Thursday, June 30, 2005

photograph as pause point

There's so much going on at the moment, I don't know that I can stop. It's all run, run, run, along to-do and to-be lists that aren't easily escapable. And while I know I ought to be sorting out this or changing that, realistically this is not going to be a good time, no matter how well I organise it. It's not going to be controllable; but there's still the desire for the semblance of control.

skylark heavenInto the pell-mell dash, then, come the desperate need to stop and think; but not too deeply, because at such times we are flirting with depression and withdrawal and all those other things jobs and responsibilities and the need to eat lunch will not allow for. Actions which force slowing down and consideration, but which also speak of control, appreciation and organisation. Spotting something precious or wonderful or unusual; that's positive, yet disconnected. The act of composition, framing, that takes a moment, and a certain distance. Ideally, you find a subject which needs repeated attention, like this meadow, where you can enter an intense meditation on the physical appearance of the world, excerpted from time and necessity. Freed from the to-do list. Into the ungovernable moment you can insert, like a spacer card, a frozen image of beauty, peace, pleasure.

don't cryAs times darken, and become more difficult, and complicated, and the urgency of the to-do-list comes knocking and will not be silenced, there is a faster more intence space where photographs take place, where the camera is not so much meditation, but mediation, between the photographer and agonising experience. The sad inevitability of being unable to save a baby bird, a long but necessary walk to pointlessness and heartbreak, the marathon emotional churn of funerals and other sad social occasions, the camera can set them back to arms length, allow focus on chosen details, return a semblance of control to a situation you would not have chosen. It can even be redeeming, snatching beauty from the darkness or finding company and interest in a lonely and despairing space. It puts purpose back into the moment; at its best, the photograph rebadges a bitter or painful experience as a positive, creative one. One marked, and conquered.

At the funeral, there was a big pond full of huge goldfish, and after the service, out came the cameras, photographing lillies, wavering feet over the water, half-familiar people scattered in semi-random groupings. The cameras provided distance, context, and a purposeful excuse to hang around. To be there. To belong, and to have a job; but also to observe and be an outsider.

To own experience, and not to be defeated by it.

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

I decided to build a wicker man on Flickr

I decided to build a wicker man

In which my titling habits produce an odd call-and-response feel to my 2004 solstice celebrations, when I report them a year later. Click on "next" for six photographs to read the full story.

Thursday, April 28, 2005

terrible things with pictures

Given that my face is public property I often forget that other people don't like seeing their face staring back at them from the internet. Which is a bit of a shame, given just how you'll always find me with a camera at parties.

cakes and woolUsually, I feel quite confident about judging what the good pictures are, and what sort of level of privacy they need. The lovelies go to Flickr, for publicacious ultra-exposure to adoring masses of tag-surfers. Except for the ones featuring children/houses/other personal items, naturally, which are screened discreetly behind privacy features. When I'm just out to let someone who is inconveniently not in the same city leaf through a set of photos or pictures, Livejournal's scrapbook, for all its, uh, scrappiness, does the job rather well. The privacy features over there can lock a gallery tight to one other person, if you feel so inclined. And plenty never make it off the hard drive/photo shelf, because I just don't think that they look good, and by that I mean the photo, not the individual in it.

Whomsoever I photographed (on my own time!) I photographed because I thought they looked good.

Consider this one: I love the balance between the eau de nil tights, and the lavender wool, and that tiny glimpse of the pink pink shoes. What I forget is that the subject might object to having her head cut off, might feel (against all evidence!) that her knees look odd, or that she just doesn't like being photographed.

Perhaps there's a sense that I've excerpted the photo from the individual, that it represents something removed from their identity.

Although it has to be said that every photograph of myself I find on flickr, whether recognisable or not, whether by me or not, I obsessively tag jeremy dennis.

Thursday, March 24, 2005

freedom of digression

Communications, delivery of information. Which bits of information I go looking for, and why. And why, so often, I end up looking for what I want on google images.

the desire to wander

There are things I need to know this march: where high heeled wellies come from, what to do with a solitary bee that's come out of hibernation too early, and the relationship between stroke and migraine. But I don't need this knowledge for my day-to-day existence. I can be briefly amused by the high-heeled wellies, forget about the bee, and believe my doctor when he says the migraines don't and won't increase the stroke risk. But I'm not after the information I need for survival. I've looked for that online, of course -- my job involves providing that sort of how-to-get-a-job, how-to-spot-a-villainous-landlord, how-to-convince-someone-you-need-medical-attention information, and plenty of people provide it (and use it) online, but this is never going to be the bulk of someone's internet use if they're a regular user. They, like me, will be after the information that enriches life, that surrounds the bare facts with details, reports, pictures and personal histories. For this, the internet, with its scattering of (on the one side) incomplete, misleading and badly-spelled blogrumours, message board and opinion pieces, and on the other intimidatingly technical papers escaped from extranets and subscriber services is the ultimate reward for the enthusiastic amateur, people into informal learning techniques and self-motivated research. Ironically, this sort of information fiddler, the person who goes gathering odd news stories, strange histories and interesting facts, will also be the person best able to track down the information they really need, when they need it. They have the skills, the Google Fu.

But one of the central problems with my job is that I'm often not dealing with the expert users. I'm looking at first-timers, people with limited access and little time, inexperienced, and at sea in the online information swamp.

freedom to wander

The trouble is that attempts to organise information often seem only to obscure it. Put things into categories, and people get lost between whether an STI is a health problem, or a relationship problem. Any attempt to be comprehensive leaves you with more data than can be feasibly grasped. Go for the Q&A approach, and it's all to easy to frustrate people by losing them down blind alleys. It's also too slow; even the least experienced user is accustomed to google's expertise at delivering you exactly what you want on the first search. But, on one site, a full text search only works if you're smart with the words you use; that too, is another technique you have to learn, before you can stop getting far too many results, or the wrong results. So getting the user to the information they want is a headache, and in the youth information area the result has been a plethora of bizarre interfaces, all aimed at gently herding the user to the information, while keeping them entertained on the way.

But, herding the user is actually entirely counter to how the web works. We're talking self-motivated research here, we're talking user-lead navigation. Or at least, we should be. The user needs to be in control, especially in difficult areas where they is a lot of alarmist disinformation. Otherwise, they're pretty much justified in going off and looking somewhere else; asking their mates, perhaps. Maybe someone with mad google skillz who can dodge the bullshit and hit the paydirt.

optimised to wander

This isn't great, though. It doesn't encourage independence, increased confidence, better life-skills and all of those other intangibles but usefuls that help round out an individual into someone mature, autonomous, balanced. We don't want grabbing knowledge off the web to be the province of a few geeks and willows who are lauded when useful and despised for their knowledge at other times. Being able to find information online should be a general life-skill.

But all this herding and ringfencing and directing of inexpert users is not encouraging them to use the internet. They may get familiar with a few sites and some sites trade on this, keeping users inside their "online experience". But this is the province of people marketing a product, and information is not a product, no matter how tempting it is to market it.

The really good web architectures should reinforce the strengths of the medium by enabling a more efficient method of wandering; a more scenic route with more pretty pictures, colourful facts, mysterious-looking sidetracks and hopeful-looking vistas. They should tempt the users into exploring the potential of the medium; more pied piper than sheep-dog.

So good old google, while is gives much the expected results on the basic search, quickly drifts into the weird and wonderful with the images, and provides breadth and currency with the news search. The visual cues help organise thoughts and spot sites which duplicate content; broadening, rather than narrowing the approach to information.

Saturday, March 19, 2005

foregrounding the errors

One of Flickr's games is called favourites -- you put pink stars on the photos you like the best, and they get made into a slideshow of everything you like. I expected this to produce a lot of very good photos, but actually ... no. I'd picked things that were low resolution, out of focus, over-exposed, greyed out ... and, now I come to think about it, I post imperfects myself.

So, in something as undirected as viewing a photograph, the theory is that imperfections can mediate (direct, control, persuade) the experience of the viewer. Whether it is an attractive in-point, like bad teeth in a beautiful face, or alienating, like an accident in the depth of field, yanking the viewer back to the artificiality of their experience, they represent the moment that the author visibly contacts you:

"I've come to believe errors, especially written errors, are the only markers left by a solitary life" (Danielewski, House of Leaves)

At which point he uses some written errors of his own to draw attention to the fact that what is presented as biographical criticism is in fact a fiction written by him, the author, like Sebald with his deliberate "mistakes" -- "important writerly adjustments to the historical truth" (Guardian obit) making sure you see the artificiality of the performance. Which brings up the problem with this. Go and talk to the photographer (if you can) and chances are they meant something entirely different; the thing you see in the style, the slips and errors isn't the photographer but your impression of them. And anyway, when I'm wandering through pictures of ducks or amsterdam on Flickr I'm not trying to find out things about the photographer (nor ducks or Amsterdam, for that matter) .

But even if they're not a directing force, or even biographical scarpas, mistakes are evidence of the author's hand, and as such, comforting -- a reminder that we are not alone with the subject, but listening to a story told by another person. So maybe pursuing the mismatched subject or uneven composition is actually a way of gaining an illicit social contact with the person who took the shot. Illicit because the other can't control the contact as they are unaware of it happening. Then maybe my attachment to shots like this and this and this come about not because I'm gravitating towards some artistic ideal but instead because I crave social contact -- albeit a contact so light the other person need know nothing about it. Looking for that "you, you, you" to compliment the "I, I, I" of blogging.

Which is all well and good, but then, why do I post my own mistakes? Is it just a question of passing out copies of the things you like in the hopes of being given more of the same? Here's Murakami on the uncertainty of autobiography:

"I have already forgotten any number of things. Writing from memory like this I often feel a pang of dread. What if I've forgotten the most important thing? What if somewhere deep inside me there is a dark limbo where all the truly important memories are heaped and slowly turning to mud?" (Norweigan Wood -- not an autobiography, but autobiographical)

In the time-displaced tangle of blogging, it's hard to know what is important, what you'll want to remember. Hard to avoid the anxiety that if you only select what you think is best or finest you'll end up like Krapp*, fast-forwarding through your great works in a frustrated frenzy, obsessively going over and over the scraps you can find of the person that used to be you.

And perhaps also that only selecting the best creates a wrong impression; better content, perhaps. But not really you.

*Samuel Beckett, Krapp's last tape.

Monday, February 21, 2005

ironing out the stop-start life

The book I was reading (House of Leaves, Mark Z Danielewski) to get myself psyched up for househunting turned out to have a photographer as a protagonist/object of study. One of the faux-critiques in the book suggested his motivation for becoming a photographer may have its roots in "a discontinuous lifestyle marked by constant threats of abandonment and the lack of emotional stability."

shadow homeWhich struck me as unconvincing as motivation for taking photos but seemed about right for a blog -- a way of organising and re-editing raw experience (confused, self-contradictory, discontinuous) into a narrative of self which can both protect against losing experience (through forgetting) and sort experience into something more consistent through chosing which experiences to reinforce through re-writing.

So, the journal, the blog becomes a stress response, something used to counteract panic, a non-aggressive action used to smooth out the stop-start stutter of a life characterised by long periods of waiting and reflection alternated with times of intense activity and periods of blank time (time which does not contain chosen experiences but ones which have been visited on an individual by the demands of family, job etc.)

haunted wastelandBut the action of smoothing, editing, selecting is inevitably introducing errors; and whether you embrace your partiality* or try to fight back against it, there's still that anxiety that all this selecting, rewriting and re-editing is leading to a progressive narrowing of narrative opportunitities.

Perhaps that's why so many (livejournallers, especially) participate in quizzes, memes, or informal interviews, in which the content of a post is determined by random or external rules; an attempt to break out of your own selection habits.

Returning to the concept of "blank time" -- rewriting may attempt to reclaim parts of the stolen time as personal experience; the person blogging about an annoying roommate, new insights gained at a training course, or an awkward family funeral may be taking actions and events felt in some way to be owned by someone else, and through the act of writing, creating a version of the experience liberated from other peoples' expectations and ownership and placed instead within a completely personal (literally, selfish) context.

domestic sceneAnd right there, I do see the photograph -- in fact, some of the earliest photographs I took, odd blurred moments discreetly stolen from awkward experiences (a family outing to a beach, illicit parties at school) and made my own through the Truprint ritual of postage and money. A narrow slice of experience, lifted too fast for anyone else to notice or mind.

Which takes me back to the photographer in House of Leaves, who filled his life with pictures because the narcissism of others made him "identify with absence". But there's where it falls down for this character (a dynamic, successful documentary photographer).

Because surely, drawing motivation (inspiration) from absence would drive you to seek out vacant subjects. Or perhaps something even less active than that.

* "(life is too short for) willful triviality" - Dickon Edwards

Tuesday, February 08, 2005

the register interviews the link spammer

Friends using Movable Type alerted me to The Register's interview with a link spammer, along with the usual curses and threats of violence. Apart from the (now very occasional) erasing of a stray comment spam in the livejournal communities I moderate, this problem seems to have been solved by the developers at the sites I use, so perhaps I lack the deep-seated sense of grievance to respond appropriately, but I came out of the article not so much annoyed at the link spammer (who, let's face it, is no more evil than arms dealers or traffickers and all the other people who will tell you that they're just meeting a business need and it's nothing personal) but actually (as often happens) quite annoyed with The Register.

Something about the tone of the article bothered me, made me feel snarling. But what? Consider this paragraph:
So Sam, like other link spammers, uses the thousands of 'open proxies' on the net. These are machines which, by accident (read: clueless sysadmins) or design (read: clueless managers) are set up so that anyone, anywhere, can access another website through them. Usually intended for internal use, so a company only needs one machine facing the net, they're actually hard to lock down completely.
So while admitting that it's actually "quite hard" to keep your machines secure, The Register nevertheless calls the people maintaining machines that are vulnerable "clueless", and while they don't come out and say "well, they're asking for it", the implication is there ... and as the story continues, the interviewer seems almost beside himself with excitement over this turd who is devoting his life to further destroying the internet's already dicey signal to noise ratio, all in the name of directing more people into the his gaping pornogamblingpillhole.

It seems weird that someone doing something so dull and destructive should end up invested with hacker glamour; but perhaps it isn't actually about what he's doing. While quick to insist he's not breaking the law, a quick glance returns the moral equivalent of using other peoples' back-gardens, car-parks and school-yards for reselling prostitutes, slots and pills. Even though the laws aren't written yet it's obvious he's breaking them. And he's unrepentant.

So maybe it's just the natural grudging respect we feel for the unrepentant sinner; the person who actually does what we occasionally think about. Like spraying anonymous pornographic links over someone's comment boxes, cramming swear-words into an online form or emailing cocks to someone else's circulation list. There's a sort of goggle-eyed admiration at work here; not only is he doing it, but he's making it pay, giving it the undeniable legitimacy of commercial success.

So there you have it; the geeks coyly eyeing up the naughty boys with sneaking admiration, while all the time, saying "well I could, if I wanted to ..."

Although of course, they never would at The Register. They're above all that.

mapping personal experience

Stagger on by and forward; glance back and see how your blog (journal, diary, passage through life) leaves a shape behind you, an empty you-shaped space surrounded by a thin patina of effect-on-the-world, like a slug trail, or (drawing on a memory which is probably very specific to me) the tube of a caddis fly larva*.

As well as located in history, experiences also have a geographical location. Paul Chadwick visited it in an experimental edition of his comic Concrete, where he attempted to draw an image first of the hero's home, then america, and eventually the world, criscrossed by the stone image of his passage through time. Which is all very well when you're a unique being like Concrete, but we're speaking from out of a crowd; every day, I wade to work through other people's stories, moments of despair and happiness, the echoes of fights and kisses, accidents and encounters.

Some of them leave marks; blood in the gutter, scribbles on a busstop, fag-but scatter of someone waiting, sequin sparkles from a party home stagger. More often than not, it's just the feeling; this is an old town, a street worn deep by generations of feet; when I walk here, I'm hip deep in other peoples' stories.

It'd be good to be able to tap them up from the stones, as you navigate the tarmac with your feet; you'd never be short of contact then, always be someone new to meet.

I first saw Mr Beller's Neighbourhood a few years ago. It's a bit old now, the story-tellers' birds-eye view of New York, but still in use; and still very close to this idea about stories located, mapped, put in their context. Some of the stories are photo stories; each time I find it I go for a photo-story about defaced Britney Spears photos on the subway which caught the blogwinds briefly with a googlejuice-boosting mass of derisive links. Because there's no way I'm ever going to remember its name.

I'm never going to have time myself, but I wish that someone should do one of these for London or for Oxford. There's already some nicely folksy Oxford mapping stuff, but it's all one person's vision. What interests me is the multitude. Views of Oxford (and I'm as guilty of this as anyone else) always seem to end up giving a singular perspective. That's the Flickr Oxford group, by the way. It's funny.

I'd make a few changes, of course; offer alternative navigation via streetmap or arial photo, open but filtered submission via a click on the maps or arial photos (you'd have to be able to review that, check you got the right place), sortable also by contributor, new comments, latest ...

But this is pie-in-the-sky, I don't have time right now to build a story-filled world inside a computer. But I might do something half-arsed, maybe. Put up a map somewhere and start putting links on it like Niznoz and the rest of the arial taggers do on Flickr -- but not just for photographs, images on their own aren't really enough for me. I need the stories.

* When I was growing up we were encouraged to take an interest in nature. One of the activities involved being rather nasty to caddis fly larvae. Caddis worms have no natural protection against predators, so make little cases for themselves out of sand and tiny stones stuck together with secretions. With a pin and a little care, this tube could be removed; you could then put the caddis into a jam jar containing glitter, sequins and tiny beads. In a day or so, it would have built a new and very sparkly home. You could then pop it back into the pond, where its shiny arse would be quickly spotted by predators, or do the whole thing over with dirt and stones this time. Other entertaining games included feeding tadpoles slivers of gizzard and then watching them eat each other. Yay for nature.

Wednesday, February 02, 2005

when does record keeping start keeping a record of you?

Chatting with the sociologist (about photo-blogging and its effect on personal history-making) and the musician (about sound art and wanting to hold onto transient sounds) left me wondering about ordinary things and nostalgie de la boue.

I'm drawn to the pictures (thoughts, entries, projects) about small, incidental things -- the accidental juxtposition of a telegraph wire and a house, the sound of water slapping against a bridge, a red biscuit wrapper in the gutter -- transient, fleeting moments. Step by and it's gone. Unless you make the choice to record it.

One of the threads in blogging (and photo-blogging especially) seems to be an attempt to lift this transient joy out of the moment -- pickle it. Put it in aspic. Digital aspic.

But is this a healthy urge? Does it encourage you to take more joy in your surroundings or does it turn you into camera-eyes, always looking for the "right" moment? Do you end up weighed down with ordinary beautiful things? Or is it a sort of dirty street nostalgia -- not just, "I was happy at that moment" but also, "life was ordinary at that moment, and I was happy".

Nostalgie de la boue means unexpressed longing towards grubbing around in the dirt and fantasising that contentment can be found there. It's the middle class urge to get back to the ground, buy the farm, work the land. I don't like it; the word boue means mud, and I don't beleive that truth can be found in the mud.

Or rather, I do; but the only truth that you will find is that mud is mud*.

So where does that leave those photographs of posters, streets, buildings, shoes, benches, graffiti and gutters that I take, that I look at? Am I using them to indulge this urge to wallow in muck?

In a way that probably annoys people who take the craft more seriously, I take photographs to relax, largely without plan or reflection, and usually because I simply see a pattern that I can intercept, steal a 2-dimensional slice to keep.

But now this supposedly relaxing action suddenly become suspect. Are the photos infected with this gutter nostalgia? Or is there something even worse going on?

What if this mosaic of superficially random photos is actually, through my refusal to take or make to a plan, simply turning out something which is faddish, fashionable; that just accepts an emergent, socially-received pattern of the correct photoblogging behaviour ... and, like the couple who later discover they gave their kid the exact same picked-at-random name as every other damn kid born that year, I'll look back in six month's time and realise that everyone was doing gutter nostalgia?

But wait, is that a bad thing? It is worse to be wallowing in waste and trivia (undisciplined, nostalgic, weak) or to be swayed by approval and fashion, weakly shaping your images to the prevailing acceptable photoblog pattern? -- wait, that's a bit judgemental, isn't it? How about "influenced by popular and infectious themes and memes, fluidly selecting the images presented to reflect the ebb and flow of online image presentation" ... and then, suddenly this ties in tidily with the work I'm doing with random generation, spam, google and the selector/receptor position which the internet persuades the browser into ... and all of a sudden, taking the photos, far from being relaxation, suddenly becomes part of the work.

So what now? Go looking for something a little more extraordinary? Snap my fingers and dismiss it all entirely?

I'm probably overanalysing quite an ordinary, currently fashionable, urge toward saving the disposable, celebrating the ordinary, just as fly-on-the-wall and webcam thrills, repeats of Big Brother, and films like Lost in Translation (a strikingly bloggish film) do in popular culture. The culture and history of ordinary life (we file it under "local history" at the bookshop -- where "local" I suppose is defined as personal/home/everyday) is perhaps still underrepresented in studies of the internet, whose history had been largely written from a business/technological/guru perspective, with the the unimportant, ordinary users of the internet, the chatters, journallers, photobloggers, sidelined as irrelevant. Maybe.

Or maybe there are photobloggers who are writing a history of the internet, of ordinary life, of photoblogging, but the internet gives back not one history but a forest of them, and all partial, inconsistent, chance as much as any refining process deciding what gets listened to -- although places on the internet with a powerful sense of their own importance would doubtless disagree.

Even on a very tight topic (yourself, for example) what makes it into the written/visual record is very random; odd and personal selections, inconsistent scraps of information, misleading or fictional elements, and all the refining, sorting and revising (and people do revise blogs) which writing your story of you makes possible.

But then my blog (journal, photolog) is not my life.

Occasionally I slip my camera into my pocket and think, "no, I'll keep that for myself." I don't think I'm alone in this, either; I've seen others saying similar things, or doing things like keeping a boyfriend/dream/project quiet on their blog. Sometimes it reflects insecurity or superstition, but I also see the idea of preserving, reserving, a private space.

Putting something into an open public arena can change what it means. As more people see an image, its reality becomes louder, but not necessarily more focussed. Is the ubiquitous kitten photo meaningless and easily dismissed, or actually increasing in importance with every referrer? It's a trade-off ... and it's not easily controlled, either. When I was boing-boing-ed I'm fairly sure my name was never mentioned. I was just "that barbie porn thing". Ironically, for a page that didn't even contain any barbies.

But then my blog (journal, photolog) isn't about public recognition.

It's for socialising, for entertainment, sharing out the fun stuff , and keeping it all to hand. Not just as a record, but using the act of repitition and recording to "fold over" a memory -- make the experience more fixed in your own and others' histories.

But is there a flipside of anticipating that later fold-back? From taking a photograph for putting online later, to planning a night out as a potential photo-story, to thinking about an experience, "well, this is shit, but at least it'll make a good LJ entry" there's a slow but steady transform being applied to the life of a blogger/journaller. The online fictional performance is beginning to exert an authorial pressure on the life of the individual; and given how much of Livejournal's interaction is approval-based, is this healthy? Are you running to a broader, more diverse and/or sympathetic group for approval?

Or are you just crawling back into a different schoolyard?

* and a variety of other similarly obvious breakthroughs.

While I was thinking through some of this a photojournaller (who values his privacy so I will not refer) made the comment, "a lot of the time we record what is in front of us without adding anything" and I replied:
I'm not sure that's actually possible, really -- and I'm also not sure whether "good" and "bad" -- especially when related to comments gathered (in a very short period of time!) are useful terms.

Take your blog as if it were a magazine job -- who's your audience and what do they want? They're urban, literate -- like London, words and self expression -- of course the graffiti shot is going to appeal. So what about the pub shot? It's London, there are words, the way the arches and the railings and the lines of the building pick up on each other gives that sense of place ...

But there's a bit of confusion about it -- what are you trying to say? What's your story? Where's the route for the viewer through the picture into what it means to them? Even visually, the simple vanishing point vs. the more complex zigzag makes for a composition that's harder to follow quickly.

That it's less obvious doesn't make it a "bad" picture, however. What it might make it is less likely to gain instant approval from an audience of blog-readers with many demands on their attention.

At A4 size, in a magazine spread, the graffiti shot might look obvious and crass, the pub shot compelling and involving.

Which again, isn't to say you shouldn't put certain types of pictures into a blog -- as you say, experimenting is how you find these things out -- but I think it's a mistake to jump from "nobody commented" to "it's bad".

Those pictures above, for example -- you say you've not added anything -- you're missing the most fundamental thing you've done, which is to freeze that perfect gig moment when the light falls on the singer and the emotion seems to leave from their face, their body outwards.

And it's true you can do that yourself, but, hey. I wasn't there.

Now, let's see if I can follow my own advice.

Friday, January 21, 2005

not your ordinary girl

For some reason (perhaps I should blame the president of Harvard?) I've been hearing a lot of sex-based generalisations this week, both on the interweb and in real life. They've been trivial, deeply felt, accusatory, amused and ordinary. They've also -- significantly -- been about a fifty-fifty split, gender-wise, both in source and subject.

Men generalising about women, and women about men, but also women on women, men on men, all grappling for that essential difference ... and along the way, incensing my sense of logic, politics and justice; not to mention poking me, right in my sexual inadequacy.

Because I'm not a real woman, see? Not "typical". Sometimes this is presented as a good thing, but as anyone who has ever been classified as "special" knows, the benefit cuts both ways. And for me, this has meant a lifetime of having my opinions doubly discounted, firstly because they did not match the expectation of the enquirer, and secondly because, having been classed as an aberration, all my opinions could therefore be safely discarded.

And before you start pointing and saying, "self-identified freak!" I have been told this by friends, family, teachers, colleagues, lovers and my mother. Typically, in these circumstances:

Other: "Women/girls are/like/do [x]."
J: (pauses for thought) "I don't do [x]."
Other: "Well, no, you're not a typical woman."
You see, I'm not paranoid. They really are using my (lack of) sex to get rid of me.

Perhaps it's just my uneasy sexual identity, but I've found, even in activities where it's very relevant (e.g. sex) as much variation between members of the same sex as between people of different sexes. That (of course) biological difference and sociological pressure have a profound effect on individuals, forcing them to adopt or create roles in society, but that a) the variety of these roles is staggering, and reducing them to "men" and "women" is a generalisation of questionable value, and b) these roles are not innate or immutable, but a fluid and adaptable social construct. That our desire to see our gender and sexuality as "essential" is related to status games and laziness; wanting the world to submissively rearrange itself around our choices.

... and as far as those sweeping generalisations about men and women go ... well, I think its largely perceptual. Men like chocolate, shopping and shoes. Women like gadgets, cars and booze. What's that? They like different shoes, cars, gadgets? Well, gosh, different people liking different things. Whatever will happen next?

Which I think deals with the politics and justice of such statements. Now for the logic. Pretty flaky logic, if you unpack the statements:

J likes [x], J is female/male, therefore females/males like [x]
or the more complicated but equally suspect:

J is [attribute], I am not [attribute], we are not the same gender, therefore
[attribute] is caused by gender

or the the considerably more disturbing:

My parent/lover/last significant crush object has attribute [x] and is [gender].
You do/do not have attribute [x], therefore you are/are not [gender].

Ahhh, you say, but I'm not basing it on just one person. I'm basing it on all the women I know. Plus, there are statistics to back me up, lots of them. Really, even about the chocolate.

Yes, of course, the statistics. No matter which statistics you're thinking of, they're not actually making absolute statements about the nature of all men and all women. They're saying something closer to "statistics from this study indicate that there is a moderate tendency for men in this particular area to be" or "we find in this sub-group that a higher proportion of the women show a stronger tendency that men to be" ... although such mealy-mouthed mumbling never makes it as far as the headlines, of course.

Now your anecdata, the people you know. Think carefully. How many of your friends are you discounting because they're not typical men/women? How large is the "typical" group you have left? How many in that group follow the rule you just made up? The majority of them, you say?

Two out of three, then.

Oh wait, no. One.

Because it is, very often, just one person that provokes damnation or praise of their entire sex. Cynically, whenever I read these pieces, I always try and sniff out the husband/girlfriend/stalkee whose unresponsive/frivolous/flatulent crimes have opened the floodgates on the well of bitterness marked "other people are not like me".

For me, I'll select T, a young man with whom I was not as good friends as I thought, leading to a mildly-painful falling out. From him I will infer that men are witty, petulant, bibulous, demanding, prone to eating disorders, stylish, snide and obsessed with soap operas.

Not convinced? Well, M, M, M, and T are also men, and they were also like that*, so it must be true.

But there are no universal truths in the inferences you draw from small groups. Or rather, there is one universal truth: that your sample is not big enough.


* No, they are not all gay. They are not even mostly gay.

Monday, January 17, 2005

person mildly annoyed by internet shock

I had a quick scoot around the internet news sites looking to see if anyone had anything better than the conspiracy theory (Six Apart orchestrated the power outage in order to encourage people to use their pay-per-blog Typepad) to offer by explaination. Admittedly, the time difference isn't really in my favour here, but I was mildly disappointed not to find anything, not even from Livejournal themselves ...

Although I did find plenty of news stories, but after Indymedia I gave up as they were all saying the same thing (do feel free to catch the hilarity over on slashdot) which was that sure, some people couldn't publish to their blogs, but these were unimportant people. Women, young people, artists, non-techies. No-one who matters. Heck, isn't it mostly full of Russians?

So, I was mildly annoyed by this. Not very annoyed, because I certainly do have one teenage girl on my friendslist, at least one Russian, some artists, and plenty of women (in addition to people like Kimya Dawson, Momus and Warren Ellis, who I think might be considered to have some mild celebrity status) and I'm well aware of my own unimportance.

Which is, of course, part of the point of having a Livejournal. It's levelling. Because of its low entry threshold, community features, friendslist, syndiction features and sheer pride in its own size, Livejournallers can't help but be aware that they're speaking from within a vast crowd. Even if this isn't always 100% visible from the ivory blogspots (or moveable type swearboxes, or I-tooled-this-myself castles) of the blogging elite (whomsoever they are this week), that's what everyone's doing on the internet.

So go ahead, peer down your nose. If you're short-sighted enough, you might not notice that you're looking at a mirror.

And here's a quick ego test: of the 2470095 active livejournallers out there, does anyone care about your blog enough to have syndicated you?

Saturday, January 15, 2005

yes it is my fault

Well, Livejournal continues to be, well, deader than Deadjournal, in a way which makes me vaguely proud* of my secret defection. Fairly unfazed, I put a link to this place on my cleanskies site, and congratulated myself on my continuity.

Then I checked up on my email, and the last thing that came through from LJ was a message from lj:locura_insomnio, who is one of those "friends" you've never met that LJ encourages you towards. Can't remember why I added him. Something to do with lego, godzilla films and pinhole photography, I think. Anyway, just before LJ went down, he made this comment to an entry in my journal which described how a phone post by lj:benchilada had been recut into a techno track by a DJ friend of his:


Ok, the world is truly insane. I actually have no recollection how I came across your journal, but as I recall I found it randomly and it was interesting so I stayed.

That's not so much odd as it is out of character, but the oddness just happened.

lj:benchilada == old friend of lj:fairyarmadillo == my fiance.

The world is a tiny tiny place!
And then LJ collapsed. I guess it was an exclaimation mark too many.

*Also mildly disturbed.

new gardening trend!

We're going to go for the Titan look! Underground refridgeration keeps the ice boulder garden frosty while a small wave generator keeps the pond of oily organic sludge in constant motion. Relaxing on those cold winter nights....

In other news, don't look at this picture or this might happen. Hmmm, I knew there was something evil about Flickr ....

Monday, January 10, 2005

appearances on television : three

I have friends who dive for cover when people produce cameras. Who bitch about CCTV, attempt to escape google's spidery clutches and get pettish when they spot themselves in the background of your six random party shots on [insert the name of your favourite photo hosting service here].

Not me. As a dedicated resident of the future, I like being photographed, recorded, interviewed and counted, especially by machines. And the ultimate reality-booster (sorry, google) is still television. Unfortunately, my face is a bit distracting, and the colours I wear are too bright, so lurking in the background of shots tends to provoke people into stopping filming. But I have managed to get myself on TV, and this is how:
  • Vox pop. for local news. Asked if I knew what three of the new words from the OED meant, I responded by doubting the word Himbo . (I tend to use the term "haircut" instead.) My puzzled face made it onto local news, co-workers told me the next day.
  • Scene setter for a report on spiralling house prices on Oxford. As the voiceover-man gets stuck into how hard things are for first-time buyers, my worried face swims out of a grim, grey street scene, and almost fills the screen before passing by, excited friends told me the following day. (Hats off to the cameraman, for I never noticed a thing.) My considered response was, "Eh? You watch The Money Programme?"
  • Interview on local television. This was work-related, and barely counts as real television at all. Apparently I looked very professional, compared to the presenters, set, graphics ...
Interesting. I've never actually seen myself on television. Well, that's not really the point. It's other people seeing you.

I was also once interviewed (in some detail) for the controversial late-night C4 show Dyke TV for a documentary about lesbian cartoonists and comedians. They were going to float some of my ruder stuff behind me, so I was shot against bluescreen at a table made up to look like my chaotic workspace. I didn't get any make-up and probably looked quite horrid, but it didn't matter as the show was never screened.

At the time I wondered if it was because I said "f*ck" too many times.

Thursday, January 06, 2005

well ...

mulled wine hazard zoneIt did seem to update quite smoothly. And it encourages you to link like a bloody maniac. The profile function was perhaps a touch wobbly.

I wonder if I'll end up using this much?

Just looked at that cutesly little image icon to see if it's as smooth as the linking. Er, no ... still, that's what your flickr account is for, right?

If in doubt, post a playmobil picture ...


My boss has asked me to tell her about blogs, to which I airily said, yes, suuuuure. After all, I read loads, and I've got one myself, and all that ... except that I don't, really, do I?

I have a Livejournal. And I've never even playtested others (apart from Flickr, but apparantly, that's a game, not a blog) . And that's not a real blog -- as one friend put it "everyone looks down on people who have livejournals". Whether that's because most livejournallers are kids, something I would never have guessed (which, in a sense, is the point of Livejournal), or because of some science vs. arts reason, I don't know.

Some my friends use moveable type so I've heard quite a bit about that. Ditto, which has an enthusiastic convert in pdc. Others build their own, but they can safely be left to that. But my chief blogger friend never discusses her material, only her subject.

Now this, to me, is a good mark in a blog. Endless ramblings about the shortcomings/and or inadequacies (or alternatively, the potentials and sheer awesomeness) of the medium is a surefire way to have me zizzing on my keyboard. But it's kept me a bit ignorant of blogspace.

Right here I want to find out:
  1. How easy is it to make one? Is the interface flexible and intuitive?
  2. How much trouble is it to look after one? Are there big problems with, say, comment spam, for example?
  3. How intrusive is that advertising on the free service? How does the paid service compare?

Or am I just kidding myself over this? Is this just the result of a morning of frustration at the abruptly inadequate pretend-friend-iness of Livejournal leading me to pettishly start a new blog? Anxiety over the sale of Livejournal to Six Apart driving me to poke fitfully at the competitors?

Well, I shoudl probably seed this with some personal information, too. Here's a good one. I just received the Global Youth Work Project update through from a colleague because she felt that the "information and resources relating to tsunami and global poverty" included might be useful.

Top of the list of resources was Oxfam's Dealing With Disasters, which deals with the basics of what makes a disaster, and why poor people suffer more from disasters than the rich. It was also the first educational resource I ever converted for online use. ?Six years and at least two major template changes later it's looking ragged, but I can still see my hand in the graphics.

Looks like, as of today, they've updated to a tsunami-specific activity -- I wonder if that will last as a strategy? There's something to be said for having grouped teaching resources relating to current emergencies.

I sometimes wonder how I ended up where I am, job-wise. Is is a career arc, or is it more like a long stumble backwards into a ditch marked "witter"?