems. One of my first memories of really feeling like a grown-up is a purely evocative sense memory of getting off the Skytrain in Vancouver at Granville street, wearing a long navy blue blue wool coat (second-hand, naturally), carrying a shoulder bag and a cup of coffee, and being swept along with all the business people on their way to work. I’m not sure when this memory dates from, but it is pretty powerful.

I don’t take trains very often, and I’ve only ever for one brief period of my life used a train as my daily commute. I wish I could take trains every day, actually (we are considering moving, so this may come true), but I always seem to end up living in other circumstances.

In South Africa and the Middle East, it was pretty much impossible to cope with daily life without a car. Obviously, lots of people do cope, using taxis, busses and informal public transport, as well as walking and bicycles. For someone with a white-collar job, though, it can be hard, and in Dubai, living in university-issue accommodation in a neighbourhood without busses, it was hard and expensive to not have a car. My colleagues without cars relied heavily on those of us with cars, which creates its own set of issues.

Since we’ve been in the UK, we haven’t had a car, and in fact, neither of us is now legally allowed to drive. We only miss it sometimes. Getting across the country by train is a pain (up and down is a lot easier), and it would be nice to be able to rent a car and go camping somewhere. We are working on it (or Martin is), but we really don’t want to own one. I look at cars now, and think, weird objects, why would you want one?

But I still want to ride a train.

I’m not sure how I feel about the #IamSpartacus campaign on Twitter.

On the one hand, freedom of speech is important, but on the other hand, threatening to blow up an airport – how stupid can you be? I don’t actually think it’s about Twitter, really, either. I know the campaigners believe that Twitter is being singled out, and this is some kind of blow for free speech on the Internet, but I’m sorry, I don’t. If anything, this shows that Twitter is just like any other kind of speech, and there are some things you should think twice about saying.

Like threatening to blow up an airport.

Or asking to have someone murdered.

In his defense, Gareth Compton has called Twitter a “a forum for glib comment” and asked “Who could possibly think it was serious?” Except that plenty of the stuff on Twitter is serious, and should be taken seriously. The irony of a campaign on Twitter to defend the frivolity of tweeting cannot be lost on everyone, surely.

Going back to the original tweet, from Paul Chambers, I find it hard to be sympathetic. I mean, come on. Yes, we know security is ridiculous, yes we know the police overreact, so why the hell would you provoke them by posting something like that? And really, if you want to campaign to protest the expansion of police powers and the erosion of civil liberty in the name of the “war on terror” (and I sure as hell do) you could do far better than defending some tosser who was pissed at an airport for being closed by weather.

How about campaigning for the rights of the more than 100 000 people stopped by the police under stop and search laws last year? Of whom only 504 were arrested, and none of them for terrorism-related offences, which is what the stop and search law was created to prevent. How about walking into every police station inteh country, ringing the little bell, and saying “I am Spartacus”. If nothing else, it would be a lot more interesting to see than thousands of tweets threatening to blow up airports.

This morning, well before 9am, I was on my way to the shops to buy essential breakfast supplies when I passed a guy, in his twenties or so, swigging from a can of lager. This is not at all a remarkable event in this neighbourhood. I routinely see guys (and it is always men) drinking beer at the bus stop in the mornings. It’s always one of the extra-strength lagers, in the dark blue can, or the one in the black can. They’re don’t seem to be particularly drunk, any of them, or worried that anyone can see what they’re drinking so early in the morning. I really have to think that this is routine, that there are men in my neighbourhood for whom the morning can of Tennant’s is as routine as my morning cup of tea is for me.

It is probably this that is the most alien experience of England for me (well, that and the inexplicable popularity of mushy peas). I don’t have much of a relationship with alcohol myself, neither a good one nor a bad one. I tell people I don’t drink, but that’s not really true. I do occasionally drink, but I seldom think to. My first thought in a restaurant when asked what I want to drink is usually water, or maybe lemonade. It hardly ever occurs to me to order alcohol, and I tend only to drink it when it is very visible, and everyone else clearly is (which means I have drunk more alcohol in the last two years in the UK than I did in the previous ten in South Africa and the UAE). I only ever buy alcohol for cooking purposes.

This is a university town, and one kind of expects that there will be a lot of drinking, and the area around campus definitely shows the evidence of that, but I live far enough away from campus that there are few students around. Despite that, of the little two block strip of shops near me, there is a pub, and two small grocery shops, of which at least one third of their shelf space is taken up by alcohol, and four takeaways.

Alcohol consumption is high in the UK, and it carries a heavy social cost. It’s a point of some contention, carrying with it aspects of class discrimination and snobbery, as well as social opprobrium. The problem is, it’s hard to not sound like a moralising harpy when criticising people for their drinking habits; no matter how much you try to make the conversation about health, or social disorder, it always seems to come back to a kind of puritanical list of ” shoulds and shouldn’ts”. On the other hand, it would be hard to really defend the level of alcohol consumption that is prevalent here. Seeing the guys at the bus stop in the mornings, and knowing that there is no local industry that runs a night shift (ie, there is no reasonable possibility that this is the end of their day, and they are heading home to bed), I can’t help concluding that these are people showing up for work in the morning already slightly drunk. At the risk of sounding flippant: this can’t be good.

Of course, as someone who doesn’t drink, and never really has (I’ve been drunk three times in my life, all in my late twenties, and all because I decided I needed to get drunk to see what all the fuss is about), I feel as though I shouldn’t really comment. I don’t know why I don’t drink, honestly. Alcohol was neither prevalent nor taboo in the house – I saw my parents drink on special occasions, we were allowed wine or sherry from a pretty young age. I grew up in a pretty typical Canadian way, friends got drunk at parties from around 16 or so, although I never did, I know a few kids who died as a result of drunkenness, but nobody really close to me was affected. I did spend a fair chunk of my university life being the only sober one in any given [likely vomit and blood-spattered] room, which is never fun, but I also avoided the most drunken environments after a while. The fact is, I don’t like the sensation of being drunk, and it doesn’t make me enjoy social occasions more: the contrary, in fact – alcohol makes me sleepy and weepy. In fact, the only time I ever seek out alcohol is when I’m wound up with insomnia and desperately need to sleep, and have nothing else available (don’t get me started on my relationship with zolpidem – now that’s a drug I would probably buy on street corners if I had to).

Which is why I found this research interesting. I know it’s not new, I know it’s not really an “alcoholism gene”, but the idea that I metabolise alcohol differently from the guy at the bus stop this morning is extremely seductive, if for no other reason than it doesn’t leave me with nothing but moral s fall back on. I don’t like smugness, especially not in myself.

On being Canadian.

The fact that I’m Canadian always seems to catch me by surprise. Other people as well. You see, I’m not REALLY Canadian, I’m one of those hyphenated Canadians, semi-Canadian, a Canadian of convenience. As Canadian as possible, under the circumstances.
I sometimes feel kind of guilty when I use my Canadian passport. It’s such a good calling card, nobody hates the Canadians, so I’m welcome everywhere (except Tanzania, which is another story). I don’t live in Canada, I don’t pay taxes in Canada, and when I was living there I was either an impoverished student or working minimum wage jobs, so I can fairly safely say I have taken way more from Canada than I have contributed over the years.
The thing is, though, that passport is not just a convenience, although it is convenient. I am Canadian in all sorts of ways. I’m a pacifist, I’m uncomfortable with overt displays of nationalism, I’m multicultural (both personally and in my tastes). I’m polite (usually), I’m intelligent and somewhat smug about less intelligent southerly neighbours, I’m unambitious with money, and I have a Canadian’s sense of personal space (I spend much of my time in African and Asian public spaces in a state of mild distress at all the people! so close! shudder!). I like winter. I don’t mind paying taxes for social services. I could even like curling. Canada suits me, in a way that no other place I’ve found does, and it’s really no less than a conspiracy on the part of the universe to prevent me from living there all the time. I really have been trying to get back to Canada for the last fifteen years, and I can’t seem to manage it.
That said, and now that I have asserted my true and utter Canadian-ness, can I just say that the Canadian passport renewal system is the most byzantine, bureaucratic, Kafka-esque process I have ever encountered? Bloody hell, people, it’s just a passport, it’s not the freaking secret MI5 dossier from 1945 to 1990. And you make us do this every FIVE freaking years?
Oh well. It is still the best passport to have, and the best country to be a citizen of, so I will spend much of tomorrow trying to find a photographer in Manchester who can provide me with an image of myself that will satisfy the good people at Passports Canada, and fill in my multicoloured forms in triplicate with stamps and seals and the names and addresses of everyone I’ve ever met, and take my new passport happily with me to all the places I want to go, I just hope I get to take it home, sometimes, too.

I miss the nerds.

Way back in the mists of time, when I was young, nerds were a subculture. They (note, much as I would love to call myself a nerd, I’m really not) hung out in labs, in front of glowing green screens and mainframe computers, they played Dungeons and Dragons on Fridays nights in their parents’ basements, with twenty-sided dice and lots of friends. They were mostly guys, but there were girls, too, nothing like the girls from my suburban high school – all feathered hair and handbags. These girls were smart, and funny and not afraid to show it. They wore interesting and sensible clothes, or fancy sexy clothes, or old ragged clothes because they couldn’t be bothered. They wore their hair however they liked, and whatever shoes they wanted. They had backpacks full of books and ideas, not handbags full of combs and make-up.
They were smart, too. Not all of them, but some of them were really smart, and the conversation flew, puns and jokes and philosophy and computers and movies and books. Real conversation. Not what I now know is the kind of conversation designed to create and destroy social cohesion, conversation full of traps and pitfalls and inside comments designed to show where the boundaries are and who is inside and outside of them. This was conversation for the sake of finding out stuff, and it was next to impossible to say the wrong thing and be shunned (as far as I could tell, that is).
Nerds were my people.
Over the last 25 years or so, I have hung out on the fringes of the nerd subculture to various degrees. I wasn’t a science or engineering student, but I did use the university’s mainframe to write essays and participate in the discussion fora. I was a journalist, but I knew about computers, so I gravitated to other computer-geeky-journalists. Then I was a science and technology journalist, in the early nineties, so I got to hang out with and interview hackers and nerds and geeks (and corporate PR types in branded golf shirts, too, some of whom were secretly nerds under the plastic coated logos).
When I joined the university, I met more nerds, graduate students in computing science, my own students with nerdy leanings, colleagues with secret stashes of comic books and games. We formed a kind of subgroup within the university – my colleagues in journalism were baffled by my having coffee with PhD students in computing science, with me talking to people about the VAX in the basement – the one that brought the Internet to South Africa, right under the nose of Vorster, who would not have approved.
In the last decade, though, I’ve been wondering: where have the nerds gone?
One of the side effects of the mainstreaming of computer technology is that the subculture has all but vanished. Now everyone is on the internet, everyone knows about lolcats and xkcd, most people have heard of Warcraft (although not played it). That flash of recognition, when nerd meets nerd, is all but gone. Students who want to write about gaming are crawling out of the walls, there is no sense of secret and private knowledge, of access to things other people don’t know, or care about at all.
Don’t get me wrong, the Internet is fabulous – an amazing invention, and the fact that there are two billion people online is truly incredible. I’m glad that there are millions who communicate every day, that Twitter lets me and everyone else know the latest celebrity death hoax almost instantaneously, that Google’s dispute with the Chinese government is the lead on the evening news (even if they do get it wrong). I just miss that sense of belonging, that sense that there are only a handful of us, and we know each other by secret means. I miss my fellow travellers, now that we’ve been overtaken by the corporate behemoths, intent on advertising and market share and revenue streams.
I miss the nerds.

This is chiming in with the chorus way too late, but I’ve been chewing on this for a while. Why Rod Liddle should not become editor of the Independent.

Apparently Lebedev has said that if he buys the Indy, he will make Rod Liddle editor. There’s a campaign to boycott the Indy if this happens. I support this wholeheartedly, although, to be honest, I seldom buy the Indy, since it shows up at the office, and when I do buy it, it’s at a discount on the campus shop. I can’t say I’ll refuse to read it, since I read a lot of newspapers, but if it changes it will no longer be my favourite newspaper to read for non-research purposes. Take that as a threat, you Russian, you!
I don’t read much of Liddle. A while back when we accidentally subscribed to the Spectator (long story), I used to read him and Toby Young sometimes. I freely admit that I have read more comment about him in the last three weeks than I have of his actual output. However, this is a blog, so lack of research should not prevent me from having an opinion, so here’s my opinion: Rod Liddle should not be appointed editor for the following reasons:
1) He’s too famous. I realise that Britain does have something of a tendency to make celebrities of their journalists, but I don’t believe this is a good thing for the newspaper. Editing a paper, especially a serious and intellectual one like the Indy is (or should be), requires someone who cares more about the news than about themselves as editor. Editing a paper in difficulties, as the Indy is, needs someone who will make it their first and only priority, who will be there every day, who will read it and nurture it and their staff, who cannot be anything other than demoralised at this point. Maybe Liddle would abandon all his other ventures, give up his columns and his other activities and be in the office every day. I hope so, but I suspect not. It’s clear that Lebedev thinks that one way to make people notice the Indy is to appoint someone famous as its editor, generate a bit of PR. I can see that argument, in the short term, but in the longer term, I don’t think this would work, especially not for a paper like the Independent.
2) He’s either a twit or a racist (or both). Either, as he claims, he is too stupid to pick a decent password for his membership in an online community, and too thick to work out how to delete posts or change his password once he figured out that someone was impersonating him, or those posts are genuinely his. If it is the former, then anyone hiring him needs to take a close look at his supposed skills and qualifications – he is clearly not fit for employment in the modern world, and especially not at a media company that has a substantial online presence. What’s he going to do, pick ‘liddle’ as his staff password and allow his email address to be hacked by disgruntled staff who then proceed to send rude messages to all the advertisers under his name? If he did make those posts, then he clearly holds some repugnant opinions. He may claim that the racist content of his columns is intended as a wind-up, that he’s playing devil’s advocate for the sake of argument and debate (more on that below), but that argument is pretty weak when it comes to posts made on a discussion board using a pseudonym. There is no way he can claim his participation on the Milwall supporters’ board is anything other than a leisure activity for him: he’s an ardent fan of the club, so if he were playing a game and spreading vile comments around for the sake of some social experiment, why is he shitting in his own back yard, as it were? In any case, his bylined columns display much of the same opinions – the point about the Milwall posts is not that they are offensive (after all, they are anonymous, and he is entitled to hold all sorts of opinions repulsive or not), but that they put the lie to any claim that his columns in a similar vein are only ‘for show’, or playing some kind of postmodernist relativistic game of devil’s advocate, since he evinces the same opinions behind closed doors, for free.
3) He’s one of the ‘wanker boys’. We don’t need more ‘wanker boys’ in position to influence opinion and policy in this country. Wanker boys are grown men who behave like fourteen-year-old boys and are proud of it. Ross and Brand are wanker boys – phoning up an old man and saying “ha ha, I saw your granddaughter’s tits” is classic wanker boy behaviour. So is opining that a highly-accomplished female athlete must be willing to perform all sorts of perverted acts in order to get a boyfriend because she isn’t the right kind of attractive. Comedians are often wanker boys, and while I find it offensive and unfunny, it’s kind of par for the industry. The issue is when this kind of attitude is permitted and aggrandised in other areas. Rod Liddle is not a comedian, he’s supposedly a journalist, but he seems to think that it is relevant or meaningful to judge the performance of a senior government minister on whether or not he would sleep with her. That’s the level of his engagement with serious issues: how drunk would you have to be to fuck her? Aside from the offensiveness of the whole concept (and I am seriously tempted to make a comment here about how physically repulsive Liddle himself appears to be – even in his byline pic – and how likely it is that any woman with a brain would even consider getting within ten feet of the man, but that would be validating the tack of his argument – that appearance is at all relevant when discussing politics, or journalism, or anything important), is this the best he can do? He can’t think of anything else to say, or write about, than his own dick? That is essentially the problem with wanker boys – they are incapable of engaging with anything beyond themselves or their desires, and that makes them useless as participants in civil society.
Leave Rod Liddle to his column, and his girlfriends, and his fan club of born-again suburbanites, and hire a real journalist to run the Indy. Someone with a brain who is not afraid to show it. There must be one or two intelligent, articulate and thoughtful British journalists left, surely?

So, Google says it’s going to stop filtering search results for their Chinese search engine ( If that means they become required to leave China, so be it. The exact wording is: “We have decided we are no longer willing to continue censoring our results on, and so over the next few weeks we will be discussing with the Chinese government the basis on which we could operate an unfiltered search engine within the law, if at all. We recognize that this may well mean having to shut down, and potentially our offices in China.”

Interestingly, this is being reported largely that Google has said it will pull out of China, which is not correct. They may well have to pull out of China, and shut down, but they haven’t said they will. They are very clearly leaving the ball in the government’s court, and I suspect that if they are told to leave, they will attempt to make very clear that they are being evicted, not that they have chosen to go. Unfortunately, the meme may already have spoken: Google is taking its marbles and going home.

The general take on this side of the Firewall is that this is a bad business move. This approach really frustrates me, and is indicative of the extent to which we ascribe only business motives to business entities. The assumption seems to be that a) Google must want to be the largest and wealthiest [technology] company in the world; and b) that in order to ‘win’, they must have China as a market. There is also an assumption that they owe it to the shareholders to do so. This, of course, ignores Google’s mission statement [Don’t be evil], something which is usually only reported as a kind of joke. Few people seem to believe that it may be entirely serious. It also assumes (in line with conventional wisdom) that China is the single most important market in the world, for almost any product. This is probably not true. In any case, Google only ever had a small part of the search market in China, and didn’t seem to be in much of a position to increase that. (Baidu is the main search engine in China. Look familiar? Although, Baidu has its own problems right now. ) What is not often reported is the reason why Google is doing this.

Behind the Firewall, reactions are mixed. (Disclaimer: I don’t read or speak Chinese. Everything I know I learnt from Chinahush, Chinasmack, Chinageeks, Danwei, Digital Times, China Media Project and other such sites). There is the usual cry of ‘China is better at everything, who needs Google?’ jingoism, mixed in with more serious discussions of what this may mean for the average user in China. People are testing the search engines and not seeing any major changes in results so far. People are also worried about what will happen to services like Gmail, especially. [Heck, I’m worried that the next time I’m in China I won’t be able to access my email myself.]

What I’m interested in is something which is not often discussed: what sector of the Chinese public would be most inconvenienced by the loss of Google? I have absolutely no way of knowing this, but my instinct is that it would be the better-educated and more outward-looking ‘netizens’ [not my favourite word, but pretty much unavoidable now] who are most likely to use their services, as opposed to sina, or baidu, or any one of the many other homegrown sites. I know I have my students create Google accounts for assignments/blogs/etc while they are here, and I know several who continued to use them when they returned. I can’t help thinking that it will just make China more insular if/when Google goes.