You might already know this. If you don’t then there is something you’ve never noticed before, that you will always notice from now on.
From time to time you will come across a report by someone who has visited one of Earth’s cold places. The Antarctic; The Himalayas; the meat fridge in Tesco. At some point in the report they will say something like “… I checked the thermometer – it’s still minus forty. Brrr ….”
The odds are that they are wrong. It’s quite likely that the temperature is much colder than that.
Why? I’m willing to bet they have a Mercury thermometer, and one of the things that “not a lot of people know” about mercury is that it freezes solid at around -39 degrees Celsius. So when it gets really cold – below minus 40 cold – a Mercury thermometer isn’t any use any more. Once that happens, and if it gets warm again reasonably quickly (not likely in Tesco, but very likely – according to Al Gore – in Antarctica) your thermometer is – to use a technical term – fuxxored, and you might as well throw it away and buy a new one.
By the way, there’s something else peculiar about minus forty: it’s the point at which the Fahrenheit and Celcius scales intersect. So if you know it really is minus forty, you don’t have to say which temperature scale you are using. If it’s minus forty Celsius, it’s also minus forty Fahrenheit.
One Thursday morning, I noticed a strange artefact in my eyesight; whenever I moved my eyes, I’d get a faint flash just below the centre of my vision. When it hadn’t cleared after a couple of hours, and I was out in the town anyway, I wandered around to my Opticians to see if I could make an appointment to get it checked out. The sign on the door said “Closed for stock-taking, back tomorrow”.
Friday morning, and I phone at 9am, “The Optician isn’t here yet, we’ll call you back to arrange an appointment”. 9:05am the phone rang, “Can you come in straight away?” “Ok,” I said.
A few eye drops, then back to the waiting room for 40 minutes while my pupils dilated, while trying to read the only newspaper available – the Express. What a dreadful rag; I was almost pleased when my vision became so blurred I had to put it aside.
Back in the consulting room, and after a slit-lamp examination the Optician told me she needed to refer me to the hospital eye clinic, as there’s something strange going on with my retina but she doesn’t really know what it is. I ask what they will do differently at the clinic and she tells me that they have the necessary tools to actually remove my eye so they can get a better look. I must have turned a little green, as she smiled and said “Well, they probably won’t take it all the way out, just lever it forward a bit.” I asked her to stop telling me what they might do, because if she told me any more I might be too scared to go to the appointment.
Phone rang in the early afternoon. The appointment was for today (Saturday), at 10:30am. Hmm, can’t be all that serious then.
10:30am this morning found my wife and me at the eye clinic (DW very kindly drove me there, as I thought I might be unable to drive after whatever the procedure might be). The Consultant, a Mr Lamassios, seemed a really nice guy, put me at my ease, sat me down. Quick vision test, then more eye drops. He tells me these are an anaesthetic, not the pupil dilator I was expecting.
“Uh, oh,” I thought.
“Is this the bit where you take my eye out?” says I.
“My optician told me she was sending me here because you have the tools to take my out out so you can get a better look inside.”
He laughed like a drain. “No, I only take eyes out when I’m not going to put them back in.”
Ok, so I’ve been April-fooled, I think. Hey, ho.
“Well, excuse me,” I said, “But I want to be seen by someone who knows how to put them back.”
More laughter, which is always a good thing. And it turns out the anaesthetic is so they can use an instrument to measure the pressure inside the eyeball. It contacts the front of the eye, so they don’t want you flinching. Fair enough.
Next more drops – these are the pupil dilators, and after a 20 minute wait it’s back to the slit lamp. Look up; hold that; up to the left; hold that; all the way to the left; … first the one eye then the other. Then more anaesthetic, he clags a lens directly onto one eye, and again more with the slit-lamp, brighter light this time. All the while I am fascinated by being able to see the network of blood vessels on my retina, I presume reflected back from the front of my eye.
I am reminded of that scene from Bladerunner. No, not the famous eyeball-squeezing scene when Deckard has to fight Roy Batty. The other one, at the beginning, where whats-his-name is testing Leon with the machine to see if he is a replicant. “You are in the desert, and you see a tortoise,” – “What’s a tortoise?” – “You know what a turtle is?” – “Uh, huh” – “Same thing.” Having a slit-lamp exam is rather like that, except it doesn’t normally end with you shooting the Consultant in the chest.
Anyway, it turns out I have a minor tear on my retina. It’s not anything he wants to do anything about immediately, and I’m to go back in three weeks to make sure it’s not got any worse. In the meantime, I’m to look out for [list of symptoms] and if any occur I should phone for an emergency appointment The emergency clinic is open three evenings a week. Hmm. “Please arrange to have an emergency within the following hours …”
The worst part of the whole experience, though, wasn’t anything that happened in the clinic. It was the drive home. We’ve had pretty overcast skies for the last several weeks, today was the first really sunny day for quite a while, and it happens when my pupils are artificially dilated. Even with sunglasses it was pretty uncomfortable. Obvously there really *is* a God, and he hates me.
Another five+ year old post, recovered from elsewhere. Why now? Why not?
What happened Last Thursday
I have a story to tell. It’s a true story, or at least as true as I remember. I suspect the new people on ecademy won’t find it particularly interesting, although some of the older hands might, Either way, I’m not really writing this for anyone but me. It’s a story I need to tell; have needed to tell for about five years. The story covers approximately nine months of my life and so it’s perhaps longer than most “blogs” you encounter. Sorry about that.
I will mention some people by name, but only where it is necessary to help the story along, or where the people concerned were influential to events. What I will not do is point my finger at anyone in accusation. Well, perhaps that’s not true: but I’ll only point at myself, because LT’s failure as a business was entirely my fault.
I’m quite sure I’ll upset someone by writing this. That’s not my intention, but you can’t write history about living people without that happening, and it’s likely I’ll be dead before most of the rest of the people in the story, so there doesn’t seem to be very much sense in waiting.
On the off-chance that anyone is still reading, I’ll start with a very brief overview of Last Thursday.
That Very Brief Overview in Full
Last Thursday was – and still is – a Social Networking site based on drupal, a later branch of the code upon which ecademy is based, and initially owned and operated by five (later to become six) members of ecademy. It’s inception in late summer 2005 was partly a reaction to ecademy’s rules at the time, which were somewhat stricter than they are now. This was the time of the ecademy swear filter (which hasn’t really gone away, it just doesn’t operate when you are signed in) ecademy jail, (which has gone away, at least in name), and fairly regular bannings (which don’t appear to happen all that often nowadays). My involvement in Last Thursday began in August 2005, and ended around May 2006. Most of that time was quite stressful.
It began with ecademy.
I joined ecademy one Thursday in November 2004, didn’t really look at it again until the weekend, but once I did I became captivated, and began my paid subscription within a few hours. I didn’t know whether it would be worth it – I was, as I saw it, just a nobody with no business experience, and I was over-awed by all the high-flying business-types on ecademy.
Fairly quickly I became involved with some local “regional clubs” and made some contacts relatively local to me. It wasn’t difficult in those days – I lived in Milton Keynes – networking capital of the UK – and so there were plenty of people keen to make my acquaintance. Through Lawrence Archard I was introduced to the Baldock regional club, at that time run jointly by Mike Marr and Gary Stapleton, and the monthly meetings became an essential part of my networking, as it did many others – people came to that monthly meeting – and for that meeting alone – from near and far, even from as far away as the USA. But more about Baldock later.
In February 2005 I attended an “Open Space” session, hosted by Jim Wade, for the Business Referral Club. I won”t go into detail about what Open Space is – if anyone is interested drop me a PM and I’ll introduce you to Jim, who can explain it far better than I possibly could.
I was quite scared when I arrived at the event because I wasn’t sure how I would fit in with all these high-flyers. Would they look down on me? The one thing I was genuinely looking forward to was meeting Mitch Sullivan, who had assured me he would be there. In the meantime I “mingled”.
While I was mingling I was introduced, or plucked up courage and introduced myself, to a number of even then well known ecademists. Mike Segall, Patrick Moore (no, not the astronomer!), Fay Olinsky (BTW you ignored me, Fay – although you were at the time knee deep in Jamaican pancakes or something similar, so I forgive you). William Buist, Kate Shaw, others; people of whom I was in some awe. But all throughout I had half an eye on the door, watching for Mitch.
I should explain. Mitch is a phenomenon. Those of you who joined ecademy more recently than about September 2005 won’t understand, but Mitch – well, Mitch was in those days the King of Blog. I’m not even going to try to explain why; you’d have to read his stuff to understand. That isn’t to say that everyone liked what he had to say, but that’s when you knew he was at his best.
Anyway, Mitch arrived, I made my excuses to whoever I was talking to at the time and made a bee-line.
We did the pleasantries; “Good journey?” “Liked your blog the other day.” “You did? Yours wasn’t bad either.” And so on. Mitch introduced me to Jim Wade, and assured me that Jim is “one of the good guys”. I was pretty sure at that stage that all ecademists were good guys, but I didn’t want to upset Mitch, so I didn’t say anything. And anyway, Jim seemed a straightforward kind of guy, if a little distracted, since he was running the show.
We took our seats, Mitch and I, and after a minute or two I owned up to my fears. “I feel a bit out of place here, ” I said. “Surrounded by all these heavy-weights, and me, just a bloke.”
“They are all c***s,” Mitch reassured me. “Just c***’s.” (The asterisked word can’t be written on ecademy, but it shares three letters with “Aunt”.)
I remember I laughed. I didn’t believe him. It wasn’t until much later that I came to realise that everyone is someone’s Auntie.
Back to Baldock
Sometime early in the summer of 2005, at one of the Baldock meetings, Nick Gendler and I were talking about ecademy and the now relatively frequent bannings. Nick asked me what I’d do if I was banned. I shrugged. Not something I was really worried about, but if it happened, I’d probably start my own networking site. It was one of those throwaway comments that you forget about almost immediately – particularly when you have someone else to drive you home and the bar is still open. And I did, and it was, so I did.
One Friday in August, the day before I went on holiday, I received a phone call from Gary Stapleton.
“Do you remember talking to Nick about setting up a networking website if you were ever kicked off ecademy?”
“Yes,” I said.
“Well, how do you fancy setting one up anyway?”
“Sure, ” I said. Well how hard could it be?
When I got home from holiday the following Saturday – a fantastic week of walking in the Lake District – I set to work. By Sunday afternoon we had a basic site up and running in a sub-domain of my then business website – and Gary announced its arrival in the Last Thursday club he had set up on ecademy.
I should mention at this point that Gary had a specific business plan in mind, and to fulfil that plan he had identified several roles, the holders of which he recruited from his ecademy contacts. I was the code monkey (I gained a grander title than that later, but that’s really all I was). Paul Turgoose was Marketing Director. Steve Bridson Sales. Helen Moore – forgive me, Helen, I can’t remember what your official title was. I think Gary was CEO. Damon Surridge joined the team a couple of months later as MD.
The business plan
It wasn’t particularly imaginative (that’s not a criticism, Gary, if you are reading). It was simply this: get a networking site started, bootstrap it and then run it for a couple or three years. As soon as it was up and running properly we’d sell it for a few million and split the proceeds. I think we all bought into it – I certainly did. But first we had to get things going.
Social networks need members, and they are the one thing you don’t have when you first start out. The challenge is to recruit enough members to reach a critical mass, after which point the site becomes self-sustaining. Without enough members posting interesting content, people get bored and move on to pastures new. Gary’s first attempts gained us maybe a hundred and fifty members; when you realise that the active membership of a typical site is around 5% to 10% of the actual membership, you’ll appreciate we had a problem. If we were to survive, we needed to get some more people on board.
Let’s back up a little
If you’ve been around ecademy for a while; if you have happened to notice my blogs and comments; you might have noticed a certain “style” I have. I tend to be direct in my postings; this annoys some people, and that is how it should be. I also accept that occasionally I am too direct. That’s not how it should be, and I’m working on that. But …
That style I learned from usenet – the predecessor to web forums like ecademy. On usenet you stand or fall on what you know, and what you share of that knowledge. It really is the nearest thing I’ve come across to a meritocracy. When you arrive on usenet you arrive empty handed, without kudos, and you have to earn your place. That might sound harsh, but I much prefer it to pink-and-fluffy love-ins mixed with a liberal dose of blog-verts, which was what ecademy had become back then.
And I had this idea. A web-forum which operated on the same principles as usenet. I’d not seen it done before, but I was convinced it would work. The vision was of a community which ran on cooperative grounds. Where any moderation that was required was done by the members. Not by hiding or cancelling posts and comments, but by debate and argument and (dis)approval. Where grown-up people behaved like grown-ups, and chastised or sanctioned those who behaved like children or were abusive or were spammers. Where anyone was permitted to make an a*** of themselves, and from time to time everyone did – because we are all human.
That was my vision. The basis of the dream. It was also my first mistake. And my fellow directors first mistake was to not tell me it was crazy to even attempt it. Perhaps I was too persuasive.
Back to Bootstrapping
We needed to get members on board. We had a nice site, but we were something of a backwater. We knew that we ultimately wanted to become a pay site, and we also knew that we needed members or nobody would be prepared to pay to join. If you want to run a networking site there is one important fact that you need to bear in mind. The site is not the product. The members are.
In desperation, we hit on an idea. The idea was this: anyone who joins Last Thursday before the end of October 2005 would enjoy one year’s free membership. Normal price £97.97 – you know the drill.
According to expectation, recruitment started to increase – word had obviously got around. But it still wasn’t enough. We needed a miracle.
Early in October 2005, Jim Wade posed a blog on ecademy that the management didn’t like. It was something to do with an interview on Radio Four, where Penny made some claims about ecademy which Jim questioned. He was banned immediately.
Jim was at that time a member of Mitch’s ecademy club “Reservoir Dogs”. Although he couldn’t post to the club – banned members can’t do anything, not even log on – somehow he was able to email the other members. Somewhere on one of my machines I still have a copy of that email, but in essence it said: “Huh? What did I say that was so terrible?”
Speaking of “terrible”, I almost forgot about Mitch. By coincidence, the same day, Mitch posted a blog. There is something you should understand about Mitch’s blogs. Mitch doesn’t post blogs about juggling, or cake making, or cars. Nor does he post blogs about how awful it is that the postman didn’t deliver his Love Film DVD on time, or how much better the Cornish Pasties were from the bakery near the house he used to live compared to the bakery nearest to this new place. Mitch’s blogs ask questions which you have to dig deep to answer. Well, sometimnes. Other times he just tries to shock you out of your comfortable niceness, or make you laugh or cry. Often all three at the same time.
So: on the day Jim was banned for asking a question, Mitch was banned for posting his usual challenging stuff. I didn’t even see it. It, along with Mitch and all the rest of his content, was gone within a few minutes. All I saw was Mitch’s email (remember, banned members can’t talk to ecademists) expressing his astonishment at having being banned for something so – well, run-of-the-mill.
You said there was a miracle
Oh, sorry. I digressed a bit. Yes, there was a miracle. It turns out I wasn’t not the only one who thought highly of Jim and Mitch. When Jim and Mitch were banned, a number of active ecademists were quite upset. Some of them were upset enough to follow Jim and Mitch to Last Thursday. Well, in those days, pre-Facebook – where else were they going to go? Our membership doubled, quadrupled, and so on. We hit the 1000 mark well before the end of October; the cut-off, as I am sure you remember, for the “free one year’s membership”.
There was a pause in membership at around the 998 mark. We’d been seeing sometimes a couple of dozen sign-ups a day, and then when the counter got to 998 it just seemed to stop. We waited for ages for member 999 but they never appeared; it seemed to me that everyone was hoping to claim member number 1,000. Finally I added a new account, and recruitment started again. Weird. But there were a number of weird things happened like that. For example we noticed that the site was busiest during the working day, then got quiet around 5-6pm – we assumed it was “drive time”, and then started to pick up in the evening but never reaching the same level of activity as it had during the day. Weekends were reasonably busy, but 9-5 on weekdays could often be mental.
This was the bulk of our “easy” membership – they had all arrived in a flurry of anger at Jim and Mitch’s bannings and they wanted blood. Any blood would do. And we’d promised one year’s free membership for anyone who signed up before the end of October.
I can tell you are way ahead of me: you know where this is going.
I told you already I had a vision of a web forum where the members moderated themselves. Although I don’t recall ever putting it this way at the time, essentially this meant shouting down anything you disagreed with.
And so we set out our stall. We were the antithesis of ecademy. We would not moderate. We would not censor. We would only ever remove posts if they were deemed to be illegal. You could say anything here, as long as it was legal and you were prepared to stand by it, it was ok. This was our USP, and our members bought into it.
In the early days, it seemed to be effective. The few members who were active seemed for the most part to rub along very well together, and when the odd disagreement did occur it was in every case cleared up by discussion. “Look,” I said to the other directors at every opportunity. “Community moderation really works!” And it certainly appeared that way.
However, once the site started to fill up – particularly with angry, resentful people who needed to lash out at someone – the trouble started. Some just wanted the opportunity to post swearwords, or photos of people vomiting (I kid you not). People liked being able to assume an alias, and use a “funny” picture on their profile (ecademy at the time insisted that people’s profile pictures we photographs of themselves. I don’t know if this rule is still in place, but it doesn’t appear to be enforced any more).
Some members wanted to poke fun at ecademy members who hadn’t yet come over to LT – some even posted material which bordered on the libellous, or even crossed the line on some occasions. Some of these were removed, and the member would be notified of the reason, and they usually accepted it, although not always happily.
It should be said that not everyone on LT was posting this stuff. Many, I think probably most, members just wanted a networking site free of censorship. Many of them didn’t like what was being posted but I think they realised, just as LT’s directors did, that freedom to post whatever you like and can stand by means just that: you can post anything you like. There were arguments, and falling’s-out, and a lot of members we would have liked to keep asked me to remove their accounts. I’d usually ask them to reconsider; they were the kind of member we wanted (yes, I know how that sounds) but the majority stuck by their decision and so were blocked.
So: for the first couple of weeks after the mass arrival, almost every other post was about ecademy, its members or its officers. “They’ll settle down eventually,” we (the directors) said to one another. “They can’t keep harping on about ecademy forever.” But as it turned out, they really could. It seemed that ecademy was a well that never ran dry. Two weeks turned to three, then to a month. But finally, just when we felt the gig was up and we had to either throw in the towel or introduce moderation, the anti-ecademy postings seemed to slow down to a trickle.
Interlude: Finding work
In the months since August I’d been spending so much time working on the Last Thursday code that I’d not really had much time for anything else, much less paying work, but that couldn’t go on for much longer. I needed to find work. As luck would have Gordon (I forget his surname), a former colleague from my contracting days, called out of the blue telling me there was a contract for a COBOL programmer at a company where I’d worked for a few years in the Nineties and early Naughties. I didn’t know the manager of the department concerned, but I did have a few contacts in the company, so made a couple of calls. I was interviewed a couple of days later.
The interview was strange, by the way. When Gordon called he told me that he’d been interviewed, but had been rejected. When he asked why, the manager who interviewed him was kind enough to tell him it was because he failed to answer a particular question in “the right way”. The question went something like this:
“You are working at GCHQ, attending a meeting in a sealed room with an “A-Team” who have been selected to solve a particular problem. Someone has come up with a possible solution, but it can only work if the amount of water – H2O – on Earth is within one degree of magnitude of a particular number. You have no reference materials, and no internet access, how would you go about establishing whether the solution could work?”
Apparently, this was a question which was designed to reveal how the candidate thinks. In my case, with fore-warning, it really only tested my ability to use a search engine. Armed with some figures which I had googled the day before regarding the circumference of the earth, the average land coverage, and the average depth of Earth’s oceans, plus my existing knowledge of how to work out the volume of a sphere (which is the only maths you really need) and realising I only had to be within one order of magnitude, I passed the interview with flying colours.
It was a bit of a shame; I much prefer technical interviews, where they ask about database triggers, SQL syntax, common storage or esoteric COBOL verbs. I guess I’m a bit of a show-off when it comes to my craft. But hey, I got the job, so that was ok.
Back to Last Thursday
Even though I was working in a new department, it is inevitable that I’d want to catch up with former colleagues too. After a couple of weeks I found myself chatting with my old team, and somewhat hesitantly I told them about my new venture: a networking site. I told them the URL, said I’d be pleased if they would have a look and let me know what they thought. I’ll admit, I was proud of what we’d accomplished, and how far we’d come in such a short time.
The drive home from London was mercifully short. You know how some days the usual obstructions just don’t appear; there was no snarl-up on the A40; Staples Corner was a dream; J10 for Luton was like it must have been in the old days, before they built an airport there. I arrived home 40 minutes after I’d set out, at around 5pm.
The first thing I did after kissing the family “hello” was to log on to Last Thursday, see what was new. Top of the blogs list was a post by a very angry member: “Why Thomas Power Is Somebody’s Aunt” (That wasn’t really the title – I couldn’t post the real title on ecademy). I read the blog, and it was a diatribe about something quite trivial (IMHO) that Thomas had done which had upset the author.
I’ll admit it, I flipped. I’d just invited some of my friends and former colleagues to take a look at the site, and now this Aunt had started the anti-ecademy stuff again. I wrote a long, shouty blog with the unassuming title of “I RECOMMEND YOU READ THE WHOLE OF THIS POST!” I admit it, it wasn’t subtle.
Anyway, what it basically said was: “This isn’t on. We aren’t ecademy, and we aren’t interested in ecademy. If you want to slag off ecademy or it’s members or officers, do it somewhere else. If anyone posts anything else negative about ecademy on this site, I’ll ban them, and they won’t be coming back.”
My fellow directors thought I’d gone mad, and maybe I had, but hey. Freedom has its limits.
There was a pause for a few hours (this was evening, and would normally be very busy, with several of new blogs an hour). Then, after a while, the protests began. Some members complained that it was censorship. I agreed, and said so, but it was how things were going to be. Some asked if they’d get their money back if they were banned. I told them they would (it seemed the fairest thing to do.)
For a couple of weeks it worked, but then the anti-ecademy stuff started again. Quite subtle to begin with, we noticed it but nobody really crossed the line, and foolishly we thought “as long as it only stays at that level, it’s ok”, and let it pass. We should have exercised a zero-tolerance policy, but weren’t smart enough to do it, because if you let something mild through, and then something a bit stronger, then yes, there *is* a line to be drawn, and *yes* you do know when someone has crossed it, but they can then point at the ones you didn’t moderate as evidence their post is ok.
We also knew that the first time we banned someone would be the last time we saw the majority of our members. I think the learning point for me here was: don’t make threats you aren’t prepared to carry out.
Finally, in desperation, we hit upon a solution. Up until that point practically all the site’s content was in the form of blogs. We had a handful of forums but they were mostly for things like bug reports, suggestions for improvements, and for asking questions about the site.
The big idea was to move the member’s content into closed clubs. A basic drupal install is essentially all open or all closed. I wrote a “club” module which emulated the drupal forums, but enabled privacy (a bit like the “groups” on ecademy, although with some differences). We set up some “official” clubs and also enabled members to create and manage their own clubs. We appointed member moderators to police the public, official clubs, and gave them role-specific user ids to help keep them anonymous.
To the clubs module also added the concept of a “library”; a club in which no new postings were possible, but members of the library club could read the content. All the past blogs were moved into the library, so all those old threads were still available to members but couldn’t be added to. We considered deleting the old stuff and starting again, but in the end we felt that the content was the property of the authors, so it was only fair that they should have access to it.
People could still operate their own blog, but it was isolated from the rest. There was no place where you could go to view all the blogs in one place. The idea was that people could use the clubs socially with other members, but also have a blog which would behave more like a personal blog, even though it was on the LT site. This was, actually, a dreadful idea on a social site, and not something we could have sustained long-term, but it was a stopgap solution; for the time being we needed to lose the “melting pot” which was the cause of our problems. The irony is that that same melting pot is the lifeblood of a site like LT.
There were complaints, tantrums, some people left (actually, lots of people left: they left to the site which was eventually to become the new Last Thursday) but we stuck to our guns. We had to. We knew that if we didn’t do something it was only a matter of time before a writ flopped through the letterbox. We also knew that the anti-ecademy content was driving people away. Who wants to join a site whose primary focus is to slag off the site next door? And a social networking site needs people; one run as a business especially so.
We also changed some of our policies, the most important of which was that people must post using their real name (remember, prior to that, we’d allowed people to post under aliases).
We muddled along like that for a few months, but in reality, we directors had had the stuffing knocked out of us. The site wasn’t making money: recall that most of our members had a year free (although some were gracious enough to pay anyway, for which we were grateful) and what little money we had was being eaten up by hosting fees. I don’t recall what was the final straw, but one day in May 2006 all but one director resigned, gave up their shares, and became ordinary members. I agreed to stay on as techie until a replacement was found, although as I suspected there really wasn’t anything for me to do.
Within a couple of weeks Gary sold gave the site, domain names, everything to Richard Alberg. I’m not sure how long it was before Richard also threw in the towel although he did last quite a while, and since I’ve not asked him his reasons for doing so I won’t speculate on that here. But ultimately the keys to the domain were handed over and LT is now run on a not-for-profit basis.
It’s a long time since I’ve looked in over there; John’s policy is to block inactive accounts, so I don’t expect I have a login any more. But the last time I visited there was some ecademy stuff but not as much as there used to be. Maybe we just needed to hang on in there, but frankly, six years was rather too long to wait.
I promised at the beginning of this blog that I would point the finger at only one person, and I stick by that. I, and I alone, was the author of the Last Thursday’s failure. Not the members. Not my fellow directors. It was me, who believed that it was possible to run a site without moderation, and who staked everything on that belief, who was to blame.
Was it a bad experience? At the end, yes. I fell out with a number of people who up until then I had considered friends. I’ve since made peace with some, hope eventually to make peace with all. And I accept, finally, that none of the people with whom I was angry were to blame at all. They were just behaving in the way that people do.
Would I do it again? Possibly, although probably not for money. I learned a great deal from “The LT Experience” and I’ve helped several others set up networking sites. Nothing on the scale of Facebook yet, but there’s always time.
Another one from some years ago, when I was a member of the now-defunct business networking site, ecademy. Only two comments in this preface: First, I’m surprised that the links still work – after a fashion, at least. The new owner had his developers hack the guts out of ecademy and so top-posts are mangled beyond legibility, and much of the following discussions – where the real value lay – has been lost. Second, the phrase we came up with still resonates with me. At the time, I didn’t really expect it to stay with me as long as it has.
Anyone who has been around ecademy for a while might recall a blog I wrote a few years ago on a fictitious self improvement program named CPR. This was a light-hearted poke at a something which seemed to be quite in vogue at the time: Core Process. The blog enjoyed a brief flurry of activity and I hope the participants had fun but after a fairly short time it disappeared from the front page and was forgotten. Or so I thought.
A couple of weeks ago I received a telephone call from Nick Heap. Nick explained that part of his business offering is Core Process and he also runs a Core Process group on Linked In. He told me that someone had recently posted a link to my CPR blog, and that was the reason for his call. My first thought was that I was going to get a telling off but instead, Nick asked me if I would like to try Core Process for myself. It would take a couple of hours at the most, and I might find it useful. If nothing else, at least I’d then know a bit more about what it was. He also said it would be OK for me to post my thoughts about it in a blog.
Although I’m quite sceptical about such things, honest scepticism requires that from time to time, if not all of the time, we re-examine our attitudes and beliefs, so I accepted Nick’s offer and we arranged a call on Skype a few days later.
The conversation followed a set format, which Nick outlined at the beginning of the call. Without going into too much detail, Nick first gave a brief history of what Core Process is and how it came to be invented, after which I was asked to come up with three or four stories about events during my life when I had felt particularly “good”. I found this difficult, but managed to dredge up three stories and we were going to move on to the next stage when another story came into my head and I asked to tell it. During the course of each story, Nick captured the essence of it by jotting down a handful of key words.
Next Nick asked me to choose one story to focus upon and to extract from it three verbs and three nouns which describe the main themes running through that story. From these we then settled on two words – again a verb and a noun – which was intended to encapsulate the theme that ran through the chosen story. Coming up with the noun was easy; almost obvious. But it took several minutes to settle on the verb, but when I did it was a real “Aha!” moment. Surprisingly to me, neither of the words was in the original list.
Once the two-word phrase had been selected, we tested it by examining the other stories: was it a good fit? It turned out it was for three of them and could be “made to fit” in the remaining story, although it wasn’t perfect. However, that story had been told in desperation while I was anxiously racking my brains for stories where I had “felt good” and so I wasn’t too concerned about that.
There was a final check which I won’t spoil for anyone who might decide to explore their own Core Process, but I have to say it was the only point where my sceptical gland came into play during the entire conversation.
Overall, I was left with a good impression of the process and of Nick. He has a very good voice on the telephone and although I was a little nervous at the start of the call his relaxed manner and reassuring tone put me at my ease almost immediately. My moments of brief panic when I got “stuck” at various stages were calmed by Nick’s reassurances that this was a normal reaction and to just relax; the story will come.
At the time I felt elated and I almost wanted to write this blog straight away, however I’ve been on too many “personal skills” courses when in corporate life to not recognise that the novelty might wear off and I might feel very differently about it after a few days. It’s been a little over a week now, and indeed that initial elation has faded somewhat but I’m still more than happy with the result.
Will determining my “Core Process” change my life in any significant way? Probably not. I don’t think I subscribe to the central idea of Core Process: that there is a single theme running through each of our lives which Core Process can expose. On the other hand I am confident that it captures an important part of my personality, quite probably the most important and almost certainly that which informs much of what I do and how I think and behave. I think what I am saying is that I am no longer sceptical about Core Process: I don’t buy the whole package but I think it will be useful to me.
I’m not going to tell you what we came up with, mainly because it has real meaning only to me: as a phrase taken on its own it is open to various interpretations, none of which would match mine.
I expect this post will make some people laugh: that’s fine – laughter is good, and I used to laugh too so in that sense I deserve it. I hope I’ve done justice to the process in my description and I’m sure I must have forgotten some significant detail but my excuse is that I was concentrating too hard on the various activities to take very much notice of how the process actually worked.
If this blog has made you curious about Core Process, please get in touch with Nick who can tell you more about it. The challenge I have now is to work out how to condense this post into a testimonial.
In the 1939 film The Wizard of Oz we discover at the end that the events of the story are a dream from which Dorothy eventually wakes (this is different from the book The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L Frank Baum upon which the film was based.) We can empathise with Dorothy – when we look back on our dreams in the minutes after waking we are often amused at how ridiculous they are in retrospect but during the dream it all seemed perfectly logical.
Philosophers and Writers have long speculated about this inability to tell the difference between dreams and “reality”.
In the 4th Century BC, Zhuangzhi said:
Once Chuang Chou dreamt he was a butterfly, a butterfly flitting and fluttering around, happy with himself and doing as he pleased. He didn’t know he was Chuang Chou. Suddenly he woke up and there he was, solid and unmistakable Chuang Chou. But he didn’t know if he was Chuang Chou who had dreamt he was a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming he was Chuang Chou. Between Chuang Chou and a butterfly there must be some distinction! This is called the Transformation of Things. (2, tr. Burton Watson 1968:49)
Zhuangzi could not know whether he really was Zhuangzi and not a butterfly dreaming of being Zhuangz.
Descartes expanded on this with cogito ergo sum – I think, therefore I am – explaining that all any of us can know is that we exist; nothing more. And the Brain in a Vat thought experiment considers the impossibility of knowing whether we are experiencing the Real World or some artificially induced view of the world.
In H.P Lovecraft’s short story, Polaris, the subject of the story awakes from a dream of guarding a city on a far off planet, only to realise with horror that it is this apparent reality which is the dream, he has fallen asleep at his post and the city’s enemies will now pass undetected.
And so on.
But recently another idea has begun to penetrate the public consciousness. The idea that we do not dwell in a physical universe but are, in fact, simulated beings in a highly-sophisticated virtual reality environment. We have already become used to this idea through the mediums of film, such as The Matrix series, or in novels and short stories by writers such as Greg Egan, a Computer Programmer turned Science Fiction Writer whose stories are centered around human-like consciousnesses inhabiting virtual worlds, or people whose brains have been replaced by sophisticated Quantum computers known as Qusps. But what many people don’t realise is that this idea is being seriously explored by modern philosophers, perhaps the most recent and best known of whom is Nick Bostrom, whose Simulation Argument rests on three propositions one of which, Bostrom argues, must be true:
“… at least one of the following propositions is true: (1) the human species is very likely to go extinct before reaching a “posthuman” stage; (2) any posthuman civilization is extremely unlikely to run a significant number of simulations of their evolutionary history (or variations thereof); (3) we are almost certainly living in a computer simulation. It follows that the belief that there is a significant chance that we will one day become posthumans who run ancestor-simulations is false, unless we are currently living in a simulation.”
Most people who come across this argument dismiss it, believing the notion that we are living in a simulation is nonsense: “Of course it’s not a simulation. I can look around me, see the world, touch it, smell, taste, feel it. It seems pretty real to me.” But how can we be so sure? Our five senses – sight, hearing, touch, smell and taste – are as far as we know all relayed to us. We do not experience anything directly; the information from our senses is first filtered and interpreted by the brain. Those sensations could just as easily by artificially induced; like the Brain in the Vat, we have no way of knowing whether our experience is real or fed to us by sophisticated Virtual Reality software.
Consciousness: We find it hard to believe that a computer could be conscious. But why? Personally, I find it just as plausible that a lump of meat can be conscious – an opinion shared by the machines in Terry Besson’s short story They’re Made Out Of Meat. And many theorists and futurists point to the year 2045 as the most likely point when machine intelligence – that is, simulated intelligence – will finally equal and then begin to surpass our own.
We make a distinction between our normal conscious state and the unconscious state when we are asleep. But nobody can agree what consciousness is; neither Philosophers, Psychologists, Neuroscientists or anyone else. Some even suggest that consciousness doesn’t actually exist, and that what we experience as consciousness is an illusion.
Free Will: In a strictly rule-based simulation such as might be implemented on a computer, there would be no such thing as free will. Since everything comes from software operating according to predefined rules, then it follows that everything that happens will be predetermined (although it might not be knowable in advance). So since we have free will, we can’t be a simulation, right? Wrong. Time and time again, experiments to determine the extent of our free will have come to the same conclusion: we don’t have it. In his classic experiment, Benjamin Livet found that the decision to perform an action actually trailed behind the neurological impulses required to perform the action. In other words, his subjects decided to do something only after they had done it. Of course, there might be something wrong with the experimental setup, or the experimenters might have made some errors, but similar experiments have been performed many times and all with the same result.
I’d argue that we can’t know for sure that we are not part of a computer simulation. This does beg the question, though: how could we tell if we were? Some ideas.
Software bugs: What if we could find a fault in the software? In modern programming terms, perhaps we could discover a state which will put part of the program into an infinite loop, or cause a variable to overflow. Of course, we don’t know what this would look like until we try it, but perhaps we could keep an eye out for anything “out of the ordinary” which might be an indication that here is an area worthy of further exploration.
Easter Eggs: Computer programmers are notorious for adding what are known as “Easter Eggs” into software. In-jokes, extra (but usually non-useful) functions, handy tricks and so on. What if the programmers who created our simulated world added some easter eggs to our simulation?
There might be some clues already lurking, as you might expect, in the realm of the very small; I hardly dare say the phrase, but here goes – Quantum Physics:
Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle states that we can’t know with any accuracy both the position and the momentum of a particle. Observation of one of these prevents any observation of the other. This strange phenomenon might be as a result of the programmers attempting to limit the amount of computer processing power required, similar to the way in which computer games only render information which is deemed necessary at a particular time. 3D games, for example, only calculate for display those parts of the virtual world the player can see.
The double-slit experiment has as it’s explanation a single, indivisible particle – a photon – being in two places at the same time. Unless the particle is “virtual” then it is hard to see how this is possible; and if the particles are virtual, doesn’t it follow that everything else that is made from those particles is also virtual? Aside: this odd result might just be the evidence of a software bug mentioned earlier.
In A Brief History Of Time and elsewhere, Stephen Hawking explains that there is nothing in the Laws of Physics which would prevent the universe working equally well if time ran in either direction. This rather odd-seeming result might suggest an entirely deterministic universe.
Rising uncharacteristically early this morning, I turned on the radio and tuned to Radio 4. By chance I caught the tail end of an Avant Garde poetry program, and although I’m not normally impressed with such things, preferring more traditional forms of poetry, I was blown away by the simplicity of structure, the tempo, and the apparent lack of respect for any established poetical conventions. Even though the words have no apparent meaning in themselves, they speak directly to the subconscious in a way I’ve not encountered before. Wonderful stuff!
I Googled the piece but have been unable to find any references to the poet or his/her work online, so I wonder if anyone can help? Here’s a fragment; if anyone recognises it I’d be grateful for a pointer to the poet’s other work.
Northwest 3 or 4,
Fair, mainly, good.
3 or 4, occasionally 5.
In Rockall, backing,
South or southwest,
5, occasionally 6.
To moderate, occasionally.
Or good, occasionally.
This is something I wrote a few years ago for a Social Networking Platform which, I’m sorry to say, no longer exists.
“What’s the best way to blog on ecademy?” I’m not sure I know the answer. I can give you my answer, but I’m not so arrogant to imagine it’s the right answer. Judging from the views my blogs get, I’m not even that good a blogger. Anyway, here goes. Please don’t take any of these as being directed at any one person. Please DO take them as being specific to ecademy.
Don’t blog continually about your business area. It’s OK to blog about it sometimes. Blog about what really interests you – not something that you think will score a lot of reads or comments. When you blog, you are in effect saying “look at me, this is what I’m like, this is what I’m about.” So be yourself. Share your interests, your doubts, and only ask questions you care about the answers to.
I like to offer snippets about things that have happened to me – for example my run-in with a good humoured dental surgeon recently, or the day I murdered my daughter. Sometimes things make me cross, and so I blog about them. Aye, and sometimes I misuse the system, blogging to draw attention to something that annoys me on here. And at the moment I’m probably blogging too much about the meeting at Bedford. (Will you be coming along, by the way?)
Don’t blog for google; blog for you. If you write about things which interest you, you’ll attract people who share your interests.
Comment more than you blog. Ok, so google doesn’t pick up your comments, but see above. People like to get comments on their blog, it shows them that someone is interested. Share the love.
When you write, try to write intelligibly. You don’t have to be an English master, but at least proof-read what you have written. And use the conventions of English – sentences, paragraphs, punctuation… Capital letters at the start of sentences are a real bonus. If you can’t spell, use a spallchucker. Ecademy has a “preview” button so you can read what you have written before committing it to the database. Use it.
If you object to something someone writes, be reasonable. Just because you don’t like it, it doesn’t mean you are right. If you absolutely must comment negatively, try to do so in such a way that leaves the other person some wiggle room, or lets them see that you accept that you might be wrong. Unless they are obviously trying to scam people then if you *really* disagree, keep shtum ot take it to PM. Do as you would be done by.
Be prepared to get some criticism, and listen to it when it comes. If someone says something negative about your blogging style or subject matter, try not to get angry or hurt by it; try to see what it is that they object to, and consider whether it’s fair comment. If you decide it is, try to change.
Watch the master bloggers, and learn from them. Try to emulate them where you have the ability, but recognise your limitations. I’d love to be able to blog with the panache of Andreas Wiedow, the intelligence of Steve Holmes, or the wit of Richard Jones and James Coakes – and believe me I’ve tried – but these people are geniuses at what they do, and my contributions will always fall short of the mark.
Don’t try to be witty unless you are witty. Don’t try to be clever unless you are clever. Don’t blog about your compassion unless you are compassionate. Don’t blog about love unless you know about love. And so on.
I think most of the above can be summed up into three statements: Be yourself. Be comprehensible. Be decent.
This piece by Andy West is quite long, but definitely worth reading to the end.
NOTE: as of today this Post is up at Climate Etc, the well known Lukewarmer blog of atmospheric scientist Judith Curry: http://judithcurry.com/2015/07/03/a-key-admission-regarding-climate-memes/
The version as posted here has a very short extra section (5), which refers to Appendices tacked onto the end that aren’t at the Climate Etc version, one of which explores Ben Pile’s position on the L2015 and pause memes.
At the beginning of May, psychologist Stephan Lewandowsky brought out a new paper continuing his theme of highly eccentric challenges to climate skeptics and skeptical positions. Previous works include ‘Moon hoax’ and the (later withdrawn) ‘Recursive Fury’, dismantled here, here, and here. Naomi Oreskes is one of the co-authors of the new paper (L2015), which focuses upon the social psychology surrounding the concept of ‘The Pause’ in Global Warming. L2015 claims that a ‘seepage’ of contrarian /…
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My wife tells me I don’t like MacDonald’s burgers, so I never, ever, eat at MacDonald’s. But just before Christmas I was driving back home from the Great Metropolis that is Milton Keynes, and after being stuck in traffic for about five hours, I pulled off at a service station for a comfort break.
Once my call of nature had been attended to, I returned to my car, all set to rejoin the 200 mile long car park which, for that day, was the M6. Approaching the exit, I noticed the MacDonald’s, and also noticed that it had a drive through.
On impulse, I slowed down and joined the queue for the window. I have no idea why; eating a MacDonald’s burger is a balancing act at the best of times; the so-called “salad” is so covered in oil and animal waste that you have to hold the bun just-so to avoid the contents slipping out and landing on your lap. While driving on the motorway it would be a serious challenge. But join the queue I did.
After a wait of around thirty minutes – after the first ten of which I was regretting joining the queue, and wondering whether it would be possible to reverse out past the people-carrier that had pulled in behind me, I arrived at the order window.
“Just a Big Mac, please,” I said.
“You want fries with that?” the skinny, rather bored looking teenage girl asked.
“Umm, yeah, ok; yes, please,” I said. Heck, why not? If I’m going to be juggling a slippery burger, I might as well add to the fun by fiddling with flaccid strips of potato as well.
“Pay at the next window,” she said.
“Thanks,” I said. I didn’t drive on, because I was almost bumper to bumper with the Volvo in front; the owner of which apparently owned another car which was, of course, a Porsche. At least, that’s according to the cheap vinyl sticker attached to the Volvo’s boot – whose real purpose, it appeared to me, was to cover the paint scratches over a large dent. If I’d been in a better mood I might have chuckled. But I wasn’t, so I didn’t.
Gradually my patience was rewarded by being able to move forward, foot by mind-numbing foot until, some twenty minutes later, I arrived at the second window. The occupant was somewhat older, a forty-something chap with Brylcreemed hair (I didn’t know they still sold Brylcreem) and a very cheery smile.
“How’s it going?” he asked, handing me a paper bag which I presumed (correctly, as it turned out on further inspection) contained my tea.
“Yeah, not bad,” I said. “How much do I owe you?”
“Well, there’s the funny thing,” he said. “The guy who was just here paid for your order.”
I considered this for a moment. Volvo/Porsche guy had paid for my burger and chips? Why?
“It’s been going on all day,” Brylcreem guy replied. “Started about 2:30. A lady paid for her meal, and also paid for the car behind her.”
I’d never heard of anything like that before. “Why did she do that?” I said.
“I dunno, really,” Brylcreem said. “She said it was ‘The season of Good Will’ and that she wanted to ‘Pay something forward’.”
“How nice of her,” I said.
“Yeah, that’s what I thought,” he said. “But then it just went on and on. Everyone has paid for the next person in line. It’s amazing; it’s been going on for the last six hours.”
“Wow,” I said. It was genuinely heart-warming, and I felt my heart being, actually, warmed. People paying for complete stranger’s meals. That fundamental human need – food – being paid for – nay, provided – by a complete stranger who they will never even meet. It made me realise that people are, when it comes down to it, basically good.
“I guess I should do the same,” I said. “What’s the guy behind me having?”
“Two secs,” my new friend said, and did something on his MacDonald’s machine.
“Two Quarter-pounder’s Deluxe with fries; three Chicken Nuggets, fries of course – one large; one Strawberry shake; Two chocolate shakes; two large Coke’s with ice.”
“That all?” I asked.
“Two M&M McFlurry’s, an apple pie, and a chocolate chip cookie.”
“Ok. What’s that come to?”
I dug into my pocket, came up with a small handful of coin; must have totalled about 37p.
“This is for you,” I said. “Put it in the Tip Jar.”
“Thanks,” he said. “Do you want to pay for the next guy’s meal?”
I turned around in my seat, gave a cheery smile and a wave to the occupants of the People Carrier behind, which was returned by the rather overweight child in the front passenger seat, but not by the hacked-off looking lady in the driver’s seat.
I looked up at the window to see Brylcreem’s expectant smile.
I smiled back. “Merry Christmas,” I said. “Hope you have a good one. I’d best be on my way.”
I’ve noticed a distinct drop in the quality of flaming on the internet lately. This post is an attempt to educate those who might be new to this gentle art so that the rest of us might be entertained by some high-quality flamage. If you are someone who enjoys watching people call one another poopy-heads, or calling their parentage into question, then this post isn’t for you. But if exchanges of insults turns you off, and you yearn for the old days when exchanges of insults were, if not well considered, at least well phrased, read on.
Incidentally, I’ll use the word “his”exclusively throughout to refer to your opponent(s) and ally/allies. Please do not assume this infers any gender bias, it’s just easier.
How to win a flame-war: the rules.
Rule 1: You can’t win a flame-war. Even if you are right; even if your opponent is a half-witted, arrogant, ignorant, bigoted, somb*tch, just the act of taking part brings you down to his level. The best answer is to just ignore him; few things are more annoying.
For those who see the sense in this first rule, please stop reading now; there’s nothing for you here. If, on the other hand, you wish to ignore this rule, then read on – I’ve got some more rules for you to ignore.
Rule 2: Never post when you are angry. Occasionally your opponent will say something which makes you see red. Don’t take it personally – that’s his objective. If you feel angry, walk away from the computer. Do something else to take your mind off the argument, and only come back when you feel calm and refreshed. If you post when you are angry then your anger will come across, and your opponent will smell blood.
Rule 3: Only one reply per comment. You can tell when someone has failed to follow rule 2 because they repeatedly come back and add another comment before you have had time to reply. Sometimes you’ll return to your computer after an hour or so away and find that your opponent has added half a dozen “and another thing” type comments in response to yours. This is the time to relax; you’ve won the argument at this stage – all that remains is to deliver the coup de grace.
Rule 4: Never forget that you are playing to the gallery. It isn’t your opponent who will judge the outcome of this contest, it’s the spectators. Whilst it might be deeply satisfying to call your opponent all the names you can think of, that isn’t going to impress the spectators, some of whom have paid good money to watch this contest.
Rule 5: Don’t mention the war. In particular, don’t ever call your opponent a Nazi. Godwin’s Law states: “As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches one.” A corollary to the law is that if your opponent mentions the Nazis in an attempt to undermine your position, he has lost the argument. Curious readers might wish to refer to the Godwin FAQ, here: http://www.faqs.org/faqs/usenet/legends/godwin/
Rule 6: Never plead boredom. It fools nobody, and it makes you appear to be without conviction. Similarly, never plead lack of time. If you don’t have time for the argument, you really shouldn’t have got involved in the first place. See Rule 1.
Rule 7: Don’t play “twisty word games”. I’ve noticed an increasing tendency for people to fall foul of this rule. Someone responds to a comment “You are correct when you say X but Y does not follow” and the Flamer responds “Than you .. I am correct”. If fools nobody and it just makes you look like an idiot. Similarly, taking the first and last line from your opponent’s post, out of context, and trying to pretend they are related. This works very rarely, and only if the audience haven’t got access to the original comment. If they do, then again it makes you look foolish. Don’t do it.
Rule 8: Be logical. I don’t expect you to be Mr Spock, but you should at least have a passing understanding of the rules of logic, and be capable of avoiding the most basic errors. You might find some useful information in the Forest of Rhetoric, here: http://rhetoric.byu.edu/
Rule 9: Know your enemy. Flamers typically fall into one of a number of stereotypes, many of which have been described here: http://www.flamewarriorsguide.com/. Learn to recognise which stereotype your opponent falls into, and respond in the style of their nemesis. Which brings us neatly to …
Rule 10: Be flexible. Don’t be one of the stereotypes. If you always flame in the same way, you’ll be easy to defeat once your opponent works out which Flame warrior you are.
Rule 11: Give ground. Nothing disarms your opponent more than when you agree with him. He will almost certainly reply with condescension, at which point you can move in for the kill, and demolish his entire argument while he is still wondering what went wrong.
Rule 12: Ask questions. When you make statements of fact you open yourself up to being contradicted. But asking a question forces your opponent to answer, taking up his time while you think up your counter argument. If you can do this skilfully you will eventually wear your opponent down so much that he forgets Rule 6 and pleads lack of time. Congratulations; you win.
Rule 13: Smile. Your audience are here primarily for entertainment. If the argument gets boring, you’ll lose them, and remember Rule 4: If you lose the audience you lose the argument. So be witty. Or, if you can’t be witty, at least be funny.
Rule 14: Know when you are beaten and be prepared to retract. Unbelievably, sometimes you are going to be wrong. When that happens, be grown up enough to admit it. I’d add “be prepared to apologise” but if you’ve followed the rest of the rules you’ll have no need to apologise.
Rule 15: Winning by losing. As we know from Rule 1, the best way to win a flame-war is not to take part. The second best way is to surrender. Sure, you lose a bit of face (maybe) but you have the satisfaction of knowing that your opponent is sitting there with his mouth opening and closing like a goldfish, with nothing to argue against and nobody to fight with.
Congratulations; you win.