Three weird things I've learnt from the internet - Katherine Roberts

If you're an indie-minded author, you're probably used to discovering how to do stuff for yourself. If you want writing or publishing advice, you can read a blog (like this one), or download an ebook that promises to make you into a million-dollar bestseller in three days... and hopefully you're wise enough to know the difference. But there is a whole world of free advice out there that can help a writer survive day to day - because it's not all about dreaming up stories, you know.

Here are three random things I learnt from the internet this year, all of which have saved me money and/or time, and possibly helped save the planet, too.

1. How to get a fly out of your ear.

Last summer (which was gloriously sunny and warm, remember?), I went cycling one evening and returned home with a buzzing noise in one of my ears. At first I thought a fly had got tangled in my hair and tried to brush it away. Yet the buzzing persisted, on and off, throughout the evening, at which point I realised - to my horror - that the fly was actually inside my ear.

Google supplied this helpful advice:

(a) suffocate the fly by pouring olive oil into your ear, then
(b) go to A&E so a nurse can syringe it out.

This seemed a bit cruel, since my fly was obviously still very much alive. Besides, braving A&E on a Saturday night seemed more dangerous than a small fly stuck in my ear. I decided it would find its own way out overnight, and went to bed. By morning, all was quiet – it must have either escaped or died. Then I opened the curtains, and my ear started buzzing frantically again. Obviously not.

Back to Google one last time before heading off to A&E, and I discovered a helpful video that sadly I can no longer find amidst all the advice that has been uploaded since, but basically this Australian chap said to shine a torch into your ear, while pulling at your ear lobe to straighten the ear canal and help the fly find its way out. Three minutes of frantic buzzing later, and SPLAT… a tiny midge hit the torch at high speed, stunned but still alive. After a few seconds, it shook out its wings and flew away - a happy ending for both of us.

Money saved: olive oil for ear; parking charge at the hospital.
Time saved: several hours at A&E on a Saturday night.
Planet saved: the drive to A&E; one small fly.

2. How to mend a broken flush.

Just before Christmas, my toilet (which happens to be the only one in the house) finally gave up flushing. It had been temperamental for months, but I'd always managed to get it to work with a strong wrist action and meant to call the plumber at some stage to sort it out, only these things have a habit of slipping off the list until they turn into an emergency. This was an emergency. With visions of my elderly parents trying to flush the loo on Christmas Day with a bucket of water, I phoned the plumber. Predictably, he was on holiday and could not come for another week. So I turned to Google and discovered a whole collection of scary plumbing videos on YouTube... “Turn off the water, then take the cistern off the wall” most of them began, cheerily. They (usually a he) then told you how tricky it all was, before going into the procedure for removing and changing the diaphragm inside the syphon, followed by reassembling the cistern, and ending with advice to “make sure there are no leaks”. Professional plumbers, perhaps, touting for trade from hapless DIY-ers like me?

I had not really planned on doing major plumbing while preparing the Christmas dinner. Then I found a simpler video - again, this seems to have got lost in Google, but it seems some syphons (why don't they make them all like that?) unscrew in the middle and come apart so you don't have to take the whole thing off the wall and disconnect the pipes, unless you need to replace the whole syphon... and usually you don't, since it's normally just the plastic membrane at the bottom that goes. Taking the top off my cistern again, I saw it was indeed the helpful sort that comes apart in three pieces… phew!

This is what mine looked like when I got it out. A wonder it worked at all, really.

the bit that makes the flush work... or not

A rusty handle screw broke and delayed me a bit while I found some tools to remove it. but the whole process only took me (a complete novice) about 20 minutes. I made my replacement diaphragm out of an unused A4 plastic wallet in shiny blue, cutting around my old shredded template for size and recycling a bit of plastic into the bargain. I put the thing back together again, decided the handle screw wasn't doing very much anyway so I could manage without, and… success! My loo is now flushing better than it has done since I moved into the house 10 years ago.

Afterwards, I sent for the proper replacement diaphragm for my type of syphon from a seller I found on amazon (£1.50 plus postage) and found another screw for the handle, but so far my DIY repair is still working brilliantly… it'll probably still be in there when I sell the house. If you have a more modern type of loo, you can buy these diaphragms locally and save the postage.

Money saved: £150+ (plumber plus repair)
Time saved: none, since it took me a lot longer to fix than it would have taken the plumber!
Planet saved: plumber's journey to my house; new syphon (doubt plumber would fuss with the diaphragm); recycled plastic wallet.

3. How to unlock an old Epson printer with flashing lights.

OK, I'll admit my inkjet printer is getting on a bit. I've been using it since at least 1990, but I don’t really want/need to replace it… it’s cheap to run, produces adequate printouts for my own use (manuscript drafts mostly, that end up in the recycling when I've finished scribbling on them), and it happily uses recycled inks. It even prints in colour when it's feeling energetic. Besides, I know most of its quirks... up until last month, that is, when it threw a total wobbly and jammed with all three lights blinking, then refused to do anything even after being turned off and on again (my usual emergency repair tactic for anything tech). The handbook advised an “unknown fault” and calling the engineer… do they still have engineers for 1990s Epson Styluses?

It looked like 'goodbye old Epson' and 'hello new printer' time. But before I consigned my trusty old printer to the tip and headed off to PC World, I went back to Google again. Two minutes later, I discovered from a forum the correct combination of buttons to press. It’s non-intuitive (i.e unlikely you’d stumble on the correct combination by accident), and I've forgotten the combination already, but it worked first time – the old printer reset itself and now works perfectly again.

If you've got an Epson printer that refuses to play, here's the secret combination:

Money saved: £50 (new printer).
Time saved: 2 hours (shopping for new printer).
Planet saved: tipping old printer; driving across town.

Thank you, Google!

What’s the most useful non-writing thing you've learnt from the internet this year, and how much money/time/planet did it save?

When she's not doing emergency plumbing, Katherine Roberts writes fantasy and historical fiction for young (and older) readers.

Bone Music paperback

Her latest book is BONE MUSIC: the Legend of Genghis Khan, published by Greystones Press and nominated for the 2019 Carnegie Medal.

Find out more at


Susan Price said…
Great blog! In all the outrage about porn and scams, the amount of useful stuff to be found on Google and YouTube seems to be overlooked.
Dunno what the most useful, money-saving, time-saving, planet-saving thing I've learned this year is -- too many to choose from -- but I know Google and YouTube are now my first port of call for any problem. For instance:

How to cut your hair in layers:
How to prune trees;
how to dismantle and clean my vacumn cleaner (I've lost what my Dad always called 'the destructions');
What the going rate is for various jobs (from cleaning guttering to removing rats from attic);
How to write a pitch for a book]
How to use various tools on Photoshop -- oh, the list just goes on and on and on.
Umberto Tosi said…
Yes, quite amazing! I haven't encountered any of those three examples you cited. I especially don't want a fly in my ear (except as a metaphor), but now I know to ask Google - or go to You Tube (owned by Google.) BTW - I would have gone for the olive oil to drown the intruding little bugger.

There are also all sorts of online peer groups of folks who can advise on all sorts of problems via chat or emails (who usually respond quickly), particularly about technical conundrums that might not come up in a Google search.

I'm amazed at the stupendous number of people who have posted how-to videos and other helpful advice online about the most arcane things. Who are these generous, helpful souls and where to they find the time to post all this stuff? It restores my faith in the basic goodness of people despite evidence to the contrary every day on the news. Thanks for a fun post, Kathrine.
Brilliant, funny post! I turn to google daily for doses of wisdom and it never fails to entertain even when it doesn't deliver. The biggest cure for me was for a nail issue that my American doctor prescribed medication (antibiotics) for, but an online search suggested a mix of ground raw rice and vinegar & solved the problem quickly and for ever!
Raw rice and vinegar sounds brilliant for nails, probably no side effects either?

And now I'm off to search for 'how to cut your hair in layers'... my hairdresser can do it at about £10 per snip, of course, but I didn't know it was possible to do your own (might be useful for those months when the royalties don't arrive).
This is great - I also had to resort to the internet (at the end of last year) for a problem with the toilet and in fact I was awake at 3 am on Christmas Day searching for this. It was a recalcitrant blockage, none of the shops were open so we couldn't go and buy any tools or anything, and I fixed it in practically no time, despite my son's scorn about me even trying this method.
Take an old mop - due to my previously mentioned total lack of de-cluttering skills, we had one lying around in the garden - and cover the mopping part with one or two ordinary plastic bags, tying them tightly round the handle. Then use this as a sort of giant plunger. It really works!

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