Why do people drop litter?

In February of last year I became a member of Dorset Devils, a litter picking group based here in beautiful Dorset, where I live. I’m DD1164 but the thoughts expressed here are my own, not the group’s. Joining had been on my horizon for some time but the kick up the backside I needed was seeing a local taxi driver pull up in my road before dumping a McDonald’s paper bag (full of other assorted rubbish) out of his car. Deciding not to do anything about it for the next week, while out walking I would see the bag, breaking apart and then eventually sending little bits of rubbish all over the road. What a f*cking mess.

I pick up litter on my own, usually every other Sunday for around two or three hours. Sometimes the roads can remain free of litter for a week. Sometimes more litter will appear the day after I cleared it. I choose not to care: there will always be litter. Doing something… anything… is better than inaction. Some people do thank me in the street, for which I’m very grateful; It does feel nice to know my time and effort is appreciated but it’s not something I have ever expected.

The purpose of this article is to describe where I think roadside litter comes from, why I spend my free time picking it up and what else could be done to reduce it. It’s based on my own personal experiences of litter picking (a posteriori) and not any research I’ve read or conducted. My intent is not to virtue signal; Don’t think litter is important? You know where the door is.

What constitutes litter?

To me, litter is anything that’s been intentionally discarded in a public place. The vast majority (by volume) is food packaging and (by type) cigarette butts. How do I know what’s been intentionally discarded? Usually it’s dirty.

My bucket is only so large, which means that over the course of two hours or so I have to empty it several times. A dartboard left propped up against a lamppost has probably been discarded, but a decision I leave to the authorities to make.

Where does roadside litter come from?

Most people will have been raised to understand littering is morally wrong: It makes a place look scruffy and poses a danger to people’s and animals’ health. In school you’re taught to take your litter home with you, or deposit it in the nearest public bin. Until that point it’s your responsibility to hold onto it. It’s just what you do. While not a serious crime, I think littering is quite a selfish thing for a person to do.

While picking, I often think about the litterer’s motivations; I wonder whether they drop litter out of carelessness or malice. Either they do it in the knowledge that it’s wrong or they’re simply careless about where it goes. The latter seems silly to imagine; a person would have to have a lot of litter in their car for it to blow onto the street without their knowledge. I prefer to imagine a spectrum of behaviour instead of two distinct options.

I pick up vastly more cigarette butts than any other type of rubbish. Cigarette butts are small but hard to pick up in any quantity. On a given outing I usually have a tolerance for how many I’m willing to pick up, but food packaging is far more garish and noticeable in my opinion. Sometimes I’ll come across a bench or spot where smokers congregate and find hundreds of butts in one place. I’m sure some smokers will argue it should be the authorities’ responsibility to provide bins to deposit cigarette butts in, but this is far too easy: every person maintains their own moral responsibility and smoking is still, ultimately, a choice, as is throwing a butt on the floor.

Most of the rubbish I pick up seems to collect around cars. I have to be careful about how to word this so as to not indiscriminately accuse drivers of littering, but there is certainly more litter where there are free places to park. For example, on more than one occasion I’ve seen taxi drivers eat a meal in their car and then deposit the packaging at the curbside. Having walked the same routes for over a year now it’s also apparent to me who some of the main culprits are, due to the amount of new rubbish that appears by their cars. You need only glance through their windows to see rubbish in the footwells, on the seats, in the cupholders etc. These people, although a minority, contribute most of the curbside rubbish. The irony that they do this outside their own homes!

Some litter does fall out of household bins (as they’re being emptied into the bin lorry) and blow into the road but I think this only accounts for a small amount. In apartment blocks there’s often not a clear understanding about who’s responsible for clearing this rubbish, but homeowners tend to be fairly dilligent. Is someone more likely to drop litter if there’s already lots or less litter already around, I wonder?

Why do I pick up litter?

Lots of rubbish in public places generally leads a person to believe that (if there’s a nicer way of saying this please send it to me) they live in… a sh*thole. When people think they live in a sh*thole, they treat it and the people (and other people’s posessions) with a proportionate level of respect. Not thinking they live in a sh*thole generally makes a person feel better about their life, improves their sense of wellbeing and allows them to focus their energy on the day.

Picking up litter is also a great source of exercise. I wear a Dorset Devils branded high-vis jacket (which is actually very useful) and my bucket also has branding (and a QR code linking to the website, though nobody has every engaged me in conversation long enough to ask for a link). People simply seeing me pick up litter (and piqueing their interest enough to go to the website) is a good thing in my books. At the time of writing we have 1434 members. Not only is more people picking up litter a good thing, but having more people (especially young people) experiencing their communities (and the people that live in them) is essential. To quote myself “Good people do good things”, the operative word being “do”.

What might help even more?

It’s quite apparent to me that BCP (Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole) Council have chosen to focus their litter-picking efforts on some parts of Bournemouth and not others. On Braidley Road for example, the road that (ironically) Town Hall resides on, lots of litter can be found beyond the flyover halfway alongs its length, but the section next to Town Hall itself is fairly litter-free. More bins and collections are required all over, in parks (in Horseshoe Common) and on residential roads too. In parking bays signs should indicate the nearest bins. Cigarette bins could be erected next to park benches.

Fast food restaurants (McDonald’s, Subway, Burger King) and big-chain supermarkets (Sainsbury’s, Asda, Lidl, Aldi) could equally do a lot more to prevent littering, whether that involves working with the local council to erect more bins or encouraging their customers to deposit litter at their establishments or take it home with them. I suspect low-level corruption is partly the reason as to why the former hasn’t already happened.

Taste and Criticism: Appreciation for The Last of Us, Part 2

This essay contains The Last of Us, Part 2 spoilers. If you haven’t played it already I think you should.

A popular gaming YouTuber called Mr Blueberry begins his “Why Last of Us Part 2 Sucks.” video by saying “It can be hard to find an unbiased review”. He doesn’t say whether he thinks that includes his own but then goes on to give his rather (in my opinion) biased opinion on the game. That’s because “our feelings about a story make our perceptions about the quality of writing biased” to quote “Some Quality Biases”, an essay I wrote after my last playthrough in 2022.

But nearly four years after its release, Reddit users still post thousands of comments decrying the game’s “poor storytelling”, “poor execution”, “woke politics” and “lazy writing” to its subreddits /TheLastOfUs2 and /thelastofus. It’s actually quite hard to find anyone on there with anything positive to say, not even that Reddit is the only place where the discussion is taking place, only where the strength of feeling seems to be so great so long after the game’s initial release. There doesn’t seem to be a place for anyone who did like the game to talk about it, though. Holding the opinion that I do (that part 2 was a good game) and reading some of these threads (or dare I say it, commenting) feels like walking into a room on fire: there’s so much hate that the only likely outcome is to leave feeling burned.

First I want to talk about some of the behaviours that seem prevalent in (online) discussions of taste, then I’ll look at why I still think part 2 was well written.

One of the most cynical of these behaviours I encounter online is typically expressed through the question, “How could you [not] like X?”. It’s suggested that the arguee is either: (a) some sort of raving lunatic or (b) not clever enough to understand. The latter’s more common but that’s in a way part of the egotism I’m about to describe: there’s no debate if the person you’re arguing with is mad but besting them intellectually is far more satisfying. Ironically though it’s the quality of the arguments and its justifications that gives us an idea of whether we regard them as good not (or whether we think they’re intelligent 1) 2, though I think we can all agree slighting another person’s intellect is probably not a great way to bring them round to our point of view.

It’s now so common that it’s become a bit cliche of modern criticism to call something a “masterpiece”. Usually when I see this in reviews it suggests the possibility that the critic has decided to elevate it to a level higher than any comprehension of its masterfulness. Admittedly though, that’s how I felt after experiencing the game for the first time: a body-shaking orgasm of emotion that I felt no need to articulate. As Pirsig wrote in Zen, “Quality is a direct experience independent of and prior to intellectual abstractions”, or in other words it would be hard for me to describe what I liked about playing the game as I played it, but perhaps not if I were to analyse it afterwards. Thinking about creative expression in critical terms and explanations tends to take away some of my enjoyment. Isn’t it good enough to simply say, “I enjoyed it” without anything further? 3 This notion doesn’t sit entirely comfortably with me: some writings are very clearly “better” than others and some works of art are widely regarded as masterpieces.

A friend once described me as “contrarian” for not having enjoyed the most recent Spiderman film. It was a critical and commercial success and I was definitely in the minority. I can recall the exact moment I realised I wasn’t enjoying it, when Peter says, “Hey, Strange! You know what’s cooler than magic? Math!” I’d imagined he might have said something so direly predictable as the scene was unfolding.

While my own sense of “good” writing is probably made up of lots of conscious and unconscious thoughts and biases, the following are some of the things I like:

  • I like it when details are shared implicitly. An English teacher once told me “Show, don’t tell”; this is especially true of visual arts, but yesterday I was listening to the audiobook of “An Artist of the Floating World” in which a character mentions his “pupils”, implying he’s a teacher. It would have seemed obstructive to the flow of the story for him to have talked about being a teacher, but it’s expanded upon later.
  • I like it when characters speak in a normal kind of way. Contrary to popular opinion, a lot of dialogue doesn’t read or sound like real-life conversation: you miss out on all the awkward bumps and pauses. Dialogue tends to have been edited but real conversations flows. Dialogue is also a great way to tell a story implicitly.
  • There’s great power in what’s not said, which is especially true of the ending to The Last of Us in which I found myself urging Joel to say what I wanted him to, but then he didn’t quite. Characters don’t have to do or say exactly what we want them to for us to find them compelling, but nearing the end of the game at times I found myself setting the controller down, not wanting to feel responsible for what Ellie wanted to do.
  • We have too many “triumph of good over evil” stories; what’s so compelling about The Last of Us is its moral ambiguity that left me feeling so conflicted. This was the game’s greatest strength.

Having read so many hateful comments online about part 2, it’s hard to write about something you enjoy so enormously without imagining its detractors and what they might say. Fortunately my blog doesn’t have a comments system because I write mostly for myself, but writing this post (and thinking about some of the different viewpoints on taste and criticism) was a real pleasure. Of course holding The Last of Us franchise in as high regard as I do, I’m guilty of huge bias which I’m sure comes across in places. Though as I look to take a break from gaming for the next few months I still can’t think of another title that even remotely holds a light to it. I’d love for the game’s creators to know how much playing the game warmed my soul.

  1. What most affects our perception of someone’s intelligence? Is it that they use long, multisyllabic words? I try to write my essays in the most concise way, though I’ve been told by non-native-English speakers I use “fancy words” (unncecessarily). Personally I think of the “fancier” words as being more concise i.e. you can use one word instead of many.
  2. I sometimes laugh when I read a horribly written comment that criticises the “poor writing”.
  3. When I first wrote about the game in 2020 I said “We seem to live in an age where everything requires some sort of justification but I’m not going to try to convince you why you need to play this game. It was meaningful to me and you’re reading my blog.”

Comparing Player Stats

Earlier this week I was curious if I could create a program that would help me make my Fantasy Premier League selections: a list of players with the highest scores for the anticipated gameweek (a set of fixtures). Initially I wanted it to consider form (a player’s average score over the last thirty days) and the difficulty of each fixture. I wrote a first version in a couple of hours [1].

Writing programs that consume APIs in Go usually requires creating a series of structs that mirror the structure of the API. You “unmarshal” JSON onto these. In my first iteration, when I wanted to add my own additional computed values I would just add these as new fields, omitting the json struct tags. When I came to add more features a few days later the code was hard to read so I prefixed my API structs with “api” and then created a series of new types designed on the structure of data I wanted to output. I then iterated over the API values, mapping the data onto the new types. The data was much easier to work with in that way.

My program works like this: Initially I create a selection of “likely winners”: teams whose expected difficulty is less than that of the teams they’re facing. I then take all the players from these teams and sort them by form, their ICT index (a metric created by the league), their average starts and the difficulty of the fixture.

But I encountered an interesting problem. The game requires you to play a certain number of players in each position. Between three and five defenders, two and five midfielders and one and three forwards. There’s always one goalkeeper. These bounds mean that (for example) one week the “ideal” team might consist of four defenders and five midfielders because the midfielders are higher scoring than the defenders and forwards. I attempted various different solutions including maintaining state across an ordered slice and a map of players by position. Even ChatGPT couldn’t produce viable code. Ultimately I ended up calculating the total scores for each combination of players (a formation) and picking the formation with the highest score; though I’m sure this isn’t the most efficient method - if you have a better idea please email me.

I still continue to enjoy writing code with Go. My language (pending name timlang) is still in development and I’ve been adding some new features to my blog. I can’t imagine having worked on this tool any other way, especially when the compiled run time is ~100ms.

Edit: 21st Aug

In studying the API data, today I also decided to include the likelihood of a player starting in a given round as part of their “score”, so as to downgrade injured players. I’m also now displaying the score in the results, an arbitrary number whose meaning is unclear to the uninitiated. Some players seem to rank higher on this score than others in much better form, which might not make sense at first. In some ways the “meaning” of the data, what I’m really trying to convey when I say the “perfect team”, has been distilled; Adding more variables to my ranking order is not as simple as just form on its own nor am I under any illusion that having more variables presents a “complete” picture. That picture may be complex but I suspect that most of my predictions will be wrong.

[1] Latest version: https://github.com/notoriousbfg/simple-fantasy

Masters of our own destinies

I spent years grappling with a feeling of inferiority having not graduated from university. When I finished school at eighteen I studied TV Production in Gloucestershire, despite my only interest having really been film; my father wouldn’t support this in the belief that TV was where the jobs were. My main interest as a teenager had been photography but there was also no possibility my parents would support me in that. Upon reflection, I think photography was one of the only things I was ever truly good at. I left university after a year with ~twelve thousand pounds of debt and depression.

I have no regrets having spent a considerable part of my life programming. I think I’m fairly good at it as well.

At several stages in adulthood I’ve looked into the possibility of returning to university in some capacity. Firstly, I feel I missed out on the opportunity to study. It was only as an adult that I discovered how much I really enjoy learning new things; any kind of passion I’d had for learning at school was thoroughly drummed out of me during GCSE & A-Level study; I read hundreds of books in my early teenage years before having to answer inane essay questions about which “literary techniques Bronte employed in Jane Eyre”. Incidentally, novelists don’t consciously employ techniques as if ticking off items on a shopping list, they read.

Secondly, graduating from university has always felt like a club I wasn’t part of. My parents, my sister, most of friends. Most of them describe it as a total waste of time, but a walled garden I may never have access to nonetheless.

The barriers to attending university seem too great: I would have to study A-Levels relevant to the subjects I want to learn about, which might take years with a full-time job. And what would it lead to if not another job? Why would I forgo gainful employment for the possibility of something else? It’s not as though I hate what I do currently.

At the weekend I finished reading “Masters of Doom” which follows “The Two Johns” (Romero and Carmack) (founders of id Software) who would make games like Wolfenstein 3-D, Doom and Quake and bring about vast cultural change in the process. Neither of the Johns graduated from university. Carmack, who was largely self-taught, would conduct his own research so that he could solve difficult graphics problems. It was incredibly humbling to read about the two prodigious programmers, who later went on to become hugely successful (in every sense of that word).

I hope I'm right (to be care-free) about AI

While out drinking with my programmer friends at the weekend, naturally the subject of ChatGPT arose. We laughed about it, comparing the way you can ask it to generate random pictures to Celery Man. While I laugh, there’s a slightly eerie feeling at the back of my mind that perhaps I shouldn’t be. That at some point in time it might not seem so funny.

Often as someone “in the know” I feel differently on hot-button technology subjects to how my non-technical friends and family feel. Take WhatsApp being asked to create backdoors to make it easier for government agencies to hunt down terrorists and child abusers; I can totally see why you’d be concerned by those things, but knowing what I do about the benefits of encryption I’m aware of the other risks. I’m not very knowledgeable about AI or what it’s capable of, other than that I know its current limitation is that it requires human input, so we’re still some way away from something that “thinks” for itself.

One of my programmer friends thinks there is nothing to stop the proliferation of AI. “It’s unstoppable. It’s inevitable that some people will lose their jobs”, he says. He also works in tech and makes good money. The people working on the cutting edge of AI (and with vested interests in it) are hugely wealthy and have likely spent most of their lives in the belief that their work will push humanity forward. I wonder how much sympathy they have for the working classes, sympathy for the Customer Service Representative with no university education. Attempts to automate entry-level jobs (that our economy thrives on) like these with bots might seem silly now, but I’d hazard a guess they soon won’t be. Those of us who work in tech are all incredibly lucky; I think about this every day.

I don’t think I have any reason to be worried about my job. The application I work on is highly complex and configurable. By the time you’d explained what it does to a machine in English, you’d have built the entire thing from scratch anyway. English might not even be the ideal way to explain it but at least it’s how us humans think (and dream) about applications now. Perhaps I could describe a service and some endpoints to ChatGPT and it could probably produce an Echo server with working code, but the limit to how accurate it’s going to be is how much detail I’m willing to go into.

There’s a subculture that seems to have appeared on some parts of Reddit and Hacker News recently: choosing the prompts that your AI art is created from. I find it totally absurd that anyone would think this could be considered a “skill” but people already do, as though choosing 10 words requires anything like the level of skill required to draw or paint well. Thankfully we do consider skill when we think about the quality of art, which is why a Rembrandt knockoff doesn’t cost you anywhere near as much as the real thing.

I imagine the future (at least for programmers) will be some augmentation of what we currently do: auto generated code snippets. I can’t imagine a self-checking, self-moderating machine that turns Jira tickets into an application you never touch or see. There will still be code, edited and validated by humans.

But I don’t see people losing their jobs in the face of this technology as an “inevitability” either. It certainly doesn’t have to be, unless those in charge let it be. We’ve developed a much better understanding of how to live with technology than ~170 years ago. I only hope that we don’t give in to the lazy, big tech optimism that got us into so much trouble in the past. Let’s stop pretending the big-tech CEOs and SV investors of this world care about the interests of the common person like they say they do; they don’t.