Glowering Inferno

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

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

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

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

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

  1. ‘Literally’

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

  1. ‘Of’

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

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

  1. ‘So’

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

  1. ‘Generous’

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

  1. ‘Unfortunately’

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

  1. Alas

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

  1. Corruption, Cronyism, Fake News

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

David Harley


The Colossus of Roads

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

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

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

(c) David Harley 2020 – all rights reserved

Continue reading

Living the Dream

My dreams are often mad, but usually in a pedestrian way that I manage to forget by the time I reach a keyboard. Tonight, however, I found myself telling a Mossad assassin that he would not reach the Commissioner tonight as he was even now on a train to Istanbul. Strangely, I was aware that this would stall the plot since mobile phones had not yet been invented, but proceeded anyway.

In any case, I’m not sure why this conversation was taking place on a housing estate in Shropshire, but I’m sure that Childers or Buchan would not have squandered this opportunity to play a part in the Great Game, on the Big Stage. After all, their authoring opportunities were largely restricted to endeavouring to avoid massive ‘conventional’ conflict across Eurasian borders. If I were to pursue this them in (probably virtual) print this morning, it would probably turn out that the story presaged the last days of the human race. Perhaps all stories do, at this point.

In any case, my progress towards a rational denouement was impeded by my pre-senile bladder, which woke me in order to send me to the bathroom. However lively my dream life may become, it seems that authoring an adventure novel would be an over-ambitious late addition to my bucket list.

David Harley

Vanity Press (or The Glass Bead Game Revisited) [shortened version]

This will come as a shock to you, but it isn’t verse that has been paying my rent all these years, but technical writing. This is a shortened version of a previously published blog I put together for a poetry reading. (Yes, I realize that this isn’t exactly poetry, but the audience seemed to enjoy it anyway.) Any resemblance in these extracts to any real publisher, living or brain-dead, is not entirely coincidental. 

The fact that this was written around the time Rob Slade and I were doing the preparatory work and negotiation on a book called Viruses Revealed does not mean that this piece in any sense refers to Osborne or McGraw-Hill. On the other hand, it doesn’t mean it doesn’t. I did think about doing something similar about my experiences with Syngress and Wiley, but got depressed just thinking about it.

I haven’t any plans to write any more books at present (and if I was, I’d be thinking seriously about self-publishing), but most of the security-related books I’ve been involved with are listed on my Wikipedia entry, which is surprisingly accurate. 

Dear Mr. Harley

Thank you for choosing MacMidden McGrawful Simplex and Shyster to publish your book on Algorithmic Approaches to Bio-molecular Modelling, which we will be publishing under the title Shiny Bead Diagrams for Morons. We are pleased to offer you an advance equivalent to a trainee assistant copyeditor’s salary for two weeks.

You will agree never to publish any other book on the same subject, or indeed, using diagrams or mentioning beads, for any other publisher, until the book has been out-of-print for five years or you have been dead for fifteen years, whichever comes later.

Please supply us with a schedule detailing when each chapter will be submitted. We realize, of course, that other commitments, family illness and so on may lead to unanticipated delays. You should therefore include details of any unanticipated delays in your preliminary schedule.

You may wish to know more about the book production process. After we have argued about Americanization for a few weeks, you may submit a style sheet incorporating the spelling and formatting details negotiated over that period. This will be used during copyediting to dispose of gum tidily. Please submit a digitized photograph of yourself, so that we have something to spit at.

Copyeditors whose first language is English are only allowed to work on foreign language books. In this instance, UK English is not regarded as a foreign language. Copy editors are not allowed a sense of humour. This is to ensure that all traces of wit and irony are removed at the pre-proofing stage. Any copyeditor with an IQ over 90 is diverted to the comics division.

Next, our highly-qualified proofing team will take time out from randomly hitting typewriter keys in the hope of writing the complete works of Shakespeare. Their task is to misplace whole tables and paragraphs, sabotage the formatting, and introduce more typographical errors. Galleys are sent in the form of humungous email attachments which you will be expected to review and return within two hours even though it’s already midnight where you are.

Your advance will be sent to you in dribs and drabs as you reach arbitrary milestones in the production process, just often enough to stop you abandoning the project in a fit of rage. Regardless of the fact that you are not a US national, we will send you numerous forms relating to taxation, so as to give us an excuse for delaying dispatch of royalty cheques, proofs, and author’s copies. Just to inject a little humour into your tight-assed English life, we will also enter your address into our database with the suffix “Shetland Islands”, despite the fact that you live in Lyme Regis. This will ensure that cheques will not reach you until you have written them off and asked us to stop them and send another, and of course your author’s copies may never arrive.

We look forward to playing – errr, working – with you.

Yours truly,
Aaron Grunge
Acquisitions Editor

David Harley
Small Blue-Green World

24/7 Ranting

[Updated version of an article previously published on another blog.)

I have  a real problem. Not with the concept of always-on, follow-the-sun service, though I wish sometimes that people would remember that a normal one-man company can’t usually offer spontaneous media engagement or 500 instant words on comparative testing at 3.15 in the morning. But I’ve just been reminded of the wretched 24/7/365 construct, and until I get this rant out of the way, I can’t take the document I’m reading with the seriousness it otherwise deserves.

24/7 I get, even if it enrages me when it turns out to mean “24/7 except on public holidays” or “we keep normal hours but we never turn off the website and you can email us any time you like (but there are no response time SLAs)”. Though even then it’s the misuse of the concept  that  vexes me, not the concept of limited working hours.

24/7/52: all day, every day of every week? Works for me, as long as I’m not on the helpdesk roster. (At this point in my career, 15 minutes on anybody’s helpdesk is more than I want to spend: been there, done that, wear the scars under the t-shirt.)

But every hour of every day of the week of every day of the year? That has all the comprehensibility and grace of a multiple negative wrapped around a split infinitive and 543 grammes of grocer’s apostrophes. (Or grocers’ apostrophes.) And what happened to leap years? Or do you give your  staff the day off once every four years?

Exit, humming “for tomorrow may rain so I’ll follow the sun…” (As Andy Warhol didn’t say, in the future every song you ever heard will be on Wikipedia.)

David Harley 
Small Blue-Green World

A Fairy Tale

[Also published – because of the subject matter – on the Anti-Malware Testing blog]

Long ago and far away in a town called Santo Iago, the townsfolk were beset by plagues and pestilences. Sometimes green, poisonous frogs rained down from the sky. Sometimes great ferocious horses from the neighbouring city of El Troya rampaged through the town and the farms that surrounded it, trampling the crops and terrifying the children. Sometimes flying bugs would descend upon the farm animals, burrowing painfully into their hide and proving almost impossible to dislodge.

Over the years, however, a community of sorcerers arose in Santo Iago and developed notable skills in defence of the townsfolk, using a variety of spells and incantations. While they were unable to eradicate the plagues and pestilences completely, they did contrive to reduce the damage that was done, enabling the townsfolk to live a tolerable and sometimes even reasonably prosperous existence.

Yet the townsfolk were not happy. Certainly, those who were unfortunate enough to bear the brunt of new plague, and sometimes lost their livelihoods in consequence, had ample cause to complain. However, even those more fortunate grumbled that surely all those wizards could find a way of stopping all those plagues altogether?

Some even muttered that the wizards and sorcerers were surely casting spells themselves to _cause_ the plagues and pestilences, so that the people were obliged to give some of their hard-earned ducats and florins and centavos to those same wizards.

And in time, there arose a group of townsfolk called truthsayers or soothsayers, who had learned some of the ways of the magicians and undertoook to examine their spells and potions and incantations. Then they would tell the townsfolk which spells they believed to be most effective against the current wave of disasters.

Unfortunately, some of the truthsayers proved to be better at this form of spell divining than others, and when they passed on their opinions to the town crier, so that he might proclaim them to the populace, both he and the people became very confused, because different truthsayers said very different things about the same spells. This was not only because some knew the ways of divination and magic better than others, but also because their ways of divining changed according to the time of day, the nature of the plague, and even which quarter of the town they happened to be in at the time.

Still, the better soothsayers and sorcerers started to work together and learned from each others’ experience. In this way, they hoped to make a real difference to the lives of the townsfolk, and even banded together in a league called the Alliance of Magicians, Truthsayers, Soothsayers and Oracles. But one of their number began to whisper to the townsfolk, saying that the other truthsayers were too much in league with the sorcerers, and that only he knew the ways of the sorcerers well enough to say which of the sorcerers’ spells could be trusted. And some of the townsfolk noticed that his nose was getting longer as he talked, but this didn’t mean anything to them because in Santo Iago few of the bookshops sold Italian fairy tales.

But then this man (who called himself Ricrol The Trustworthy) went to the sorcerers and said that if they would share their treasure with him, he would tell them which spells he would be recommending, and if their spells weren’t included, they could come to some agreement. And his nose was getting longer all the time, but the sorcerers didn’t notice: they were too busy grumbling among themselves, because most of them weren’t sure that he was very good at divination, and knew that he didn’t even have his own oracles. But they also knew that the townsfolk not believe them if they said so. And because they were frightened that Ricrol would not recommend their spells even if he _could_ make them work properly, some of the richer sorcerers shared some of their treasure with him. But others, who didn’t trust him to interpret the auguries correctly, refused to share any treasure because he would not tell them how he was going to go about until he’d been paid.

When Ricrol had performed his rites, he told those sorcerers who’d shared their treasure what he was going to tell the town crier. And sure enough, some of them found that he’d made mistakes in his divination, and after much consultation, he told the town crier that their spells were good and had been cast in the right way. But he also said that the magicians who hadn’t given him some of their treasure had cast their spells in completely the wrong way, and that no-one should use those spells any more. And he told everyone that his divination was better than anyone else’s because he hadn’t been given treasure by one of the sorcerers. And in a way this was true, for more than one sorcerer had shared treasure with him.

Now when the sorcerers who hadn’t given Ricrol some of their treasure heard that he’d told the townsfolk that their spells were useless, they were very angry, because they were experienced wizards who knew that their spells were as good as anyone else’s. But then they thought that if there was something wrong with any of their spells, they needed to find out what so that they could do a better job of protecting the townsfolk who’d already bought their spells. And indeed, the Alliance of Magicians, Truthsayers, Soothsayers and Oracles had already passed a decree saying that it was very helpful for everyone if truthsayers were willing to tell the magicians what had gone wrong, so that they could fix their spells. Because Ricrol was a member of the league and had agreed that the decree should be passed, they asked him to tell them which plagues and spells he’d looked at, and how he’d performed his divination, as laid down in the decree.

But Ricrol, whose nose was, by now, getting very long indeed, said that he couldn’t quite remember how he’d come to his conclusions. However, if they would share some of their treasure with him, he would look through his book of divination and tell them what they wanted to know, and he’d be able to tell the town crier that they’d come to an agreement that suited all parties.

While the entire community of sorcerers and truthsayers was sitting open-mouthed and wondering what to say next, Ricrol strolled off home for some lunch, and to play some tunes on the new lute he’d just bought with some of the treasure he’d already been given.

But just as he stepped outside, a new plague of winged lawyers descended upon the town and a flock of them came straight for Ricrol. He tried to run back inside, but tripped over his own nose, and before he could get up again, they disembowelled him with their sharpened quills. Which wasn’t very nice for him, but at least everyone else (reasonably) happily ever after.

[This is, of course, a fairy tale. Obviously, nothing like this could ever happen in the real world. Least of all in anti-malware detection testing.]

Previously published here and here. Written, IIRC, while waiting for a delayed flight out of Geneva. And not something I would ever have considered publishing on the AMTSO blog… 

David Harley 
Small Blue-Green World

Random Thoughts of a Professional Traveller [1]

[On the way back from a conference in the UK in September 1012: originally published on Dataholics]

“The onboard shop is now open for hot and cold drinks, sandwiches, and sex.” Either my hearing is going, or Virgin Trains is really going all out to provide a comprehensive service to travellers before handing over its franchise to First West Coast.

In fact, it’s not just my hearing that’s deteriorating, but my tolerance threshold. The hotel I just left, though further from the conference than I’d expected, was fine: clean linen, good breakfast, excellent shower, and the TV had more than four channels. What more can you ask?

But why must cheerful, friendly young members of staff insist on saying “No problem” when they take my order? If I’d thought it was going to be a problem to order something from the menu, I’d have ordered something else. While resolving never to stay at Fawlty Towers again.

So now I feel obscurely and irrationally guilty at have made them waste time on serving me when they could have been in the corner working on their first novel, or their patter for “Britain’s got talent”, or working up courage to ask the receptionist out for a drink. Not to mention the resentment I feel at seeing myself turn into the sort of curmudgeon I laughed at when I was their age.

David Harley
Small Blue-Green World