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Feminism and me

As a young man, I got my feminism from three sources: first, mum and dad. Not radicals, not even feminists. Working class trade unionists who lived the struggle. Second, the academic stuff I soaked up at college: bracing, mind-altering stuff from Laura Mulvey, Julia Kristeva, Hélène Cixous; teachers and artists like Marie Yates, Mitra Tabrizian, Simon Watney, Cindy Sherman – people who offered me a new way of talking about life and art. Then there was the big one: music. The fabulous, raucous post-punk voices of the Delta 5, the Raincoats, the Slits and, above all – for this fanboy anyway – the Au Pairs. The mighty Au Pairs (look them up).

I’ve got a new source, though: Twitter. It won’t have escaped your notice that Twitter has become home to a new generation of clever, bolshy, uncompromising, articulate feminists. Feminists who are working out new positions, new language, new responses to oppression and discrimination – in the wide-open public space that Twitter offers. Feminists, incidentally, who are not afraid to take on actual sexist scumbags (and those ‘men’s rights’ cavemen). But who also offer a constant challenge to settled positions and to the complacency of old gits like me – people who can’t understand why we can’t just be nice to each other.

This resurgence of disputatious, public feminism on Twitter has got everyone thinking. These activists sometimes make my skin prickle in a ‘not in my name’, ‘how dare you assume’ kind of way but they’re constantly challenging me and they’re updating my worldview in real-time. They ask me what I think about rape and abuse, gender, FGM, porn and sexuality, women’s work and capital. Twitter, of course, since the beginning, has been a crash-course in contemporary thought and there’s never been any shortage of feminists on there but it seems to have become a kind of high-speed laboratory for radical thought, thinking about liberation and social change. And it’s gripping stuff.

What’s wrong with atheists?

I’m an atheist. Just getting that out of the way. Because this is about a problem that I have with atheists. Not all atheists. Just the strident ones, the humourless ones who form and join clubs, who campaign and complain and object. The ones who picket shopping malls when they provide prayer rooms but not ‘rational contemplation rooms’. Those ones.

The source of my problem is simple enough. Atheists are wrong. To be clear: they’re not especially wrong. They’re just roughly as wrong as everyone else. And, like everyone else, from far enough away they’re almost completely wrong. I can say this with certainty. We’ve got plenty of evidence. Thousands of years of it. Neolithic astronomers could line up the stones for the equinox but were wrong about everything else. Copernicus knew the planets orbited the sun but, we can see, got practically everything else wrong. The Papal inquisition was wrong. But so was Galileo. Newton was wrong. Darwin was wrong. Even the mighty Darwin. The splendid edifice of his scholarship is intact and still uniquely influential but, across the decades, large parts of it have been revised, replaced, dropped – as they should. The flat-earthers and the ether/phlogiston merchants – they were all wrong. But then, later on, so was Einstein. Being wrong is more-or-less universal (everyone’s wrong) and more-or-less eternal (all the time). And the more time passes, the more wrong we all are.

To make it more obvious, go back a bit further. Go back ten thousand years, in fact. To the time of the first big settlements and the beginning of farming and the origin of written language and inquiry into the world. What did we know then that isn’t now known to be wrong? Clue: almost nothing. See what I mean?

Now wind forward ten thousand years from the present day: from out there, from as far into the future as we’ve come since the last ice age, almost everything we take for granted now is going to be wrong. Horribly, fundamentally wrong. Wrong in ways that will ripple through human knowledge and force us to revise even our most basic assumptions about the world. Wrong in ways that will make our future selves laugh as they look back and wonder how any of us – believers or non-believers – managed to dress ourselves in the morning.

But, you’ll protest, it’s not about being right or wrong, its about the method. Rational inquiry – the scientific method – actually depends on being regularly, consistently wrong. And, of course, you’ll be right. The big difference between the scientific method and the invisible fairies crowd is the tolerance for being wrong, the constant readiness to check your thought against reality and revise it. The religious folk have a fixed worldview. In fact, their worldview depends on nothing changing: on invariant laws handed down by Gods. Case closed, surely?

But no. Not at all. Rewind again (go the whole ten thousand if you want). Examine the thought of an earlier era – the myths and laws and creation stories of that time. See where I’m going with this? Are they really invariant? Are they even, in fact, recognisable? Do the beliefs that animated the irrational folk of earlier eras still apply? No, they don’t. They’ve been overturned, thrown out and replaced – dozens, hundreds, thousands of times. Objects of worship, origin stories, social and ritual elements: are any the same now as they were in earlier periods? Hardly any. It turns out that just because religious people say their beliefs are eternal and unvarying, it doesn’t mean they actually are. They shift and change constantly. The Vatican, which persecuted and executed astronomers, now operates an important observatory. Muslims, Jews, Buddhists – they change their minds all the time, constantly (when looked at from the right distance) revising and updating their beliefs, quietly dropping the stuff that’s incompatible with current models.

So, rational folk (like me) are as wrong as everyone else and – more than that – have no monopoly on a readiness to update their thought as they acquire new knowledge. And this is what upsets me about the assertive hard-core of atheists/secularists/rationalists – the ones who put ‘atheist’ in their Twitter bios, do stand-up comedy about the silly believers, sue the council for putting on carol concerts and all the rest. Being slightly less wrong than the God botherers doesn’t make you right. We should have the humility to recognise that – over the long run – we’re all gloriously, irredeemably wrong.

Update 30/04: James O’Malley has posted an interesting response to this post called, naturally, ‘What’s Right with Atheists‘!

Tim Berners-Lee’s most important decision

Of the dozens of design decisions that TBL made during 1989, all of which continue to shape the way we build and use the web twenty-five years later, the most important was not requiring permission to link. Seems obvious now – a non-feature in fact – but it’s the reason you’re not reading this on Xanadu (or Prestel or on an X500 terminal or something). The logic of the times – embedded in those other systems – was that documents and data sources had owners and that you couldn’t just link to them without some kind of formal permission. Permission was defined as a system-to-system, technical handshake kind of thing or a person-to-person interaction, like a phone call, or, God forbid, a contract and some kind of payment. TBL’s judgement was that the community he was building his system for – the academics and engineers – wouldn’t want that and that the spontaneity of the hyperlink would trump the formality of permission. And, of course, he was right. It’s the spontaneously-created hyperlink that triggered the marvellous, unstoppable promiscuity of the World Wide Web. It explains the web’s insane rate of growth and the profusion of web services. It’s the root of all this.

School governors. Representative or professional. Choose one.

Last week I spent a few hours floor-walking at a Fair Field parents’ evening, drumming up interest in our parent governor vacancies (I’m chair of govs and a parent myself). I love this bit of the job. You learn a huge amount and there are always surprises and insights. Thinking about it afterwards, the parents I spoke to fell into four groups:

  1. Instant enthusiasm. Done it before, already doing it somewhere else, definitely think about it.
  2. Curious. Aware of our existence, considered it before but never tried it. Might have a go.
  3. No idea. A handful of parents didn’t know we existed, thought we were some kind of external body or had no idea parents could be represented. Some communication to be done here, evidently (makes note). In this group, also, were parents from foreign education systems or with English as a second language.
  4. Most interesting group: parents who knew the governors existed, knew that parents were represented but had ruled themselves out: “left school too early”, “not good enough for that.”, “you wouldn’t want me” (actual quotes). One parent thought her dyslexia would rule her out. Included here are parents who think they don’t have time: “I’ve already got two jobs” was common, so was “I’m a single parent.” Difficult to argue with that, knowing how much time is needed.

We’ll get enough candidates to fill our two vacancies later this term and I hope this bit of outreach will have helped people understand what we do, who we are, why we exist.

There’s a tension here, though, which can only get worse, as the latest round of reforms takes effect. We want to broaden representation, get a wider range of stakeholders involved, make the governing body look a more like the parent body. But we also want to tighten things up, make things more professional, make our contribution more strategic, more effective. When filling governor vacancies, we instinctively want to recruit the kind of managers, lawyers and marketing people we’re going to need if we decide to go for academy status, for instance. And we want governors who need minimal support to get going, who know about how committees work and so on.

So can we do both? Can we bring in inexperienced governors who may lack confidence and the skills we need and hope they can make a strategic contribution? Or should we try to shamelessly target the people we need and worry a bit less about being representative? Either way, the current way of doing things doesn’t seem ideal: there are hundreds of thousands of governor vacancies in Britain and there’s a shortage of strategic skills almost everywhere. These are serious questions: Mr Gove wants governors to lift their game and Ofsted are paying more attention to governance than ever.

So could we try a different approach? If trying to be both representative and professional is too much, how about separating the two functions, concentrating on beefing up the strategic usefulness of the governors and handling the representation of parents and community differently? What if we set up an elected ‘parent panel’ of perhaps a dozen enthusiastic parents whose job would be to voice parents’ concerns, examine the governors’ decisions (and the school’s data) and bring the school’s leadership new ideas? (Google suggests that some schools already have parent panels…).

We’d still have to provide for the statutory representation of parents, of course, and our ‘panel’ couldn’t take on any of the legal responsibilities of governors but I think this approach might actually expand representation, make us more transparent and quite possibly improve our decisions. This is a half-baked idea, not a finished proposal. And I haven’t tested it with my fellow governors or with anyone else for that matter so I’d welcome your thoughts on this in the comments. Have you tried something like this? What have you learnt?

Ian McMillan’s eight favourite podcasts

Radio 3′s Ian McMillan was on a special edition of the Radio Today podcast all about the station the other day. Turns out he’s a connoisseur of the podcast form. He gave Trevor Dann a list of his favourites:

  1. the various Monocle podcasts, especially Tyler Brûlé’s books and magazines podcast The Stack, The Urbanist and The Menu.
  2. The University of Rochester’s 3% – books in Translation.
  3. The Bad at Sports contemporary art podcast.
  4. The All Things Radio podcast, an American radio industry bulletin.
  5. The Radio Today podcast, natch.
  6. The Radio Stuff podcast.
  7. The Guardian’s venerable industry podcast MediaTalk.
  8. The Freelance Web podcast, which is for people who make their living as… well… freelancers on the web.

BTW, listen to the end of the Radio Today podcast and you’ll hear Radio 3′s head of speech Matthew Dodd and Falling Tree‘s Alan Hall talking about doing speech on a classical station and Between the Ears‘ twentieth anniversary.

Seven gems from Radio 3′s ‘Sound of Cinema’ season

It’s over. The ‘Sound of Cinema‘ season finshed last week. Most of the music has expired but there’s a ton of stuff that’s still available:

1. These really gripping Sound of Cinema downloads from Neil Brand (learn things, like just how badly Visconti carved up Mahler’s Adagietto for Death in Venice).

2. This glorious film of a concert from the BBC Concert Orchestra and the BBC Singers (includes the spooky choral music from 2001).

3. This feature about Charlie Chaplin as composer from Matthew Sweet (did you know Chaplin was a music publisher before he got into the movies?).

4. This jazz improv response to a 1905 silent film called ‘A Trip to the Stars’ from Jazz on 3 (twitchy, kooky, really engrossing).

5. This set of four conversations with film directors and composers from Tom Service (Baz Luhrmann and Craig Armstrong about as different as you can get from Ken Loach and George Fenton).

6. These lovely photos of film music greats (Neil came into the office and searched the archive himself).

7. The man himself, John Williams, talking to Donald Macleod for his Composer of the Week (which you can also download here).

What should really modern music radio sound like?

You hope it’ll be seamlessly social: a nice, natural flow from online to on-air and back again, with social features that are as confidently crafted as the on-air stuff. Not endless shout-outs and retweets, no ‘in the next hour’ or ‘how was your weekend?’ updates. No blather, no cheesy vanity activity from presenters.

You probably want a visual element – something to watch on your phone that’s not a ‘studio cam’. Something that expands on the in-your-ears element without attempting to be TV.

You’ll want smart integration of on-demand, downloads, streaming music. Producer and presenter working to extend the life of the programme outside the slot, carrying it over onto other platforms and into other contexts, growing the show’s footprint.

But really, more than all that, you’ll want it to cut through – to feel current, confident, connected. All the tricky-to-define stuff, the real magic of a great music show that’s about authority, empathy, exactly the right blend of warmth and energy.

As ever, the laboratory for all this stuff is Radio 1, where the Saturday night schedule (which is a simulcast with 1Xtra) has just been refreshed. Younger voices, brought from other parts of the schedule, with all the stress and tension and the weight of expectations in their first night voices.

You could almost hear the senior management lurking in the studio, trying not to overstate the urgency of the update, being cool about it, reassuring everybody. But it’s a pretty big deal. Saturday night is where the competition is at its most intense, where innovation has to work hardest to sustain radio’s relevance. The stakes are high.

I’ll be listening.

Games that disappear

godfinger

You can’t play Godfinger any more. It’s gone. ngmoco, the developer, removed the game (plus a couple of others) from app stores during February – and it’ll stop working all together at the end of this month. The raw economics of mobile gaming. But what happens to games that are packaged as apps when they’re discontinued? Looks like they disappear completely, as Jared Nelson points out on TouchArcade. No shoebox of carts under the bed, no stack of dusty DVDs, no folder of neglected binaries. Gone. Absent from the record.

The closed nature of mobile platforms means you can’t capture a binary for the archives and, unless the Library of Congress has an archiving scheme I don’t know about, this piece of intellectual labour will be removed from the record for good come April, leaving a tiny but perceptible hole in the timeline. This isn’t even a DRM story. It’s just about the mechanics of distributing entertainment in the app era. Is it important? Should we just accept it: the ruthless logic of 21st Century digital creation? Or are we going to be freaking out in fifty years when we realise we’ve built a one-way conveyor-belt to oblivion for digital work and we’re all going “what were they actually DOING back in the early twenty-first Century? They seem to have left no trace.”

Tension and release. My Bloody Valentine and building radio excitement without exclusives

Music radio’s all tension and release. Building anticipation – highs and lows strung together to keep things moving and bring listeners along with you. Mary Anne Hobbs’ breakfast show on 6 Music this morning was built around a classic music radio high – the long-awaited record release.

My Bloody Valentine have a new record out (seasoned hacks are getting emotional) but things have changed. The band released their new record online, direct to fans, with no build-up and no radio station exclusives. So Hobbs, in the studio for the station’s first live programme since the release, had no advantage over listeners, no head start at all. But it’s OK. It turns out you can still do exciting radio around a new record, even without an exclusive.

Hobbs and her producer downloaded the track with the hordes of MBV nuts doing the same thing (enough to crash the MBV web site, natch) – and played it out with all the excitement of fans. The buzz came from the shared excitement of that moment. The reactions of fans who’d already heard the track became part of the build-up. It was a shared moment. A post-social radio moment. Lovely.

Not wishing to state the obvious

We all got upset when Instagram’s small print changed yesterday because the pictures and stories we keep there are important to us. Emotionally. If Instagram had been trashy and ephemeral no one would have been upset at all. But Instagram is about memory and stories.

So it’s the opposite of ephemeral (even if you only photograph sandwiches). And this, of course, is all obvious, if you think about it for more than about a minute. We’re practically twenty years into this thing, and about five years into its social phase, during which we share everything.

We’ve all spent a reasonable fraction of our lives stacking up pictures and life fragments and jokes and links in these big, public databases. So, if you’re going to even hint that my precious memories aren’t actually mine, then you’re going to have to accept that I’ll get upset about it.

Right now, it looks like the whole thing was actually just a misunderstanding and Instagram are busy adjusting the wording of the contract. But I think this would probably be a good time for Instagram to launch that Creative Commons option anyway.