Dealing with Facebook compulsion

I used to use Facebook a lot, and read Twitter a lot.

FB gave me immediate access to cultural and social events that I wouldn’t otherwise know about. There was some good writing, some good photography, some good music. There was a lot of joking around. I enjoyed some people’s travel photography.

Twitter let me know the background to what’s going on in politics, especially in relation to the Donald Trump clownshow, and Robert Mueller’s investigation into it.

At a certain point I realised that this was making me miserable. This is how I expressed it to a friend:

Being retired I find my life alternates between being ridiculously busy and having nothing special to do. And it’s those quiet times that are the problem. Thing is, every so often FB comes up with a gem. It’s easy to overlook that the rest is dross. The big thing, however, has been to restrict my Twitter usage, where once again I found myself looking for shreds of hope, where really there is none. It’s quite sobering to realise that my primary form of political thought is wishful thinking.

In November I decided once again to give up Facebook and Twitter, because I was spending too much time on them for no obvious benefit.

To which my friend responded:

Blimey Jeremy, that’s bleak.

I have been partially successful. I have only posted once on FB, and my reading habit is much reduced for both. I’m reading books a lot more, and doing a lot more practice on guitar, bass and singing.

The key here was to recognise that, for me, social media was / is a Bad Habit, and how that habit works.

Classifying Habits

To discuss this stuff I think we need a few definitions1.

An image illustrating the classification of habits provided in the main text.

Classifying habits

Habit: a repeated activity that you have been trained into, or have trained yourself into. Started/done without conscious intention
Withdrawal Symptom: symptoms that are caused by stopping a habit. They disrupt the course of your ordinary life (eg tremors, fever, pain) and may encourage you to do dangerous things in order to get relief
Health costs: when a habit makes you ill or has negative affects on you or on the people around you
Dependence: a habit with significant withdrawal symptoms. You can be dependent on something without being addicted
Addiction: a habit with significant withdrawal symptoms and with significant health costs
Bad habit: a habit without significant withdrawal symptoms but with significant health costs
Good habit: a habit with significant benefits, and without health costs2

The first step to giving up a habit seems to be to recognise that I’ve got one. As I was writing this I realised that I might have a load of other bad habits.

So here’s a little questionnaire that I wrote out. You might like to classify each of these for yourself as one of not a habit, good or neutral habit, bad habit, dependence or addiction.

Think about going a day or month without:

  • having your mobile phone with you
  • drinking alcohol
  • drinking tea
  • drinking coffee
  • smoking cigarettes
  • using non-medical drugs
  • cleaning your teeth
  • taking a bath
  • wearing clothes
  • eating sugar
  • checking social media
  • posting on social media
  • playing your instrument
  • writing something
  • going for a walk
  • watching porn
  • having sex
  • eating a meal
  • using a toilet
  • using a car
  • using public transport.

The things in this list that bother you may be different from those that bother me, and I’d love to hear your suggestions for more. The point here is that forgoing social media perhaps ought not to compare with forgoing clothes or food or whatever. But for some reason it remains compulsive.

I’m pretty horrified about the idea going out without my mobile phone. It gives me access to train times, navigation, help in an emergency, all sorts of communication. It feels like these things make my life safer / better / lower stress. With the exception of social media, I’d say my phone usage falls somewhere between a neutral habit and a dependence.

I’m a lot less horrified about giving up social media, and it definitely has health costs for me, so I’d classify it as a bad habit.

What makes social media compulsive?

More than 25 years ago, when I gave up cigarettes, when I finally saw that the reward I got from smoking a cigarette was a moment’s relief from the symptoms that were caused by all the cigarettes I had smoked previously. That made me want to not be a smoker and was the key to giving up.3 4

So what is it about social media and Facebook in particular that makes them so compulsive? I think I have a handle on that. And a key realisation helped me to reduce my usage. The realisation is that:

Our reaction to likes and comments on FB is out of all proportion to the effort made by the person liking or commenting.

In the book Darkness At Noon, Arthur Koestler talks about prisoners in solitary confinement developing a communication code by tapping on the heating pipes. Can you imagine the thrill of being able to communicate with another prisoner in those circumstances? In ordinary life it would be almost impossible to become interested in such a thing. It’s the isolation that makes it significant.

The reward that we get from an event is dependent on the context in which it happens, and something inside us calibrates our responses in proportion to the available range of stimuli. Most of my posts on FB would get between 0 and maybe 60 likes. So 60 likes appears to be a massive reward.

If I go for a coffee with a friend I might get 2 hours of undivided attention.

How do these two things compare?

A like on FB only takes a click – maybe half a second of attention. So 60 likes on FB probably costs no more than 30 person-seconds. That’s 1/120 person-hours.

The coffee takes two person-hours of the other person’s time. That’s 240 times as much attention as the 60 FB likes.

I doubt if anyone considers 60 likes as comparable to 2 hours with a friend, but I used to over value the likes by a huge proportion. Maybe this suggests that I was living in some form of isolation, a bit like the prisoners in Koestler’s book.

This realisation was the key for me to stop the habit of posting on FB. I will probably post this, consciously, and I will probably check for likes, but I’ll try not to get excited about the likes. And that’ll be my last post for a while.


What progress have I made? Well, this will be my second FB post since November, so OK there.

I still read FB, but not much. I don’t sit there waiting for it to entertain me. It still has benefits that I’m not ready to give up and it feels less of a problem.

I’ve deleted FB from my phone. This feels like a good thing, although I recognise that my continued use of WhatsApp, FB Messenger and Instagram still keep me deep in FB’s pocket.

I continue to read Twitter in a futile search for hope about the Trump thing. But not so much, and I’m a lot better at recognising the behaviour and going to play guitar or read a book instead.

  1. This is how I’m using the terms here, the DSM may say something different. 
  2. I’d say that some good habits are dependencies. For example, I’d have pretty bad withdrawal symptoms if someone I love were to die. But that’s not an argument for not loving them. 
  3. I realise now that I wasn’t addicted to cigarettes, it was just a bad habit, so it was relatively easy for me. Some people get terrible withdrawal symptoms that make it very hard to give up. 
  4. I’m sure this is not original but I can’t recall where I got the idea from. 

Two Fragments

And its raining a cold rain that trickles down your neck and seeps in your boots making your socks wet and you wonder why you came here and now you are committed its going to take forever to get back to somewhere dry and warm. You are walking along the back of a ridge wind is blowing hard from the left and threatens to knock you off balance and this is a problem because there’s a steep drop to the right. Fear of falling has gotten worse over the years. You think that at least yours is a rational fear based on the fact that your balance is not as good as it used to be, you never know when you might stumble. While your friend has a fear of altitude yet walks on a path exposed to a vertical 100 ft drop without hesitation. Maybe your friend has a phobia, you feel that your own fear is justified. You can’t stop here because you’d die of exposure and all the signs are that the weather is going to get worse. There isn’t any time for self pity or even misery because you need to direct every ounce of your strength to keeping going and getting down off this ridge.

¶ You fall in love all the time. But this surprised you. A woman in her late 60s, clearly delighted to see the man she has just met. Can’t be married, no married couple would be that delighted with each other. And then she said it’s so lovely to see you, confirming your suspicion. The marks of age had given this woman grace. She was quick to smile, she was simply dressed, maybe a little makeup. You even loved her voice, her laugh. A middle class accent, but not quite posh. Look, people don’t want your attention, get on with your work. Leave this poor woman alone.

Then she started to talk about the properties that she owned. It was a grace that arose from privilege. You fell out of love. It was a relief. You fall out of love all the time too. Which is convenient.


You would make challah
A slice from a block of yeast
Mixed with sugar and lukewarm water
Left in a warm place
Until it bubbled and fizzed
Then adding flour, eggs, sugar, salt, more water
You made a loose dough, sticky, wet
You proofed it twice
Before forming it into plaits
When it had risen for the third time
You would glaze it with egg
Drench it with mohn
And bake it until it was dark

The challah was for Erev Shabbos
After the candles and the kiddish wine
You would sing the bracha
Hamotze lechem min ha’aretz
Slice the challah
Deal out to each of us
A slice presented on the point of the bread knife
We would sprinkle salt on it
Mumble the bracha
And eat it

At other times
You would serve challah
With cream cheese and smoked salmon
The challah was dense, moist, sweet
Between cake and bread
Only you made it that way

During the shiva we found a couple of loaves
In the freezer
So for one last time
We could eat your challah
With smoked salmon
And cream cheese

In Place of Yahrzeit

Religious relatives used to remind me of your Yahrzeit but I didn’t need that. I would mourn you every day. In the same way as I feel that everyday is my birthday. Anniversaries are too literal. They make these things into duties. But recently I haven’t thought about you too much.

So why am I sitting here in a coffee shop writing about you and crying? Because in a discussion with The Anna I said that death is a Taboo. And so I thought maybe I should talk about it. Because last night on Twitter … what would you have made of Twitter? 18 years ago the Internet was new and you were just beginning to see the power that it might have … last night on Twitter was #LossLit where people wrote about loss in 140 characters or fewer. I wrote a couple of tweets about you and they opened me up like a can opener opens a can.

¶ On our way home we saw an ambulance at the petrol station. We wondered what had happened. Turns out it was there for you.

You fell like a tree. A woman dressed a wound on your head, not knowing that you were gone. She told me that she prayed for you, and apologised that her prayer was a Christian prayer. I said that I was grateful that she was there with you in that place of desolation.

The policeman gave me your watch, your wallet, your car keys. His face was blank. It must be the hardest job to say to someone – your father is dead. Here are his things.

Neighbours came. And so did P&S even though P had had a few drinks. When he heard what had happened he came straight away. P knew that it was better to be pissed and present than absent. Other people looked askance at him but I needed him to be there and I loved him the more for it.

Next day in the hospital we viewed your body. D said: that is not my father. And she was right. You had checked out and this carcass was empty. Only at this moment would my mind accept that you were gone. The Irit was not there at that moment. At the shiva she went looking to find you so she could give you a cup of tea. But you weren’t there.

I was angry with you because you had insisted on leaving despite the fact that you hardly had the strength to get up from the sofa that you were lying on. Despite the fact that you told me that you had been ill for three weeks . You said you had been to hell and back. You told me the surgery had said the next available appointment was in three weeks time. I don’t think you had been ill in your life and you didn’t know how to be ill. How to insist that there’s something serious wrong and you needed someone to see you now.

The night before I had called an emergency doctor and he said it was flu. You let him say that it was flu.

You hardly had the strength to rise from the sofa so I collected your car from where you had parked. I didn’t think you could walk that far. You sat there for at least ten minutes before you drove round the corner to the petrol station. You started to fill your car. You fell. Like a tree.

Four hours later you hadn’t arrived at B’s house and I started calling all the hospitals en route. It didn’t occur to me that you hadn’t got that far so I didn’t call the local hospital. When the phone rang I knew what the message was going to be. Which was fortunate because the delivery was a little too direct and I might have fallen over had I not worked out that something dreadful had happened.

I was angry because you were in denial. And because if you had known how to be ill you’d have got treatment and maybe shared a few more years with us. But I also knew that in your place I could easily do the same thing. And that maybe you wanted it that way.

You never got old.

You never lost your mental abilities.

You you were never dependent on others.

¶ I don’t think you ever said it to me or I to you. You because you were a yekke and me because I was the son of a yekke and also I knew it would embarrass you. But I knew that you loved me and you knew that I loved you. I still do.

What I hadn’t realised until that time was that you were my friend. The one to whom I wanted to show all the nice things. The one who I wanted to be pleased about the things I had done. The one who, when slightly drunk, asked me to sing that one about the cowboy.

¶ We were four children and there was always a fuss about who got to “sit next to Mummy”. One day I realised this was not nice for you. From that day and forever after I would sit at your right hand. Now when she is here The Anna sits where you would have been. She is more than worthy.

¶ I miss you. I miss how I would open the front door to find you bobbing up and down clutching two bottles of celebratory wine. I miss the way you would sit in the garden reading the paper, full of a simple joy of being amongst family. I miss your love of the British countryside and your enthusiasm for smoked fish and whisky.

¶ One week today you would have been 90. I don’t think you would have made a good old person. You and Mum both checked out without warning. It was tough for us at the time but we remember both of you as young. And I am glad of that.


The machine asks my date of birth
It verifies my address
My mobile number
My ethnicity
The machine says
If it’s Tuesday
Go to Room 15
If it’s Thursday
Go to room 20
The machine says
Touch here to quit

It’s Friday
I get in the queue
To speak to a human
Who knows which day it is and
Which room to go to

After my appointment
I need another
The woman behind the desk
Asks my name and
Who I need to see
Her hand grips the mouse
Her face tightens as she waits
For the machine to respond
She types many characters
She raps the desk with her knuckles
But the machine gives no answer
When at last the machine responds
She looks up and smiles
The smile of a survivor

No one has a duty to listen to hate speech

The use of phrases such as I don’t frankly have time for total political correctness have been dealt with (conclusively, as far as I am concerned), by Stewart Lee and Neil Gaiman. They are now the territory of Donald Trump and Nigel Farage.

Here are some commonly used phrases that should also be used with care.

Nobody has the right not to be offended, which was used by Salman Rushdie in this interview. 1

In the context of the Ayatollah’s fatwa against him, Rushdie’s comment is true, but may be irrelevant. He says that he didn’t expect the reaction that he got, but that he knew he was going to offend people. I wonder if he would have published the book if he had realised the consequences. Certainly the Ayatollah was not constrained from issuing the fatwa by the lack of any right not to be offended. I support Rushdie’s right to offend people, but I don’t think it was a wise thing to do.

I would not want to be offensive in the way that Charlie Hebdo was and I think the magazine was vile. Je Ne Suis Pas Charlie. Nevertheless I support the right of Charlie Hebdo to offend, and deplore the terrorist murder of the people who worked there.

Supporting Rushdie’s or Hebdo’s right to offend does not mean than anyone should be forced to listen to them. Donald Trump offends me. So I won’t invite him to my house or attend any meeting that he addresses. And if he were invited to speak at a University I would sign a petition requesting that the invitation be withdrawn.2 People have a right to offend, other people do not have a duty to provide a forum for offensive speech.

The non-existence of the right not to be offended is used to deprecate the concept of safe spaces. I hear that people are too sensitive nowadays. People who say this have probably misunderstood the concept of a safe space:

In educational institutions, safe-space (or safe space), safer-space, and positive space are terms used to indicate that a teacher, educational institution or student body do not tolerate perceived anti-LGBT violence, harassment, hate speech or disagreement, but rather are open and accepting to opinions aligned to their own, thereby creating a safe place for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and all students.

If you feel that teachers should not create safe spaces, it follows that you want LGBT students to be subject to harassment, hate, etc, in their place of learning.

At conferences it’s becoming conventional to have a behaviour policy3. If you don’t subscribe to the concept of freedom from harassment, because nobody has the right not to be offended, then you are not welcome in my house or at my conference. I am sure Rushdie (or whoever coined the phrase) did not mean this when they said it.

¶ A phrase that is used in a similar way is I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it, originally written by Evelyn Beatrice Hall as an illustration of Voltaire’s beliefs. It’s often used in defence of free speech, to shut down the existence of things that are seen as too politically correct, or as Neil Gaiman would have it, showing too much respect for people.

Freedom of speech is dealt with in this xkcd cartoon:

See transcript below


Cueball: Public Service Announcement: The Right to Free Speech means the government can’t arrest you for what you say.

Cueball: It doesn’t mean that anyone else has to listen to your bullshit, or host you while you share it.

Cueball: The 1st amendment doesn’t shield you from criticism or consequences.

Cueball: If you’re yelled at, boycotted, have your show canceled, or get banned from an Internet community, your free speech rights aren’t being violated.

Cueball: It’s just that the people listening think you’re an asshole,

[A picture of an partially open door is displayed.]

Cueball: And they’re showing you the door.

Sticks and stones will break my bones but words will never hurt me.

This is intended to help people withstand bullying. But it is not useful, because it’s not true. Words can hurt – anyone who has had a racial or homophobic slur shouted at them in the street or playground knows that words can injure your mental health. If you say this phrase to a person who is under attack, you are invalidating their feelings and you may be making yourself part of the problem.

I prefer this quote, attributed to the Dalai Lama:4

Do not let the behaviour of others disturb your inner peace,

but again, it is to be used with care. Some people may not be in a position to defend themselves in this way.

  1. I haven’t found the origin of this phase. Did Rushdie coin it? 
  2. Indeed I did sign this petition
  3. Here I should declare an interest. The organiser of this conference is my son Jonathan Kahn 
  4. Again, I haven’t found an original reference for this. Any help is welcome. 

Hilary Benn’s speech – an analysis

If you were to read Hilary Benn’s speech in the debate on 2nd December 2015 without watching his remarkable delivery, you might wonder why so many people approved of it.

The motion before the house was:

That this house … supports Her Majesty’s Government in taking military action, specifically airstrikes, exclusively against ISIL in Syria; …

Putting aside the metaphor and cliché in the speech, I have summarised Hilary Benn’s arguments and annotated each one below. Almost everything that he said was irrelevant to the question – should we bomb Syria?

Hilary Benn says:

¶ The United Nations has asked us to act

The UN asks us to do all sorts of things which we mostly ignore. They did not specify that we should bomb Syria.

¶ It would therefore be legal to bomb Syria

Just because something is legal doesn’t make it a good idea.

¶ Our allies (France, US) expect us to join them to validate their involvement.

This is a poor justification for bombing people. I can see that as our security depends on the goodwill of our allies, we may need to get involved in some way. This doesn’t necessarily entail bombing.

¶ ISIS are bad. They have done atrocious things.

This is not contentious. But would bombing them prevent them from doing atrocious things? We don’t get an answer to that.

¶ We can’t stand aside and do nothing.

This is valid only if you demonstrate that the something you chose to do will improve the situation for those you are trying to help. Benn provides no evidence that bombing will improve things.

¶ We can’t leave our national security to others.

This is true, but irrelevant. Nowhere does Benn show how bombing Syria will improve our national security.

¶ Not acting sends a bad message on solidarity with countries affected by ISIS.

Bombing civilians in Syria will send a bad message to those countries too. Since various forces have been bombing Syria for a while now, the number of safe targets, where civilians are not at risk, must be strictly limited. If bombing is restricted to those targets, it is hard to see how it can impede ISIS, help our national security, or send any kind of message to anyone.

¶ France has asked us to stand with them.

We should help France. How does us bombing Syria help France?

¶ We are bombing in Iraq, but bombing only Iraq doesn’t represent playing our full part.

How does playing our full part mean that we we must bomb everywhere?

¶ Airstrikes in Iraq have been effective in preventing Daesh’s progress.

This is the only area where Benn produces some evidence. Bombing seems to have pushed back Daesh in Iraq.

Benn goes on to say:

Now I share the concerns that have been expressed this evening about potential civilian casualties. However unlike Daesh, none of us today act with the intent to harm civilians. Rather we act to protect civilians from Daesh, who target innocent people.

We know that bombing will harm civilians, however much care we take. Choosing to bomb Syria entails intentionally harming civilians. The most charitable thing you can say here is that Benn is confused.

¶ It doesn’t matter how many ground troops there are in Syria. If we delay acting Daesh will be able to decrease the number of troops available.

And the sooner we start bombing Daesh, the sooner we will drive new recruits into their hands.

¶ We cannot wait to attack Daesh until the civil war is over because the threat from Daesh is urgent.

This would be a reasonable argument if we had any evidence that our bombing Daesh would diminish the threat. But we don’t.

¶ … [the argument for waiting] misunderstands the nature and objective of what is being proposed.

Benn is not specific about the mistake we are making. What is the nature and objective that we have misunderstood? Benn doesn’t tell us.

¶ We should of course take action to cut off supplies of money, fighters and weapons to Daesh.

That could be effective. What has that to do with the question of whether we should bomb Syria?

¶ We should commit to helping to rebuild Syria when the war is over.

That’s in the motion too. What’s that got to do with it being a good idea to bomb Syria?

¶ There are arguments against what I have said but the threat is now.

How does the urgency invalidate the arguments against what you have said?

¶ Bombing in Iraq saved some trouble this year

Not contentious.

¶ There is no border between Iraq and Syria any more

I am willing to believe that too.

¶ So we should treat the two countries as one.

How does this follow? The situation in the two countries is very different.

¶ Labour are internationalists

What has this got to do with whether we should bomb Syria?

¶ We should not walk by on the other side of the road

Yes. We need to help the people of Syria. But how will bombing them help them?

¶ ISIL are fascists because they are brutal like fascists

Calling ISIS names, even if it is justified, is not evidence that bombing will help the situation.

¶ Because they have contempt for us and our values

We can’t go round bombing places because someone has contempt for our values.

¶ We know that we must defeat fascists

We need to take whatever effective action we can against ISIS (or other people who are a severe threat to our security or our allies). This still doesn’t explain how bombing will help in this instance.

¶ That’s why we fought Franco, Hitler and Mussolini

This still doesn’t explain how bombing will help.

¶ Fascists are bad too, and we fought them. Fascists need to be eradicated. ISIS needs to be eradicated.

This still doesn’t explain how bombing will help.

¶ Let’s bomb Syria.

This still doesn’t explain how bombing will help.

If the government thought that bombing Syria would be effective, they would produce some evidence to that effect.

A military report saying that bombing would make a difference, even if we weren’t given the details, would be more convincing. But there isn’t even a Dodgy Dossier.

The only possible conclusion is that this is gesture bombing to show solidarity. Civilians will die in bomb attacks whose only value is to show solidarity. And you tell me that this is a grand show of democracy in action? Fuck that.

The Elephant House

At the station I spot the friendly Eastern European man who works as a barista in the local Costa where I like to sit and write. He seems delighted whenever he sees me in the shop and he always makes some kind of conversation. Once or twice under time pressure he has made what he thought was a sub-standard coffee for me, and brought over a replacement later when the pressure has subsided, by which time I’ve already drunk half the faulty coffee. The fault is purely cosmetic but it obviously matters to him, and replacing the coffee pleases him. It pleases me too. Extra free coffee can’t be bad. There’s competition between the baristas over who makes the best decorative flower on a flat white. Sometimes they’ll crowd whoever is making the coffee, trying to put them off. The less experienced baristas get excited when they make a good one. It’s not easy, and a good one is a of work of art. It looks like a good way of making repetitive work interesting.

The Friendly Barista is standing on the other platform which I don’t think is used at this time of day. I turn to check the sign but he calls over that I am on the right platform. He walks over to my platform and waits as I buy my ticket from the machine. I have to squat to see the little screen where I enter my PIN. The Barista has close cropped hair. He tells me he’s just finished work and he’s going home. He lives near Maidenhead. He asks me where I am going and I tell him I’m going to London to see some friends play in the London Jazz Festival.

“I have been in London only once. The boss made a party and we all went.”

I am starting to hear a glottal stop in his speech.

“I have been here seven months. I have been to England before but that was in Plymouth.”



It’s a 15:10 and the light is already fading. Neither of us can think of any more to say. Our relationship revolves around him making coffee for me, and me appreciating it. Sometimes he makes sympathetic gestures when I can’t get my favourite corner table, or looks pleased when I do get it. Beyond that we don’t have anything in common. I guess that’s why most people who serve in shops pretend not to see you if you pass them in the street.

“Ah, the train is arriving.”

We walk along the platform. The Barista falls behind. I feel the faint familiar worry that the train might overrun the buffers and burst through the wall and into the road. It’s happened before, but after it happened for a second time the buffers were moved a little further from the road and beefed up. The train stops without hitting the buffers. Originally the line continued over a level crossing until 50 years ago when Dr Beeching did away with it. If you look carefully you can still see the traces of the level crossing in the paving at the edge of the road. Around the corner there’s a hump in the road where there was a second level crossing. It’s a single track railway and the signalling is done using a token that looks like a giant key that the driver has to hold before the train can enter the section of track.

On the train someone is reading the Daily Mail. WE SHOULD BOMB SYRIA SAY 60% OF BRITONS. The train terminates at Maidenhead where the door opens to reveal a small boy in school uniform holding another small boy in a headlock and screaming in his ear. It’s only play-fighting, so I resist the temptation to pretend to be a teacher and to yell STOP THAT. Instead I give them a death stare over the top of my specs but they don’t die, or even notice.

On the train to Paddington the first-class section has been downgraded so that anyone can sit there. There’s a table on which someone has scratched their initials. I write in a notebook until the train gets to Hayes, where three business people politely ask if they can join me. I can’t write with people watching so I put the notebook away and look out of the window. By the track in the gloom is a long narrow brick building with a corrugated roof. Yellow incandescent light shines from a window and the doors and window frames are painted regulation blue. You see these buildings on the edge of industrial estates next to railway tracks and to get there you’d have to take a complicated route that few people know through sidings and derelict carriages and strange pieces of railway engineering machinery and stacks of ancient canisters containing toxins that should have been destroyed long ago. Inside I imagine an ancient man pouring strong brown tea into a stained mug and using an encrusted teaspoon to add three spoons of sugar from a tin. Maybe the corrugated roof tiles contain asbestos.

These places are remnants from a time long gone. When I left university I took a job I didn’t really want near here in a remnant a bit like this. It was not far from the tracks and had the same brick construction and blue paint and corrugated roof. It was called The Elephant House because it had a pair of doors large enough to bring elephants in. Inside, the office part was huddled at one end, and the rest was a cavernous space where sometimes lonely looking radar sets were wheeled in for test. The place had been painted in the same drab colours since it was built in the 30s. There were filing cabinets and a security cupboard with a combination lock. You had to clear your desk before leaving every day, and all papers had to be locked away.

The war had finished 30 years before but you wouldn’t know, looking at most of the people who worked here. Joe, who was the boss, wore a handlebar moustache that was waxed at the tips (which would look proper hipster right now) and drank his tea out of a ‘tache cup, which had little wings inside designed to keep the ‘tache out of the tea. He spoke in the clipped accent of an RAF pilot. Another colleague, Zach, had flown for a Polish RAF squadron, and walked with a limp. I learned from Zach that the best cheese smells the worst. There was Alf, a short, dapper chap who loved sailing and had the deep tan and the blazer with brass buttons to match, and was given to outrageously racist and strangely self-referential statements about people with brown skins. On my first day Alf told me that as the office junior it was my job to make the tea. I refused and there was a row, until Joe called for a bit of serendipity. I had to look it up when I got home. I never did make the tea for them.

I had arrived at this job by default. I had been intending to study for a PhD at Imperial College where I had just finished my BSc. But early that summer my supervisor called me to tell me that he was moving to Keele University and that I could either move there with him, or study with someone else at Imperial. Irit and I were planning to get married that summer and she had another year of university to go so moving at that moment was not a possibility. I arranged to go to Keele a year later, and so I needed a job for a year. Because I hadn’t thought I would need a job, I hadn’t paid much attention to job interviews, treating them mainly as a source of income by telling them that I’d come up by train from my parents’ house in Manchester and claiming the return train fare when in fact I’d been staying in a flat in London. As a result I had one job offer and this was it. So I took it. The brochures and the interviews made the job look a little glamorous to my innocent eyes, but the glamour died the moment I saw the Elephant House and the people who worked there. The interviews had been held in bright, modern buildings where minions brought reasonable coffee and nice biscuits. This was the front of house. But as soon as I got the job I was in the back office, to which the pretty things of life never percolated. I didn’t learn, and I remained mesmerised by what I thought was the romance of the work place for several years. I particularly remember an ad in a computer comic for software engineers that showed a man with his coat collar turned up and an attaché case running for a plane. I wanted to be that guy. Not long after I was that guy and I hated it and loved it in equal measure.

My job in the Elephant House was to develop software to estimate the Circle Of Error of a missile tracking radar that was under development. I knew nothing about radar or ballistics and my programming skills were rudimentary. I had taught myself Fortran in the last year of Uni (the lectures were so boring that I had been unable to stay awake). I wasn’t given any training and had no idea where to start. A colleague told me I should look in the Journal of the Eye Tripoli. Whatever that was. At the library I discovered that this did not refer to a city in the Middle East, but to the Institute Of Electrical and Electronic Engineers. Looking through it I found some interesting stuff that was nothing to do with work, like some researcher had created nonsense text by cutting sections of a fixed number of words from a book and then skipping to the the next occurrence of the final word, and carrying on from there. They got people to read this stuff and measured how much they thought it meant as a function of the length of the fragment. Samples of the texts they produced had a surreal kind of almost-sense. The key finding was that if the set number was 4 or less the results became meaningless. I also found that there was something called the Radar Equation, which had about 20 variables and somehow contained the answer to the question I was supposed to be answering. I hacked together a program that allowed you to type in a bunch of these variables with fancy names like azimuth and elevation, and returned a value for the Circle Of Error. Given my lack of skills and minimal understanding of the problem, the output of the program could only be thought of as a work of fiction. This was not a case of what is now called Impostor Syndrome, I was an actual impostor. It never occurred to me to go to Joe and tell him that I was floundering. And it clearly never occurred to Joe or anyone else to look at what I was doing to check it was correct, or to supervise me in any way. I guess this was because no-one else in the place understood programming. Anyway, it didn’t seem to matter. Alf was the main user of the code. I found him one day sitting at a teletype bashing in numbers and scribbling in a notebook, so I carried out my first ever piece of what is now called user research.

“What are you doing, Alf?”

“I’m holding all but one of the parameters constant, and plotting performance against the remaining parameter.”

“I could automate that for you.”

“That would be useful.”

Over the next few months, I made the program produce massive tables of outputs that Alf wanted. Then I realised that these were hard to read so I spent some time working out how to format the output to be first readable, and later pretty. Finally I put the pretty output in big blue binders. I did nothing to improve or verify the code at the centre of the program, but the output looked like proper scientific results. Alf was delighted, so was Joe, and when we presented the work to the Royal Radar and Signals Establishment at Malvern, they were delighted too. “Just what we need”, said the senior officer. No-one seemed to notice that the figures suggested that the equipment was useless or that the figures were anyway entirely fictitious. I learned that the authority of a piece of work is massively enhanced by the way it is presented, in this case to the point where the content doesn’t matter. At all.

The train is pulling into Paddington. I search Wikipedia for the system that we were designing. Wikipedia says that the project was not successful.

George Harrison played in our band

George Harrison played with our band
A face I had known for all of my life
Who inspired a generation of kids
To learn to play the guitar and sing
Sat in with our band

We were standing outside the marquee
When George wandered over to chat
Charlie had a new mandolin
George said he had one by the same maker
But now he mostly played the banjo
In a band called The Travelling Wilburys
As if we didn’t know

He’d had a couple of drinks and
He joked about wanting to know
Where all the reefers were
And when the party would start
He asked if he could sit in on drums
There was a kit and we had no drummer
How could we refuse?

George Harrison played drums in our band
There was a stop so I turned to George
And drew my finger across my throat
He stopped. The band were awestruck
I had silenced a Beatle

It was late when I got home from the gig
Half asleep you asked how it went
I said, George Harrison played in our band
You said, which George Harrison?
I said, How many do we know?
Yes. George Harrison played in our band

Josh, Julie and the Iraqi English accent

Josh and Julie were my parents-in-law. They were brought up in Iraq, but were expelled when they were in their 20s, went to Israel for a while, and ended up in London. They spoke English with a strong accent and different syntax. During the first gulf war, many Iraqis were interviewed on the radio, and they had the same accent. I realised that they had learned English at school, and to them it sounded correct. To them we were the ones that were wrong.

In my family we still occasionally speak Iraqi English, even though Josh and Julie died a few years ago. Part of it is keeping them alive. Part of it is the way it allows you to shout and exaggerate.

If you were cheeky:

JULIE: I keel you with KNIFE!.

We are planning to visit:

JOSH: At what tiyem you arrive to Edgware?

Julie is putting on her coat:

ME: Where are you going?

JULIE: Dear, we are going to Ocusford.

ME: What are you doing in Oxford??

JULIE: Ocusford Sitreet, situpid!

Then the ‘i’ sound can get converted to ‘u’.

Before we were married:

IRIT: Jeremy’s got a temp job cleaning toilets in Liberty’s.

JOSH (impressed): UFF you marry THUS you will never starve

Stresses could end up in unexpected places:

JOSH: It is nec-ESS-arry to buy pit-ROL

Recipes were always incomprehensible:

JULIE: You put ON-ee-on. It’s cook itself

JOSH: Cook it es-lowly!

Confusion arose about the meanings of words:

JOSH (stopping outside a shop): You don’t mention if I go in?

Or …

JULIE: Will you come tomorrow?

IRIT: Possibly.

JULIE (to the children): Irit will probably come tomorrow.


JULIE: What different?

JULIE (on phone): That is me.

If you bought something that was expensive:

JOSH: You find money in sit-reet?

Julie picked up some slang words but wasn’t too clear on appropriate context.

Julie and Eva go to a posh shop in Brent Cross:

SHOP ASSISTANT: Madam, this blouse is made from the finest Irish Linen.

JULIE (feels material, thinks it’s flimsy): But it is bollics!

Exit Eva. Julie exits a few moments later.

JULIE: What I say?