Death to Doomscrolling!

Apparently I’ve been on Twitter for 12 years. For a lot of that time it’s been a positive thing. A way to chat with friends, or keep track of favoured musicians, writers etc. and what they’re up to. There have been a lot of cat videos liked in that time. But over the last 6 or 7 years it’s also been a key source of news and political gossip. Which is great, if you don’t mind being swamped by people’s angry opinions every time you open your phone or sit at a laptop.

A couple of years ago, probably not long after the Brexit vote, I got so fed up with being constantly reminded how much of a shitshow things were that I decided to curate my Twitter feed to something more positive. I unfollowed most political pundits and the people who filled my feed the most with content which just made me angry, sad or anxious. I replaced them with more musicians, writers and accounts related to things that interest me in a positive way – like environmental scientists (as I’m studying this with the Open University).

Gradually, as the twin disasters of Trump and Brexit came to a crescendo, followed by the apocalyptic events of 2020’s global pandemic, the pendulum on my timeline swung back to politics and current affairs. I couldn’t help it. It turns out that musicians, writers and a lot of other people all have thoughts about the depressing shit that’s going which they have to share on Twitter! I started following political pundits again and actively started seeking out accounts which kept me up to date with just how big a mess our government were making of things. Then I spent most of my spare time, and a large chunk of time that I didn’t have spare, scrolling forever down this timeline of unrelenting doom.

Unsurprisingly I also found I had problems with general anxiety again for the first time in a couple of years. Now, this might not just be due to my Twitter use, but I don’t think it helped. Every time I found myself scrolling through Twitter I didn’t find myself being cheered up, or relaxed. It wasn’t a positive experience in any way and I was spending HOURS doing it. That’s time I could spend doing things that were fun instead! Or at least studying for my degree or even working at my dayjob…

So a couple of weeks ago I deleted the Twitter bookmark from my browser, uninstalled the app from my phone and posted a short message saying I was taking a break. You know what? It’s been brilliant. I haven’t missed doomscrolling at all. I’ve managed to get my current uni assignment completed in plenty of time. I’ve hit the ground running at a new bit of work for my day job. I’ve fallen down numerous YouTube rabbit holes. I’ve spent more time actually engaging with my kids! I found time to pick up some instruments and strum some music again. But most importantly, I’ve felt a lot better mentally.

Now I’m still interested in how shit the government are at managing a public health crisis and all the other things that I was so keen to keep to date with before. But now if I want to find out what’s happening I have to make a deliberate effort to go to a news site and seek it out. It’s not just constantly picking away at my mood as I scroll, and scroll, and scroll, and scroll.

The other thing I’ve realised is that Twitter just doesn’t matter. It’s completely irrelevant to most people. For all the anger, the hate and the ridiculous rhetoric that floods Twitter, none of it makes any difference to the vast majority of people outside of it. If you are expressing an opinion on Twitter you have already 100% made up your mind on it and you will not be changing it for anyone, thank you very much. Yet no matter how correct you may be, or how much of an expert in your field you are, or how innocuous the comment, there will be people on Twitter who will hunt you down and shout about how wrong you are right in your online face. That’s not good.

I used to be quite firm in my opinions. I still am really, but I’m very much reluctant now to express my thoughts anywhere online because discussions about almost anything have been poisoned by Twitter and it’s endless tide of sealioning users. I don’t have the energy to spare arguing with people and getting into conflict with others stresses me out. So instead I just sit online, quietly tweeting about not very much at all and wonder what the point of it is.

To hell with it. I’m better off without it, I even found time to write a feckin blog post! I’ll keep my account (I still want to occasionally retweet cat videos) but the bookmark is staying deleted and I’m not going to reinstall the app. Death to doomscrolling!


Maybe I need interaction after all?

This is weird. This… Everything. Nothing is normal now. I thought I was doing OK with that but now I’m not so sure.

Last week I beat the lockdown by a day and started self-isolating with my family after I developed a persistent cough. By the middle of the week I was shivery (though had no fever) and felt quite ill, then a few days later I needed two or three naps just to get through the day due to fatigue. Was it COVID-19? Who knows? I might never find out.

I started feeling a little better over the weekend and even had enough energy to record a bit of mandolin for my own contribution to the #COVIDCeilidh hashtag on Twitter:

I told myself I’d try and pick up music and writing again to help me get through this and so far I’ve been pretty good at finding time here and there to pick up my mandolin or a guitar. I’ve loved getting to know pieces of music again that I’ve not played for years and even started working on a few new tunes. But to be honest it’s a thumb in the dyke of my anxiety just now.

The biggest problem I have is working from home. I thought I would really enjoy it, getting to look into my garden all day and watch the birds (and that has been great), go for a run around Stonehaven at lunchtimes, get to see more of the kids. The surprise to me though, as someone who is very much an introvert, is how much I miss the office environment. There’s a constant level of interaction which I find completely lacking now and no amount of Skype texts is making up for it.

For two days now I’ve been sat on my own in our spare room listening to my kids playing and arguing elsewhere in the house while I pick up tickets from my team’s queue, email users and fix problems. All without actually speaking to anyone. Suddenly I feel really distant and it’s hitting my anxiety hard.

Hopefully it passes. This is all new for everyone and I think it will take time for us to adapt. I have an online games session arranged with some friends over the weekend which might help. Plus, now I’m over my illness I should be able to get out running again and that should calm my mind down a lot as well. Failing that I’ll try more music or maybe I’ll start talking to the birds in the garden as though they’re my office colleagues.


Strange and Scary Times

It’s been a year since I posted anything on this blog. It’s probably been more than a year since I finished a piece of creative writing. I started studying with the Open University for a degree in Environmental Science last year and between that, work and my family responsibilities I haven’t had much time for being creative.

But I have really missed that outlet over the last few weeks. I sat watching the COVID-19 pandemic spiral out of control, encompassing Asia, then Italy and now most of the world. At first I felt OK. My thinking was we just have to follow the advice and the rest is out of our hands (personally speaking at least). I was able to detach myself from it and it didn’t affect me.

That’s not the case now.

My day job is in IT and as the department started to move from our normal day to day work towards enabling the business to work remotely in its entirety, a familiar old feeling started to return. I suffered from general anxiety disorder for a prolonged period some years ago but had felt like I was getting a lot of my old confidence back in the last 6-12 months. Then this week, as I was packing up my stuff to take home so I could work from my spare room for the foreseeable future, as I contemplated that my kids wouldn’t be going to nursery for the next few months and my eldest might miss the start of her primary school journey after the summer, as businesses both local and national suffered the sudden loss of most of their custom, I started feeling scared again.

Now to be honest it’s an understandable response and I imagine lots of us are scared at the moment. I’m hopeful that this isn’t a full blown return of my anxiety problems and just a natural reaction to an unprecedented situation, but only time will tell.

But it has highlighted to me that I spent too much time doing things which are unhelpful for my mental health. I can keep informed on the pandemic without constantly monitoring the BBC and Guardian’s live updates pages. I don’t need to sit on twitter all night watching everyone react in horror at the raving inadequacies of our government and Prime Minister. I can do something else instead.

I still need to spend a large chunk of my free time studying, though my current module will finish soon and I’ll be free for the summer. But I don’t have to fill the rest of my time battering my mental health when I’ve got enough on my plate with work, the kids and my degree. So I’m going to try and start switching off the laptop and getting back into some writing and playing music.

Hopefully I can get back into the mindset to write some poetry again, but to start with I think I’ll start keeping this blog updated some more and dig out my to do list of songs and tunes that I was working on before other commitments took hold. If I feel like sharing I’ll post some of it on here.

In the meantime everyone needs to look after themselves, their families and their community.

Stay healthy in body and mind.


Pushing Out The Boat and other updates

I keep putting the URL for this blog on my bio when I submit writing to magazines and journals so I should probably start updating it again!

On the subject of submissions, I have a poem – Spikkin – published in the latest edition of Pushing Out The Boat. The magazine is produced in Aberdeen and features writing from all over, but with a focus on the North East of Scotland. As my poem is written in Doric and is about my relationship with the language of North East Scotland I’m particularly pleased that it has found a home in Pushing Out The Boat.

The magazine will be launched on April 7th at an event at Pheonix Community Hall in Newton Dee (near Milltimber, Aberdeen), where a number of contributors (including myself) will be reading their work.

I also had my poem The Haar accepted into issue one of Aberdeen based collective Re:Analogue’s magazine. However it looks like this has been delayed so I’m not sure when that will come out.

That aside it’s been a slow start to 2019 with a very busy personal life (who knew having two kids would be even harder than just having one!?) and a challenging work environment leaving little time or inclination to do any writing. Now I’ve also started an Open University degree in Environmental Science because I thought I should destroy what little free time I had left. At least that might give me something to write about on here when the mood takes me.


A couple of small projects

I actually completed a couple of small projects this month! For someone who absolutely hates DIY I really enjoy it when I get the chance to physically make something. I think the pressure gets to me when it’s a DIY job, with any mistake immediately obvious to anyone else in the house and potentially very expensive to fix. But if I’m just making something creative for myself or as a gift then I can relax and enjoy it a bit more. It was with this in mind that I approached a gift for my wedding anniversary. 

The finished gift

After some extensive idea browsing I settled on a decorative mile marker signpost. I mulled it over for a few days and figured all it would need was a nice 3D frame to present in and some small cuts of balsa wood to make the sign post. The sign itself would have the towns where we’ve lived and a couple of important holiday locations (where we got engaged and where we spent our honeymoon), along with the distance in miles from our current home.

Unusually for one of my projects, it turned out to be as simple as I hoped and I was pretty pleased with the end result. A sharp knife cut the balsa into shape, a fine liner worked for the sign writing, and some wargaming texture grass for decorating figures added a bit of colour.

All was going really well until the week before our anniversary when my wife mentioned it was six years since our wedding, not the five I’d been certain it was. Which meant this year’s theme should have been iron, not wood. We laughed. Well, I laughed then had to explain what was so funny.

Thankfully despite my failure to count to six, the sentiment was very much appreciated and my wife loved the present in the end!

The second project I managed to finish used a completely different maker discipline, a bit more in my comfort zone. I’ve been playing with the Raspberry Pi computer for a year or two now and while I’ve had a lot of fun I haven’t finished a useful project for it yet. However a couple of weeks of frustrating poor service from Scotrail inspired me to finally put a Raspberry Pi Zero and a Pimoroni Inkyphat eInk screen to good use.

My plan was to have a small screen on my desk at work which would refresh periodically through the day with any service updates from the train operator, specifically for trains on my route home.

Sadly one of those trains was my way home

Scotrail operate a Journey Check website which lists all service updates in a fairly basic view. I could try and strip the data directly from there, but there is a better way. They also have the same page available as an RSS feed.  

I knocked up a short Python script using the Feedparser library to pull the RSS feed for my commuting route and then throw the page title, number of train updates, and the train details into some variables. These are then displayed together on the Inkyphat.  

The result is pretty good, though the limited screen estate of the Inkyphat means I lose some details off the edge. This is a fair trade for readability of the important train times though.  

Lastly I set a crontab to run the script every fifteen minutes and then placed it on my desk when I got to the office.  

Not to miss an opportunity, Scotrail duly cancelled various trains through the day including the one I had planned to take home. It was a bittersweet moment when I came back from lunch to see the screen had updated and my normal train was listed.

For those that might be interested in doing something similar, the code for the Python script is posted below.  

import inkyphat
from PIL import ImageFont
import feedparser

#Set font to use on the Inkyphat
font = ImageFont.truetype("/usr/lib/python3/dist-packages/inkyphat/fonts/Montserrat-Regular.ttf", 12)

#set the URL for the RSS feed - Scotrail's journey check between Aberdeen and Stonehaven in this case

#parse the RSS feed with feedparser

#pack variables with the feed tag data
updates= str(len(f.entries)) + " updates"
service = ""
for train in f.entries:
  service=service + train.title + "\n"


#uncomment two lines below to print output to screen for debugging
#message = head+updates+service+last_update
#print message 

#prepare lines for inkyphat
inkyphat.text((1, 1), head, inkyphat.RED, font)
inkyphat.text((1,10), updates, inkyphat.RED, font)
inkyphat.text((1,20), service, inkyphat.BLACK, font)
inkyphat.text((1,80), last_update, inkyphat.RED, font)

#write to Inkyphat