Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Downer with schools

"Why this interest in history? Why this wish to reawaken the past?"

This question was asked on Fox News this morning. Now, of all people, I of course know that journalists fare well to ask the seemingly stupid question. It forces subjects to explain and articulate and it avoids presumptions.

But this question is revelatory.
It explains something of the contemporary attitude towards history - of closing doors on it and moving relentlessly, mindlessly forward. History is barely taught in schools these days. Somewhere along the line it was decided the history was hard, it was dry, and students could be alienated if they had to remember dates.

It was one of the victims of the dumbing down of education.

There was a spelling test recently which was spectacularly failed by Australian teachers. Why? Because they don't read.

That is ironic in this time when text has been given vigorous rebirth on this medium.

One may blame the spoon-feeding of television for the declines in basic education.

But the real culprit is, of all things, education and gender equality.
Teaching no longer the only career for many intelligent women. They can do whatever they want - and they do. Given the choices, however, the brilliant women who once dominated school education now take careers in the subjects they once taught. They are historians rather than history teachers, mathematicians rather than maths teachers...

Cultural progress has resulted in cultural decline.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Non-smoker mania

It is now 15 weeks since “C-Day” – the day I stopped smoking cigarettes.
Why don’t I feel good?
If I dare to complain about the almost primal cravings which continue to grip me, I am told by my “supportive” friends and family that I should be over it.
No one has ever taken so long, my husband said. It should be right out of your body now.

Well, I have no idea about anyone else and I had no idea I was on some sort of clock.

Then again, I know I am no longer allowed to wear the patches because the time of patches has run out.
I am not sure how helpful they were, anyway. The cravings were there with the patches and without the patches.
I am still not just craving but suffering these deep thirst-like sensations.
I have no social trigger. I don’t want a cigarette because someone else is smoking. I don’t want a cigarette because I have had a meal or I am on the phone or I am having a glass of wine. The problem I suffer is disassociated from activities.
It comes from within my body. It is a physical thing, not an issue of habit or emotional crutch.
Then again, my emotional wellbeing is, well, not well.
I continue to be on some sort of razor’s edge. There is an undercurrent of deep anger running through me. Odd things tip me right over the edge. I feel as if I am surrounded by extremely stupid people. An example.
I was at a formal function – an elegant brunch. We were about ten to the table with platters propped aloft in the centres of each table – one loaded with pastries and the other with fruit. The food just stayed there as the people settled in, as the speeches took place, as the entertainments were presented…It stayed until I made a move. When scones were delivered to the table, well the waitress was an idiot in that she put the two platters of scones together on one side of the table – the furthest, so far as I was concerned. And, of course, none of the women would touch them. The sat there pretending there were no fresh scones right in front of them. I waited for someone over there to make a move. But they sat about like idiot dumplings. I looked at them and, yes, it was dumplings they resembled. Big blobs of dough. Poor socially inept women awed by the occasion. And I knew it was up to me again to get that bloody food moving around the table. Despite the fact that I was absolutely furthest away from it. And I hated those poor, pretentious women. I hated them!!! I roiled and boiled with my fury. I am still pissed off with them, whoever they were.
This just ain’t like me!
It feels weird. Uncomfortable. Exhausting.
There is this whole emotional burden going on – a manic current.
Prod me and I erupt. Niggle me and I pop. And is that me talking, talking, talking? Why am I talking so bloody much? I want me to shut up. Why do I have to talk so much? Why do people keep asking me things and wanting more than I can give?

Oddly, I can do rather well on my own. Walking alone through the city, I am overcome by the loveliness of things and people around me. There are feelings that it is all just so beautiful. It is almost euphoria.
And I can ride waves of love for those I love – or even strangers.
I can be contented with my own thoughts…

Then some idiot sets me off, then that draining craving discomfort surges up through my body – that thirst-like thing.
And I’m nutty again.
This is all very disturbing.
My whole being is out of kilter.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Nice chat, by George.

George Oates, one of the founders of Flickr, came to the office for a chat today. What a treat.
George is an Adelaide girl – home visiting her decidedly arty parents before going off to give important speeches on international web development in Sydney and then Spain.
Ours was the classic meeting of netizens.
She waved to me as she came in the newspaper’s revolving doors. I knew instantly who she was but wondered how she recognised me. I knew her because I had researched her online. I had visited her Flickr pages and her blog and assorted articles about her. What I had not anticipated was that she would do the same to me. So there we were, strangers confidently waving in recognition.
Photographer Mark Brake bought us both coffees and we sat in the purple plush chairs of in the grand atrium foyer of Sir Keith Murdoch House here and, well, chatted. I tried to “interview” George. But it is an odd thing. If one takes to one’s subject, it becomes more chat than interrogation. And, anyway, George turned out to be quite guarded on any half controversial issue regarding Flickr. It did not matter from a news point of view because whichever really important issue we may have plumbed – content filters and net neutrality, for example – would have taken more words to articulate than there is space provided in the news pages. News stories are short and tight. They are no place for extrapolation.

But I learned a number of interesting things about George Oates.
She is the classic unspoiled Aussie. She may have been part of the receiving end of a $35 million corporate buy from Yahoo, but there is not a ticket on her. She said yes, she had a few shares in the company and of course, the shares were bought out. I t was just “jam”. Plain good luck. She spends her life pinching herself at the wonder of it all, she said.
And having the same sort of fun she always had.
The great expression of her new-found affluence in the cultured high life of San Francisco would seem to be bacon parties. She explained the concept of wrapping bacon around all manner of foods and cooking the resulting bundle on her fancy BBQ, or as the Americans call it, “grill”. Anyone who had been once to one of her bacon parties was committed to come to the next one. That was the only rule of George’s bacon parties.
There ya go. Is that eccentric geek or what?

What I did not know about George Oates was that, after dropping out of two universities because she is “not the studying kind”, she turned up as a “red shirt” at Ngapartji Multimedia Centre in 1996. I gave speeches at Ngapartji. I was on the board at Ngapartji. I remember the red shirts well, but I do not recall George in particular. I wish I did. What a dividend she turns out to be of that now-defunct brave enterprise. It did not give her the training she now uses but it did give her the connections and enough HTML to springboard out into more serious software and onwards through the game that didn't to the photo sharing application that did.

The de rigeur question of the day was her take on the backward nature of Australia's broadband. It is one of the slowest in the world - definitely the slowest in the developed world. She made the right noises of disdain. And we talked some of censorship and how one defines porn and offensive material. George laughs at the misconception of so many that the admins of Flickr are sitting about waiting to pounce on unacceptable material. "We're not arbiters. We're stweards," she said. She was ready to give the concept of "unacceptable" a bit of dissection. It's all deeply moot. But the revelation was that the Flickr community was the decisive factor in judging Flickr content. "They sort things out," said George.

And the old Flickr rule of "don't be creepy" remained surprisingly effective.

The Flickr International issues were another kettle of fish, one that George really didn't want to explore for the mainstream media. She gave it a cautious shot, explaining that different countries had different laws and different filtering systems. One country may not necessarily be able to see content available to another country.
Different laws on content and copyright in different countries may be a headache on one hand but an advantage, perhaps, in the long run - when it came to keeping the liberty of the net alive. After all, said George, people can store data in different places and they can move date. The up side of this website mobility was the difficulty of over-regulating the net and perhaps it would be the net's salvation. We can only hope.

On YouTube George was generous spirited. She said she saw it as a vehicle for people to talk to and see each other. It expressed the voyeur in all of us. YouTube may be burdened with copyright issues from Disney and its ilk but, at the same time it was demonstrated a shift of content away from Disney and its ilk - the people producing their own content.

There are all sorts of new things afoot at Flickr. It continues to evolve and George sees immense promise in metadata - and is keen to play with time sliders. The way in which in just four years Flickr has shown itself to be such a brilliant recorder of history has rather fired her. Indeed, she is keen to know what the academics are finding interesting about Flickr and what they are studying. Some people already are doing their PhDs on the photo sharing phenomenon.

There are so many facets. George pointed out the "life cycle" she had observed among Flickr users. After posting humble first pix of family or friends, their subsequent photos would show greater effort with light, fancy backlit pictures, then they would have gone out and bought a Canon and started shooting macros and doing fashion shots - and the next thing you know they were working as wedding photographers.

There were myriad other facets of Flickr I'd have liked to explore but we were in the usual newspaper rush. The 'tog had to get his pix in - for which he wanted to walk George out in the city streets.

So I produced my camera to get my Flickr pic of George and she produced her camera to get her Flickr pic of me.

And, heavens above, the queen of digital photo sharing uses an old-fashioned film camera.

Monday, September 10, 2007

The obscene power of tradesmen

The rich think they hold the power.
Once it was so.
These days, it is the tradesmen who hold the power.
It does not matter how rich you are, if a tradesman refuses to come and install your airconditioner or hot water service, then you have to go without. Until they are ready to give you some of their time, you are at their mercy.
Tradesmen can decide if you are to be cool in the heatwave or if you are going to have mud instead of cement in the drive, if your leaky roof keeps dripping, if your dishwasher is fixable, if you are going to get sharp TV reception, a floor polished or a carpet laid, a window repaired or replaced, a door fitted...
It is all done on their time, not yours.
Forget waiting for a doctor's appointment.
Doctors are a joy of accessibility compared to tradesmen.

How did this all come about. How did the tables turn so that tradesmen are the most powerful members of society?

Once upon a time, they were something of a lowly class -"blue collar" or "working class".
The management classes and professionals were the smug middle with the dynastic wealth and highly educated scoring "upper". Of course, these classes still were dependent upon the tradesmen. But, if one recalls the past of one's youth, not to mention the past as recorded in literature, they were a cap-tipping deferential class which sought to please those who employed them.

This has changed.
They could not give a damn whether you are pleased or not. They are indifferent as to how long they keep you waiting. They treat those who seek to use their services with sublime contempt - sometimes not bothering to turn up at all.
Certainly they are indifferent to returning phone calls.
What they are calling is the tune.

Why is this?
Perhaps because tradesmen are now in short supply.
The old apprentice traditions fizzled somewhere along the way. Meanwhile, families in the trades wanted something better for their children - university educations.

Even in trade schools, the traditional trades are out of fashion. Kids would rather study computer programming than plumbing.
Who leaves school saying they want to follow their dad into plumbing? In a world where the class system has disintegrated, there is no longer a sense of fraternity in the trades.

The sort of people entering the trades are doing so perhaps grudgingly.
Hence their resentment of the people for whom they are then to work. Well, contempt really.
Tradesmen can name their price. On top of this, they can choose simply not to turn up to do the job.
They don't have to worry about losing business because they know that they are as rare as hen's teeth and they will never run out of work. There is a world of poeple prepared to pay whatever they ask, prepared to beg them to do a job, prepared to wait on their convenience...

Why am I pondering all this?
Well, I may have moved house over a month ago had it not been for the tradesmen who have not turned up, who have put off jobs, who have not been accountable...
I am still waiting. I am not moved.

Oh yes, instead of being angry, I am just a grovelling supplicant, like everyone else.
One can't afford to be impatient with a tradesman let alone rude. They are in control. They are masters of our destiny. They might not be the upper class but they have the upper hand.