Glowering Inferno

[There are people to whom I’m rather pleased to cause offence, but those who are made uncomfortable by even the moderate use of the f-word are not usually among them. If you do fall into that group, feel free to avert your eyes before you get down to the photograph that I’ve thoughtfully placed at the bottom of the page.]

Today my attention was drawn to a podcast project called The Word Bin  run by Fair Acre Press – an attractive idea from an independent publishing house that certainly looks worth taking a look at.

The idea behind The Word Bin is to invite people to comment on which words they’d like to consign to the trash and why. I was (and still am) severely tempted to contribute, but am reluctant because:

  • I’m more often vexed by whole phrases than single words
  • Most of the words that irritate me do so are context-sensitive: that is, they’re irritating because they’re used inappropriately – for instance, as a meaningless filler and/or cliché – not because they have no legitimate use.

Still, I’m not one to ignore the opportunity to vent – or at least glower at – a number of examples of annoying verbiage, so here are a few, not necessarily in ascending (or descending) order of aggravation.

  1. ‘Literally’

A context-sensitive irritation: it’s a word that has a valid and sometimes useful meaning, but seems mostly to be used as a synonym for ‘metaphorical’, which it clearly isn’t.

  1. ‘Of’

Removal of this useful little preposition might pose some tongue-twisting circumlocutory clauses, but would at least rid me of the need to listen to people who ‘should of’ paid more attention at school so that they’d know that “could’ve” is not pronounced “could of”. Though perhaps English schools are not always an English-secure environment. My wife, a former teacher, insists that a former head of department at her school regularly committed the same assault on my native language.

A former colleague with whom I shared editing duties in various contexts for many years recently presented me a mug with an inscription that addresses this and a number of similar bugbears – see below (at the bottom of the article), but only if you’re not offended by the frequent use of a certain four-letter word.

  1. ‘So’

So many people use this little word inappropriately at the start of a sentence (see what I did there?) that I’m tempted to consign it permanently to Nadia Kingsley’s sin-bin, but then I’d have to rewrite this sentence. I will say that when someone on our television uses it as a meaningless filler at the start of a sentence, the rest of the sentence is usually drowned out by the groans.

  1. ‘Generous’

Context-dependent: a tip in a restaurant or a large charitable donation may legitimately be defined as generous. However, when a government imposes restrictions – however justified – that imperils the livelihoods of citizens – it isn’t spending its own money when it subsidizes those citizens in the hope of keeping them employed. Much of the money being spent is drawn from taxes they paid, directly or indirectly. The first duty of a government is to use its income – and yes, the money it borrows – to protect its citizens, not to provide lucrative contracts for its cronies.

  1. ‘Unfortunately’

I think we could take it as read at this point that it’s unfortunate that so many people have died of Covid-19-related illnesses. At any rate, it isn’t necessary to repeat it several times during a speech or briefing. I’m not sure we need reminding quite so often that there are people behind the statistics. Of course, I’m in favour of politicians reminding themselves of that fact, but when they do so publicly and so often, I have to wonder if this is just empathy by rote, or shorthand for ‘circumstances for which we take no responsibility’.

  1. Alas

See “Unfortunately”. I used to quite like this charming and faintly archaic word until I noticed it used three times in two sentences by a politician not noted for reliability, competence, or devotion to the truth or even democracy. Which makes me wonder if it has become a Bullingdonian way of expressing sorrow without empathy or admission of responsibility.

  1. Corruption, Cronyism, Fake News

Would it be cynical to suggest that these are already covered by ‘politics’? 😦

David Harley

The Colossus of Roads

‘Colossus of Roads’ began as a sketch for a song or poem, a humorous look at my own late-flowering and less-than-athletic assimilation into the keep-fit-FitBit-kulture.

Sometimes it’s the butterflies
Sometimes it’s the view
Sometimes it’s just the steps
I know I must accrue

Now that my world has shrunk to a 25-step indoor mini-stadion, it’s somehow become a full-blown article.

(c) David Harley 2020 – all rights reserved

Continue reading “The Colossus of Roads”

Security Theatre: a Front Row Seat

[This is a piece I wrote in 2007 following a trip to New York to publicize the AVIEN book at Infosec, courtesy of ESET. I can’t remember who I wrote it for, but they didn’t use it. When I found it lurking on my laptop, I figured I might as well put it up on my Dataholics blog before I lost it again. This version, obviously, has been updated slightly. I will be attempting to gather more of my miscellaneous prose here in due course: only if copyright and other considerations permit, of course.]

In 2007 I took my first flight to the USA since before 9/11 (unless you count looking across at the American Falls from the Canadian side of Niagara). It was a much edgier experience than I remembered. The restrictions had tightened (again) since my last foreign jaunt in 2006. At check-in, my somewhat oversized camera (listen who’s talking about being oversized!)  had to go into my suitcase, since I could only take one item of hand luggage, and I’d rather my camera was mislaid than my laptop. I had to tell the airline at check-in where I was going to be staying, too. It’s as well that they asked, since it turned out that the folder of travel information that normally sits in my hand luggage was lurking in my suitcase. I was going to need it at the other end of the flight, for the immigration form, so it was just as well that I was able to retrieve it.

The long, long queue to go through security at Gatwick didn’t help, snaking through the entire terminal. I found myself in conversation with another middle-aged Limey who was, he told me, in New York on that very day – 11th of September – in 2001. It turns out he was also in Paris when Princess Diana was killed and geographically close to several other history-defining tragedies of the past 20 years, so I was secretly slightly relieved (pleasant chap though he was) that he was going to Las Vegas, since I was going to New York.

Still, the length of the queue gave me plenty of time to transfer everything that might upset the metal detector to my fleece pocket or laptop bag. Possibly for the first time ever, nothing sounded an alarm, and I reassembled my worldly goods: pens, coins, belt, shoes, cell phone, keyring: all present and correct. Even my camphor stick passed without comment. However, my laptop was randomly selected to have its DNA tested. The swab revealed no toxic or explosive substances, and I passed on to Departures, fully metalled once more.

But did I feel safer for it all? Cryptographer and security guru Bruce Schneier coined the phrase “security theater” (well, he is American), and many people apply the phrase to airport security. I think he means by that term security measures that don’t actually add significant security (and may even reduce it), but make us feel safer. Or perhaps make the authorities feel as if they’ve performed a useful PR exercise.

To put it crudely, we may feel that since airport security restrictions are so inconvenient to us, they must be inconveniencing terrorists and criminals too. I suppose some of the precautions I’ve observed over the years may reduce the risks from shoe bombs, for instance, but even I can think of ways to smuggle a significant threat onto a plane in less than 100 ml of liquid, and I’m fairly sure it’s possible to turn a laptop into a weapon without leaving traces that can be picked up by a cotton bud. No, I’m not going to offer suggestions.

We could, of course, draw some parallels with some of the lockdown measures imposed in various countries during the COVID-19 pandemic, but I’ll leave that for another time…

What I will do, though, is leave you with a classic example of security theatre from 2001: just after the attack on the Twin Towers, the UK government forbade aircraft to fly directly over London. Obviously, air controllers and pilots did as they were told. However, would that instruction have deterred a modern-day Guy Fawkes from making a kamikaze attack on the Houses of Parliament or the City of London? Of course it would. Just as surely as sheep are deterred from grazing by “Keep off the grass” signs.

David Harley

To a Daughter, Aged Six

A rare foray into prose that isn’t security-related. Previously published at the Lost & Found Exhibition.

This is one of my occasional forays into prose that isn’t security-related, and was previously published at the Lost & Found Exhibition. You could see this as a companion piece to the song How To Say Goodbye. Well, I do…

This letter is more than a decade too early. You are a bright child and an advanced reader, but not so unnaturally mature that you’ll really understand what your parents are about to do to you.

You were always a Daddy’s girl. Even when you were still tiny, your mother and I agreed that she’d get first crack at getting up to see to you when you cried in the night: I think she was worried that you already thought I was your mum. It was still me who took you out on a Sunday so she could get on with some work in peace, in that tiny flat where the only bedroom was yours, while she and I slept on the sofa-bed in the lounge. It was me who applauded your first steps across the living room. It was me who took you to nursery and hung my head like a criminal on the second day when you wept, betrayed and abandoned, because instead of staying with you (as I had the first day), I went on to work.

When your mother had to take short term contracts in various parts of the country, it was me who, thanks to a job that lent itself to flexible working and the first of several considerate employers, built my working day round the need to ferry you to and from nursery, then school. Your mother and I grew apart and both took guilty consolation elsewhere. When I said that I didn’t think Mummy and Daddy could go on living together, and asked who you’d rather live with, you pointed to me with a woebegone expression, but no hesitation. Would you have hesitated if I’d been able to tell you what lies ahead?

Yes, there will be happy times. Soon, we’ll move into our own flat. You’ll have a room that will be all your own, rather than a bed in a lumber room, and you’ll get the cat you’ve long wished for. Sadly, he’ll turn out to be a one-person moggie, not good company for a child, and after a particularly vicious bite, you won’t be too sad when I give him away. We’ll survive the custody arguments with your mother, when she begins to regret that she gave you up so easily. We’ll live in (mostly) happy chaos, despite my deficiencies as a housekeeper and mother substitute. Because money is tight, most of our holidays together will be with relatives, but sometimes I’m invited to speak at conferences. You spend a lot of time sitting at the back of lecture halls reading and drawing, but we also get to see lots of European cities, and even Disneyland.

We’ll get to know lots of single parent families. Every other weekend, you’ll stay with your mother, and occasionally I’ll spend some of that time with someone who’s more than a friend (once in every second blue moon, I might even get a babysitter). However, I’ll turn my back on romantic liaisons when they threaten too many changes in the way we live. Is that because I’m frightened of upsetting you, or because I’m happier being someone’s Dad than someone’s lover or husband?

When I’m offered a job in another part of the country, though, things will start to change. Because my new employer is less indulgent about my duties as a parent, my mother will come to live with us and look after you when I’m not there. You’ll resent having to share me, and give her a hard time because she’s not your mother. Alternate weekends are a pain because of the distance we have to travel to your mother’s.

Then, out of the blue, I meet someone I can’t turn my back on. Suddenly, you’re thirteen years old, living with me and someone you think of as a wicked stepmother. I betray you time and again, taking her side instead of yours, or getting into arguments about you that make you feel like the victim and the villain. In the end, you’re back to living in a one-bedroom flat with just one of your parents, but this time it isn’t me.

Then you’re sixteen, and your GCSEs are nearly behind you. You’re happier than you’ve been for a while, but in between you spent over a year on anti-depressants, you would only meet me for a few hours at a time on neutral ground, and even tried suicide: mercifully, you didn’t try too hard. When my new wife and I separate for a while, you say you’d come and live with me again, but only if I moved closer. You’re a young adult now, with a life and relationships that neither your mother nor I know much about. Your life is full of uncertainty, but there are possibilities you’ve barely started to explore. Your texts and emails tell me you love me lots and lots, but I know you need me less and less. Perhaps your mother feels the same, but she and I way beyond talking about anything so personal. I know it’s a parent’s job to foster a child’s independence, but did it have to be so soon?

I don’t know how well your 16-year-old self understands what’s happened to us. I’m not sure I understand it myself. It breaks my heart to know that for me, you’ve already left home.

This letter is decades too late, for both of us. And sometimes I miss us both so very badly.