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This post was filed under: Blogging, Politics, .

Creative control

When I was about 14, I wrote some software in QBasic to support the running of the school library. Hitherto, the library catalogue and loans had been stored in a spreadsheet. I replaced it with bespoke software.

Over the next couple of years, I iteratively tweaked the software based on feedback until I finished my GCSEs and left. I think I learned more from that process than from any computing course I’ve ever taken: I also came to love Greg Perry’s book QBasic by Example, which—ironically—wasn’t to be found in the library’s collection.

In my A-level computing course, I was required to write in Visual Basic instead. I remember finding this irritating, deriving much less satisfaction from developing software using a graphical user interface rather than a blank screen with an expectant blinking cursor. It felt like a little bit of power and control had been taken away, as though the final product wasn’t completely mine in the same way.

I’ve been thinking about that a lot lately. These days, there’s nothing I create from scratch as I did in QBasic. The closest thing is writing for this blog: it’s only here that I start with a blank screen and a blinking cursor. Only here do I exercise complete control over every word and every pixel.

I’m sometimes surprised at my own tenacity in keeping this blog up for more than two decades. It’s not for anyone else’s benefit that it continues to exist. I’m sure no one else would think twice if it disappeared tomorrow. Yet, I’ve published over 760,000 words here in nearly 3,000 posts over more than twenty years. I suppose it must scratch a creative itch, even if I struggle to explain precisely where that itch is located.

Maybe I’m just a control freak at heart.

The image at the top of this post was generated by DALL·E 3.

This post was filed under: Blogging, Post-a-day 2023, Technology, .

Twenty years

Today is the twentieth anniversary of the first post on this blog—the reason I’m trying to post every day this year.

This date is almost a fiction: the first post on this blog was transferred over from another one, so it isn’t the anniversary of this site; I blogged elsewhere earlier, so it isn’t the anniversary of my first blog post either. But it’s as good as any date.

I have anything meaningful to post on this auspicious occasion. I have enjoyed posting daily so far this year, and feel freed by the fact that the number of readers these days is probably tiny. I don’t have any way of counting visitors, but I surmise that my presence here is pretty invisible, as I don’t actively promote the blog, and I’m not on any of the major social media platforms. I can therefore write just about anything I want—and given that I disabled comments years ago, no-one can argue back.

It’s all a far cry from the early days of posting for clicks and comments, being mentioned on Newsnight and Channel 4 News, joint posts with Guido Fawkes, and appearing on lists of most popular bloggers. These days, I very much prefer the quieter online life.

If anyone is reading this—thank you for your company, and I hope you enjoy my writing.

The picture at the top of this post is an AI-generated image created by OpenAI’s DALL-E 2.

This post was filed under: Blogging, Post-a-day 2023.

Blogging about my birthday

I turn 38 today. I always find writing about the fact that it is my birthday a deeply awkward thing to do. No one ought to care, but when I’m trying to post something every day, skating past the fact of my birthday seems even weirder than an awkward post acknowledging it. So, I thought I’d have a look back at how I’ve dealt with this conundrum over the past two decades.

Last year, I just ignored it entirely and posted about unrelated stuff. I think that may be the best plan.

In 2021 and 2020, I made the same Richard Thaler inspired joke about being a ’promising thirty-something’. That still applies.

From 2015 to 2019, I didn’t mention it.

In 2014, I pictured a (not wholly appetising) birthday lunch, perhaps inspired by my 2012 photo of a cake. But I didn’t post on my birthday in 2013, and nor did I in 2011, 2010, 2009, or 2007.

In 2008, I posted about the ’stupid economy’ but didn’t mention my own birthday. In 2006, I made a pun about version 21 of ‘me’ being released, which did at least have a titter of humour to it, unlike my po-faced 2005 post, and my under-the-weather 2004 entry.

None of this is really scintillating content, is it?

Perhaps, as it will be today, birthdays are best enjoyed offline than online.

The picture at the top of this post is an AI-generated image created by OpenAI’s DALL-E 2.

This post was filed under: Blogging, Post-a-day 2023.

600 books reviewed

When I posted my review of Eliza Clark’s Boy Parts on Monday, I didn’t notice that it was the 600th book I’d reviewed on this blog. I only noticed when I got around to updating my mildly obsessive spreadsheet.

As far as I can tell, my first review was of (sigh) The Da Vinci Code, posted in January 2005. I note in that post that I read the book on my (cringe) Pocket PC, which is a reading experience I have no memory of whatsoever. In the intervening (gasp) eighteen years, I’ve reviewed books by everyone from Adam Buxton to Zoë Heller, from A Chess Story to You Are What You Read.

The authors I’ve read most are David Sedaris, Ian McEwan, Ali Smith, Julian Barnes and Kazuo Ishiguro. Only 51 books were translations, mostly commonly of French, Italian or Japanese works. Perhaps I need to expand my range.

At this point, a good blogger would link to an index of all the books they’ve reviewed to allow readers to click through and see what I made of their favourites. I don’t have one of those. Some posts don’t even have the book’s author tagged—I don’t think WordPress allowed tags when I started using it.

At this point, an average blogger would wang on about what they’ve learned, and about the joy of reading. But that just strikes me as a little worthily dull.

As a rubbish blogger, I’ll just make myself a hostage to fortune by saying that my 601st book review will be along tomorrow.

The picture at the top of this post is an AI-generated image for the prompt ‘a painting by Vermeer of a library of 600 books’ created by OpenAI’s DALL-E 2.

This post was filed under: Blogging, Post-a-day 2023.

On book reviews

Last week, I posted my regular “What I’ve been reading this month” post and was surprised to note that all the books were by female authors. I noted that this hadn’t happened before, and by flicking back through the series, I could see that the last time all the books were by one gender was in February 2019.

This made me wonder what other secrets were hiding in the archive of book reviews on this blog. I decided to make a spreadsheet of all the books I’ve ever reviewed on here, and the posts in which they first appeared.

This was a bigger task than I anticipated: it turns out that I’ve reviewed 561 books over a period of 17 and a half years.

My first review was of Dan Brown’s most famous novel, in January 2005. Since then, there have been 74 other posts reviewing single books (plus a few slightly edited repeats, which I didn’t count) and a total of 75 “what I’ve been reading this month” posts (plus a few ‘favourite books this year’ repeats, which I didn’t count).

The authors I’ve reviewed the most are Ian McEwan (7 books) and David Sedaris (7), followed by Ali Smith (6), Jon Ronson (6), Julian Barnes (6) and Kazuo Ishiguro (6).

Just over half—53%—of the books have been fiction.

Diversity hasn’t historically been a strong point for me: more than two-thirds of the books I’ve read are by men, with only 12% being non-fiction books written by female authors. Less than one-in-ten of the books were first published in a language other than English, with French (9 books) and Italian (9) the most common non-English original languages.

However, I’m getting better: over the last year, exactly half of the books I’ve read have been written by women, and nearly 20% of the books I’ve read have been translations from one of eight different languages. I’ve also been reading more fiction, which accounts for 68% of books I’ve read over the last year, but still less than 30% of the non-fiction I’ve read has been written by female authors.

I appreciate that this is mostly of interest to me, as the reader of the books and the writer of the reviews… but I’m compulsively sharing nonetheless.

The images in this post are all AI-generated images for the prompt “cubist painting of piles of books on balance scales in a library” created by OpenAI’s D-ALLE.

This post was filed under: Blogging, Reviews.

I find it hard to write about classic works of literature

Yesterday, I finished reading Decline and Fall, the seminal social satire by Evelyn Waugh. I picked it up because someone⸺I cannot for the life of me remember who⸺recommended it as the funniest novel they’ve ever read. I can’t even remember whether someone said this to me in person, or whether I read it somewhere. I’m useless at this kind of thing, and haven’t come up with a good way to address my uselessness.

When I finish a book, I usually write a paragraph or so about what I thought and post it on Goodreads. This stops me from unintentionally reading the same stuff twice, acts as an aide-mémoire, and lets people know what I thought of the book. The last of these was never really an intention, but I’ve become increasingly aware of it as people in real life talk to me about what I’ve written, and sometimes tell me they’ve read books as a result. Once a month, I also reflect on what I wrote after reading each book, and post a tweaked version to my blog.

With Decline and Fall, I really struggled to think what to write. The same is true of Frankenstein, The War of the Worlds and A Christmas Carol which I read late last year. These are all very widely respected seminal works which people are very attached to⸺including some people I like, admire and respect. With the exception of Frankenstein (one of my own favourites), these are all books which I wasn’t completely wild about. That’s not to say I didn’t like them, enjoy them, or admire them, but none of them are books I’m desperate to re-read at any point.

Now, if these were pieces of music or works of art, I’d have no hesitation in writing that I found them less than earth-shattering. Indeed, I’ve no hesitation in trying (and failing) to convince Wendy that Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories is a great album, not “a bit weird”; I’ll happy tell anyone who will listen why David Shrigley is one of the UK’s greatest living artists, even as others call his work ‘mundane’, ‘spare and child-like’ or ‘quirky in the worst sense’; and this Letter of Recommendation by Jessica Chiccehitto Hindman in the New York Times article got me tweeting without hesitation about how Winter my favourite of Vivalidi’s Four Seasons concerti, despite having been to plenty of weddings featuring Spring.

So, to pose a provocative question to myself: Why I am happy to disagree with people about the music they’ve chosen on the most carefully planned day of their life, but not happy to be seen to disagree with people about a book they’ve read? I haven’t got a good answer to that question, but here are some thoughts.

I think reading, more than most other art forms, is as much about the reader as the writer. I know others will say the equivalent applies to music and visual art, but I disagree. To read a book is to build a relationship over a relatively prolonged period of time with the person who wrote that book. Therefore, if I don’t think there’s much to be squeezed out of Decline and Fall as other people, I think this is as much about me as it is about the book. Yet if I say I don’t enjoy it, it feels like I’m criticising people who like it as much as the written text⸺and that’s not something I mean to do.

On top of that, I write all the time. On the other hand, I’ve never written decent piece of music in my life (except perhaps a variation on The Holly and The Ivy⸺no, this isn’t a joke⸺which I wrote when studying GCSE Music, and which I really liked, and which was performed at a school carol service⸺a high bar this is not). I cannot draw or paint to save my life: I’m colourblind, and struggle to stay within the lines at the best of times. So perhaps, despite having never written any extended works of fiction, I have slightly better insight into what goes into writing a novel, and feel worse about criticising something that I know has so much effort and soul poured into it.

Finally, I think there’s a sort of elite snobbery around books. A work colleague was recently shocked that I hadn’t ever read anything by the Brontë sisters; another was appalled that I’d never read Anna Karenina. So perhaps there’s an underlying nervousness that if I say that I don’t particularly enjoy books which are widely recognised as great works of literature, then I’ll be judged for it… which is obviously hogwash, because I’m reading for pleasure, and it’s perfectly reasonable to hate something while appreciating that it is important. I understand that Shakespeare’s work is important, but that doesn’t mean I need to ROFL like an insufferable toff at every joke which requires a fifteen-minute primer on the social strata of the time. I understand that Dracula was an important milestone in the development of Gothic horror and in challenging the suppression of women in society, but that doesn’t mean I have to love the truly terrible final third of the novel.

So each time I struggle with what to write about these books, I try to think: it really doesn’t matter. I’m not setting out to impress anyone. I read for pleasure, not to educate myself on the history of world literature. If someone thinks less of me because I enjoyed reading B.J. Novak more than Muriel Spark, then that’s their issue, not mine. “All readers are equal,” as Alan Bennett would say. I should just say what I think. I set out to do exactly that: and then second-guess myself, wonder exactly what I did think about a book, and start the whole cycle again.

The brilliant picture of Liverpool Central Library at the top of this post is by Tee Cee, and is used here under its Creative Commons licence.

This post was filed under: Blogging, Posts delayed by 12 months.

A slightly mad personal experiment in time travel

Just recently, a few of my “internet friends” – people I’ve been digitally stalking for a decade or more – have fired up their old blogs again and started writing on a daily basis. This is also a bit Zeitgeisty at the moment: there have been lots of magazine articles and books which have mentioned the benefits of taking time to publicly air one’s feelings on a regular basis through the medium of online writing. I was finally pushed over the edge to write this post after Duncan Stephen published this post on his blog.

Years ago, I went through a phase of blogging daily: I usually commented on political events, with an inflated sense of my own importance and understanding. In fact, I blogged no less than 640 times in 2005. I don’t think much of it was high-quality stuff.

I’ve recently installed a nifty WordPress plugin which emails me daily with my own historical posts published on the same calendar date. Despite the fact that much of the content is utter bilge, I really enjoy reading these; they always bring back contemporaneous memories and make me reflect on how my life and views have changed.

I suppose what I’m trying to say is that I see the benefit of regular blogging. Over the past couple of years, I’ve toyed with blogging daily, thinking about how I could emulate better bloggers by exploring whatever topic happens to be on my mind. I’ve even gone as far as to have a “dry run” of daily blogging on two separate occasions in the last couple of years, experimenting for a few days with unpublished posts just to see whether I could stick with it. I never could.

I was often inspired by things that had happened in my life (meetings, discussions, events) and this left me concerned that someone would read the post and take it the wrong way. I worried that in the contemporaneous context, people would see themselves in everything I wrote, and probably take offence. I was also wary about sharing travel plans, lest my house be burgled or car stolen!

I have occasionally tried writing a private diary or journal along similar lines, but I never stick with that because it seems self-indulgent and unproductive. I think there is something beneficial about writing content that is going be published (even if no-one reads it): there’s an element of self-editing which helps with critical thinking.

So here is my plan for a mad experiment: I’m going to blog more frequently—possibly even daily. However, I’m going to publish what I write with a delay of a year.

I’m sitting writing this in Wendy’s Ikea Strandmon winged chair on 6 March 2018: if all goes to plan, you will be reading this on 6 March 2019. Unless the whole thing fizzles out after a couple of days, in which case I’ll delete the lot and this writing will never see the light of day.

The photo at the top is by wuestenigel, edited and used under Creative Commons Licence.

This post was filed under: Blogging, Posts delayed by 12 months.

I’ve been blogging for 11 flipping years. Here’s what I’ve learned along the way.

A week or so ago, Jessica Hagy wrote “I’ve been blogging for 8 freaking years. Here’s what I learned as I went along.” on Medium. Jessica’s post didn’t quite match my experience, but it inspired me to put down some of my own thoughts on the same topic.

Don’t just put your stuff out there.
Whatever you write, someone will like it… but if that someone isn’t you, then what’s the point? Over the course of 11 years of blogging, there’s more that I regret writing than I regret not writing. Learn from my mistake. Take time to consider what you write. Re-read it. Let it marinate. And when it’s really ready, put it online – cognisant of the fact that it will always be there. And, yes, this is coming from the bloke who wrote a book called Instant Opinion. Sorry about that.

There are people out there who won’t GET you.
There’s a subset of the population who will instinctively dislike your writing, much as there’s a subset of the population who will instinctively dislike your face. Then there’s a bigger subset of the population who will instinctively dislike the fact that you blog. Try not to be put off – but if you can’t handle unfair and unfounded criticism, blogging isn’t going to be your game.

People won’t steal everything you do.
But they will “steal” a lot of it. C’est la vie. They can’t steal the pleasure of writing it. Blog because you enjoy writing, don’t blog to be read.

Be afraid of your own voice.
Most bloggers seem to have a voice that’s slightly snide, prone to inside jokes, and which slips into shorthand and acronyms that nobody beyond their own circle of friends will understand. When I look back at my early writing, this is what makes me cringe the most. Moderate yourself. Take time to consider how best to express your ideas in terms that can be easily understood.


Creative habits can be unhealthy.
An excess of boundless creativity can turn a respectable blog into an incoherent mess, probably with flashing GIFs and clashing fonts. Channel your creativity. And, most of all, don’t let your creative voice out-shout your critical faculties. Critical thinking that brings new ideas and perspectives is the lifeblood of a good blog.

It matters if you know that nobody reads it.
The best blogs are exercises in writing, not exercises in being read. It’s easy in the early days to get hung up on hit counts and comments. Resist. Try turning comments off for a while and not checking the stats. Don’t end every post with a question in the hope someone will answer. Don’t over-analyse what you’re doing and try to generate more hits. Write because you have something to say.

The tools change, and so do the actions.
There are people who try to use the same style and content on every platform. How many RTs and @replies have you seen on Facebook from people who try to cross-post? How many “1/6” on the end of Tweets from people who can’t keep within the character limit? Don’t be that guy. Get to know whatever tool you’re using, and tune your use of it. To play the best music, a musician must master their instrument. Fail to master the instrument, and even the best music will sound bad.

You don’t have time to make things.
Nobody has time to do anything except what they already do. If you want to start doing something new, you need to find time for it. It’s no good doing some mental calculation and thinking “I have time”. You have to make time, and that will mean making sacrifices along the way.

The vast majority of people don’t make content, they just pass on a tiny amount of what’s already out there.
By any reasonable measure, there’s already enough stuff on the internet. Your addition is infinitesimally small, and, no matter how much effort you put in, the fraction of the internet that’s yours will continue to tend to zero throughout your blogging life. Blog because you enjoy writing. Blog because you want to organise your thoughts. Don’t blog because you think your opinion is important, don’t blog because someone told you too, and – most of all – don’t blog because you want to be read.

Most people are idiots.
The internet is less than 0.0005% perverts and haters. But a substantial proportion of the other 99.9995% are people who don’t engage with debate, who don’t read past the first paragraph, and who would rather gawp at a series of photos of celebrities than read your passionate argument about something that’s important to you. Don’t blog because you want to be read.

A tiny bit of success can be the most frustrating thing of all.
By far the most popular thing I ever posted on my blog was a video I made of Gordon Brown picking his nose in the House of Commons. It even made it on to Newsnight. It was silly, not representative of me or what I do, and it took about five minutes to put together.

When in doubt, err on the side of caution.
I think blogging is great fun – but it’s fun because I enjoy writing. Before the internet came along, I used to write ‘newsletters’ on a manual typewriter that no-one would ever read. If no-one ever reads my blog, I haven’t lost anything. So, if there’s a post or two that I’m not completely happy to share, I don’t. Some of them I abandon altogether. Others I tinker with. I’ve one post that I’ve been tinkering with on an almost monthly basis for more than four years. Although, since every word has probably changed multiple times, perhaps a philosopher might say it’s not the same post at all. If I’d published it all that time ago, I’d have missed out on hours of enjoyable tinkering. Take time to consider what you write. Don’t blog to be read.

A verison of this post also appears on Medium.

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This post was filed under: Blogging.

Nine years of blogging, and the permanence of it all

Today marks nine years since I started blogging. Nine years. Increasingly, people are becoming concerned about the permanence of stuff posted the internet. Rick Santorum’s presidential campaign was hampered by the web, and the fact that for almost everything he said, he’d previously given an equal and opposite quote to some other source at some point in the past. And, of course, there’s many other less prominent examples of people’s online history coming back to haunt them.

Anyone with a blog, like me, can essentially make a choice. I could delete a load of old stuff. It wouldn’t make it completely unavailable online, as content from this site is cached all over the place; I guess it might make it slightly more difficult to find. But I’ve chosen not to do that. I’ve chosen to keep the complete sjhoward.co.uk blog intact. And I’m sure many people wonder why.

Firstly, let me say that it’s not because I think everything on here is great. It’s not. There’s some terrible stuff. There’s stuff that’s just plain dross. I’ve written things that I’m a ashamed of, like using “gay” almost as a punchline, or referring to the entire French population as “crazy frogs”. There’s positions I’ve asserted that, at best, are altogether blunter than I’d ever express now, like saying “I’m very anti-smoking”. And that’s before we even open the can of worms labelled “unnecessarily base humour”.

So why, you might ask, do I keep this stuff online, with my name written at the top of the page in a massive font size?

This is something I’ve thought a lot about. In the end, my reasoning was fairly simple. What I wrote in 2003 might have been unprofessional, but I wasn’t a professional then. It might have been immature, but so was I. The date is clearly and prominently shown on all the posts I’ve written. Of course I don’t hold all the same opinions I did when I was 18 – does anybody? We grow, we develop, our viewpoints and opinions change.

One of the more remarkable things about this little site is that you can how it happened. You can see the softening of my opinion on Tony Blair, from barely concealed hatred, to grudging admiration, to actual respect. My changing interests are reflected, from the 2005 election, during which I published daily “swing updates” based on a complex formula weighting different polls, to the 2012 local elections which were only mentioned in passing beneath a pretty picture of a bus stop.

All of this history, and all of these changing opinions, set out the path to where my politics and opinions lie today. And, of course, both will continue to shift over time.

In the end, I guess I came to the conclusion that if someone chooses to judge me on a personal opinion I held a decade ago, then so be it. Though I’d suggest that a far more interesting and intelligent approach is to ask questions: “You once said you thought x: do you still believe that?” or “Your position used to be y, now it’s z. What changed your mind?”

I don’t know exactly when the meaning of the term “flip-flopping” in political discourse changed from being about presenting different views to suit different audiences to being about actually changing your mind on a given issue, but I don’t think it’s a helpful change. I’m vaguely suspicious of people who claim to have “always believed” something – it has a slight whiff of valuing dogma above thoughtful and reiterative consideration of the issues. I can only speculate that the increasingly tribal nature of politics has led to increasing institutional derision of free thought: we must all toe the party line.

If you ask me, the sooner we lose the vogue notion that a change of opinion or reconsideration of position represents a weakness, the better off we all will be.

This post was filed under: Blogging, Politics, Site Updates, Technology, .

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