Split down the middle

I had intended to spend the weekend in the west country. But when I first looked at it there were already a series of problems.
The venue is difficult (though not impossible) to get to by train. And even when I first researched the idea a few weeks ago the cheapest advance tickets were more than the cost of renting a car and driving.
Except that I live in east London and work in the centre where there’s no parking. So I’d have had to fight my way across London in the rush hour and then flog down the M3 and A303 on a Friday night. Not a nice thought.
Getting a train to Heathrow and picking up a car from there might have been an option. But that adds the M25 to the mix, which is not a nice thought either.
And when the weather took a turn for the worse the thought of snow and ice in Somerset wasn’t very appealing either. And that’s before you factor in the risk of getting stranded in Shepton Mallet. So that idea got parked for another time.
I own a small cruiser on the Broads. When the weather’s nicer I spend weekends up there. The moorings were carefully chosen so I can get the train up on Friday evening and back on Sunday night.
This time of year, though, it can get a bit nippy. So better to pop up for the day once every six weeks or so just to check everything is OK.
I did that a couple of weeks ago so there’s no great rush for a return visit. But there’s a few odd jobs that need doing so why not?
As it’s a short notice trip all the cheap advance tickets have been snapped ages ago. So a day return from London to Norwich would be £51.70 thank you very much. I’m not a train nerd, but I assume this fare is set by Greater Anglia. And it seemed rather steep to me.
But wait. There’s engineering work, so I need to go from King’s Cross and change at Cambridge or Ely. If you want an idea of how woeful the mainline service from Liverpool Street is, it’s worth noting that going the long way round only takes 10 to 15 minutes more.
For anyone not familiar with split ticketing all you need to know that if your journey involves two different operators it can often be cheaper to split the ticket in two at the boundary.
A day return from London to Cambridge is £16.50. And a day return from Cambridge to Norwich is £17.30. For a grand total of £33.80.
And I get to travel on exactly the same trains as I would get if I was foolish enough to pay the inflated fare. So that’s a saving of £17.90. Which is a wonderful indicator of how broken our public transport is. And also pleases me because I bet doing it this way means Greater Anglia get a lot less of my money for trying to rip me off.
But the madness doesn’t stop there. On some of the trains from London you need to change in Ely. So what happens if you split the ticket there. £19.50 return for the first leg and £16.40 return for the second, for a total of £35.90. Still cheaper than £51.70, and you might think this is fair enough as there are more miles to Ely than Cambridge.
Except that if you go back and look at the Cambridge to Norwich return it’s valid on direct trains AND ones via Ely. So if I’m going via Ely I’m still better off splitting the ticket at Cambridge. For anyone who’s not familiar with the idea of split tickets, the basic rule is that you do not have to get off the train at the split point. But the train you are on must stop there.
Since all trains from Kings Cross to Ely stop at Cambridge I can buy a split ticket to Cambridge and another one from there to Norwich and decide where I change depending on whether the services are on time or not.
And a little more madness for you. According to National Rail the expensive return isn’t valid on the 1900 from Norwich changing at Stowmarket and Cambridge. The £17.30 return from to Norwich to Cambrige is. How on earth does that work?

Updated to add a note of thanks to @raileasy for pointing out the TrainSplit site, which does all the hard work for you.

Fusion stew

With winter closing in it’s time to start thinking about robust food, especially as I’m a bit of a trencherman at heart. Two of my all time favourites are cassoulet and fabada asturiana. But they both require considerable prep and cooking time. While browsing baked bean recipes recently I started to wonder how easy it might be to do a simple alternative.
Starting with meat, beans and some staples what could you do in 60 minutes? This was a very ad-hoc attempt, which appealed to the part of me that likes cooking by eye, taste and instinct rather than strictly following a recipe.
So regard this as a “structure” rather than something that should be slavishly followed. Adapt as you see fit.
Dice a couple of red onions and carrots. Chop two cloves of garlic. Put in a decent sized saucepan over a low heat with enough olive oil until the onions start to soften.
Add passata (a 500g carton of supermarket own brand), two small red chillis roughly chopped and partly de-seeded (I didn’t put all of the seeds in, but I didn’t pick them all out either), a decent teaspoon of pimenton dulce (or maybe a bit less of paprika if you don’t have pimenton dulce as a staple), a heaped tablespoon of muscovado sugar (or any other brown sugar you have to hand), and drained tinned beans (I used a 400g can of rosecoco and a 175g can of cannellini).
Stir, cover, and raise the heat so it’s bubbling nicely.
Meanwhile, grill the meat. In my case three Toulouse sausages and a morcilla. The beauty of this “recipe” is that you can use whatever you fancy. I happened to have Toulouse sausage and morcilla to hand. Cumberland or Lincolnshire or anything reasonably tasty will work just as well.
Twenty minutes or so later. Slice the sausages into pieces and add to the main pot. Cook for another 10 minutes.
Ladle into bowls. Depending on the size of the bowls, and how hungry you are, serves two to four.
The verdict? For something made up as I went along I was remarkably pleased with it. Thinking about it a bit more:

  • I’m not sure the carrots served any useful purpose.
  • There might have been a shade too much chilli. But not if you were using the basic idea as a base for a chilli.
  • I’d probably use one type of beans next time rather than mix two varieties. And the proportion of beans to meat wasn’t quite right for me. The rosecoco beans alone would have sufficed. Or if using 600g of beans then another sausage (or two) wouldn’t have gone astray. And I’d have preferred the beans a little softer, so a brisk 10 minute boil while the onion was softening might be needed next time.
  • I wanted the beans to have a slightly sweet note so the brown sugar is essential.
  • If you don’t have pimenton dulce or paprika then some bacon might add the required smokiness.

But this is all tinkering to suit individual taste. Once you’ve got the base sauce how you like it there are endless possibilities. Meatballs rather than sausages. Mince and red kidney beans for a chilli. Which reminds me that I have a chilli recipe somewhere that includes chocolate, which could be an interesting substitute for the brown sugar.
Once I’ve got the balance how I liked, I’d be tempted to make a larger batch of the base and freeze it into portions. It was interesting (but not hugely surprising) that when I had the leftovers for lunch the next day it seemed more “rounded” as all the tastes had merged a little more, which I’ve noticed with stews in the past.

43 varieties

I first tasted Cuarenta y Tres in Seville. Drinking sangria in Spain is a sure-fire way to identify yourself as a tourist, but that’s never bothered me much. I speak a little Spanish and I’m sure my pronunciation is just as much of a giveaway.
One of the fascinating things about sangria is that, like paella, no two places ever produce the same even though everybody agrees (more or less) what the core ingredients should be. And, typically of eating and drinking out in Spain, just because the place looks, or is, cheap doesn’t necessarily mean the quality suffers.
It was an outside terrace in Triana. Just across one of the bridges. I can’t be certain, but it might have been Restaurante Rio Grande. What I can be certain about was that it was remarkably good sangria. More than just the usual red wine, fruit, sugar, and cheap brandy. The taste was much richer and complex, with one flavour that I couldn’t quite place. I thought it was fruit based, the person I was with thought vanilla. It turned out that we were both right.
So I asked the waiter what was in the sangria. The surprise was white spirit. No, not the sort you clean paint brushes with, but vodka. And the “secret” ingredient was Cuarenta y Tres. So named because it has 43 ingredients including fruit and vanilla. Unsurprisingly, I have a bottle on one of my shelves.
The last two weekends I’ve been abroad in Germany and France, photographing Christmas markets and other things that require you to be on the street, on your feet, in the cold, for long stretches. The stalls selling gluhwein or vin chaud were very welcome.
More than one of them had orange somewhere in the mix. It took a few days for the thought to surface, but something made me wonder whether Cuarenta y Tres might work in mulled wine, rather than sitting on the shelf until it’s sangria time again. It does.
And just as sangria should be individual and distinctive, so should mulled wine. What’s the point of buying those teabags of mixed spices that make your mulled wine taste like everybody else’s? Why not browse a few recipes, adapt and experiment. This worked rather well:

One bottle of red wine. I used Cotes du Rhone but I doubt that it matters much providing it’s a fairly meaty red. This is not the season for Beaujolais Nouveau.
One apple chopped into smallish bits. I’ve had some mulled wine where the apple has been cored and then sliced into rings. But life’s too short to core an apple needlessly.
Two clementines. Because I didn’t have an orange. Unpeeled and cut into quarters. You could peel and zest of course, but life’s too short and I’d doubt you’d really taste the difference.
Three or four cloves.
A couple of inches of cinnamon stick. I just took a whole one and snapped it in half.
Some freshly ground nutmeg. Optional because grating nutmeg is a pain. And if life’s too short to grate a nutmeg…
A tablespoon of sugar. Most recipes seem to call for caster sugar. Possibly because it dissolves faster? Golden granulated works just as well.
Two large star anise. This might be the “secret” ingredient that will make your mulled wine stand out from everybody else’s.
It all goes in a pan with a glass lid so you can keep an eye on proceedings. Heat it very very slowly. Do not, under any circumstances let it boil.
Fifteen minutes or so later take it off the heat. Add a large wine glass (mine was probably 150ml or more rather than the regulation 125ml) of Cuarenta y Tres. Or Cointreau.
Or similar as takes your fancy.
Plus a splash (25ml or so) of cheap brandy.
Leave to infuse for a while. I managed 30 mins while cooking dinner.
Re-heat if required.

And enjoy.

I have a little list

Though I’d much rather prefer a long list.

For lots of reasons, I love Spain. One of the things they do well is events. Whether grand or a little local fiesta.

I’ve been to quite a few. Semana Santa twice (once in Seville and its environs, once in Segovia and Madrid). And fallas twice (once in the heart of Valencia, once also in towns to the south). They’re big set pieces which you can’t help being aware of if you’ve got any interest in Spain and its culture.

But if you observe carefully (and as a photographer I try to) you should start to understand that the grand spectacles are actually constructed from lots of smaller parts. The churches and parishes for Semana Santa, the localities for fallas.

And often those individual elements are more interesting than the whole that’s marketed to tourists. One of my fondest memories of fallas was one of the societies that had cooked a giant paella and was selling racions to passers-by for 5 euro to raise funds. Add another euro for a beer and it was a bargain on-the-hoof lunch. Spanish food cooked the authentic way.

Last year I came across a mention of L’Aplec del Caragol, a weekend when Lleida celebrates snails. It’s a city that’s quick to get to by train from Barcelona, and the event coincided with a bank holiday in England, so it was too tempting to resist. Especially as flights to Spain can, with a little planning, often be bought for less than train tickets to somewhere else in England.

It was a fun few days. Which started me wondering how many similar events there might be. For once, GInYF (Google Is not Your Friend) here. That’s not hugely surprising because these events are very localised. I don’t suppose, for example, that huge numbers of people outside of Lincolnshire have heard of the World Egg Throwing Championships.

So I’ve started a little list to try to capture Spanish events that might be worth a look. Think of it as a bucket list for me and anyone else interested in trying to get a better feel for Spain.

Semana Santa, Fallas, and the running of the bulls in Pamplona aren’t on the list because they are too “obvious”.
Seville’s April fair is on the list because I haven’t done that yet, even though it should fall into the obvious category.
The Three Kings, which I’ve seen a few times, is only on the list because I wonder whether there are less obvious places to spend the night of Jan 5.

The best I’ve found so far (after a very brief wander around the internet in my lunch break) that represent what I’m looking for are possibly Carnival in Cadiz or Las Hogueras de San Juan in Alicante. I’m aware of Tomatina, assorted Moors and Christians events (Alcoy is supposed to be the best?), and a baby-jumping festival so they will probably get added soon.

Other suggestions are very very welcome. Not only for my benefit, but also for anyone else with more than a passing interest in Spain. Add them to the comments and let’s see how big a list we can compile for everyone’s benefit.

Spamming the spammers

I’m sure people know about those unsubscribe pages (like this one) you should never give an e-mail address to. Because if you do you are confirming that your e-mail address is live, which means the spammer will sell it on to more spammers. It’s just struck me that they do have their uses.
I have one e-mail address that I’ve retained for legacy reasons. Very occasionally it receives real e-mail, which is why I haven’t abandoned it and blacklisted it on my mailserver. But most of the mail that arrives there is spam. The majority of it gets deleted without a second glance, but every so often something turns up from a genuine company.
Trying to explain to that company that, no, I didn’t opt in to their list is a waste of time. As is trying to get them to tell you who does their mailshots (it’s usually an apparently reputable firm that guarantees its database is totally “verified” – yeah right), so you can try to stamp on the actual source. I always use Spamcop to report the offending mail, but far too many ISPs and webhosts won’t take action.
So applying the “don’t get mad get even” approach I take a quick look at the spam-vertised web site. Not becuase I’m ever going to spend any money with someone who spams me. But because there’s a good chance I’m going find an e-mail address or two. Sales@ addresses are OK, but individual names are even better.
Guess which e-mail address then gets entered into the unsubscribe page? OK, it’s not a very nice thing to do, and it doesn’t do anything to help global warming because it’s going to add to the rising tide of crud floating round the interwebs rather than reduce it. But, hey, that firm in Doncaster that wants me to buy blank DVDs might just start to understand how annoying spam is.

How to blog anonymously (and how not to)

Prologue
This post was originally written by Dr Brooke Magnanti and posted here on her blog. It is reproduced here in full with her permission.
When I first read the piece I thought it offered useful insights to all bloggers, not just people wishing to preserve their anonimity. Sadly, it seems that someobdy is trying to supress Dr Magnanti’s post. Since freedom of speech is a rather important matter, bloggers around the world are re-posting the original so that it cannot be lost.


Further to yesterday’s post, this is a list of thoughts prompted by a request from Linkmachinego on the topic of being an anonymous writer and blogger. Maybe not exactly a how-to (since the outcome is not guaranteed) as a post on things I did, things I should have done, and things I learned.

It’s not up to me to decide if you “deserve” to be anonymous. My feeling is, if you’re starting out as a writer and do not yet feel comfortable writing under your own name, that is your business and not mine. I also think sex workers should consider starting from a position of anonymity and decide later if they want to be out, please don’t be naive. Statistics I made up right now show 99 out of 100 people who claim ‘if you have nothing to hide you have nothing to fear’ are talking out of their arses.

The items in the list fall into three general categories: internet-based, legal and real-world tips, and interpersonal. Many straddle more than one of these categories. All three are important.

This is written for a general audience because most people who blog now do not have extensive technical knowledge, they just want to write and be read. That’s a good thing by the way. If you already know all of this, then great, but many people won’t. Don’t be sneery about their lack of prior knowledge. Bringing everyone up to speed on the technology is not the goal: clear steps you can use to help protect your identity from being discovered are.

Disclaimer: I’m no longer anonymous so these steps are clearly not airtight. Also there are other sources of information on the Web, some of which are more comprehensive and more current than my advice. I accept no responsibility for any outcome of following this advice. Please don’t use it to do illegal or highly sensitive things. Also please don’t use pseudonyms to be a dick.

This is also a work in progress. As I remember things or particular details, I’ll amend this post. If you have suggestions of things that should be added, let me know.

1. Don’t use Gmail, Yahoo, Hotmail et al. for your mail.

You will need an email address to do things like register for blog accounts, Facebook, Twitter, and more. This email will have to be something entirely separate from your “real” email addresses. There are a lot of free options out there, but be aware that sending an email from many of them also sends information in the headers that could help identify you.

When I started blogging, I set up an email address for the blog with Hotmail. Don’t do this. Someone quickly pointed out the headers revealed where I worked (a very large place with lots of people and even more computers, but still more information than I was comfortable with). They suggested I use Hushmail instead, which I still use. Hushmail has a free option (though the inbox allocation is modest), strips out headers, and worked for me.

A caveat with this: if you are, say, a sex worker working in a place where that is not legal and using Hushmail, you could be vulnerable to them handing over your details to a third party investigating crimes. If you’re handling information some governments might consider embarrassing or sensitive, same. Google some alternatives: you’re looking for something secure and encrypted.

There are a few common-sense tips you can follow to make it even safer. If you have to bring people you know in real life in on the secret, don’t use this email address for communicating with them even if only about matters related to your secret (and don’t use your existing addresses for that either). Example: I have one address for press and general interactions, one for things related to my accountant and money, and one for communicating with my agent, publisher, and solicitor. I’ve also closed and opened new accounts over the years when it seems “too many” people are getting hold of a particular address. Use different passwords for each, don’t make these passwords related to your personal information, and so on.

I unwisely left the Hotmail address going, and while I did not use it to send mail, I continued to read things that arrived there. That led to this failed attempt by the Sunday Times to out me. It was an easily dodged attempt but something I would have preferred to avoid.

Over the years I have had about two email account changes every year and have changed my mobile number five times (eventually, I just stopped having one). If you change email addresses it’s a good idea to send people you need to stay in contact with a mail from the old and the new address so they know it’s not someone else trying to impersonate you. And to have a password so you know the response is from the right person – a password you did not exchange via an email conversation, of course. Example: you might send an email to your editor from old_address@somedomain.com and from new_address@somedomain.com at the same time, and the one from new_address contains Codeword1. They respond with Codeword2, indicating they acknowledge the change.

It sounds silly, but people can and do scam personal info all the time. Often they do so by pretending to be in on a secret so someone reveals something they did not mean to say. Play it safe. It can feel a stupidly cloak-and-dagger at first, but you soon get over it.

You can register internet domains while staying anonymous but I never did. Some people registered domains for me (people I didn’t know in person). This led to a couple of instances of them receiving harassment when the press suspected they were me. In particular Ian Shircore got a bit of unwanted attention this way.

Because all I was ever doing was a straight-up blog, not having a registered domain that I had control over was fine. Your needs may be different. I am not a good source for advice on how to do that. But just in case you might be thinking “who would bother looking there?” read about how faux escort Alexa DiCarlo was unmasked. This is what happens when you don’t cover your tracks.

2. Don’t use a home internet connection, work internet connection, etc.

Email won’t be the only way you might want to communicate with people. You may also want to leave comments on other blogs and so forth. Doing this and other ways of using the Web potentially exposes your IP address, which could be unique and be used to locate you.

Even if you don’t leave comments just visiting a site can leave traces behind. Tim Ireland recently used a simple method to confirm his suspicion of who the “Tabloid Troll” twitter account belonged to. By comparing the IP address of someone who clicked on to a link going to the Bloggerheads site with the IP address of an email Dennis Rice sent, a link was made. If you go to the trouble of not using your own connection, also make sure you’re not using the same connection for different identities just minutes apart. Don’t mix the streams.

The timing of everything as it happened was key to why the papers did not immediately find out who I was. The old blog started in 2003, when most press still had to explain to their audience what a blog actually was. It took a while for people to notice the writing, so the mistakes I made early on (blogging from home and work, using Hotmail) had long been corrected by the time the press became interested.

Today, no writer who aims to stay anonymous should ever assume a grace period like that. It also helped that once the press did become interested, they were so convinced not only that Belle was not really a hooker but also that she was one of their own – a previously published author or even journalist – that they never looked in the right place. If they’d just gone to a London blogmeet and asked a few questions about who had pissed off a lot of people and was fairly promiscuous, they’d have had a plausible shortlist in minutes.

After I moved from Kilburn to Putney, I was no longer using a home internet connection – something I should have done right from the beginning. I started to use internet cafes for posting and other activities as Belle. This offers some security… but be wary of using these places too often if there is a reason to think someone is actively looking for you. It’s not perfect.

Also be wary if you are using a laptop or other machine provided by your workplace, or use your own laptop to log in to work servers (“work remotely”). I’ve not been in that situation and am not in any way an expert on VPNs, but you may want to start reading about it here and do some googling for starters. As a general principle, it’s probably wise not to do anything on a work laptop that could get you fired, and don’t do anything that could get you fired while also connected to work remotely on your own machine.

3. There is software available that can mask your IP address. There are helpful add-ons that can block tracking software.

I didn’t use this when I was anonymous, but if I was starting as an anonymous blogger now, I would download Tor and browse the Web and check email through their tools.

If you do use Tor or other software to mask your IP address, don’t then go on tweeting about where your IP address is coming from today! I’ve seen people do this. Discretion fail.

I also use Ghostery now to block certain tracking scripts from web pages. You will want to look into something similar. Also useful are Adblocker, pop-up blockers, things like that. They are simple to download and use and you might like to use them anyway even if you’re not an anonymous blogger. A lot of sites track your movements and you clearly don’t want that.

4. Take the usual at-home precautions.

Is your computer password-protected with a password only you know? Do you clear your browser history regularly? Use different passwords for different accounts? Threats to anonymity can come from people close to you. Log out of your blog and email accounts when you’re finished using them, every time. Have a secure and remote backup of your writing. Buy a shredder and use it. Standard stuff.

Sometimes the files you send can reveal things about yourself, your computer, and so on. When sending manuscripts to my agent and editor, they were usually sent chapter by chapter as flat text files – not Word documents – with identifying data stripped. The usual method I used to get things to them was to upload to a free service that didn’t require a login, such as Sendspace. When writing articles for magaznes and papers, the text was typically appended straight into the body of the email, again avoiding attachments with potentially identifying information. This can be a little irritating… having to archive your writing separately, not altogether convenient to work on. But for the way I worked, usually not sharing content with editors until it was close to the final draft, it was fine.

When exchanging emails with my agent and editor, we never talked about actual meeting times and locations and threw a few decoy statements in, just in case. Since it has been recently revealed that Times journalists were trying to hack bloggers’ email addresses after all, in retrospect, this seems to have been a good thing.

Another thing I would do is install a keystroke logger on your own machine. By doing this I found out in 2004 that someone close to me was spying on me when they were left alone with my computer. In retrospect what I did about it was not the right approach. See also item 7.

5. Be careful what you post.

Are you posting photos? Exif data can tell people, among other things, where and when a picture was taken, what it was taken with, and more. I never had call to use it because I never posted photos or sound, but am told there are loads of tools that can wipe this Exif data from your pictures (here’s one).

The content of what you post can be a giveaway as well. Are you linking to people you know in real life? Are you making in-jokes or references to things only a small group of people will know about? Don’t do that.

If possible, cover your tracks. Do you have a previous blog under a known name? Are you a contributor to forums where your preferred content and writing style are well-known? Can you edit or delete these things? Good, do that.

Personally, I did not delete everything. Partly this was because the world of British weblogging was so small at the time – a few hundred popular users, maybe a couple thousand people blogging tops? – that I thought the sudden disappearance of my old blog coinciding with the appearance of an unrelated new one might be too much of a coincidence. But I did let the old site go quiet for a bit before deleting it, and edited archived entries.

Keep in mind however that The Wayback Machine means everything you have written on the web that has been indexed still exists. And it’s searchable. Someone who already has half an idea where to start looking for you won’t have too much trouble finding your writing history. (UPDATE: someone alerted me that it’s possible to get your own sites off Wayback by altering the robots.txt file – and even prevent them appearing there in the first place – and to make a formal request for removal using reasons listed here. This does not seem to apply to sites you personally have no control over unless copyright issues are involved.) If you can put one more step between them and you… do it.

6. Resist temptation to let too many people in.

If your writing goes well, people may want to meet you. They could want to buy you drinks, give you free tickets to an opening. Don’t say yes. While most people are honest in their intentions, some are not. And even the ones who are may not have taken the security you have to keep your details safe. Remember, no one is as interested in protecting your anonymity as you will be.

Friends and family were almost all unaware of my secret – both the sex work and the writing. Even my best friend (A4 from the books) didn’t know.

I met very few people “as” Belle. There were some who had to meet me: agent, accountant, editor. I never went to the Orion offices until after my identity became known. I met Billie Piper, Lucy Prebble, and a couple of writers during the pre-production of Secret Diary at someone’s house, but met almost no one else involved with the show. Paul Duane and Avril MacRory met me and were absolutely discreet. I went to the agent’s office a few times but never made an appointment as Belle or in my real name. Most of the staff there had no idea who I was. Of these people who did meet me almost none knew my real name, where I lived, where I was from, my occupation. Only one (the accountant) knew all of that – explained below under point 9. And if I could have gotten away with him never seeing a copy of my passport, I damn well would have done.

The idea was that if people don’t know anything they can’t inadvertently give it away. I know that all of the people listed above were absolutely trustworthy. I still didn’t tell them anything a journalist would have considered useful.

When I started blogging someone once commented that my blog was a “missed opportunity” because it didn’t link to an agency website or any way of booking my services. Well, duh. I didn’t want clients to meet me through the blog! If you are a sex worker who wants to preserve a level of pseudonymity and link your public profile to your work, Amanda Brooks has the advice you need. Not me.

Other sources like JJ Luna write about how to do things like get and use credit cards not tied to your name and address. I’ve heard Entropay offer ‘virtual’ credit cards that are not tied to your credit history, although they can’t be used with any system that requires address verification. This could be useful even for people who are not involved in sex work.

Resisting temptation sometimes means turning down something you’d really like to do. The short-term gain of giving up details for a writing prize or some immediate work may not be worth the long-term loss of privacy. I heard about one formerly anonymous blogger who was outed after giving their full name and address to a journalist who asked for it when they entered a competition. File under: how not to stay anonymous.

7. Trust your intuition.

I have to be careful what I say here. In short, my identity became known to a tabloid paper and someone whom I had good reason not to trust (see item 4) gave them a lot of information about me.

When your intuition tells you not to trust someone, LISTEN TO IT. The best security in the world fails if someone props open a door, leaves a letter on the table, or mentally overrides the concern that someone who betrayed you before could do so again. People you don’t trust should be ejected from your life firmly and without compromise. A “let them down easy” approach only prolongs any revenge they might carry out and probably makes it worse. The irony is that as a call girl I relied on intuition and having strong personal boundaries all the time… but failed to carry that ability over into my private life. If there is one thing in my life I regret, the failure to act on my intuition is it.

As an aside if you have not read The Gift of Fear already, get it and read it.

See also point 9: if and when you need people to help you keep the secret don’t make it people already involved in your private life. Relationships can cloud good judgement in business decisions.

There is a very droll saying “Two people can keep a secret if one of them is dead.” It’s not wrong. I know, I know. Paranoid. Hard not to be when journos a few years later are digging through the rubbish of folks who met you exactly once when you were sixteen. Them’s the breaks.

8. Consider the consequences of success.

If you find yourself being offered book deals or similar, think it through. Simply by publishing anonymously you will become a target. Some people assume all anonymous writers “want” to be found, and the media in particular will jump through some very interesting hurdles to “prove” anything they write about you is in the public interest.

In particular, if you are a sex worker, and especially if you are a sex worker who is visible/bookable through your site, please give careful consideration to moving out of that sphere. Even where sex for money is legal it is still a very stigmatised activity. There are a number of people who do not seem to have realised this, and the loss of a career when they left the “sex-pos” bubble was probably something of a shock. I’m not saying don’t do it – but please think long and hard about the potential this has to change your life and whether you are fully prepared to be identified this way forever. For every Diablo Cody there are probably dozens of Melissa Petros. For every Melissa Petro there are probably hundreds more people with a sex industry past who get quietly fired and we don’t ever hear from them.

If I knew going in to the first book deal what would happen, I probably would have said no. I’m glad I didn’t by the way – but realistically, my life was stressful enough at that point and I did not fully understand what publishing would add to that. Not many bloggers had mainstream books at that point (arguably none in the UK) so I didn’t have anyone else’s experience to rely on. I really had no idea about what was going to happen. The things people wrote about me then were mainly untrue and usually horrendous. Not a lot has changed even now. I’d be lying if I said that didn’t have an emotional effect.

Writing anonymously and being outed has happened often enough that people going into it should consider the consequences. I’m not saying don’t do it if you risk something, but be honest with yourself about the worst possible outcome and whether you would be okay with that.

9. Enlist professional help to get paid and sign contracts.

Having decided to write a book, I needed an agent. The irony of being anonymous was that while I let as few people in on it as possible, at some point I was going to have to take a leap of faith and let in more. Mil Millington emailed me to recommend Patrick Walsh, saying he was one of the few people in London who can be trusted. Mil was right.

Patrick put me on to my accountant (who had experience of clients with, shall we say, unusual sources of income). From there we cooked up a plan so that contracts could be signed without my name ever gracing a piece of paper. Asking someone to keep a secret when there’s a paper trail sounds like it should be possible but rarely is. Don’t kid yourself, there is no such thing as a unbreakable confidentiality agreement. Asking journalists and reviewers to sign one about your book is like waving a red rag to a bull. What we needed was a few buffers between me and the press.

With Patrick and Michael acting as directors, a company was set up – Bizrealm. I was not on the paperwork as a director so my name never went on file with Companies House. Rather, with the others acting as directors, signing necessary paperwork, etc., Patrick held a share in trust for me off of which dividends were drawn and this is how I got paid. I may have got some of these details wrong, by the way – keep in mind, I don’t deal with Bizrealm’s day-to-day at all.

There are drawbacks to doing things this way: you pay for someone’s time, in this case the accountant, to create and administer the company. You can not avoid tax and lots of it. (Granted, drawing dividends is more tax-efficient, but still.) You have to trust a couple of people ABSOLUTELY. I’d underline this a thousand times if I could. Michael for instance is the one person who always knew, and continues to know, everything about my financial and personal affairs. Even Patrick doesn’t know everything.

There are benefits though, as well. Because the money stays mainly in the company and is not paid to me, it gets eked out over time, making tax bills manageable, investment more constant, and keeping me from the temptation to go mad and spend it.

I can’t stress enough that you might trust your friends and family to the ends of the earth, but they should not be the people who do this for you. Firstly, because they can be traced to you (they know you in a non-professional way). Secondly, because this is a very stressful setup and you need the people handling it to be on the ball. As great as friends and family are that is probably not the kind of stress you want to add to your relationship. I have heard far too many stories of sex workers and others being betrayed by ex-partners who knew the details of their business dealings to ever think that’s a good idea.

So how do you know you can trust these people? We’ve all heard stories of musicians and other artists getting ripped off by management, right? All I can say is instinct. It would not have been in Patrick’s interest to grass me, since as my agent he took a portion of my earnings anyway, and therefore had financial as well as personal interest in protecting that. If he betrayed me he would also have suffered a loss of reputation that potentially outweighed any gain. Also, as most people who know him will agree, he’s a really nice and sane human being. Same with Michael.

If this setup sounds weirdly paranoid, let me assure you that journalists absolutely did go to Michael’s office and ask to see the Bizrealm paperwork, and Patrick absolutely did have people going through his bins, trying to infiltrate his office as interns, and so on. Without the protection of being a silent partner in the company those attempts to uncover me might have worked.

I communicate with some writers and would-be writers who do not seem to have agents. If you are serious about writing, and if you are serious about staying anonymous, get an agent. Shop around, follow your instinct, and make sure it’s someone you can trust. Don’t be afraid to dump an agent, lawyer, or anyone else if you don’t trust them utterly. They’re professionals and shouldn’t take it personally.

10. Don’t break the (tax) law.

Journalists being interested in your identity is one thing. What you really don’t want is the police or worse, the tax man, after you. Pay your taxes and try not to break the law if it can be helped. If you’re a sex worker blogging about it, get an accountant who has worked with sex workers before – this is applicable even if you live somewhere sex work is not strictly legal. Remember, Al Capone went down for tax evasion. Don’t be like Al. If you are a non-sex-work blogger who is earning money from clickthroughs and affiliates on your site, declare this income.

In summer 2010 the HMRC started a serious fraud investigation of me. It has been almost two years and is only just wrapping up, with the Revenue finally satisfied that not only did I declare (and possibly overdeclare) my income as a call girl, but that there were no other sources of income hidden from them. They have turned my life and financial history upside down to discover next to nothing new about me. This has been an expensive and tedious process. I can’t even imagine what it would have been like had I not filed the relevant forms, paid the appropriate taxes, and most of all had an accountant to deal with them!

Bottom line, you may be smart – I’m pretty good with numbers myself – but people whose job it is to know about tax law, negotiating contracts, and so on will be better at that than you are. Let them do it. They are worth every penny.

11. Do interviews with care.

Early interviews were all conducted one of two ways: over email (encrypted) or over an IRC chatroom from an anonymising server (I used xs4all). This was not ideal from their point of view, and I had to coach a lot of people in IRC which most of them had never heard of. But again, it’s worth it, since no one in the press will be as interested in protecting your identity as you are. I hope it goes without saying, don’t give out your phone number.

12. Know when les jeux sont faits.

In November 2009 – 6 years after I first started blogging anonymously – my identity was revealed.

As has been documented elsewhere, I had a few heads-ups that something was coming, that it was not going to be nice, and that it was not going to go away. We did what we could to put off the inevitable but it became clear I only had one of two choices: let the Mail on Sunday have first crack at running their sordid little tales, or pre-empt them.

While going to the Sunday Times – the same paper that had forcibly outed Zoe Margolis a few years earlier, tried to get my details through that old Hotmail address, and incorrectly fingered Sarah Champion as me – was perhaps not the most sensitive choice, it was for me the right move. Patrick recommended that we contact an interviewer who had not been a Belle-believer: if things were going to be hard, best get that out of the way up front.

So that is that. It’s a bit odd how quickly things have changed. When I started blogging I little imagined I would be writing books, much less something like this. Being a kind of elder statesman of blogging (or cantankerous old grump if you prefer) is not an entirely comfortable position and one that is still new to me. But it is also interesting to note how little has changed: things that worked in the early 2000s have value today. The field expanded rapidly but the technology has not yet changed all that much.

As before, these ideas do not constitute a foolproof way to protect your identity. All writers – whether writing under their own names or not – should be aware of the risks they may incur by hitting ‘publish’. I hope this post at least goes some way to making people think about how they might be identified, and starts them on a path of taking necessary (and in many cases straightforward) precautions, should they choose to be anonymous.

Re-kindling the spark

When I was much younger I used to read voraciously. Newspapers (proper ones, not tabloids), magazines and books. But times change. I got a computer, then a laptop, and a smart phone. I discovered RSS feeds so I could read what I wanted, rather than what an editor thought was best for me. And books started to get increasingly expensive.

This post was drafted on a three-hour journey. With a similar amount of time to kill on the way home there would have been a time when I’d have bought a paperback at the airport or station. But the selection offered by chain outlets has been going downhill steadily for years while the price has been climbing, often to the wrong side of a tenner. And even if it was pulp fiction I’ve never discarded books, for a reason I’ve never quite been able to put my finger on. I think it’s a trait shared by quite a few people who enjoy words and aren’t so houseproud they fret about shelf after shelf gathering dust.

I joined BookCrossing, thinking that might be answer both to getting back into reading and to recycling some of my volumes that really weren’t worth keeping. Plus I liked the idea of liberating a book and watching its progress around the world. Trouble was, BookCrossing didn’t have many pick-up or drop-off points that were convenient for me, so signing up was as far as I got.

And then I got given a Kindle for Christmas. The person who bought it wasn’t sure what I’d make of it and probably also liked the idea of them being able to use it as well. It was a device that I’d heard of, of course, but hadn’t really considered. I’ve never been a great fan of closed or proprietary technology (that’s caused us more than enough grief at work over the years) and I also thought of the Kindle as just being a book reader that was tied to Amazon.

It didn’t take me long to discover that with the right software it was actually quite a versatile device and content could be sourced from many places. In no small part that was thanks to some of the tech blogs I read. They spotted that Kindles were very popular gifts and ran articles about what to do with your new toy.

Like many people, I guess, I started with free books. Not because I was mean, but because I didn’t want to spend a lot of money on something that might turn out to be a short-lived novelty. And while I was getting to grips with my new gadget I wanted to test it out with files that didn’t matter too much if they got mangled or deleted.

In no time at all, I’d got the reading bug back again. The question about whether I really wanted to pack another device (my carry-on bag for flights is already almost as heavy as my checked-in luggage for a week away) plus cables, plus charger was soon answered. The USB cable’s the same as my phone’s and the Kindle’s been used (granted not really heavily yet) for nearly a month without running short of juice. Then add in the fact that it can also be used as an RSS reader, a web browser (offline too, Instapaper suddenly became much more useful) and a convenient repository of flight, car hire and local information.

Perhaps the most interesting thing, though, is that the Kindle has started me reading at times when I wouldn’t have contemplated it before. I can see why people still like conventional books. But if you are on a train or a plane without one then you don’t have any options. Now though, if I’m standing on a crowded train and getting out the Kindle (never mind the netbook) isn’t really an option I just reach for my phone. I can pick up a book where I last left it, read a few pages, and then come back to it later on the Kindle. And if I’m not in the mood for that writer I can choose something else.

So the next time someone tells you having a Kindle is not the same as owning “real” books then ask them when was the last time they had a library to choose from when they were travelling. I’ve already finished one book and am well into another, and it’s only half way trhough the month. It’s been a long long time since I’ve been able to say that I’ve read two books, if not more, in that space of time. And as I think about other ways that I might use the Kindle (this post by Bobbie Johnson, for example, is an interesting idea) I suspect that’s only the start of something bigger.

I might even be tempted to start a reviews page soon.

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Ashes to ashes

Shamelessly stolen from another blog becasue it made me laugh uproariously:

The reason C is not in the Icelandic alphabet

Iceland: Dear UK here’s the ash your requested for that Icesave claim.

Britain: WTF Iceland?!? Why did you send us volcanic ash ? Our airspace has shut down.

Iceland: What? It´s what you asked for isn’t it?

Britain: NO! Cash! Cash you dyslexic fuck. CASH!

Iceland: whoops…

To the British and Dutch governments: There is no C in the Icelandic alphabet, so when you ask for Cash, all you get is Ash…”

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The 12 plates of Christmas

I’m an atheist, and really don’t like tawdry commerciality, so I don’t really do Christmas. The holiday does, though, provide a reason (if one’s needed) to hibernate and eat. If only there was a tick box for food in the religion section of the census. So, without further ado bring on the 12 plates of Christmas.

The turkey has been bought. Though it would probably be more traditional, and preferable, to have a goose.

Ditto the ham.

And the beef. So there should be some decent packed lunches to take to work next week.

Not forgetting the venison.

And there’s a couple of kilos of tiger prawns in the freezer. They’re best served a la plancha with plenty of chilli in the oil

There’s also a duck in the freezer, along with some Chinese pancakes.

Or a large jar of confit for making cassoulet.

Though it would have to be done with chorizo (cooking and eating varieties from Galicia) because there isn’t any Toulouse sausage.

But there are wild boar sausages

With Old Spot smoked back bacon for a serious breakfast

Rather than Stilton there’s a wedge of organic Caerphilly

And the Cava is chilling nicely. Cheap stuff from the supermarket for the bucks fizz, and some quality bottles brought back from Spain for dinner.

Here’s hoping you all have a good holiday.

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The good, the bad, and the fugly

This is a list best presented without any further comment:

WORLD’S WORST LOVERS:

1. Germany (too smelly)

2. England (too lazy)

3. Sweden (too quick)

4. Holland (too dominating)

5. America (too rough)

6. Greece (too lovey-dovey)

7. Wales (too selfish)

8. Scotland (too loud)

9. Turkey (too sweaty)

10. Russia (too hairy)

WORLD’S BEST LOVERS

1. Spain

2. Brazil

3. Italy

4. France

5. Ireland

6. South Africa

7. Australia

8. New Zealand

9. Denmark

10. Canada

And before you ask. It’s from a survey conducted by OnePoll.com and reported in the Telegraph.

More Spam

The supermarket Spam (see previous post) must have gone down like a lead balloon, because it hasn’t been seen on the shelves since. But if you want to reminisce about its myriad delights then you can always take a peep though the hallowed portal of the Spam Museum.

No, I’m not making it up. Such a place really does exist in downtown Austin, Minnesota. There really is nothing I can add to what is written on one of the pages of their site:

It is said that within the hallowed halls of the 16,500 square foot SPAM® Museum lies the sum of all human knowledge. After all, SPAM® is the cradle of civilization. It is the ultimate culinary perfection. Within these walls, all of life’s questions will be deliciously answered.

Every SPAM™ Fan needs to make a pilgrimage to the SPAM® Museum. It is the very center of the SPAM™ universe. It is a necessary journey for anyone who loves canned meat.

Austin is home to 20,000-plus people and the HQ of Hormel Foods, and although it was the birthplace of John Madden it probably doesn’t have a great deal else to commend it. So if you’d rather munch your meat somewhere a little more exotic, then you need to head to Hawaii. For on April 25, 2009 Waikiki beach will host its 7th annual Spam Jam. As the museum site says so eloquently:

Held on one of the most beautiful and famous beaches in the world, SPAM JAM® Waikiki shows the world how much Hawaii loves SPAM®. It draws thousands of SPAM® Fans every year with SPAM™ dishes from the top restaurants in Hawaii and plenty of free entertainment. Best of all, proceeds go to help the Hawaiian Food Bank.

I’m indebted to Sandra Gurvis’s “America’s Strangest Museums”, which claims that: “If all the cans ever eaten were placed end to end they would circle the globe at least 10 times.” I think that’s definitely a contender for the “useless things you never need to know, but will now probably never forget” list.

Spam

No, not the crud that clogs up your inbox. The other type, that’s trademarked and might, for all I know, do horrible things to your innards instead.

I like food. But I’m not a foodie. Spare me all the fads and fripperies of fine dining. And I have nothing against fast food per se. But it’s not a proper chippie unless it has a jar of pickled eggs on the counter (Do they still exist? Or did Edwina Currie kill them off?).

I can also cook. Don’t be too shocked. Some men are remarkably self-sufficient. But I digress (though I’ll return to supermarkets later).

I was browsing the shelves in search of something for supper. I know how the marketing game is played. So when I see a “New” sticker on the shelf it’s a fairly safe bet that I, and everyone else, will check it out.

And this delectable delight was….

Spam Fritters.

So retro chip-shop food is suddenly metro hip? How long before we see a special offer? Buy two packs, get a mini-sized jar of pickled eggs free.

What really shocked me, though, wasn’t the idea. But the price. £1.98 for four slices that looked like they could have been cut from one of those small cans (people of a certain age will know what size tins luncheon meat used to be sold in) with something to spare. Is Spam really that expensive these days? Or will metro hip folk really pay through the nose for anything (The packaging was miserable, without even the slightest reference to its retro roots)?

Were it not for the fact that I’m off to the provinces this weekend I might be watching the “reduced to clear” shelves to try to get a measure of how many people did succumb to the other Spam.

Fetch

I like dogs. If circumstances allowed, I’d like to have a dog again. But since that isn’t practical I have to limit myself to admiring them from afar.

The route to work passes through a park (one of the few things the local council does well) which is understandably popular with two- and four-legged walkers.

An owner stands, tossing a well-chewed tennis ball from hand to hand. A black labrador watches, tail wagging expectantly. It’s obvious what’s going to happen next. Or is it?

The ball is hurled off into the distance. The tail wags a little faster. The labrador’s head moves slightly, following the ball’s arc through the air, looking for the exact spot it will land.

The ball bounces. Once, twice. Still the dog does not set off in pursuit. The ball trickles to a halt and at last the labrador moves. By all of a couple of steps to settle itself in the sun, stretching out to gnaw on the stick it had been carrying.

The owner looks bemused and then trudges off to retrieve the ball. This time it’s their turn to fetch.

Silver lining

If I walk to work it takes about 15 minutes longer than getting the train. It’s time well spent. Not only do I avoid the charms of commuting in a crowd, it also helps to keep me reasonably fit.

The only slight drawback is when, like last night, a sudden shower catches you mid-journey. It was fierce enough to force me to take shelter for a while. But the delay brought its own reward. Sighting a double rainbow made getting a little damp around the edges more than worthwhile.

And as the squall cleared as fast as it had arrived, the sunset was quite impressive as well. What’s that cliché about every cloud…

The pictures were taken on my phone, so aren’t brilliant. But they’re a pleasant reminder that I must get into the habit of keeping my little digital camera in my jacket pocket.

Why?

Do people insist on Stilton being part of the festive feast?

Isn’t that just soooo predictable?

But then I do have this rather wonderful piece of Caerphilly that I’m not going to be able to keep my hands off much longer…

Any connection between this post and Borough Market is purely co-incidental.

(Best wishes to [almost] all. And humbugs to the [few] others)

Only you

The Best of the Flying Pickets is on the CD player. Now I’m really showing my age (or my taste)

Not quite as good as “Live at the Deptford Albany” which I might still have on vinyl somewhere.

But great memories.

Which reminds me. I’ve still got unfinished business to deal with. Waves to h, who’s undoubtedly still lurking out there somewhere.

Until then, the rest of the Greenwich and Docklands International Festival beckons.

Now I’m not really into dance and ballet and stuff. But if you do make it to the “O2 Dome that was” on Sunday then look out for Les Ballets Grooms, who are really rather good.

And you don’t need any excuse to watch night fall over the gardens of the old naval college at Greenwich.

1500 and rising fast

The number of photos I’ve taken since arriving in Venice a shade under a week ago.

A few can be seen here.

But, more importantly, since I’m not returning home until the end of the week.

Does anyone know the Italian for: “What’s your best price on an external 250Mb hard drive mate?”

Because of Ryanair‘s stinginess with their baggage allowance, I left the big Lacie at home.

Steve (somewhere near San Marcuola)

Woo

I’ve just discovered that I’m one of the runners-up in the Urban Living photography competition.

See here.

It’s not a picture that I’ve got on here, but if you know me then you should be able to work out which one is mine.

I recognise the name of one of the other runners-up as a professional heavyweight who contributes to Getty, so I’m in pretty hallowed company.

I’m a happy snapper!

I have a confession to make

I went to Canvey Island of my own free will.

Worse than that, I have to admit that I really rather enjoyed it. Is that twisted or what?

In the right light, the place does have a certain je ne sais quoi. Quite what, though, is another matter.

Or as the natives would say: “Pretty. Innit.”

Now that IS shocking!