Twenty

On August 16th, it will be twenty years since the death of my paternal Grandad. Now in my early 30s, I am three times the age I was then; but like these things tend to be, as a life event it is fairly etched in my mind.

I remember what felt like days as scores of people came through the house to pay their respects. I remember begrudgingly playing exam pieces on the piano in the background. I remember my aunt getting disproportionately worked up when we ran out of doilies. I remember getting disproportionately worked up myself as we sang Thine Be The Glory at the funeral service. I remember my dad sagging and breaking down as he tried to thank everyone for coming in the hall afterwards. I remember clocking my cousin Johnny twice as we played cricket up the garden afterwards.

He probably had it coming.

But mostly, I remember the immensely sad sensation that this alternately quiet, stern, generous, mischievous, no-nonsense, rumpled man was now hidden forever beneath some freshly-dug Tyrone earth.

These days, with the benefit of hindsight, I can see the effect he had generally in shaping my own character. We recently got to know an older couple who knew my grandparents very well, and they have frequently enjoyed reminding me of my resemblance to him, in both positive and not-so-positive ways!

As the eldest grandchild, I feel guilty that I perhaps knew this man more fully than my sister or cousins, although I know for certain that he would not and did not play favourites. For most of them, he may be a more distant figure, and I find that a sad thought too because I have so many meaningful memories.

I remember the smell of his shirts and his square spectacles. We were compadres in short sightedness; dad was similarly shortsighted, but insisted on contact lenses so to my mind had cheated the system.

I remember cruising around in his Rover, running whatever errands were before us. His flat cap habitually lay across the back seat, and I hold it somewhat responsible for the line of caps I would have welded to my own heat until well into my teens.

I remember kicking the football around in the top garden. Dad was too hard to play against; as I do now with my own boys, you want to remind them that you’re still better than them, and vainly convince yourself that this will always be the way of things! Grandad had no such hang ups. We would frequently stay at the house until Match of the Day came on at the weekends, despite the late hour; three generations of Man United fans trying to follow everything over the hubbub.

I remember learning – and then being frequently thrashed – at draughts. Real men play draughts.

I remember as he jokingly tried to teach the spelling of the Ulster-Scots word ‘pechin’. “P-e-double-ech-i-n…”

That very specific sense of humour has lasted at least three generations as well.

I remember his demonstration of the best place to pee around the back of the garage so as to avoid Granny’s stern glances out of the kitchen window.

I remember the wonder of turning a fruit crate into a little treehouse.

I remember thinking the large box that appeared in the living room was going to be a computer. I remember the disappointment when it turned out to be a globe.

I love that globe.

I remember the scrutiny of school reports, and the questions around what we had learnt today. That’s an interesting one, because at the time I felt he was the stern grandparent; in hindsight, I’ve realised that our granny was the true driving force behind our hereditary family quests for over-achievement; I think Grandad cared, but it was more about the character rather than the outcome.

He detested laziness. He detested timewasting. He detested ’90s childrens’ cartoons and naff pop music.

I remember tripping down to the front gate to nosy into the bread van. I remember the agony over which sweets to pick. I remember the joy as he later revealed the extra Fruit Pastilles stashed in the house anyway, and the orange hard candies to suck for an age.

I remember seeing him the last time. I don’t remember the decline as the cancer aggressively took hold; I don’t remember much at all. But, through tears, I remember the sight of this now-small man, full of wires and tubes, reaching out and taking hold.

I remember the impact as our parents sat around us in our kitchen, early in the morning, to tell us he was gone.

I find it strange that even now I am so moved by the memory of someone that, in some senses, I barely knew. There are large swathes of his life I know nothing of. I devour the stories others are able to tell me, because like most of us, so much of what we know of our parents and grandparents is in the relationship and shared experiences, and that which predates those is largely lost upon us.

Yet I know that so much of his legacy is in how he shaped his household, his children, his grandchildren. He is in my frame and my posture; my hands and my eyesight; my temper and my hunger for knowledge. I believe he’s in my faith and my principles as well. He’s in my father’s tone and my sister’s facial expressions, and so much of his memory is quietly preserved in the house which my granny still occupies, and the fierce love she has for all who regularly pass through it.

I have not always followed his path, but I hope he would be satisfied with that which I have taken; the goal and the endpoint will ultimately be the same, and I look forward to joining him there. In the meantime, I know that if I can foster a relationship and character within my own children and grandchildren which emulates that which I gained from him, I will have made a good thing.

I remember he made good things.

Grandad, 1995

‘The least-worst idea we had’

Age of Empires finally came out in October 1997. Microsoft’s sales projection was 430,000 lifetime copies, miles beyond the team’s own expectations through most of the game’s development.

“I remember saying to one of our employees, not too far before Age shipped, I think, ‘Well, if we ever sell a million of these things I’ll buy you a Ferrari,'” Tony laughed. “Because we were thinking if we could sell a hundred thousand we got ourselves a real business there.”

“The least-worst idea we had” – The creation of the Age of Empires empire

Really enjoyed this oral history of the Age of Empires franchise. It’s nice when good things happen to people with good intentions.

The sidebar about DirectX is an interesting footnote also; back around the turn of the century, it felt like there was a new version of DirectX every few months, necessary to install for each new game. We got our first home computer in the early 90s, but in 1997 the first ‘proper’ machine – running Windows 95 – turned up, with amazing titles like Age of Empires, Commandos, FIFA World Cup ’98 as part of the package. Simpler times.

False Goals

From Cal Newport, listening to Mike Rowe speaking to Brett McKay:

In this interview, as in many others, Rowe argues that skilled labor (think: plumbing, welding) can be both satisfying and lucrative, and yet there are still somewhere around three million such jobs left unfilled in [the USA]. He credits this gap largely to a contemporary culture that demonizes blue collar work and preaches the best path is always a college degree, followed, God willing, by a pair of Warby Parker glasses and a job as a social media brand manager.

(I might have added that last part.)

The wider conversation is fascinating, but the illustration in the quote is the kind of sarcasm that makes me glad to be alive.

Never At Peace

“At first it seemed that they had come by chance, as if driven by the wind, and as if they were coming for a short stay to live more or less the same life as had always been lived here, as though the civil authorities were to prolong for a short time the occupation begun by the army.

But with every month that passed the number of newcomers increased.

However, what astonished the people of the town and filled them with wonder and distrust was not so much their numbers as their immense and incomprehensible plans, their untiring industry and the perseverance with which they proceeded to the realization of those plans.  The newcomers were never at peace; and they allowed no one else to live in peace.  It seemed that they were resolved with their impalpable yet ever more noticeable web of laws, regulations and orders to embrace all forms of life, men, beasts and things, and to change and alter everything, both the outward appearance of the town and the customs and habits of men from the cradle to the grave.

All this they did quietly without many words, without force or provocation, so that a man had nothing to protest about.  If they encountered resistance or lack of understanding, they at once stopped, discussed the matter somewhere out of sight and then changed only the manner and direction of their work, still carrying out whatever was in their minds.”

Ivo Andrić, “The Bridge over the Drina”, 1945

We were chatting with some friends recently about busy-ness; I think, in our age, it’s a topic on the lips of many people, and that must be a good thing because at least we’ve named our addiction, even if we haven’t fully faced it yet.

Our friend John, who recently retired after a career in business and HR coaching, sent me over the text above, which he had in turn received from a colleague in Bosnia after a similar conversation. This colleague lamented the Westernisation of the Balkans in his own lifetime; not because of the economic and technological advances, but because of the huge cultural shift that came with them.

What’s perhaps more startling is that in the text, Ivo Andrić is actually writing of the arrival of the Austrian empire to Bosnia Herzegovina during the occupation at the start of the 20th century – yet it also rings true today.

In missionary-speak, we talked about hot- and cold-cultures. Developing world cultures tend historically to be hot-cultures, where people tend towards communal life, with a gentle pace. When walking around our old stomping ground in West Africa, I would see people sitting in the shade, having a drink and chatting, often for hours.

When I joined in, I often found myself getting bored pretty quickly: but then, coming from a cold-culture, I get fidgety at the dinner table, let alone when intentionally taking a break.

Interestingly, some sociologists consider the island of Ireland a bit of a blip in the hot/cold axis; we’re literally cooler than our friends to the South who have Mediterranean borders, but have tended to lean more hot-culture than others on our longitude (our privacy-loving English neighbours, for instance).

But if much of globalisation really means some kind of colonial spread of Western culture and values, then in come our cold-culture ways where they have not previously existed. And in comes the busy-ness.

John remarked to me that we used to call it ‘Protestant Work Ethic’. I actually don’t agree; I think we’re actually more victims of ‘shadow work’, as described by bloggers Brett & Kate McKay in the fascinating article, ‘Shadow Work and the Rise of Middle-Class Serfdom‘.

And while we were formerly forced to largely work during regular work hours and shop during regular business hours, technology allows us to produce and consume 24/7. We never fully clock out from our “real” jobs, nor do we ever fully take a break from the marketplace. Even when we’re not actively engaging in shadow work, in the back of our mind there’s that ever present niggling: Is there something I need to buy? Is there something going on I should know about? Should I check my phone? We’re always “on” and constantly mentally switching between roles.

Brett & Kate McKay

Social Media Versus Productivity

A dedication to cultivating your social media brand is a fundamentally passive approach to professional advancement. It diverts your time and attention away from producing work that matters and toward convincing the world that you matter. The latter activity is seductive, especially for many members of my generation who were raised on this message, but it can be disastrously counterproductive.

Most social media is best described as a collection of somewhat trivial entertainment services that are currently having a good run. These networks are fun, but you’re deluding yourself if you think that Twitter messages, posts and likes are a productive use of your time.

Cal Newport

Ironically, I saw this on Facebook today.

‘Quit Social Media. Your Career May Depend On It.’

A Digital Dark Age

In the earlier days of the web, we always published to our own web site. If you weren’t happy with your web host, or they went out of business, you could move your files and your domain name, and nothing would break.

Today, most writing instead goes into a small number of centralized social networking sites, where you can’t move your content, advertisements and fake news are everywhere, and if one of these sites fails, your content disappears from the internet. Too many sites have gone away and taken our posts and photos with them.

The quote above comes from the Kickstarter blurb for micro.blog, where developer Manton Reece has created a service that allows you to create microblog posts (i.e. like tweets) that are actually hosted on your own website, and are fed in to a centralised feed using RSS.

Reading about it (via Daring Fireball) immediately led me to the second Build reference in a week: Jeremy Keith’s All Our Yesterdays, which – for me personally – really hammered home the point that the Internet is a really unstable place.

Much teenage creativity, on my part, had been poured in to writing nonsense on a collection of Geocities sites – and then in October 2009, Yahoo pulled the plug and the lights went out on those and millions of other websites.

See also: Myspace; Bebo; Microsoft Live Spaces; Facebook Notes (ok, still there, but hard to find); and so on. Most of what I personally added to these platforms had no value whatsoever: but I still felt like it was mine. It followed that part of the motivation to returning to hosting my own blog was the determination to be in control: the readership may be greatly reduced (hi, Dad) but at least it shouldn’t disappear without my involvement.

As users, we make the false assumption that what we create is going to be around forever. In fact, the history of the Internet thus far says otherwise on many accounts (pun klaxon!) Hopefully, we might all get our heads around it in time.

When the term [Dark Ages] is used by historians today, therefore, it is intended to be neutral, expressing the idea that the events of the period seem ‘dark’ to us because of the paucity of historical record.

 

Social Media and Promotion

There are two main problems with a social media exclusive approach to promotion. Firstly, there is a lot of content vying for peoples’ attention on social media, and the news of your gig risks getting lost amidst that content. Secondly, when you’re promoting on social media, you’re broadcasting to whoever may follow you, rather than targeting those people that are the most likely to attend your show.

alecplowman, in ‘Gig Like a Pro, Part Two: Bring a Big Crowd‘ on Ultimate Guitar

Correct.

I was chatting to a local musician recently who had just ‘launched’ their new EP. (Which broadly seemed to equate to announcing that it was available on social media.) I threw out what I was expecting to be an encouraging question: ‘So, how many copies have you shifted so far?’

The answer was not a high number.

When supporting another friend over the past few years, the broad question of, “What does it mean to release new music?” has come up a lot.

Back in the stone age, my own student band released a CD: that is, we got a few hundred made, and set about flogging them to friends, fellow students, family, and at gigs (sometimes including ones we weren’t actually playing at).

Though Myspace was at its peak, I would say that our fanbase was broadly people who actually came to see us play. And we sold quite a lot of them physical CDs to take home, often coming straight off stage and heading out in to the crowd, cardboard box in hand. The potential base was almost certainly a lot smaller, but I wonder if the conversion rate – i.e. people buying the product – would be considered fairly impressive by 2017’s standards.

I think, for a lot of folk, launching today is reduced to uploading it to Soundcloud or Spotify, and then sticking it on social media. After all, that’s what folk the next tier up seem to do.

However, I wonder if that activity actually hides something: the legwork carried out offline to promote gigs and music, to get out there, make the contacts, and find the human beings who stand as the gatekeepers in what remains of the local and national music scene.

The technology is indeed available now to make anyone an artist. However, that neither guarantees:

a) The product is any good;

b) The music will stand out;

c) Anyone will ever stop scrolling and listen to it.

But then the question is: what can anyone who is starting out do about it?

I’m not sure; but I reckon it probably involves even more hard work than before.

Social Media and Attention Spans

There are a thousand beautiful ways to start the day that don’t begin with looking at your phone. And yet so few of us choose to do so.

Craig Mod, ‘How I Got My Attention Back

I met Craig briefly when he came to speak at Build a few years ago – he was both incredibly accommodating, and absolutely the voice that could write this article, in this way, and not sound patronising. He’s a guy who takes the time to think things through.

(And therefore, like a few who comment underneath, I find the mental image of him being the guy who plays ten straight hours of Clash of the Clans is all the more weird.)

Anyway, the discussion in his article gets the heart of something really important – not just the desire to disconnect from the socially networked part of our society, but how fundamentally difficult it is becoming for so many of us to do so.

I dumped most of the core social media apps off my iPhone about six months ago. (At the time, I was probably felt the strongest desire to switch back to a ‘dumb phone’ I ever have, but ultimately three functions kept me clinging on: Camera, WhatsApp, and Google Calendar.) Social media is not really something I want to engage with whilst at home: I’ll occasionally flick through my Twitter and Instagram feeds on our communal iPad (which lives on top of the fridge), most often to see updates from a very select group of friends.

Leaving ‘it’ altogether would, however, be extremely difficult. In work, Facebook and WhatsApp have become integral to how we function as an organisation. I can ignore the former in particular outside of the workplace, but I literally can’t leave. And as a result, I know I am constantly battling the distraction of being ‘always on’.

Craig references this analysis by Microsoft’s Danah Boyd, who points to memes as the origin of the terminal disease which has swept Western culture, robbing us of our attention spans.

InGravity and Grace,” Simone Weil writes, “Attention, taken to its highest degree, is the same thing as prayer. It presupposes faith and love.” Then is the lack of attention the opposite? Does it presuppose fear and hate?

It had been a long time since my attention was mine.

He goes on to discuss some circumstances he found himself in, and reasonable rules he came up with, to help get his attention span back.

A highly recommended read.

Click To Tweet

You know, like in this article.

It’s been around for a while, but I feel like the proliferation of ‘Click To Tweet’ functionality is somehow symptomatic of a larger problem that I can’t quite put my finger on.

What I do know is that, if your article is peppered with tweetable quotes that you are pushing me to share, my natural reaction is somewhat adverse – and I don’t imagine I’m the only one.

Being Me

“I don’t like being in front of people. Being in a character, I could get on stage and talk for half an hour. Like, my biggest fear is being at a big dinner party, and someone be like, ‘Kristen – tell that story about…’

and then I just immediately go in to the sweats.”

Kristen Wiig

I’ve long held to the theory that we all play characters in our lives.  Perhaps, like me, you might feel like you play characters in many aspects of life: particularly in work and social situations, I feel like I improvise my way through most days.

I’m fortunate to have friends who make me laugh like crazy – but even with them, I wonder: how often am I truly me?

I was just watching this episode of the beloved Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, and I completely identify with how Kristen Wiig feels.

I wonder if it is exacerbated by social media? Do we invest so much time in crafting our presented selves online, that we become more and more protected and insular of our true nature?

Or maybe Lucy’s right as usual.