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Working from home had never suited Jed. Okay, he’d always hated the commute to the office, especially over winter. But now, since the great switch, he missed the companionship of others. He also hated the intrusion of his employer’s virtual presence into his flat. Then there was his employer’s theft of his electricity, his heating, his lighting and his Internet. And for what? Every day he beamed his face into team-space for the sake of listening to the same dreary wombats droning on in meetings he was unable to avoid. And while he listened with one ear cocked for his name, and an invitation to make some banal contribution, he’d try to keep up with the avalanche of emails, so he could still clock off at a decent time. It was an absurd way to live.


Mondays were the worst. It was as if people saved everything up until the end of the week, then waited for him to log off before launching stuff at him. He was sure some even stayed up to the small hours with trivial queries they’d send with a time stamp aimed only at impressing the line manager, whom they’d copied in for no other reason. And come Monday he would open up and be buried in this meaningless dross.


If Jed took a week off, or worse, a fortnight for the summer, it might be several days before he caught up. There were hundreds and hundreds of emails, every day, and most were about nothing. But all required an eyeball for the small number that actually need a response. For years now, he’d felt like he was drowning.
So, he was in no particular hurry to log on this morning, to see what the cat had dragged in over the weekend. He was anxious about it, actually, even retching a little in the bathroom as he’d cleaned his teeth. Still, he’d better get to it. There were debits to pay, and he’d lose money for every minute he was late logging on. Late three times in a row, and he’d lose an entire week’s pay.

This morning though, the machine wouldn’t let him in. It took his password, did the usual security scan, taking pictures of his morning-bleary face to confirm his ID, then booted him out. He’d always passed facials before, but this morning something had changed.

“You’re displaying signs of unhappiness,” said the machine.

“I’m what?”

“All employees must show evidence of positive energy, before entering the system.”

“When did this come in? What evidence?”

He regretted the question. The machine recorded all his conversations, all his mails, for analysis. It would go against him that he’d missed, or more likely deleted, that particular email.

“Lack of a happy smile indicates you are low in spirit,” explained the machine. “You will contaminate the stated company ethos of maintaining a powerful and spirited enthusiasm. You will quarantine while you adjust your attitude. Please cheer up, and try again tomorrow.”

There was nothing he could do. That was a day’s pay gone, and all because he couldn’t muster up a smile when he logged on. Anyway the machine was right. He wasn’t happy. His wife had left him and his dog had died, and he hated his foolish job, answering emails about emails all day. How could anyone be happy about that? How could anyone summon up the required powerful, spirited enthusiasm, unless they were insane? It wasn’t enough the whole world was now operating at this same level of lobotomized enslavement to shovelling bullshit, everyone had to be happy about it as well.

He decided to use his day off to good effect, and to relax, then he’d be in better spirits for logging on tomorrow. So he took a walk in the fresh air. Then he made himself a proper dinner, and practised smiling in the mirror before he went to bed. He practised some more when he got up in the morning, before he logged on. But still, the machine would not let him in.

“Your smile is not genuine,” it said. “It suggests deception. Be warned this is not a positive attitude to adopt, and will count against your employee rating. You will remain in quarantine. Please try again tomorrow.”

There was no way around it. That was one pernickety machine.

Jed wasn’t sure what to do now. It seemed his unhappiness was finally getting the better of him. What puzzled him though was how everyone else had managed to pass the happiness test. Were they right now beaming their positive energies into their emails? But he’d rather got the impression everyone else was as unhappy as him. Could it be they were that bit better at hiding it? And if so, what was their secret?

It struck him, of course, as the days passed, the emails would be piling up, and he couldn’t get at them. Even when he managed to log in, it would be terrible. He would be drowning in them for days and days. Feeling very depressed now, Jed went to the pub. There he met Chris, a former colleague, occasional drinking buddy and barfly sage.

“Hey Jed, why so glum?”

“Don’t you start,” said Jed. “They’ve got this new fangled facial scanner at work. It can tell when you’re unhappy, and it won’t let you log in.”

“Can’t you fake it, like everyone else?”

“Tried that. It didn’t work. At this rate I’m going to be broke.”

“Don’t worry,” said Chris. “I’ve heard of this face reading stuff before. It’s creepy, mate, but it’s not infallible. You need a bit of coaching, that’s all.”

“Coaching?”

“How to pretend you’re happy, when you’re not.”

“But why should I have to go around pretending? I do my job as well as anybody else. Now they’re demanding I smile while I’m at it? I mean it’s just not dignified, is it?”

“It’s a fad,” said Chris. “You know what these big corporate management types are like. They’ll try any shiny whizz-bang thing to impress the shareholders. It also helps if it’ll subjugate the minions. Why do you think I quit?


Because you inherited a fortune from your dad, thought Jed. And we can’t all be so lucky as that.

Chris went on: “Everybody in work these days lies.” he said. “No one says what they really think, or they’d not last a day. The high-fliers in a system like that are the ones who are best at pretending they believe in this positive vibe stuff. Right? Including to themselves. So, tell me,… when was the last time you were happy?”

“Dunno.”

“Oh, come on. Think back. How about when you were a kid?”

An image came to Jed of walking along a beach as a little boy. He could feel the softness of the sand underfoot, and the sparkling cool of the sea as it washed over his toes. It was the first day of his summer holiday, and it had felt like it would go on for ever. There was no sinking feeling at the thought of an email in-box waiting on his return. There was no thought for all the emails wanting to know when he would be responding to his emails, about his emails,… about his emails. Yes, he’d been happy then.

“There you go,” said Chris. “Now you’re smiling. So think of that same thing when you’re logging on tomorrow, and you’ll be just fine, mate.”

Jed was impressed. Chris had always struck him as a bit of an intemperate jerk, but on this occasion he’d nailed it. So the following morning he closed his eyes and summoned up that same image from boyhood. He focused on it until he swore he could feel the pleasure of it tingling throughout his whole being. Then he logged in. But the machine wasn’t fooled.

“Please try again tomorrow,” it said.

Three days now without pay. That meant he’d nothing clear after rent, and he’d need to cut back on some essentials, skip a meal or two. He rang the doctor, thinking to get some happy pills, but he couldn’t get an appointment for weeks. Then a text came through on his phone. It was someone from HR reminding him he’d missed three logins. If he missed another two, he’d be fired as per the terms and conditions of employment he could remember neither reading nor signing.

He looked around him and felt the walls closing in. His flat was rented. His car was rented. Everything he owned, including his phone and even the apps on his phone were all in some way owned by someone else. He merely leased them, rented them, paid subs on them. And if he should ever stop, then everything, his whole material life disappeared. Exactly what did he own, other than the clothes on his back? Wait a minute. Even they were rented now! Was he to go naked into the world and starve?

There had to be a way to turn this around. He had to try harder, focus more on that scene from the beach. He had to focus all day and all night if need be – focus until he was as good as there. But as he focused, he realized, lurking in the background, there had been an imperfection. He’d been ten years old, and innocent, but there’d still been something hanging over him. He would be moving up to big school in September, and the thought had terrified him. He’d been hiding from this fear under cover of that long summer holiday. But it had still been there and, in the weeks to come, it would begin to gnaw away at the seeming perfection of his happiness. He needed to find another memory, one without such a fatal flaw. There had to be something.

What about love? He ran through all his past girlfriends, but discovered love did not cut it at all. With the joy of love there was always the attendant potential of the loss of the other’s affection. Love had always been a striving emotion, never the true, settled perfection of its promise.

What about when United won the Championship then? He’d floated on that for a while. But again there was the accompanying thought about how well they would kick off next season. Always then there was this potential for loss, for the sun to set on one’s joy. As he flicked his way through all the moments of his life, he realized it was never possible to actually be happy for anything other than fleeting moments. Indeed, it was foolish to make happiness the aim of your life. Happiness was both the balloon, and the knowledge the balloon was inflating itself against the sharpness of life, a sharpness that might rupture one’s joy at any moment. More, it was necessary to realize it, he thought, to accept it, and be strong in the face of it. Otherwise, you would always be a slave.

This thought, coming to him in the small hours, after a long meditation, felt like the revelation he needed. He’d been trying too hard. He had to be more neutral in his approach to life and to work. He had to be, if not exactly indifferent to life’s potential for happiness, then at least sanguine over the potential of its loss. As for maintaining a happy, powerfully spirited attitude for even a single working day,.. well that was impossible.


Feeing philosophical and relaxed now, he slept a little, woke early and logged in. The machine scanned his face, analysed it for longer than usual, searching among the millions of facial templates to find the one that matched Jed’s, and which might describe it. The machine failed, then booted him out with the default claim he was not showing enough positive energy. He risked contaminating the organizational ethos with his “unknown” demeanour. So, he was to remain in quarantine until his attitude improved, until he could show the right spirit.

“Please try again tomorrow.”

By now though, Jed was less preoccupied by his lack of success at logging into the damned machine as by the changes he could feel going on within himself. The walls of his flat moved out again. Their colours grew pale, then transparent as they dissolved, and he felt an overwhelming sense of release. The next morning, he logged in without a thought and the machine scanned his face. It thought about it for a long time, then came back with an opaque error message, but let him in anyway. He opened up his inbox, but it was empty, and no faces appeared in the usual team-call. Across entire continents, servers were humming to destruction, eating their own code.

Jed had broken the machine.

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Thank you to wannabe scammer John Mark for providing today’s blog entry:

Good Day!

How are you doing? I just want to apologize for any inconvenience
this email may cause you. My name is John Mark  and i work for numerous farm
animal industry in Maresfield Gardens, United Kingdom as a marketing
consultant. The company i work for is a domestic and farm animal company which
deals with the treatment of all kinds of domestic and farm animals including
horses. Their is an Antidote which is highly needed here in my company and in
so many farm company’s here in United Kingdom.

This Antidote is known as CALVENZA EHV 1.M Injection. CALVENZA EHV 1.M Injection is an antidote which is used for the treatment of farm and domestic animals. CALVENZA EHV 1.M Injection relieves pain caused by swelling and inflammation associated with joint disease and absorbs shock in horses. This Antidote is sold in USA at a costly rate of
$5,750 USD per-carton. Recently,i found out that this Antidote is cheaper in
Malaysia and it is sold at the rate of $1,100 USD per-carton, which is very
cheap than what is been sold in USA and other countries.

The seller of this antidote in Malaysia is a woman known as Mrs. Maisarah J. Mohammed. Mrs Maisarah sells this antidote at the cost of $1,100usd while my company buys at
the rate of $4,950usd which is cheaper to them compared to the price in USA,
because my company don’t know the price of the antidote in Malaysia. Every
further details and contacts will be provided based on your determination in
handling the business.

I should have handled the business myself, but i am suffering from leukemia which cannot permit me to travel. All i need is your reliability in doing this business and in terms of the profit made from the business, 60% goes to you and 40% is mine. Feel free to write me via
jmark2874@gmail.com  for more details.

Take good care and have a nice day.

Regards,

John Mark

 

 

 

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because you writeNumber two son comes to me with his brand new laptop already strangled by malware. It’s the type of malware that tells you your computer is infected with malware, to click-here for the solution and to have your payment details handy. The malware has passed through the machine’s defences as a result of being invited to do so due to a lack of caution on the part of the user, and a desire to get sparkly free stuff from a download website. It takes a couple of hours to get rid of the problem.

Then a relative is excited at having received an email telling her she’s won £200,000,000 on the Mega Euro Lottery. All she has to do is “click here” and be ready with her personal details. I’m tasked with convincing her it’s a scam, and not to “click”.

“Did you enter such a lottery?”

“Not that I recall, but I might have been entered automatically, and what if it really is £200,000,000?”

Then number one son comes to me with his old and cranky laptop, infected – yes – with malware. This is of the type that tells you you have a “security” problem and to “click here” – again the result of a lack of understanding of the dangers of download websites, and the lure of free stuff. This was a tenacious little worm and took the whole afternoon to sort out.

Then my wife’s complaining her email is no longer working, and could I sort that one out as well? Said email account had been hacked and suspended by the service provider. Hacked how? Poor password security, easy to remember, easy for a robot to crack. The service provider’s systems responded promptly, extent of damage unknown. Crap cleared out, passwords reset, but I’m not allowed to make the password wholly secure because a secure password is impossible to remember (not true), and writing them down is bad security (very true). We compromise.

Monday evening and my aforementioned relative is contacted by telephone, and an officious, “foreign sounding” voice advises her of criminal activity on her “computer”. She does not have a computer as such – just an iPad. Is that what they’re refering to? Em yes. By now she’s suspicious and hangs up.

All of this breeds an atmosphere of siege, a paranoia there’s a determined army of bad people out there scaling the walls and trying to get at you, that computers are dangerous things best handled with rubber gloves. And without being too alarmist, I’m afraid it’s true.

I’ve worked with computers since 1977 and the legendary Sinclair ZX81. You couldn’t do a lot with that machine, but it was the start of a revolution, of computers moving into our homes. At first they did no harm, just annoyed you when they didn’t work. Then they all got networked and became the gateway to passing the contents of your bank account to a criminal.

I can deal with most of the things that ail domestic computers. Most people, however, can’t, and this makes them vulnerable. Most people in fact aren’t even aware of the risks, yet we are all pushed to getting ourselves online, every single one of us, using the leaky computer as our window on the whole of life – paying bills, applying for state benefits, managing life savings. But where there’s money involved, criminals will circle like flies around poop.

And therein lies the problem.

Probably less than ten percent of the population, the IT crowd, understand this fully networked world. Half of them are good guys, tending corporate and government systems, the rest are criminals out to steal your money. We have either trust blindly in this thing we don’t understand, or reject it, cut up our debit cards, do all our bank dealings in branch, face to face with a cashier we know because we went to school with them, and go back to using cheque books. But the branches are closing, those friendly cashiers are stacking shelves in supermarkets and cheques are no longer accepted. Even the basics in life now have to be applied for “online,” and advice is an anonymous voice at the end of a crackly line that could be coming from the other side of the universe.

There is no going back.

Our computer systems are insecure and always will be, and the majority of us citizens aren’t experts, nor can we ever be, nor should we need to be, because our lives, our real lives, are mostly lived outside that box. But there are things we can all do to minimise the risk of falling victim to Hackers and Cyber- Scammers, and unfortunately the first thing is to learn how not to trust the email or the telephone call from anyone you do not personally know – and especially not the communications claiming to be from your bank or your internet service provider.

Scams are so sophisticated we cannot trust anything that enters our home via the telephone wire. But even adopting this level of defensive caution, it’s not going to stop us from occasionally having to spend the whole weekend repairing damage, and advising others of the dangers of “clicking here”.

I’ll write some more on this later, but for now if your computer’s been strangled, visit the bleepingcomputer for a solution. I can’t recommend these guys enough.

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the sea southportThe summer has been a bit of a washout. We are already into September and I can recall very few days when I have felt comfortable without my jumper. Granted, I was fortunate and those few days I do remember coincided with my holidays, but one would hope for a more extensive summer than a single shirt-sleeved stroll along the promenade at Scarborough. And the next day it rained.

So now the garden is crisping up, the borders thickening with dead-heads and neglect. On the upside, the lawn is no longer as voracious in its appetite for the mower, but too late, the feeling of decay has entered my bones, got me braced for something I cannot avoid, like the new school term, even though it’s thirty years since I needed trouble myself about that.

I received a message from Yahoo Customer Services informing me that unless I entered my password into the proffered window pane, my mail would be terminated within 24 hours. The message is composed in poor English and as such is rather a transparent attempt at phishing – a criminal ploy to get me to reveal my email login details.

I dislike this kind of thing, that there are those in the world who would do harm to innocents. This sounds pathetic, naive, even to say it, but I truly wish the world could have turned out otherwise. We have after all had ample opportunity. Is it wise or even sane to remain optimistic?

Another message this morning informs me my mail has duly been suspended. It has not. I confirm the fact by sending myself an email from one of many other accounts I use, and it pings up in my Yahoo inbox as normal But still, one wonders. Does the phisher single me out, or is my mail merely one morsel of millions in a broadly cast bait?

All day I have imagined my computer is behaving strangely, that the blackness of infection seeps in through cracks I cannot see. Defender and Firewall do not seem to be in a flap about it.

But still, it leaves one feeling a little unsettled.

Anyway, it was another cloudy start to the day, light rain, but clearing by mid-afternoon to a kind of blustery-sunshine, and rather cool, 12 degrees. But that the sun shone at all was sufficient to entice me out to the coast, to Southport.

And tide was in, which cheered me.

There are music hall jokes about Southport and the sea – that you need a camel to reach it, and it’s true it does go an awfully long way out, so much so that some visitors would query if Southport actually qualifies as a seaside town at all, but I can assure non-natives, as all Sandgrounders know, it comes in again twice a day, just like everywhere else.

I like the light here.

The tide rises, the tide falls,
The twilight darkens, the curlew calls;
Along the sea-sands damp and brown
The traveller hastens toward the town,
And the tide rises, the tide falls.

I wonder what might be lost, I mean were the darkness to take hold of my email account. Since Michael Graeme exists only online, the mangling or the hijacking of his imaginary affairs would hardly matter. But what other doors does that password unlock? And what other unfortunate souls have left themselves open this way, rashly taking the phisher’s poisoned bait. How does one protect ones young in such a world as this?

Darkness settles on roofs and walls,
But the sea, the sea in the darkness calls;
The little waves, with their soft, white hands,
Efface the footprints in the sands,
And the tide rises, the tide falls.

I find my way to Yahoo, log myself in securely, change my password. All seems normal. But still, there’s that feeling of unease, of shadows creeping through my innermost world. I light candles and utter spells of protection, draw circles of exclusion in my mind.

The morning breaks; the steeds in their stalls
Stamp and neigh, as the hostler calls;
The day returns, but nevermore
Returns the traveller to the shore,
And the tide rises, the tide falls.

Phishers, like all criminals, are a challenge to ones understanding. They present often the keenest intelligence, the highest of ability and ingenuity, yet in human terms they also operate at a low level of consciousness, or they would be more mindful of the suffering they cause. They are, in a sense, a sub-human species. But one must be careful in condemnation, for then the blackness creeps inside the soul. They are in fact like bacteria, not sufficiently conscious to render any negative emotion on my part a truly rational thing. I think this is in the nature of forgiveness. Still, I can only hope that as with any bacteria, I am fortunate in avoiding infection.

The sea sparkled at Southport as the sun glanced from the little wave crests. I walked the boards of the pier, gazed out through binoculars at the boats and the rigs and the windmills that dot the horizon. But the sea here is not of sufficient depth to hide the murkiness of the sands underneath. There are no blue boisterous depths to wash clean the shore on which we travel.

The tide swirls murkily, and with each swift retreat is revealed the scum line of all our sins.

The verses of course are Longfellow’s, and not mine.

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portrait of the artists wife - La Thangue - 1859-1929I posted a letter today. Not much to comment on about that, you might think, except the whole experience of that letter has given me pause. I wrote it with a pen on plain A4 paper – four sheets, two for the letter, and a further sheet each for a poem. No, I wasn’t submitting work to a publisher – heaven forbid, and thank goodness those days are over! It was to a friend of a friend, an amateur poet, like me, but of an older generation for whom the idea of email, or blogging, or indeed any form of digital communication are alien concepts. She had written to me before Christmas, a personal hand-written letter, and I had felt awkward responding with impersonal print.

So, out came the Harvey Makin pen, (note shameless brand-dropping) I had thought it a somewhat redundant Christmas present to myself, since I rarely “write” anything with a pen at all these days. But suddenly, there I was, pen poised over a sheet of paper. (£16.99 from the local garden centre – the pen, not the paper). I don’t know who Harvey Makin is, and forgive me if I’m wrong, but it sounds like an “antique” brand targeted at the old fuddy-duddy traditional types, who frequent garden centres on wet winter Sundays, while hiding its usual ultra-modern Chinese manufacture. But the pen has a good weight, and makes a smooth mark. Yes, Harvey Makin, whoever he is, made the writing of that letter feel special. He added a sense,… of occasion.

I did cheat, however.

It seems I have forgotten how to write spontaneously. I sat a while staring at that first sheet of virgin paper, afraid to make a mark because, well,… a pen-mark is not deletable – there are no second chances, no back-tabbing. Short of a clean sheet, we have no choice but to plough on, once we have begun. So, I drafted it first on the computer before copying it all down by hand – rather a backwards way of working, but never mind.

The first thing I noticed was how inefficient the written word is, compared with print. What had been a few column inches of 12 point type on the computer screen expanded like crazy-foam to fill two sheets of A4 in no time at all. Perhaps the sheer physical volume of the hand-written word discouraged a verbosity in olden times to which we are more prone today. The other thing I noticed was how using a pen for anything more substantial than a shopping list makes your hand and arm stiffen painfully.

Stamps are quite expensive things now – 60p for first class. I’m not sure how much it costs to send an e-mail, but it must be fractions of a penny. Demand for hand-written letter deliveries is falling. We’re therefore losing economies of scale, so the price of stamps must go up still more, thus further hastening the decline of posted letters to the point where the post boxes are being decommissioned and all the postman brings me these days, apart from my online purchases, is machine franked junk.

That stamp added a seal of something to the envelope, conferring upon its contents a degree of worth they perhaps did not deserve. It also got me thinking about the slower snail-mail way we used to do things. It got me thinking too about that box of love letters in the attic.

My girlfriends wrote good letters, their handwriting always so much better than mine. And stamps, looking so quaint in their design, and the Queen so young, perhaps even moistened by a kiss – the stamps, not the Queen – still have the power to fire the imagination. I mean, that these women should have taken the trouble to sit with pen and paper, and aching hand, spontaneously expressing themselves, without back-tabbing or endless redrafting,.. and it’s not without significance – at least to me – that they thought of me, while they wrote! My last love letter is dated 1986, marking the end of an affair. It echoes fresh from long ago, and bitter-sweet memories rise anew from the flow of a woman’s hand, porting me back in time a quarter of a century. Ah,… the abiding magic of the written word!

Emails by contrast, I tend not to keep. They lack gravity, and personality.

It’s a pity – this decline in the hand written form – though inevitable, I suppose. But we have learned so much about the lives of others through their letters, ribbon bound and kept in shoe-boxes, preserved as each the encapsulation of a moment from that person’s life. Now the world is criss-crossed with invisible aether-channels into which we tap with our devices – devices to which we are enslaved, emailing, blogging and tweeting our sweet nothings – things of no import and to nobody in particular – and which can be so easily deleted to save precious cloud-space, or embarrassment. What shall we leave for future historians to ponder? Will our blogs, our emails, our tweets, still be around a hundred, two hundred years from now?

The letter sat upon my desk for a few days while I found the opportunity to take it to the post-box. And as the time passed, it assumed a more self-important air – those contents, sealed with gum, seeming to mature within, and the address so boldly displayed, a magical incantation that would speed my missive to its goal. I posted it this morning, outside the Post Office in town – pushed it, after a momentary pause, into the red pillar box with the official markings, gave it up into the care of the almighty postal system. It’s a system that’s been establishing lines of communication, and mapping out the bounds of civilisation, for centuries, but seems suddenly anachronistic. In a generation, it will be gone, this way of doing things.

I had not realised.

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