Every blog needs a “misc” category. It’s the writing equivalent of that giant drawer in your house which is full of rubber bands, pencil sharpeners, foreign currency, playing cards and business cards.
Oct 1, 2010 Comments Off
I was saddened this week by the story of the US college student who committed suicide after he discovered his roommate had secretly filmed his tryst with another man, and then published it online.
I add the emphasis, because it’s the most disturbing thing about an already tragic situation. Clearly we don’t know everything about the circumstances and there’s almost certainly a lot more going on than is apparent when a closeted teen commits suicide, but any way you look at it, his roommate’s actions were cruel, invasive, bullying and wrong.
There are two things jostling for attention in my head about this:
One: I’m not blaming social media, but I do worry about the habits that a social life (amplified by social media and networks) can fall into. Performing. Feeling like you have to constantly feed (/amuse/entertain/shock) a hungry audience, it’s easy to slither unawares across the line into behaviours and activities which are just wrong – like bullying – or stupid – like revealing too much about yourself online. I think some people – ok, many people – get seduced by the noteriety and enjoy the buzz of microfame, which means their boundaries of privacy and acceptable behaviour get ever so blurry. This can come back to bite them – or others.
Two: how do you support teens (especially) who are being bullied because of sexuality, appearance, intelligence, economics or anything else, especially within the artificial cruel crassness of a school or college dorm?
Speaking of supporting teens who are being bullied because of their sexuality, sex-advice columnist and podcast host Dan Savage recently kicked off an interesting and – I think – worthy initiative called the “It Gets Better Project”.
The project is inspired by the suicide of 15-year-old Indiana teenager Billy Lucas, who hanged himself two weeks ago in his family’s barn after enduring bullying from his classmates.
Savage realised that the one thing he and others who had been through tough times and bullying as teens wanted to say to today’s LGBT teens was: I know it feels bad now, but it gets better.
In an effort to counter the despair and isolation that many young gay people feel, Savage has launched a YouTube channel to provide positive examples of gay adults living their lives and sharing that simple message — it gets better.
“It occurred to me that we can talk to these kids now,” Savage said. “We don’t have to wait for an invitation or permission to reach out to them using social media and YouTube.”
He’s inviting LBGT people to upload videos to a dedicated YouTube channel, describing how they may have been bullied in high school, and how life got better once they moved out into the read world.
Human, moving – and hopefully effective.
Sep 28, 2010 3
I sometimes play a game when I’m reading stuff on the internet. It’s called Commentogeddon – or, if you prefer, Crystal Ballocks. Do you want to join in?
Here’s how you play:
1. Read an article which has comments open. Since most things have comments these days – wisely or otherwise, YMMV – this can mean anything on a blog, news site, content portal or whatever. It helps if the comment count is greater than 0, but don’t read the comments just yet.
2. As you are reading the piece “above the line” (i.e the blog post, article, original content), try to predict the nature of the comments which will follow. Your prediction may concern form, tone or content of comments. For example, you might keep a mental tally (NB this is not the same as a mentalist tally) as follows:
– there will be a comment consisting of just one word
– someone will complain about the topic, insisting that this has already been discussed and concluded
– people will mention (and take issue with) the third paragraph
3. Now read the comments.
4. Award yourself a point for each comment type or form you correctly predicted would occur “below the line” as a result of the piece above it.
Over the years, you will hone your instincts to such an intuitive level that you’ll be able to accurately predict the content of any thread without needing to read it.
Whether you then decide to do so is entirely up to you.
Sep 21, 2010 3
My new commute involves taking the train and transferring at a big, busy urban interchange. I’m learning a lot about my commute – and the fine art of commuting – of which more in time, I’m sure.
But a little glimpse for now: last night, waiting at St Pancras, I noticed that the people on the opposite platform (waiting for the northbound train) were huddled in particular formations relating to where the doors open when the train eventually arrives.
This tells us three things.
1. The train’s obviously going to be busy when it arrives, so proximity to the door is everything
2. You’ve got to do a lot of commuting before you know not just which zone to stand in so you’re near the exit when you get off, but where the doors open
3. If you’re not standing in prime position (by the doors when they open), you’re going to get left behind
Jul 26, 2010 24
In most digital workplaces, there’s an unwritten understanding that when someone has headphones on, they’re not to be disturbed. Most of the time, digital workers recognise that sometimes you need to get into a productive flow state, and that means being allowed and encouraged to immerse yourself in the task at hand, undisturbed.
Flow is important to web workers, because it’s hard to come by. As digital knowledge wranglers, just like the machines at our fingertips, we’re constantly context-switching, running multiple processes at once, streaming concurrent thoughts and projects and activities in real time, trying to devote sufficient time and attention to each, but usually failing because of unrealistic timescales, lack of data to complete the task in hand or multiple competing priorities.
Context switching is exhausting, especially if you’re doing it all day long. It takes effort to figure out the context when someone comes up to you and starts talking about that meeting or project, and you’re supposed to instantly know
a) who they are
b) what they’re referring to
c) all background knowledge about the context which may enable you to make a useful or insightful contribution.
I often find myself wishing people came with identifying headers, like email. Just a simple whois with a sensible subject line would do wonders for my ability to react reasonably and rapidly to a distraction, rather than staring blankly for a few moments while my brain variously clears to one side the other things I’ve been processing, then cycles through knowledge files to find pertinent entries, all of the while also trying to summon the person’s name and context based only on their appearance (I’m terrible with names) and the words “that thing we were talking about the other day.”
The phrase “continuous partial attention” was invented by Linda Stone in 1998, and it gets more true with every passing year, perfectly describing the constant infograzing state of the digital generation.
So for the most part, web workers need ways to signal to their colleagues that they are trying to crack on with something without distraction. For many, the universal symbol is ‘headphones on’ – even if you’re not listening to anything, it’s a way of visibly signalling to the world that your attention is in another place. Your body may remain in the room, at your desk, but your attention is in the task. This is what Bruce Sterling means when he wrote about “cyberspace” as the place your attention is when you’re focused on something else:
Cyberspace is the “place” where a telephone conversation appears to occur. Not inside your actual phone, the plastic device on your desk. Not inside the other person’s phone, in some other city. The place between the phones.
– Bruce Sterling, from the introduction to The Hacker Crackdown [PDF link to whole book]
So we work much of the time in cyberspace, trying to find focus and flow, trying to escape from constant distractions and demands on attention.
Of course, there are exceptional circumstances which mean it’s OK for someone to break into the attention zone. Indeed, we give certain people specific permission to breach the bulkhead. We switch on our “busy” signals on GTalk, but our loved ones know that it’s OK to ignore it. We set up our phones to divert all calls except those from the boss. We instruct our desk phones to deliver a voice message to all calls telling them to email instead. Then we sift through emails when time and attention allow.
We generally prefer forms of contact which can be skimmed, triaged and prioritised. We want to be in control of our time, in a world which makes it increasingly difficult to be so. We tend not to like interruptive, demanding contact like phone or face-to-face disruption, in which someone else takes control of the when, where and how much time the query will take – as well as what else we’ll be able to do during the contact.
Face to face interruptions can’t be compartmentalised, multi-tasked or pomadoroed: it seems rude, when in fact the imposition is on the part of the disturber, not the disturbee. But it’s hard to tell someone to IM instead when they’re looming over your desk. As a result, we digivores get a reputation for being anti-social; for preferring email to facetime; for conducting hour-long sporadic conversations via instant message rather than spending ten minutes on the phone.
So in a distracting and demanding world, we crave the perfect, all-too-fleeting feeling of flow, when dedicated attention combines with lack of distraction to form a productive, devoted, happy state. Nothing beats it: fingers flying, synapses firing: words (or code, or ideas, or photoshop actions, or whatever you do) spilling productively, consistently and cogently onto the screen almost as fast as you can process them.
That’s why dedicated attention time is important, and why geeks (technical, creative and otherwise) resent distraction. We’re not just grumpy sods: we need mental space to focus. Music through headphones helps. Switching off the IM and email clients helps. Making yourself unavailable to the world despite your continued presence in the office helps too, but can prove more problematic.
A year or so ago, in the face of a writing project which demanded lots of head-down time immersed in passages and focused on the screen, I made a little makeshift notice to put beside my desk. It said “Trying to concentrate, please don’t disturb”. I saw it as the physical equivalent of the notice on my GTalk status (“Trying to concentrate: email me instead”) or the voice message I’d set (“Hello, you can leave me a message if you want but I’d really prefer an email to…”).
It was small, and people didn’t notice it. I felt too much of a sourpuss to point it out to them, so it became pointless.
A week later, I came in one morning and discovered a new sign beside my desk, made (I think ) by a sneaky elf in the design team who sit not far from me. In brand-consistent font on a hot pink background, the giant-Toblerone-shaped sign said on each face: “Meg is trying to concentrate”. There could be no mistaking it from any angle. The message was clear.
I’ve tried to enforce a good routine with the sign over the last year. I only use it when I’m actually trying to concentrate on something specific (not multiple things which are distractable). I use it in combination with headphones as a double signal to the world of my unavailability. I take it down when I’m done focussing.
Here are the interactions I tend to get, when the sign is up. Each of these is accompanied by hand waving designed to induce me to take off the massive headphones I am wearing when the sign is up:
- Are you actually trying to concentrate?
- I like your sign.
- Hahaha. Meg is trying to concentrate! Very good! Does it work?
- I know you’re trying to concentrate [waves dismissively at sign] but I’ve got a question about…
- Are you interruptable?
- Sorry to interrupt, but I just wanted to talk about…
- Ooh, where did you get your sign from? Did you make it?
- Can we talk about….[no reference to sign at all]
and perhaps most often:
Why do they do this?
I’m at a loss to know what to do next. Current favoured options include:
- A Lucy-style “The Doctor Is In/Out” sign
- Ignoring people if they ignore the sign when it’s up
- Teenage-style eye-rolling and deep sighing when interrupted
- Getting a bigger sign
- Amending the existing sign to include the words “Please do not disturb”
- A deli-counter take a number/now serving machine
If all else fails, I’m going to get a big piece of black cloth, and attach one end using velcro to the outer rim of my monitor, and drape the other end over my head, like a Victorian photographer’s light hood. This idea is, of course, based on the popular toddler belief that if I can’t see them, they can’t see me to interrupt. It also has the added bonus of shutting out all non-digital stimulus, which might help me to focus a bit better.
How do you find focus in a world of competing attention? Any suggestions?
Jun 11, 2010 Comments Off
May 11, 2010 3
A couple of years ago, P and I went to a wedding on the North York Moors. We stayed in a rather faded (but decently-reviewed on Tripadvisor) hotel near the prom in Scarborough, and aside from a wobbly start when we arrived and discovered that the room had been cleaned but not the bathroom (eugh!) we had a perfectly pleasant stay for a couple of nights.
We barely spent any time there, just dashing in to shower and change outfits in between the social engagements which cluster around a wedding for old friends. But we made a point of having a decent breakfast both mornings, because you never know when you’re going to be fed at someone else’s nuptials, do you?
On the first morning, we showed up at the high-ceilinged breakfast room at eight, and were shown to a table in the window. Unsurprisingly for a hotel at the seaside on the first weekend in August, there were plenty of guests in residence, most of whom were already seated, in even-numbered clumps at tables adorned with white cloths and posies of plastic flowers in unnatural colours.
As we perused the menu, a man with a slightly Fawlty-esque moustache walked in carrying a pot of coffee. He approached the table to the left of us, which held two slightly rotund and red-faced couples wearing floral blouses (shes) and pastel polo shirts (hes).
“Right then, who’s for coffee?” the man with the pot bellowed
“Me please,” said one of the men.
“And me, Frank,” said his floral other half.
“Tea for me, thanks,” said the other man.
“Oh aye, I might’ve known there’d be trouble,” said the proprietor, “there’s always one awkward one.”
“If it’s not too much bother, Frank…” said the man who’d asked for tea,
“Bother? Oh no. It’s no bother to go all the way back to the kitchen for the other pot. Not with my bad knee; don’t you worry about it, Geoff. I’ll be right.”
“Well, while you’re there, how about some more toast?” asked the second floral woman.
“Easy there Margaret,” said Frank, “you’ll never fit into your bikini down at the beach if you keep eating at this rate!”
The table guffawed, as Margaret patted her stomach in a contented way. Frank, the coffee wielding owner, limped off in an exaggerated way, to retrieve a teapot from the distant kitchen.
P and I nervously perused the breakfast menu and wondered if we were brave enough to ask for a hot beverage if asked.
It was a warm day; we settled for orange juice from the buffet, somewhat relieved.
Last year, we visited Wensleydale for a few days and stayed a couple of nights in a converted barn B&B in the western dale. It was a lovely place and the owners were considerate and gracious hosts during our stay.
On the first night we were there, we were the only guests, and breakfast the next morning was calm and quiet. On the second night of our visit, two other couples were in residence, and the breakfast that followed was somewhat different.
“Hello there,” said the owner to the one of the other couples at their table, as he brought them toast, “sorry to miss you last night when you got here. Did you have a good meal? Find somewhere good? Marvellous.”
He turned to us and topped up the coffee in our cups, “more toast for you, too? Righty-ho.”
He disappeared into the kitchen and reappeared with a toastrack, his wife behind him bearing warm croissants and pastries.
Just at that moment, the other couple entered the breakfast room.
“Oh no,” said Mrs Owner, “Not these two again.”
Mr Owner joined in “Can’t get rid of you, can we?”
As they took their seats, smiling, he turned to our table and said in a loud stage whisper, “We keep telling them we’ve moved in the hope that they’ll get the hint, but they keep coming back, the daft twats.”
This weekend, I had the good fortune to spend a night in a small village not far from Harrogate. When I arrived, the B&B hostess opened the door, looked me up and down, sniffed slightly and ushered me in. I went upstairs to the room she led me to, and she reeled off a list of rules and details which I didn’t really need to know given that I was only going to be there for less than twelve hours.
Aside from when I popped downstairs to return my what-I-want-for-breakfast form (really) and ask for the WiFi password (a request which, despite the generous gushings about its free and ample provision in the bound guest information folder upstairs, the proprietress greeted with the sort of face that implied I’d just asked if I could please poo on the bedspread) that was the limit of my conversation with her for the extend of my stay.
The next morning at breakfast, her husband brought me tea and toast monosyllabically as I sat alone in silence at a giant table set for three in the cavernous, beamed dining hall.
I sipped my tea and munched on toast and thought about the day I had ahead and the bossy little comic sans signs which peppered my guest bedroom urging me not to spill red wine on the bedspread (I don’t have any), not to smoke out of the window (I don’t), allow my children to make noise after 10pm (see my first point, above) or move the television from its position (move the table instead).
A couple of minutes later, the other guests came down the sweeping staircase and took their seats.
Mrs Owner came out of the kitchen as she heard their chairs scraping across the tiled floor.
“Oh good morning!” she gushed to the new arrivals, “how did you sleep?”
She fussed over to the welsh dresser and pressed play on a CD player, so a little light chamber music drifted out over the table.
“Now, for breakfast this morning we’ve got porridge if you like, and did you want a cooked breakfast? Don’t worry if you didn’t put it on the form last night. What’ll it be? Full Yorkshire? Or I could rustle you up some poached eggs if you’d prefer?”
I silently chewed my toast, and wondered what I had done wrong, to be treated with such disdain.
And on the train home, I realised that there’s a sort of universal northern theory of interpersonal relationships, which dictate the level of civility you can expect in line with the closeness of your relationship to someone.
It looks something like this:
If someone doesn’t know you or like you, you can expect them to be brusque (at best) and openly hostile (at worst). Once you become more familiar, this mellows into a studied indifference, and as soon as they get to know you and/or like you a bit, this turns into the genial chit-chat that you might expect to be the normal point of entry for social relationships.
And then, as your relationship deepens, there’s an uncomfortable bit of indifference again before it becomes open season on personal insults and the camaraderie of mutual abuse which indicates that you’re really good friends, in fact.
I’m sure this is true in various other bits of the country, but nowhere have I experienced it more than in Yorkshire and the environs, and specifically in B&Bs and hotels.
I suppose that the special relationships which come about from regular visits to a particular establishment must lead to a particular kind of bond, based on teasing, affront and mockery. But it’s bloody perplexing to figure out where you sit in the continuum and how to navigate its perilous course.
Apr 17, 2010 5
For as long as I’ve lived in London, I’ve lived under the flight path.
That’s not saying much, of course – most of central, west and south-west London is affected by plane noise, as they circle over the suburbs, make a languid turn over Tower bridge and then approach to Heathrow along the Thames.
I remember standing on the school playing fields (when I should undoubtedly have been chasing a hockey ball or hustling to class) and looking up at planes not so far overhead, trying to identify the airline from the tail fin design. Alitalia. BA. Pan Am. SAS. Lufthansa. Countries in the sky.
For most of the last decade, I’ve lived directly under the flight path, in Mortlake by the river, which is the point where the wheels come down on the landing approach.
When we first moved here, I was hyper-aware of the planes. I’d wake up as the first flight droned overhead around 04.30, before dropping off again. And then, throughout the day and evening, every thirty seconds, they’d rumble over on their way to landing: loud enough that you’d miss a few seconds of important dialogue in the film you were watching, or have to pause your conversation for a spell. Before Concorde stopped flying, the air would be thunderous for nearly a minute as it slid overhead.
Yet most of the time, I didn’t mind the planes. They reminded me that up above, people were about three minutes from landing – homecomings, holidays, greetings and meetings. Three minutes before landing, everything is put away and switched off. There’s nothing to do but look out of the window at the huge expanse of London below and anticipate the moment when you’ll touch down. It’s nice to sit in my study, or in the back garden, or lie in bed and think of people in a suspended, anticipatory, excited state above, just moments from an arrival.
And I’ve been in those planes, too. I purposefully sit by the window when returning to London, usually on the right of the plane, so I can drink in the sparkling city. And what a welcome home.
Greenwich. Tower bridge. Cannon Street. Waterloo. Green Park. Hyde Park and the Royal Albert Hall. The Empress building. Queen’s Club. Hammersmith bridge. Leg o’mutton nature reserve at Barnes. My house, by the bend in the river. Dukes Meadows driving range. Brentford. Hounslow. Heathrow. Home.
In the months after September 11, 2001, the sound of planes took on a different edge. More menacing. Despite the fact that they were still just tootling along toward the landing runway, sometimes the noise sounded surprisingly loud – Too loud? Too low?
And there were other concerns, too – we can’t shop in our local Sainsbury’s without thinking of the tragic tale of the man who fell to earth – a story that sounds apocryphal, but horrifyingly, happened. More than once. Knowing that certainly lends an edge to doing your weekly shop. We glance nervously at the passing planes sometimes, too.
I woke yesterday morning to the sound of birds in the trees outside the window, and wondered what was missing. It took a while to realise the absence of planes made this place feel different.
It’s been a strange combination of eerie and delightful these last few days having no plane noise at all.
No contrails. No regular rumble overhead. Because there are no planes.
The atmosphere over most of Europe, they tell us, is full of dangerous ash. And yet the skies seem so beautifully, strangely empty.
Mar 2, 2010 Comments Off
Jan 15, 2010 4
Saw this at the bus stop this morning. After a week or more of snow, slush, ice, more snow, slush again, ice, fog and now rain, and people huddled into winter jackets, snowboots, scarves, woolly hats and the like (a look I like to call “survivalist chic”), it was quite pleasing to see something cheery on the morning commute.
(This photo was taken using the Hipstamatic iPhone app, which aims to replicate various analog lens/film/flash gel combinations. It’s a well-built app, but I’m slightly frustrated that I can’t Hipsta-fy existing camera roll images, like you can with Camerabag – just take shots through the app itself. I suppose it all adds to the rather hit-and-miss analogish experience, though…)
Jan 10, 2010 29
Every now and again, something happens which reminds you that the internet isn’t the respectful, creative, collaborative place that we rather naively hope it is, but is actually infested with people who seek to exploit, destroy and undermine the work of others.
It’s not that surprising, unfortunately, but it is a bit disappointing.
Take my 2006 camphone photo taken on the tube, of a girl reading a book:
Or rather, don’t take it. Admire it. Link to it. Comment on it. Favourite it. Tell me you like it, you value my work, you think it’s funny/clever/well-composed if you like, but don’t take it and pass it off as your own work.
I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve seen this (hasty and rather crap resolution due to being taken with a camphone) shot being included in emailed & blogged collections of “great trick photography photos” and the like. Here are just a few of the places it’s been spotted over the years. Without exception in these circumstances, the image is used without permission, with no credit or link to me (therefore falling foul of Flickr’s terms of service as well as my wishes as the creator of the work). Sometimes it even appears with someone else’s watermarked copyright notice on it, which I think is a bit fucking rich, to be honest.
This evening, it happened again. It was brought to my attention by a friend that a “photographer” – Rob Jarvis was passing off the Geisha image as his own on his site (which seems to be hosted on Facebook.
Here’s the email I sent him via Flickr:
Hi Rob Jarvis
I got your link from a friend, who recommended I check out your photos of people, via robjarvis.co.uk.
I’m very impressed with the quality and diversity of the images in that gallery. Such excellent pictures.
However, it’s a shame that they’re not your work – in fact, one of them is mine, which you appear to be claiming as your own, and accepting kudos and compliments on.
This one: http://www.facebook.com/photo.php?pid=796237&id=26284825698#/photo.php?pid=796224&id=26284825698&fbid=27063715698 [note: since removed, mysteriously] on your site, is actually my photo, taken in 2006 and originally posted here: http://www.flickr.com/photos/meg/216773377/
And this one: http://www.facebook.com/photo.php?pid=796237&id=26284825698 [note: also vanished] is originally by Ed Scoble and findable on Flickr here: http://www.flickr.com/photos/edscoble/454167410/
How many other images in that gallery – and your entire site – are actually stolen from others? Taking others images and passing them off as your own work by putting them on your site with no disclaimer or credit, and stamped with your own copyright notice, is extremely irritating and demonstrates a total lack of respect for other photographers’ work.
I want you to remove the image from your site immediately and replace it with a public apology, explaining that the image was taken without permission from another photographer, and providing details of where people can see the original. That’s the very least you can do, considering the circumstances. I expect others you have infringed will ask you to do the same.
Whether he got this message or otherwise had a coincidental and sudden change of heart I don’t know, but the two images I mentioned above have been taken down from his site now. Many others remain.
UPDATE: see end of post
Now, I’m not seeking to make money from this image, and nor am I particularly ferocious about traditional copyright. In fact, I’m a big believer in the power of creative commons licenses which offer a variety of ways for individuals to assert specific rights, while making content available to be used, remixed, shared and so on, in accordance with their specific wishes.
But this Geisha experience over the last three and a half years, (and it’s not the first time someone’s ripped off my work as their own) makes me want to pull all my content off the internet entirely and never share or publish again. It’s certainly enough to make me restrict who can see larger sizes or download my photos on Flickr.
Ironically, the fact that some people are unable to respect other people’s creative work makes me become more closed and black and white and less likely to share things using creative commons licenses. After all, if people can’t be trusted to understand “simple” copyright, what hope have we got of getting them to understand a more complex (albeit more flexible and open) license?
It’s a shame that this is the result.
I wish we could encourage people to praise, link to and credit each others work when they share it.
I wish it was as cool to be a curator as a creator of things.
I’d like people to think it was enough to introduce others to things they like or have found (I find Tumblr is particularly good for this), and not have to pretend it was their own work. Perhaps then we’d see a bit more respect for origin, and more people would be inspired to create and share.
UPDATE 11 January 2010
Rob replied to my Flickr message this morning, saying simply “never claimed to be mine, its now removed.”
When I tried to reply to thank him for removing it, I discovered that he has blocked me so I can’t send him messages.
Rob, if you’re reading this: Thanks for removing it from your collection, though with respect, you had your copyright notice on it, and were publishing it on your site, and accepting comments and plaudits on it. That looks a lot like you were taking credit for it. Nevertheless, thanks for removing it.
Rob has apologised in the comments below. The specific issue is resolved (thank you), so let’s not dwell on Rob or his particular actions any longer. Apology accepted. Let’s move on.
However, the general point about providing appropriate credit for curated work and being sensitive to other people’s usage wishes, remains. This is perhaps amplified by Piers’ rather surprising comment (also below). He states:
If you don’t want your work copied, you shouldn’t put it online. It’s that simple and it’s up to you not everyone else.
If that is indeed the case (and I don’t believe it is), then how utterly miserable and misanthropic the world must seem.