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The second in an occasional series of posts listing things I’ve enjoyed on the web recently.


What does Fluffy think?

I don’t think I’ve ever had a strong attachment to animals: it’s just not a feature of my personality. I like a cute fluffy panda, but wouldn’t want one in my garden. And I struggle to even imagine the sort of attachment that causes people to risk their own health by continuing to live with their TB-riddled cat or a budgerigar which is destroying their lungs.

So, what of those who enjoy sexual relationships with animals? And where is the intersection between artificial insemination of farm animals and, well, insemination for pleasure? And in the context of society accepting the killing of animals on an industrial scale for food, why is using them for sexual gratification judged to be so much worse?

While sex with ‘companion animals’ — dogs (canophilia), cats (aelurophilia) and horses (equinophilia) — is the most prevalent form of human-animal sex, humans are also known to engage sexually with donkeys, goats, pigs, sheep, cows, chickens, turkeys, hamsters, dolphins, eels, octopuses and (less commonly) camels, deer, llamas, bulls, boars and gorillas. Sexual attraction to certain creatures is common enough to have a scientific name: mice (musophilia), birds (ornithophilia), spiders (arachnephilia), bees (melissophilia) and snakes (ophidiophilia).

Bees?! Amia Srinivasan’s article for the LRB is eye-popping, educational and insightful all at once.


Met averse

In his Galaxy Brain newsletter, Charlie Worzel does an outstanding job of writing thoughfully about new technology. So much of technology journalism is characterised by an apparently cool ‘snarky’ tone these days that it’s refreshing to read those who consider the issues.

In this edition, Charlie analyses his own fairly sceptical reaction to Facebook’s recent presentation of its ‘Metaverse’. Each section is interesting in its own way, including his quotation of Jason Koebler’s article setting out the less pleasant things happening on Facebookat the same time as the promotional presentation. Yet, Charlie’s final conclusion was most interesting to me, particularly coming from a technology journalist:

It is rational to be skeptical of new frontiers in innovation — not because you reflexively hate progress or think that the world ought to be frozen in amber here in 2021 (ew) — because we are drowning in evidence of what happens when we let people with narrow, hastily deployed visions of a technological future impose their visions on the rest of us.

I hope we can resist the urge to reduce conversations about the future of the internet down to Luddite vs. Expanding Brain Futurist. It’s a binary that serves few interests except of those who already have the power and means to create these new frontiers in their image. Flattening the conversation in this way almost ensures that our future technologies are designed by a select few — many of the same people that are in charge right now. We all know how that’s worked out.

It seems to me that his point about the need to resist false binary distinctions which serve only those who already have power is a lesson that extends far beyond technology writing.


Lunch with the FT: Brenda Hale

John Gapper’s interview with the former President of the Supreme Court is one of those rare interviews that made me buy the book it promoted (Hale’s autobiography).

We consult the menu. “I can’t bear soft-boiled eggs,” she remarks of the starter I am pondering, and I ask why.

“I just don’t like them. You don’t have to have rational reasons for your food likes and dislikes,” she exclaims.

The interview sparkles from start to finish, with a delicious combination of fearless insight, genuine emotion and intelligent discussion of some challenging legal issues of our time, from prorogation of Parliament to transgender rights.


QAplomb

When your publication starts articles with a dropped cap, how do you cope when the first letter of the article is a “Q” and its descender is messing up the page layout?

I can honestly say I’ve never given this a moment’s thought, but Ben Campbell has both recent experience and a wealth of historical precedent to share in his article for the LRB blog.

Very small problems that occur infrequently are doomed to remain unresolved.

But Ben Campbell has given it a go.


A once-quiet battle to replace the space station suddenly is red hot

I had a vague notion that the current space station was nearing the end of its life. Until I read Eric Berger’s Ars Technica article, I hadn’t really given any thought to the fact that its replacement—or replacements—will probably be private rather than public constructions.

Although nothing has been formalized, a general consensus has emerged among the international partners that the International Space Station can probably keep flying through 2028 or 2030. But after that? NASA realizes it needs a succession plan.

Politicians and policymakers have started employing the spectre of the dreaded “g” word, saying NASA must avoid a “gap” in flying a low-Earth-orbit space station. This has become especially urgent with China’s recent, successful launch of its own Tiangong space station in April. In response to these concerns, NASA has hatched a plan. Recognizing the maturing US commercial space industry, NASA intends to become an “anchor tenant” of one or more privately developed space stations.

This is one of those articles which is so interesting, that even some below-the-line comments are worth reading. I was particularly interested, for example, to understand why the plan was to build a whole new station rather than just replace modules on the current construction.

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Becoming antisocial

Over the course of the last six months or so, I’ve gradually drifted away from Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. In the last few weeks, I’ve deleted my accounts. This feels oddly transgressive, and friends who noticed have responded with mild alarm and a single universal question: ‘Why?’

There is no straightforward answer: it’s a complex web of emotional, social and rational reasons rather than a logically constructed ‘position’. Nevertheless, I thought it might be interesting to scribble down some thoughts on the topic.

I joined Facebook in (I think) 2005. I was a student at the time and so able to join as soon as Facebook ‘launched’ at my university. It connected me with my friends and solved a genuine problem of how best to share things like photos from events.

A year later, Facebook opened to anyone with an email address, and schoolfriends and relatives quickly found their way onto my ‘friends’ list. I appreciated this passive approach to gaining insight into the lives of others, and I felt a genuine connection with people I hadn’t seen for years.

I was also a relatively early-adopter of Twitter, signing up in around 2007. I used the service for a variety of purposes over the years, including ‘micro-blogging’ – posting standalone tweets which I also cross-posted to this very website. Over the years, I built up a collection of interesting people who I ‘followed’, and enjoyed debating and sparring with them.

I also started to use Twitter for work purposes, promoting events I’d been involved in, tweeting about conferences I was attending, and that sort of thing. The service became something of a professional networking platform for me.

I was not an early adopter of Instagram. I don’t think I ever worked out how to get the most out of that service: I ‘followed’ people I knew in real life, and enjoyed seeing their photos. I also followed a few accounts which posted beautiful travel photos because they made me dream of summer holidays.

It didn’t take me too long to realise that Instagram wasn’t for me. I’d been posting for a year or so when I gradually drifted away from the service, and eventually stopped opening the app. There was no conscious decision behind that behaviour.

Reflecting on it, my Instagram feed seemed to me to have a single emotional note: joy. There’s a Glenn Slater lyric about ‘forcing you to feel more joy than you can bear,’ and that’s what Instagram did for me. It’s wearing to browse a world where everyone presents as constantly delighted.

I don’t want to live in a world of constant ecstasy; perhaps I’m a grumpy git, but I need a bit of shade to better appreciate the light. And I suppose the same is true of my social media feeds.

The advertising on Instagram also served to undermine the emotion in a perverse way. Artfully taken pictures of crappy products undermine the sentimentality and emotional pull of the service. Putting a beautiful picture of a terrible product alongside a beautiful picture of a magnificent vista undermines the latter. And Instagram ‘influencers’ trying to shill crap always left a nasty taste.

At heart, the service just didn’t make me feel happy anymore, and I drifted away. I didn’t delete my account, but I did eventually delete the app.

It was Brexit that pushed me off Twitter.

Twitter has always had the capacity to facilitate unproductive tribal debate. The format is part of the reason: it isn’t possible to develop a sensible argument in 140 (or even 280) characters. Debates rage about individual word choices while wider context is missed.

The Twitter community also has an inflated sense of its own representativeness and importance. People think their Twitter bubble reflects the ‘general view’ of the world and become enraged and upset when reality conflicts with that perception. Conspiracy theories abound, the ‘mainstream media’ gets pilloried for reflecting mainstream opinion rather than that of the ‘twitterati’, and the whole community frequently becomes angry.

Anger drove me away from Twitter: not the anger of others, but my own anger. I’d habitually open my Twitter feed on my phone from time to time and noted that it always made me feel angry. I could be annoyed at a story of injustice that would otherwise have passed me by; frusrtated by someone’s absurd perversion of a news article or viewpoint; or angry at myself for hypocritically thinking less of someone for ranting on Twitter.

Once, I habitually opened the Twitter app while strolling along the promenade in Nice on a beautifully sunny day. There was a lot in my feed about Brexit, including some ‘real life’ friends espousing extreme positions and abusing politicians. The angry mob raised my dander, and I fired off a tweet about this being the first and only time I’d ever get to wander around this beautiful city as an EU citizen.

As I walked on, I reflected: I’d felt relaxed before I opened Twitter; now I was mildly stressed. I’d posted what amounted to a pointless rant, and just contributed to the collected unhealthy rage. I opened Twitter again, deleted the tweet and deleted the app.

It was covid that drove me off Facebook.

My feed became clogged with covid posts, many of them factually wrong, many angry and many seemingly calculated to generate fear. I felt that the time had come for a break from Facebook, and I deleted the app, intending for this to be temporary.

I had temporarily stopped looking at Facebook for periods before: it becomes a pretty awful place in the run up to elections, for example, and I’d tended to opt out.

The difference this time was that I realised that I hadn’t missed it. I had thought that I enjoyed keeping up to date with the antics of schoolfriends and others I haven’t seen in decades, but I came to realise that frankly, my dear, I didn’t give a damn. I’m just not that bothered about the minutiae of the lives of people I would probably no longer recognise on the street.

I was no worse off for not knowing the ins-and-outs of someone’s frustration with the covid one-way system in Tesco, or that the child of someone I barely know has drawn a picture of the virus, or that an acquaintance’s neighbour didn’t join the Clap for Carers. Conversations about these sorts of things are far richer than seeing them written on a screen could ever be. And seeing them baldly written on screen brought out a slightly judging side of my personality of which I’m not terribly fond.

I decided to make my absence a little more permanent. I initially prolonged my period of abstinence, but then came to worry that I might be notable by my absence. What if friends were ‘tagging’ me in posts and I was appearing to ignore them? This didn’t seem fair. And so, I decided to ‘deactivate’ my account.

‘Deactivating’ an account is what one must do on Facebook to keep using Facebook Messenger; it contrasts with ‘deleting’ an account, which removes all data and prevents a person from using any Facebook-badged services. There is no-one I speak to exclusively on Facebook Messenger, so I did ponder for a while whether to delete my account altogether given Facebook’s appalling privacy record. But I reflected that I use other Facebook services such as WhatsApp, so why create hassle for myself? ‘Deactivation’ was for me.

Except, my account mysteriously kept ‘reactivating’, and in a fit of pique when logging on to deactivate again, I got fed up and decided that account deletion was for me after all. I clicked the button… and then a seemingly endless parade of further confirmatory buttons.

I haven’t missed it since.

Oddly, covid briefly drove me back to Twitter. Social distancing’s ability to cancel meetings meant that I was missing my profession network, and I thought that engaging via Twitter might be a good idea. It didn’t work out well.

I engaged in a casual conversation with some microbiology colleagues about a small detail of some guidance with my employer’s logo on it, trying to understand the virological basis behind it. This is exactly the sort of ‘corridor’ conversation I would have in person all the time. It turned out that the guidance was wrong, and some colleagues were, I think, mildly annoyed that I’d had a public conversation about this.

I thought: what’s the point? Better to have conversations away from the febrile atmosphere of Twitter, where anything might end up offending people at any given moment. And so I disengaged again.

It took a long time for me to come to the decision to delete my Twitter account. I knew I didn’t want to use it for work or personal purposes, but I did auto-post to Twitter frequently. For example, my blog posts and Goodreads reviews usually auto-posted, and could lead to some interesting discussions both in person and online.

The problem was the same as for Facebook: what if my lack of attention to ‘mentions’ and messages were taken as a slight?

I initially changed my account name to include the words ‘unmonitored account’ and updated my ‘bio’ to say that I no longer used Twitter. But then, I came to reflect that I’m not self-obsessed enough to truly believe that people want to see my stuff auto-posted despite me not engaging with the service. I decided to delete my account altogether.

I have been surprised by how few people have even noticed my absence on these platforms, or at least asked me about it in person. Even members of my own family haven’t noticed that I’m no longer around on these services. The only time it has come up is when people have asked why they can’t tag me in posts.

I don’t think it has had any real impact on my own life with the exception of removing a complication. I have noticed that I have slightly richer social conversations, because when ‘catching up’ with people, I haven’t already derived most of what they’re telling me from online feeds: but I don’t know whether the other party feels the same way, or whether this is a biased judgement.

I have missed out on some cultural touchstones: I had no idea what Wendy was talking about earlier in the week when she was discussing the fact that Carol Vorderman had been upset, but that’s probably the sort of knowledge I can live without. The comments made by brands of tea about the Black Lives Matter campaign passed me by, but I don’t need advertising through political messaging in my life.

Contrary to much that is written on this topic, leaving these services has not ‘changed my life’ for good or ill. I suspect I’ll re-join these services or their successors in years to come. But the sort of social media offered by these three service is not for me right now. And I’m content with that.

Image credits: The image at the top of the post, showing a mobile phone with the Facebook logo scored out, was posted to Flickr by bookcatalog and is re-used here under its Creative Commons licence. The second image is an edited screen capture of the Facebook homepage, made by me. The third image is a version of an image posted to Flickr by TT Marketing, which I have modified and re-used here under its Creative Commons licence. The fourth image is a version of a picture posted to Flickr by Cambodia4kidsorg, which I have modified and re-used under its Creative Commons licence. The fifth is another of bookcatalog’s pictures, modified and re-used under its Creative Commons licence. The seventh is modified from an image posted by hedera baltica, re-used under its Creative Commons licence. The eighth and final image, which shows a crater on Mars, was originally posted by mariagat mariagat and has, again, been modified and re-used under its Creative Commons licence.

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

iPad App Review: Flipboard

Hold up!

See that little date above?

This post was published years ago.

My opinions have changed over time: I think it's quite fun to keep old posts online so that you can see how that has happened. The downside is that there are posts on this site that express views that I now find offensive, or use language in ways I'd never dream of using it today.

I don't believe in airbrushing history, but I do believe that it's important to acknowledge the obvious: some of what I've written in the past has been crap. Some of it was offensive. Some of it was offensively bad. And there's may be some brass among the muck (you can make up your own mind on that).

Some of what I've presented as my own views has been me—wittingly or unwittingly—posturing without having considered all the facts. In a few years, I'll probably think the same about what I'm writing today, and I'm fine with that. Things change. People grow. Society moves forward.

The internet moves on too, which means there might be broken links or embedded content that fails to load. If you're unlucky, that might mean that this post makes no sense at all.

So please consider yourself duly warned: this post is an historical artefact. It's not an exposition of my current views nor a piece of 'content' than necessarily 'works'.

You may now read on... and in most cases, the post you're about to read is considerably shorter than this warning box, so brace for disappointment.

20110329-111000.jpg Of all the apps I have installed on my iPad, Flipboard is probably the one that has had the greatest impact on my digital life.

Prior to getting my iPad, I used to view my Facebook and Google Reader feeds via Socialite on my MacBook, and Twitter via the Twitter App for Mac of iPhone, depending on where I was.

Flipboard has now taken over from all the above.

It sucks in all of the above feeds, and produces a personalised ‘social magazine’ that just looks great on the iPad. Twitter links are sucked in, so that the linked webpage is transformed into a magazine article, while non-linking Tweets just appear. TwitPics appear as pictures in my magazine. It really is quite incredible, and very fast – probably quicker to refresh than the Twitter app on my iPhone.

But, importantly, it doesn’t just look good – it is brilliantly functional.

20110329-111113.jpgFlipboard allows me to cross post anything anywhere, so I can share that interesting Tweet on Facebook or post that interesting article from Google Reader to Twitter with just a tap. You can also elect to ‘ignore’ people, without having to ‘unfriend’ or ‘unfollow’ them, which comes in handy.

Flipboard is now the primary way I interact with all of the above feeds. It’s brilliant.

Brilliant, but not perfect. I’d like to see threading of conversations on Twitter. I’d like to see whether Facebook statuses had comments without having to tap on them. I’d like Flipboard to see which Twitter and Facebook updates I’ve read and hide them, like it does with Google Reader (unless they have new comments). I’d really like Flipboard to learn what I like, and push those things to the front of the magazine rather than absolutely sticking to the timeline.

But still, Flipboard is great – in fact, I think it’s my favourite iPad app to date. I’m confident it will retain its place in my Dock for some time to come!


This is the fifth and final in a series of posts reviewing iPad Apps. Yesterday’s review was of Who Wants to be a Millionaire HD. If you enjoyed the series, let me know in the comments or on Twitter (@sjhoward), and maybe I’ll do something similar again sometime.

But that’s it for now… Stay tuned for more posts on different topics coming soon(er or later).

This post was filed under: iPad App Reviews, Reviews, Technology, , , , , , , .




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