Moving on

It’s time to give you up. To let go. To say goodbye.

You were first there when I was about 10, taking me to cubs behind my dad. That was so cool. (It wasn’t, of course.) You were a clapped-out Honda 50 straining under the extra load of one small boy, but those warm evenings I was Evel Knievel and I can still feel where the battered chinstrap of that gobstopper helmet scratched me. Later I’d wobble up and down the drive on you all by myself, never quite sure whether you had a clutch or not. You were pretty ambiguous on the subject, too.

At 16, you were still pretty lame – Ju beat us up a hill on his pushbike, me and you and your puny, restricted engine. Sometimes you were a borrowed Fizzy or that DT100 I nearly threw into the hedge at Clieves Hills. Unrestricted power – the surge of passing 40mph for the first time as I rode your 100ccs up the St Helens Rd away from the shop. The smell of hot petrol and two stroke in the back lanes at Halsall. Boys heading to Southport, to girls and dunes and the chance of a snog. Jeans streaked with oil and hormones.

Riding test on a CZ125, too slow to be any danger to anyone, and that first moment without the Ls on the Abingdon Road when a passing biker dipped his head in salute for no other reason than we were on bikes, and it wasn’t raining. Oh, and we weren’t in London, where that sort of civility isn’t done. I was in. I wasn’t a learner. I was a biker. You took me through frozen fog that night to Birmingham airport, to surprise Justine on her 18th in Dublin. Gloves still stiff with ice even as I boarded the plane.

Now a GT250, you fell apart in style with that collapsed, inaccessible oil seal, but Ben and I – mostly Ben – found an old engine in Headington and patched you back together. The noise that shook the Cowley Rd when you fired into life at the first time of asking, sans exhaust! A howl of defiance, heralding new opportunity (and cash) as I rode you for real – summers as a courier up and down the M40, sometimes three times a day. Manchester in the cold, Exeter in the rain. The incredible satisfaction of finishing a day’s work with a signed slip, and the knowledge of a job inarguably completed. That didn’t return for another 20-odd years…

Then you were the most hideous pink VT500, a pimped-up despatch bike with built-in boxes and a full fairing. I was CHiPS of East Oxford, sometimes able to top the ton on the sliproad out of Headington, all rollies and camaraderie – swapping parcels for signatures in Soho design agencies.

Biker, son of biker, son of biker – and when the oldest was close to the end – “if you want to see him, you’d better come quickly” – you took me there quickly – tearing up the A43 for one last hand-hold. The one good hand that had raced his own polio-adapted bike, all those years ago. He cruised over the horizon, and I cruised back to college.

Once you were a massive Kwak 1000, collaborator in sinful liaison with her sister by the Farmoor reservoir. Oh my, those days. Or that maroon GT550, less said the better. The courier’s two-wheeled Transit, plodding and dull.

To London, and your XJ600 era. Getting a bit more grown-up now, four cylinders of balanced buzz, but how you must have hated me as I neglected your sprockets until the teeth came off. Prague with the Aces, though, slipping over rain-dashed tramtracks and cobbled streets, and the mighty solo leg home, dad of two tinies whose holiday pass had run out early, dodging the temptations of the gaptoothed sirens on the Teplice road. Hands blue with vibration, and unable to speak on arrival home.

With first proper job, I splashed out on you as a brand new CBR600. Flipped head over tail after 3 weeks but you were well enough after a rebuild to get me to Le Mans and for a few brief moments show me your absolute top speed on the 24hr course. Next, you were a VT1000 Firestorm (warning me of your lethal power with a sideways squirm of the back wheel on ice).

The litre V-Twin superbike: I’d arrived! I loved you so much (didn’t care that you were a bit tamer than a Ducati), wanted to keep you perfect, and on murky days rode you in the shape of your older cousin – the one that Mike stabled with me while he rode an XT round the world. It was one foul wet December morning that you catapulted me through a windscreen, shattering both my leg and my love for you. Two years limping with a metal thigh bone to add to my biker cred. I got rid of you after that. Crashing again with a steel femur wouldn’t have been clever.

A few years off – responsibility and rehabilitation (and poverty) setting the course – until the XT500. The classic 70s trail bike, you took me to Gibraltar after the divorce. It was needed. I suffocated you with altitude in the Pyrenees, but you forgave me as we wheelied into Spain. We sat by the port at Algeciras and I thought about inflicting Africa on you. But we turned north, and I played at being Corser through the meanders up to Albacete. I strapped petrol cans to your handlebars, and a guitar to my back, and tasted freedom and bitterness.

Then you were a VFR and I knew that you were one of the greatest bikes ever made. But…I sold you out for more power. I dabbled with the hard stuff; big Aprilia, GSXR – but also the old stuff; occasional flirtation with AJS and Norton – even, briefly, a Vincent. Dark deeds by Blackbird, as you showed me how you could Hoover the horizon towards me at full throttle. Beautiful aerodynamics stopped me feeling your 150mph blast round the M25 (thigh now rebuilt and de-steeled by this point).

You were a Firestorm again for the motorways, as I two-timed you with a 660 Yamaha thumper. The Firestorm blew out, and then you became Tweetbike. Brief global fame dodging tubestruck London, traded soon afterwards to a new model with vanity plate. Loud cans, “Let them know you’re coming!”, the most fun that could be had in a city.

Then you left me. Or I left you. Older, wiser, perhaps a little too stiff and sore. No real justification to keep you on; you sat and cried rusty tears in the garden for far too long. I’m letting you go today. It’s time. I’ll give you a last sip of petrol, wipe your arse down, and find you a new home. It’s been hard to let go. I’ve put it off for so long. So much more than a collection of metal, glass, rubber and plastic. Heat, passion, dreams, freedom. I’ll find them again, somewhere else, I’m sure.

But to you, my bloody lovely bike, maker of adventures, thriller, rescuer, it’s time to say it now. Goodbye.

Seven rules for meeting up


(Meeting up, as in meeting me. You know, like a date, or a coffee – a “catch-up”, or whatever. There’s no good general word for all of those, I think. Meeting up will have to do. Anyway – these are my rules. Make of them what you will.)

1 – Respond. It’s not fixed in the diary until there’s word of confirmation on both sides. An unacknowledged invitation sitting there for a week just says “I’m not sure if something more important might come up”.

2 – Be punctual. Three minutes early is on time. On time is already a bit late. You’d rock up to collect your OBE “on time” would you? Every minute that passes says “you’re just that bit less important to me”.

3 – Communicate. If you’re going to be late, say so as soon as you know. Of course there’s no signal underground, but imagining that yours will be the special tube train that will do Hampstead to Embankment in one minute isn’t really going to work out that well. “I’ll be half an hour late”, then arriving after 20 minutes is better than saying “I’m just up the road, see you in about ten-fifteen”. (Ten-fifteen is a trigger phrase for me, btw. It’s minicab talk. Here, we use real Earth minutes.)

4 – Stick to the plan. Once our meeting’s confirmed, it stays confirmed. You don’t need to check in with me the day before (or on the morning) to “see if we’re still on”. Why would we not still be on? It’s not a crime if you do check – but not to show up, because “we didn’t confirm beforehand, did we?” most certainly is. And if you do just forget, that’s ok. I’ve done that. We all have. It happens. Go to no. 5.

5 – You flake, you make. The onus for coming up with a replacement plan falls on the person who pulled out of the appointment. Should that really need saying?

6 – Three strikes. If for any reason meeting up doesn’t happen three times in a row then everyone can retire gracefully, knowing that it’s not meant to be. I used to grieve over these “never managed to meet-ups, did we?” until I realised I could just let them go. Yeah, but surely if they’re all really good reasons? Nah. The first missed one should intensify the importance of its successor. If it doesn’t, then it’s ok to let it go if it’s just not working out.

7 – Yoda’s Rule. “Do, or do not. There is no ‘try’.” Less said for one-to-one invitations, more for bigger gatherings, “I’ll try and make it” pretty much guarantees that you won’t be on the next invite list. Just so you know.

Do you have any others?

Flappy Bird – actual strategies


(I can’t believe I’m writing about this.)

Back in the day, as an obsessed martial artist (yes, really – it was a LONG time ago) I used to go on these full-on intensive training weekends. Starting Friday night, going on late, up at 5am for knuckle push-ups on gravel; all that stuff. Hours and hours of training. You’d think we’d get knackered. But not really, not like you’d expect. Instead, your mind would go to shit.

Master Lai told us this would happen: he’d point to arms, legs, centre – then tap his head. “Always the first to get tired.”

And so it is with Flappy Bird. The infuriating game, with its ludicrously simple interface, works just like this. Once you’ve got a basic grasp of the movement, a single pipe is dead easy. Maybe even ten in a row. But after that?

That’s where the game has got interesting for me, once you get past the “regular ten” stage. Prompting thoughts on actual strategy. Finding a depth to the game that you’d never guess from a few minutes looking at the mechanics of it.

So, stuck as I have been for a few days on a high of 29, I’ve been looking at what’s going on. This is what I’ve found so far:

1. You die when you decide it’s time to die. You don’t (once you’ve got that basic movement) die at the first pipe. And probably not for the first few. But at some point your brain starts telling you that you’re a bit tired/you’ve stopped concentrating/you can’t possibly have got this far/OMG you’re nearly at your high score… And then the coordination goes, and you die. Because it was the right time to die.

2. The score can be a big prompter as to when it’s time to die. So – strategy 1 – cover up the score counter. Try it. A bit fiddly in terms of obscuring the upper pipe on high gaps, but I found at least some bliss in ignorance.

3. My second strategy was to think rhythmically. Instead of focusing on pipes, find the tempo required to sustain level flight. Sticking to that, instead of the almost overwhelming urge to give a (terminal) last thrust on gate exit, makes a massive difference. You have to be able to deal with quickening and interruption to rise and fall between gates, but if you can return to that underlying tempo, you’ll improve.

4. But I still hit a lot of pipes. Time for some reframing of the target. On the principle that if you aim for a stretched target, you’ll have a better chance of getting to what you need, I then tried another approach: visualising the gate as being about half its real height. Try to keep the bird in that imaginary central zone, and suddenly you’re clearing the pipe ends by much bigger distances.

5. Still unsatisfied, I looked for another approach. If I could manage one gate; or even consistently manage ten; why could I not manage 30? So this led to the next strategy: doing it by tens. Someone clever once said you don’t have to do something for ever, just for a day at a time; so how about breaking the longer journey into parts? Maybe this one didn’t work so well, but it was fun to explore the difference in how it felt.

6. Then I reviewed why I was dying. This “level flight” thing wasn’t actually not all that useful. I might enter the gate at the right height, but that last bump just before exit was causing 90% of crashes. So, the next approach, and the most successful so far – the rising diagonal. Again, using an imaginary safe zone rather narrower than the gate, visualise it a rising 30° angle. You enter very low, and greatly reduce the chance of that late head-hit.

7. Some things are always beyond your control: I get an occasional glitch which slows down the horizontal scrolling. Death. If there’s a really nasty sequence of high-low-high-low. Death. Too bad. Move on. Do what you can.

So there you have it. An utterly basic game on first sight. But within it: performance review, rhythm, target-setting, staging, mental fatigue, muscle memory, microprecision, feedback loops and much much more – all recorded with one, inarguable, integer. That’s why it’s such a piece of bloody genius. Now to try it blindfolded…

Dis Harmoni

2013-12-14 16.06.01

If you need a GP out of hours, you might end up on the receiving end of services from Harmoni.

Harmoni run the weekend GP service in my area. When I needed them, a few weeks back, I was initially massively impressed. My call to the local GP practice was routed smoothly through to NHS Direct; and they managed to find me an appointment in less than two hours time.

With Harmoni – based within a local NHS hospital. Great! I got there at 11am but was asked straight away if I could possibly come back later, as things were badly overrunning. Erm, ok, said my pale and shaking face. 2? 3? -Whatever works for you, said the weary receptionist. I settled for 3.

Whatever had been going wrong with the booking and queueing system had clearly gone very wrong by the time I arrived back at 2.50. People everywhere – crying kids, coughing old people, someone throwing up in a washing up bowl. Lovely.

At 4, after a few nudges to the effect that a) I was pretty damn fecking ill and b) I was actually an 11am appointment, I got my turn.

All went normally until the GP started to write out the prescription. There it was, up on the screen, on the fancy patient management system thing. And there he was, dutifully copying down every detail on to the green pad on his knee. I asked about the printer. -Ah. It’s broken. I keep reporting it, but they won’t get me a new one.

And this laptop situation? I pointed at the thing you can see in the picture. The one with the A4 paper stuck to the screen, with instructions on how to bodge it together with an external monitor. He just shook his head, sadly. Can I take a picture? Sure, he said – actually quite pleased by the idea. We had a little chat about how everything took longer because he had to copy out prescriptions by hand when the system was supposed to print them.

Printers. £50. Laptops. Not a huge amount more. People. Sitting there all day, getting sicker and sicker.

I did some sums. They didn’t come out very well for Harmoni.

If you hear of them bidding for services in your area, remember this picture. Somebody, somewhere, thinks this is an acceptable level of service, and you’re paying for it.

UPDATE 17 March: A letter from Harmoni, addressing my “complaint” – for apparently this blog post constitutes one… They’re going to bollock the receptionist for what actually seemed like a rather humane move, allowing me to shiver in the comfort of my own home for my hours of waiting. But they are replacing the laptop and printer. So I suppose that’s a sort of happy ending. Oh, and a slightly pompous sign-off: “It is also valuable to note that handwritten prescriptions are also perfectly acceptable.” Point rather missed there, but hey.

Five questions for Identity Assurance


We’re getting closer to the launch of the government’s “identity assurance” (IDA) service – providing a way of confirming that people are who they say they are online, when they interact with government services.

There’s much on the IDA team’s blog about progress to date, and much to like. Such as the upfront decision to separate the confirmation of identity bit from what government’s there to do, and to open up a choice of identity providers (IDPs) who’ll be able to offer different ways of creating and using an online identity.

But there’s still too much that isn’t clear about the scheme. And given its importance – it will be essential if there’s going to be a major improvement in transactional services – here’s some of the detail I’d like to see:

1. how does it actually work? (and I don’t mean at the theoretical level described in the “Good practice guides”, but using real examples of real services, processes and data) It’s all well and good saying that I will be able to choose an identity provider, and be able to set up a trusted relationship with them online…but what’s actually going on to make this happen, and to support me once it has? How will they know I am who I say I am? Will they have access to something that only I would know, and if so, what? If they’re an organisation I’ve never (knowingly) had any dealings with before, what will they know about me? If they’re a new entrant to the identity provision market (as some in the running are) – where are they getting their sources to do checks? And, as ever, what’s being passed around to whom, how’s it held, secured, indexed…and all the rest of the usual, essential hygiene issues around personal data?

I have a feeling that as these details emerge we could be in for some interesting food for thought about what information is being shared by whom. But best we start to see some real examples so we can get our heads round it, and to make sure we’re comfortable with who knows what about us. Given we’re dealing with that most treasured currency of all – personal data – I think we need much more transparency about what’s being proposed. And we’ll only have realistic scrutiny if there are realistic proposals to chew on.

2. will government department x actually hand off the responsibility for identity confirmation to identity provider y? This has to happen for the service to work as intended, yet it has big implications for the accountability of delivery. Will heads of service still take responsibility if things go wrong in the checking process, or if they find they’re transacting with fraudulent or misidentified accounts? Who does the service user contact to fix things that go wrong, now that more than one organisation is involved?

Make no mistake, I’d absolutely love to see it happen – so I’d be reassured if a government department made a clear statement of this intention and, furthermore, that it no longer intends (or needs) to operate its own version of identity checking in favour of that provided by an IDP. It’s relatively easy to do new, parallel things in government. But confirmation that there’s actually been a change is usually only provided by stopping doing an old, superfluous thing.

3. following on from that, how will the service be paid for? The IDPs aren’t in it out of the goodness of their hearts – how are they incentivised, how can we have assurance that they’re being paid a fair rate, and what’s the outcome for them financially if they get things wrong, or provide a poor quality service in some other way?

4. who’s watching what I do? We live in sensitive times – aware that beady eyes are watching all that we do online. Who will be watching our transactional exchanges – as we’re identified, and then as we go on to use services? One of the big selling points of using a layer of IDPs independent of government was that there’d be no creation of a vast, centralised database of identity and activity. What’s the assurance that such data capture isn’t happening anyway – creating just such a central viewpoint, albeit one in which lots of separate things connected to us are being indexed together?

5. and lastly – where’s the big picture here? Where’s all this going? Will an identity be reusable across more and more services? What will happen when services require different levels of assurance? (For example, an identity created using some basic checks to access a relatively insecure look-up service might need to be ‘strengthened’ to access something that’s more complex in terms of money or confidentiality. How?) How clear will it be to the user what level of trust they’ve achieved using a particularly identity?

And if more and more services can be accessed using the same online identity, doesn’t that create the “all eggs in one basket” problem, as well as creating a virtual single “person” that government’s dealing with – reviving lots of the problems that IDA is designed to avoid? Are we expecting people to try and reuse the same identity as much as possible, or to create a few at different levels of trust, or to start from scratch every time they touch a new service? If there’s the ability to reuse an existing trust relationship (for example with a bank or a mobile phone company) what effect might that have on fair competition for new customers? And how will government in general address the lack of provision of an IDA option as IDA’s use becomes more widespread. Customer expectation is going to rise (as it should for any useful, improved service) and at some point it’s going to become unacceptable for an area of government even to try using a non-IDA verification method. Or has that already happened?

They’re tricky questions and, as ever, not complete nor perfectly phrased. Please do comment with anything else you’d like to know more about. But I’d really like the IDA team in GDS to share much more of their thinking in these areas – and where there are still details to be ironed out, to be open about them. This will lead to more robust solutions, less uncertainty about the myth and reality of what’s planned, and a lot of external help in planning for and addressing the issues that will inevitably surface when millions of transactions are being supported by IDA.

UPDATE 23 Jan: The Identity Assurance team have published a blog post that gets into more detail on some of these issues, and points to a number of posts to come, on issues ranging from user research to the outcomes of a private beta that will apply identity assurance to two specific “exemplar” services – HMRC’s PAYE and DVLA’s “view driving record” services.

This makes you part of the problem, Itsu

2014-01-10 11.48.56

Pret used to do it. Maybe they still do. They had little stickers on their tills saying it was a “Nightmare!” that they had to add on tax to their hot food sales. Oh yeah, same founder, innit? Remind me what school – sorry, charitable foundation – he went to? He has a bit of form for shouting about the evils of taxation.

Yeah, Julian. “The taxman”. That nasty grey bloke in a suit just trying to piss off your customers so that he can hoard a load of cash in some big safe at the end of Whitehall.

Seriously. In case it’s escaped his attention, that’s the same taxman who funds the maintenance of the pavement his customers cross to get through the door, and who oversees the security of supply of the power and other utilities that keep the business running. Who pays the wages of a good proportion of people who buy things over the counter. Who sorts out all the tedious issues of planning, building design, sewage and rubbish collection, that just can’t be done sensibly by one organisation alone, and without which an Itsu could simply not exist. And much, much more. Yes, that taxman.

So if you see this sort of sticker next time you’re in there, let them know, politely, that you think it’s a load of misinformed old rubbish. Or send their MD some feedback. Or just avoid them entirely.

Friendly advice

I’d be hopeless as a politician. Retreat to rational debate gets you precisely nowhere when you’re up against the gong-clangers and firestarters of the populist mob-stirrers.

So it’s with some mixed feelings that I write about an utterly bizarre story that looks like it might actually work against the interests of the TaxPayers’ Alliance.

Ah yes. Them. (A reminder about my problem with them.)

In this particular story they’ve done two odd things. Firstly, they’re sounding off about the failure of local authorities to stop doing a thing they’re legally required to do; a thing which helps ease the pressure on, erm, taxpayers. Right. (As I publish this, I see that @tim2040 has written along similar lines, including the point that collecting such a tiny amount of money is something of an unwanted chore for the councils in any case.)

But if you dig into the detail a bit, it becomes a bit more clear that they’re actually hoping that the whole legal requirement bit gets wiped out. Ok, but that’s the second odd thing.

Because the TPA has this peculiar Jekyll & Hyde characteristic. On the one hand, the cowardly, rent-a-gob demagoguery of the “I can’t believe they’re spending money on THIS” faction, hauled out to berate, well, anything delivered by public services – whether or not it’s got much to do with the paying of taxes. And on the other, some rather more worthy aspirations around winding down the role of the state in matters of surveillance and data.

Ok, I am a little suspicious that the weight here might be firmly on the “winding down the role of the state” bit, but the end results are often quite sensible, and bring about useful pressure and scrutiny on some of the heavy-handed nonsense we’ve seen from the current administration and its predecessor.

But usually, these messages are delivered under the banner of the TaxHaters’ close cousin, BigBrotherWatch. And what makes this electoral roll story interesting is that they’ve chosen not to use this sub-brand when opining on something which is natural BBW heartland. My advice would be to look carefully at what impact this might have on their overall strategy.

Is it a mistake? Does it signal an intentional shift in position and brand? It looks very blurred to me. To a rational observer, the sight of the TPA asking a local authority to break the law and spurn a source of income that would make matters easier for taxpayers… I mean, it makes them look a bit silly… which is a good thing, from my perspective…

Oh hang on. I’m doing the rational thing again, aren’t I? As I say, hopeless.

The two lessons I remember most


I was thinking the other day about the things I learned at school that were really worth learning. Not the history dates, nor the chemistry formulae. Not even the mysteries of iron ore mining at Kiruna. (Gratuitous reason to use the photo above – I finally got to visit it this summer.)

No, the useful things that really made a difference to me were conveyed very simply, and stuck.

Step forward Mr Smith, woodwork and metalwork class, 1980. We have to draw up a specification for a table. I do an enthusiastic job of describing the perfect table, giving measurements, appearance, functionality etc. etc. I’ve got some brilliant ideas about tables, me.

Mr Smith likes the thoroughness, but meticulously adds his pencilled notes to each one of my design points. Although he gives a bit of acknowledgement to some of my thoughts on materials and so on, he’s basically tweaked every answer in exactly the same way. “…will be finalised by surveying what users of the table want (or need)”. I’m a bit downcast, as I thought I’d done it perfectly, but what he’s done is to open my mind to user perspective and iterative design. Just like that.

And then, in 1986, Mr Atherton did something extraordinary in A level Economics class. We’re doing interest rates, exchange rates, balance of payments and all that macro stuff. He poses a small question – what if X changes? And then leads me, absolutely brilliantly, through a massive series of “and then what will happen..?” questions. Eventually, as I find I’ve managed to loop together pretty every construct of an economic model in a logical sequence that actually makes sense, I’m unable ever again to think of a Big Change Thing without digging through all the “so what else changes as a result?” consequences.

So, Mr Smith & Mr Atherton. User-centricity and the fundamental interconnectedness of all the big things. In two quick lessons. Thanks. Profound, life-long, world-view-altering thanks. (I’d love to find a way for them to read this.)

If you had moments like this, what were they? And what would a curriculum that distilled all these and delivered them in concentrated form be able to achieve?

The offer

He came to me at dawn, from the fog.

Stood beside me. Said: “This can I offer…”

“Time: four hours more a day, yours for free.

Take your lost mornings back. Many evenings too.

And more…relief from sickness, headache, insomnia, dread.

More energy, clarity, firmness of purpose,

maybe a little slimness, possibly a little fitness.

You’ll smell better, taste better, have better teeth

and perhaps be a little harder when required.

More certainty of what you like and don’t;

of who’s worth spending time with and who isn’t.

Perspective – seeing who you really are,

where you are, where you’re going and where you want to go.

Wonderful new relationships and maybe some healing of the old.”

I marvelled, head reeling. I said, “I understand.

This I want, but at what cost?”

He replied:

“In money, nothing. I’ll even give you a thousand a year.

But there are other, heavier prices to consider:

What if you’re not who or where you thought you were?

You’ll change – maybe more, maybe less

but accept it’s an unknown.

You’ll be a stranger at times

to those you love, work and play with.

You may have to leave them, even where you live,

or change your profession entirely.

In many groups, you’ll be an outsider,

a threat, an object of pity and ridicule.

You will see the sharp edges of things you’d hidden before.

And maybe for good reasons.

You may lose home, partner, even children.

You may walk alone for years.

At parties you’ll be awkward; in the pub, shunned;

branded the loner, the loser, the killjoy.

You may withdraw, or seek new diversions

but new directions will emerge,

and with them, a new you.”

I marvelled.

“Yes,” I said. “I want this.

How long do I sign up for?

A lifetime is unthinkable.”

“Of course it is,” he said.

“These changes may take minutes or years,

but you only have to commit to today.”

I nodded, and gave him the bottle.

Roll up, roll up…

Bus crash photo, by Paul Clarke

…for all the fun of the fair

There’s a good chance you’ll see something today, if you haven’t already, about a pseudonymous online character for whom life seems to have taken a very recent and very awkward turn.

This character specialises in winding people up in extreme ways, in generating and thriving on outrage, in what we call (safely, for once) “trolling”.

“Hello people with some particular cause to be sensitive, hello public servant, hello anyone who may disagree with me – you’re a c**t, this is why, and I’m actually really on your side for saying it. Oh, and one day you’ll thank me that I stood up for those rights.” “Listen to me, notice me, tell all your friends how outraged you are and hope they join in…yada yada yada.”

I’m not linking to or referencing the specific details here, as I avoid doling out troll food – but he seems to have bitten off a big one this time. Repeated taunting and goading of a community who not only have some pretty good reasons behind their pride and sensitivity, but also a track record (first successful petition to be debated in Parliament, anyone?) of organising and supporting each other.

And support blends seamlessly into the formation of a mob, and from there, the path to actual, real-world, nastiness can spiral upwards rather quickly.

Thing is, our Defender of Freedom didn’t really do the tightest job of hiding his real identity. Pieces to camera in his natural voice behind a mask; social media accounts under his pseudonym showing real people with real names, in identifiable locations. Almost like he wanted to be outed eventually. Hmm.

And now that doxxing has happened. Personal information is out there. Whether it’s accurate or not is anybody’s guess. Whether the entire episode is some extraordinary situationist stunt to promote a brand of soap is still a possibility. (Ok, it’s not.)

Did he want to be unmasked? Was the online attention not enough any more? Did some sort of martyrdom – however you want to interpret that – represent a fitting culmination to a sustained period of effort?

OK, so what’s my point here?

It’s one of those cases that features a regular theme on this site: the gap between nice, clearly-marked, “how-the-world-should-be” and its messy reality.

My opinion is that you can’t slip a fag paper through the logical thought process that says one should have the freedom to cause the potential for offence. Any attempt to lock out that freedom will fail to work, and even if it did, would take more away from us than it gave us back. Potential is of course an important word here: the online media he uses are seen “by choice”, not forced into people’s homes…yeah, right. It doesn’t work like that, of course. Rubbernecking always trumps rationality.

Yes, we’ve built rules like banning public incitement to hatred, but they don’t adapt easily to media where my choice to subscribe (or my friends’) drive what I see. That word “public” again… but this is getting into more detail than I intend to in this post.

Back to the point: which is that this case made me think about how reactions, and change, really work. You know, in the normal world.

Where I grew up, when things were changing fast, like going through school, being a teenager, finding your feet in a new area – there was a contrast between the official boundaries intended to guide behaviour, and the “corrections” that would be applied by the environment. Bluntly: if you really pissed somebody off, you’d get thumped. And the rules? Irrelevant. At some point, with enough sustained “correcting” going on, there might be a shift in the official rules to keep us all sane, and we’d all lumber onwards.

The first bit of that process might be brutal, and horrible, of course. But it’s what happens. You can say what you like – be as offensive as you like – but it doesn’t mean there won’t be consequences. They might not be legal. Or a Good Thing. But you can’t just vanish them away. Do I condemn any violent action that might result from a case like this? Yes. Do I see that it might also be an inevitable component of something more wide-ranging? Yes to that too.

We need corrections. They’re part of making change: whether that’s to a price, a set of laws or to the behaviour of a society.

There are no smooth dials on society – or levers that leaders can pull to make big things happen as planned. (From Gove to Pickles to Duncan Smith the reality of this is now hitting hard, but that’s definitely another post.)

In today’s example I can’t help feeling there’s a certain irony in a professed free-market libertarian being prepared to test the market – and its possible application of a correction – in quite such an extreme and personal way.

I am very interested to see how this plays out. And we should take an interest, perhaps from a distance – without lobbing in a ton of troll food – on how it does play out. It matters. The seismic societal change here is one where everyone can create content and reach an audience (or be reached by it). Despite a lot of fury on the internetz, there’ve been remarkably few examples of that boiling over into actual, tangible, harm.

We’ve had outrages about Daily Mail articles, we’ve had anger about privilege and so much else, but something about this one feels very different. Hard people are involved here. For whom the jokey “I’ll do time…” phrase beloved of Private Eye’s spoof comments thread may well have a different resonance.

“It’s all fun and games until somebody loses an eye” as they say.

We’ll see, won’t we.