Saturday, 21 July 2012

Is social networking out of control? Get a grip!

       It’s over 2 years now since I posted my very first Tweet on Twitter and, following the advice of a best-selling online novelist, managed to get myself suspended on the very first day (must be a record!). The Twitter team thought I was a spammer; me, I put it down to enthusiasm. There was a whole new world out there, almost 500 million potential new friends whom I’d set out to make, only to end up red-faced and grovelling to be reinstated. Yes I know I shouldn’t have copied and pasted messages to the first 100 people on the list, but that’s what I was told to do!
       Since then, I’ve become a little more circumspect (although one of my Twitter friends, Jamie, may disagree!) and, on the whole, it’s been a positive experience. It has also been time-consuming and highly compulsive which, given my slight leanings towards OCD was always going to be an issue.        Some tweeters (or should I say twits?) have invited me to follow them on Facebook. This is where I’ve always drawn the line, as, rightly or wrongly, I feel Facebook is just too risky  – although to be fair, so are all social networks unless used in the right way. For me Twitter works well and with its 140 word tweet has a built-in safety valve.
Proceed with caution
       Like any modern invention, there’s an upside and a downside. The ups are obvious – social networks are brilliant marketing tools, a great way to meet people from hugely diverse backgrounds, to keep in touch with friends, and to find out what’s happening around the world. Linking up can be exciting, refreshing and educational. 
       The downside? Well, one problem has already been mentioned; once logged into the site, it’s extremely hard to log out again, especially if you work from home as I do. When on Twitter, the hours just fly, the next chapter lies unfinished, and the dinner plates are still in the sink. How children with homework get on, I shudder to think. But there are more worrying factors which can affect all of us – and which can apply to virtually any use of the internet.
Loss of privacy
       Twitter has around 500 million followers, while Facebook subscribers total almost 1 billion. Every message sent has the potential to go viral within seconds and we have no control over who has access to personal information. Fraudsters, burglars, cynical marketers and even abusers can exploit such information to our detriment. On a local scale, many a teenager has posted details of a forthcoming party only to be swamped by unwanted guests looking to cause trouble.
       In her book, CyberSafe, Gwenn Schurgin O’Keefe points out that “large websites back up their databases. What we put on cyberspace never truly goes away. We have to consider it permanent because there is likely to be a copy somewhere; to think otherwise is foolish.”
Bad associates
       Young people are particularly vulnerable to online bullying, from schoolmates with a grievance to total strangers, sometimes with tragic consequences; reports of children being driven to despair, self-harm, anorexia and even suicide bear witness to the damage caused by haters and trolls.  Some children have arranged to meet ‘friends’ their own age, only to find the person waiting for them is neither a friend nor a day under 40! And every time they go online, there’s always the danger of inadvertently accessing websites featuring porn or violence. 
       These issues are – at least should be – obvious. But what about more subtle factors, such as:
Loss of reputation
       A recent article compared a person’s reputation with a shiny new car. Suppose you own the latest model with flawless paintwork; you take it for a spin but, due to a momentary lapse in concentration, you crash into a ditch, leaving the vehicle a total write-off? 
       That’s what can happen to your reputation. A momentary lapse in discretion, a compromising photograph or a careless remark can quickly dent other people’s opinion of you. Families will forgive, true friends will understand, but what about potential employers? Often, the first thing they do on receiving an application is check out your Facebook account – would  that picture of you mooning or leering drunkenly into the camera mark you out as a suitable candidate? According to Dr B J Fogg, author of Facebook for Parents, the answer would be ‘No’. He’s just one of millions who checks Facebook pages as “part of my due diligence. If I can access an applicant’s Profile and see junky things, then I’m not impressed. I won’t hire that person.” Why? “Because people who work with me need excellent judgment.” 
       Certainly, people tend to be less inhibited on social networks, and that applies to your comments too. What may seem innocuous or hilarious to you may be a big turn-off for others. Bad language, off-colour jokes and insulting remarks may trip easily from your fingers as you type, but are they really impressing anybody? Are they as witty as you think, or simply sad? And if they’re suggestive, you may attract the wrong kind of followers. Remember too that others can post comments on your page. As one 19-year old says: “Sometimes people post comments with bad words or double meanings. Even though you’re not the one who said it, it reflects poorly on you because it’s your page.”
How to avoid the pitfalls

       Before signing up for a social network, it’s good to set a few boundaries. Look at the potential dangers, decide how best to avoid them and create rules that will protect you from any fallout. Here are a few suggestions which I try to apply myself: 
       Be careful what you post and only do so when sober! If you wouldn’t like your parents to see those photographs or comments, why make them available to total strangers? Or worse – prospective employers! When texting, remember your manners. Try to ensure that every remark is gracious, ‘seasoned with salt’.       
       Check your privacy settings, as the default settings on the network site may let more people view your page than you imagine. It’s a good idea to customise your settings so only close friends can access your posts. Even then, you need to watch that you don’t give out more information than intended. 
       Should you receive a critical or negative response, don’t retaliate. If the criticism is well-meant, thank the sender for his/her interest. Ignore abusive comments and block them from your page along with any that make you feel uncomfortable. The same goes for dubious would-be followers or ‘friends’. Be selective and never open links from anyone you feel unsure of. Some may be pornographic or violent. 
       Social websites are constantly buzzing with gossip, rumours and opinions about people in the public eye. Be determined never to write derogatory personal remarks about anyone, famous or not, even if they seem to deserve it – after all, who are we to judge? Failing to observe this rule may, at best make you seem spiteful, and at worst get you sued for libel! 
       Remember your details are accessible to millions of people, including some who know you, so guard your privacy. Don’t give out too much personal information such as home address, email address, where you attend school, work or college, when you’re at home, when and where you’re going, when you’re at home, when nobody is at home, your photos, opinions, likes, dislikes and hobbies and innermost thoughts. 
       Set limits for the time you spend on social networks and stick to them. Doing this will help you control your online activities instead of letting them control you. And if social networks start to take you over, and you find yourself thinking constantly about your tweets, blogs and profiles, then switch them off. Or simply take a break from them, like these teenagers: 
       “I deactivated my account, and I had heaps of time. I felt free! Recently, I reactivated my account, but I have complete control. I don’t check it for days at a time. Occasionally I even forget about it. If my social networking account becomes a problem again, I’ll just deactivate my account.” 
       “I have taken ‘networking breaks,’ where I deactivate my account for a couple of months and then reactivate it later. I do that whenever I realize that I’ve been spending too much time with it. Now I don’t feel as attached to it as I used to. I’ll use it for a purpose, but then I’m done.”  
       This seems to be the secret; by taking sensible precautions and rationing the time we spend on social network, we can use it with confidence -without filching too much attention from more important activities.


       Feel quite an old hand now - in fact, it's a source of satisfaction to see some of my (very techie) website designer friends are only just getting started! And, of course, with time, I've become more atuned to potential problems and more careful about whom I follow. 
       Here are some of my 'no nos': profiles with no tweets; tweets containing sexual references or bad language of any kind; profiles with no pictures or other personal touches; Tweets which appear in one's timeline with no message -just a link; people with zillions of followers; direct messages (except for confidential info from a trusted contact); and anyone famous (doubt if Justin Bieber or the Pope write their own tweets!) 
       And here's an apology to anyone who has kindly retweeted me but to whom I haven't yet returned the compliment. Some of you are obviously lovely people and I'll always try to RT if I possibly can, especially if you're a writer. However, there are certain things I will not promote, such as Erotica or the Occult. I also try to remain neutral with regard to race, nationalism, party politics, religion and potentially divisive issues.   

Monday, 16 July 2012

How one man conquered Locked-In Syndrome

*UPDATE 7th May 2013: Pete's book is now available in paperback & for download (See links below): 

See also:

"It's hard to explain what it's like being in a coma. A coma is a weird place, like a dream but all messed up. I remember being sat in a chair in a big open room with a needle stuck in my arm and being starved of oxygen, feeling very weak and hearing my heart beating very loudly. People were walking past and ignoring me; I felt like I was slipping away and I was so afraid."
       Fear did not come naturally to Peter Coghlan, brown belt karate, jiu-jitsu and kickboxing enthusiast. At just 33 years old, this former soldier had already faced dangers few of us could imagine; mob violence in Northern Ireland, two attempted bombings and a serious battle with Hodgkin's Lymphoma.
       Yet, having just moved to Perth, Australia with Jade, the love of his life, there was no time to dwell on the past as Peter enjoyed a pre-dinner drink on the patio with friends and family. The future on that hot, sunny evening seemed as bright as the weather until, suddenly, he felt tired and decided to lie down for a nap.
       "About four hours later, I awoke feeling confused and agitated. I walked out to my patio where my friends and family were sitting around my bar. I remember feeling very strange and said, 'I feel like I have had a stroke.' The others noticed I was slurring my words and they asked me to walk in a straight line up and down the patio. Shortly after this I apparently began vomiting in the garden, but I don’t remember this, nor do I remember taking a shower to make me feel better."
The journey to hospital was just a blur. The next thing Peter knew was being totally helpless, unable to move and very, very scared. After suffering a massive brain stem stroke, Peter was now imprisoned by his own body; totally paralysed by Locked-in Syndrome (LIS).
       Sometimes known as "disease of the walled living" this neurological condition is difficult to diagnose as, owing to their lack of response to stimuli, patients are often assumed to be comatose or in a vegetative state. Main causes are stroke of the basilar artery, brain haemorrhage or injury, damage to the pons area of the brain, and diseases that destroy the myelin sheath which protects nerve cells. Effects are devastating. Unable to move, sufferers retain their cognitive and intellectual powers but can only communicate through vertical eye movements - the only voluntary muscles still functioning. Even this ability may go undetected for some time, usually being spotted by regular carers or close family and friends.
       LIS is mercifully rare. Unfortunately, there is no cure or treatment to date, the only help available being assistive technology to improve communication. Despite this - just six months and one day after his stroke - Peter Coghlan left Royal Perth Hospital in Shenton Park, Perth and walked back into the sunshine. (See You Tube Link below).
       Peter is now well on his way to a full recovery, has been actively involved with charity events and has just tied the knot with Jade! He is also writing a book based on his experiences which he hopes will encourage other sufferers of LIS.

Peter and Jade



Monday, 9 July 2012

Are we all potential geniuses?

      I ask because, after a brief study of one of life’s most mysterious and astounding organs, it seems there are no limits to the human brain. Sure, few people would claim to be academic, yet most can be extremely knowledgeable about things they care about. 
      Football fans, for example. Mention the World Cup and all of a sudden they’re a mine of information, able to recall who scored every goal and how, why, where and in what position they played for every year since man first kicked a studded boot against an oversized pig’s bladder. 
      Music buffs probably know the lyrics of every number of every album ever recorded in your favourite genre. And even the ‘blondest’ blonde could give a chemistry lesson when it comes to cosmetics. 
      So it’s not that we can’t learn – just that most of us are selective when it comes to subject matter. It must also be said that, thanks to the internet, we’re pretty lazy too. No longer do we need to trawl to the local library to research our interests, while actually opening a book may be far too tiresome.             Intelligence doesn’t really come into it. I’ve known people who can barely string two words together consistently get high marks in exams – simply because they’re able to absorb facts, figures and statistics like a sponge. At the other end of the scale, some geniuses have been distinctly underwhelming when it comes to academia.
      Winston Churchill is a case in point. Despite his lacklustre record at school, he went on to become Prime Minister, a brilliant wartime strategist, a prolific writer and historian, and a not bad painter into the bargain. Einstein was another student who failed in every subject except maths and physics. He believed firmly that genuine creative thought was lost when it came to learning by rote. Preferring to keep his mind free for exploring the universe, he refused to clutter up his brain with memorised information but relied instead on reference books for whatever he wanted to know. 
      That being said, the human brain’s capacity is infinite. According to Carl Sagan, one brain can store information that “would fill some twenty million volumes,” adding: “The brain is a very big place in a very small space.” Even more astoundingly, the brain takes in 100 million bits of data simultaneously from our various senses every second. 
      Author and scientist Peter Russell agrees: “The more that is learned about the human brain, the more its capacities and potentials are found to go far beyond earlier speculations. Memory is not like a container that gradually fills up. It is more like a tree growing hooks onto which the memories are hung. Everything you remember is another set of hooks on which more new memories can be attached. So the capacity of memory keeps on growing. The more you know, the more you can know.” - The Brain Book. 
      No one has ever yet discovered all there is to know about the brain. Even after years of study and research by neuroscientists, it remains unchartered and unfathomable. We do know, however, that the brain is extremely hard-working and highly selective. Although millions of messages enter every second, the reticular formation - a network of nerves within the brainstem - screens out non-essential information, sending only the most important to the cerebral cortex and from there into our consciousness. The brain also scans itself. Each second, 8-10 waves sweep through the brain, creating moments of high sensitivity and allowing for stronger signals to be identified and dealt with. 
      The brain needs exercise. Like any muscle, the more we use it the stronger it becomes, while lack of use can result in weakening the brain, even causing it to fade away. That’s why reading, doing puzzles, conversation and studying of any kind can help us retain our thinking abilities well into old age. Scientists believe that the brains of people who stay mentally active have 40 percent more connections between nerve cells than people who don’t. 
      And, far from the previous view that brains are fixed by our genes at conception, researchers have since found they can change. Ronald Kotulak, the Pulitzer prize-winning author writes: “No one suspected that the brain was as changeable as science now knows it to be.....The brain is not a static organ; it is a constantly changing mass of cell connections that are deeply affected by experience.” – Inside the Brain
      It’s also nice to know that the human brain - “the most complex object in the universe” - is cleverer than computers. Dr Richard M Restak says: “The performance of even the most advanced of the neural-network computers has about one-thousandth the capacity of.....a housefly.”
      Good to know we're cleverer than that! 

Latest update!
       According to the Daily Mail (July 16th 2012), and following an international study, women are now thought to have higher Intelligence Quotas than men for the first time since tests began.
       James Flynn, a world-renowned authority on IQ testing says: "In the last 100 years the IQ scores of both men and women have risen but women's have risen faster. This is a consequence of modernity. The complexity of the modern world is making our brains adapt and raising our IQ."
       One possible reason why women are mentally outstripping men is the need for working wives and mothers to multitask. However, it could be that women have always been potentially more intelligent than men 'and are only now realising it.'