Shopping with dinosaurs

“People who push for this should be shot and burnt.” What do you think has made Daily Mail commenter Ben (now deleted) so angry? Yep, it’s the labels on John Lewis’s kids’ clothes. According to many tabloids’ commenters, by not labelling clothes as boys’ or girls’ John Lewis is pandering something something librul snowflake SJW muslins etc etc etc it’s political correctness gone mad.

One of the items that’s attracted a lot of comment is a cute wee dress with dinosaurs on it. And I just happen to have an opinion on both dresses and dinosaurs.

I’ve got two kids, a boy and a girl, and when my daughter was 5 she was told by her male classmates that she couldn’t be interested in dinosaurs because they were for boys. She’s also been told that girls aren’t allowed to play with dragons, because they’re for boys too. Girls have to play with unicorns.

You don’t need me to tell you that this gender bullshit starts very early and is reinforced by the unnecessary pinkification of so much girls’ stuff. Finding practical, comfortable shoes for my son is easy. It’s much harder for my daughter, whose trainers are hidden in shops behind a wall of high heels, glitter and sparkles. It’s the same with t-shirts and tops: it’s not unusual for us to leave a shop with an armful of stuff for my son and nothing for my daughter because she doesn’t like pink, sequins or slogans about being pretty.

This is a relatively recent development: children born in the 60s and 70s lived in a more gender neutral world, at least in terms of clothing. Here’s a Lego advert from 1981, before pinkification.

It’s not pink that’s the problem. It’s the constant reinforcement of exaggerated gender differences, to say that girls can’t do A, B and C and boys can’t do X, Y or Z.

John Lewis isn’t trying to change biology, as Facebook poster Susan Perkins suggests. It’s making a little change that tells my daughter that hey! Dinosaurs can be for girls too!

But that’s not what’s caused the “backlash” and “anger” the tabloids report. As ever with gender things, it’s the prospect of boys wearing dresses that’s got people upset, because it’s okay for girls to do boyish things but not the reverse. And discussing that opens up a great big box marked Pandora: it’s a very visible sign of a society that doesn’t value supposedly feminine traits, where what Grayson Perry calls Default Man dominates “the upper echelons of our society, imposing, unconsciously or otherwise, their values and preferences on the rest of the population.”

As Perry writes: “The most pervasive aspect of the Default Man identity is that it masquerades very efficiently as “normal” – and “normal”, along with “natural”, is a dangerous word, often at the root of hateful prejudice.”

Boys in dresses? We’ll be letting girls play with Lego next. Or as one Daily Express commenter puts it, it’s…

The ongoing Marxist plan to feminise boys, who wont have the desire to fight for their country when it all kicks off.

Hmmm.

Ultimately, though, it’s really very simple. John Lewis isn’t forcing anybody to be gender neutral. It’s just saying that maybe we shouldn’t force dinosaurs to pick a side.

If your son doesn’t want to wear a dress, don’t buy him one.

What’s your point, caller?

A passing thought: what exactly is the point of phone-in programmes? I’ve caught a few this week before turning off in disgust, one about vaccinations where ridiculous claims (knowing loads of people whose kids were harmed by MMR, knowing loads of people who went for homeopathy instead and their kids never contracted the Black Death) went unchallenged while people with evidence and expert knowledge were barracked, and several about political issues where every caller was either an idiot or a party activist. I know phone-in radio is cheap to make, but what’s in it for the listener?

The final Fred show

Tomorrow morning, BBC Radio Scotland will broadcast the last ever MacAulay & Co programme after nearly eighteen years on air. I’m going to miss it, and the people who make it.

I was a listener long before I became a contributor. In 1997 and 1998 I had a real job, and when I was late for work – which I often was, sometimes deliberately because I didn’t want to switch off something particularly funny – I’d listen to the show, laugh like a drain and think: it must be a right laugh to be on a show like that.

I’m not quite sure when I became a contributor – 2003 sounds about right – but I can honestly say that it’s been one of the best things in my life for a very long time. Without exception the people working on the programme – not just the voices you hear on the radio but the people who put the whole thing together and make it work more or less smoothly – are among the nicest, funniest, most talented people I’ve ever worked with, and it’s been a real joy to be part of the team. I’ve met pop stars and actors, comedians and authors, done some very silly things on air and been part of all kinds of tomfoolery, and the crazy buggers paid me to do it.

Fred’s moving on to bigger and brighter things and I’m sure the team will shine elsewhere too. As for me, I’m sure I’ll keep turning up here and there but I doubt I’ll ever be part of something quite like the Fred show ever again.

If you’ve ever listened to the show and thought “it must be a right laugh to be on that show,” man, it was. It really, really was.

All the small things: a little writing app that makes a big difference

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In the old days, writing for magazines was easy: you’d write a piece, send it as a Word doc or a text file, and that was it. Now, though, everything’s online and in a CMS. Creating content for that is often a pain in the backside, especially if you use apps designed for print rather than pixels.

Hurrah, then, for Ulysses. It’s a genuinely great app that’s already saving me stacks of time – not just in terms of creating copy I don’t then need to tweak, but in terms of the massive time savings that come from the way it does things. At £31.99 it’ll pay for itself in no time.

Here’s the obligatory video.

If you need to write words of any kind, it’s a great app. There’s a free demo too.

The best of both worlds: Spiceworld and Narnia

Today’s Sun says that for the very first time Alex Salmond has admitted that independence won’t be easy and that we won’t have magic taps running fresh water, whisky and oil.  “Was that really so difficult, First Minister?” the leader asks.

As Wings Over Scotland points out, it wasn’t difficult – and wasn’t difficult  when he said the same thing publicly in June 2013, in January 2014 and in June 2014.

It probably sounds like a minor thing, but it’s characteristic of something that’s really shaken my faith in journalism in general over the last couple of years: we’re being told stuff that simply isn’t true and that doesn’t stand up to the slightest bit of fact-checking. It’s not just the tabloids, either.

If the papers can’t be straight about very simple, well documented and easily verifiable pieces of information, how can you trust them on the more important issues?

It’s hard to quibble with Stuart Campbell when he says:

this stuff isn’t (just) cheap, snarky point-scoring about the stupefying incompetence of other journalists. It’s about the people of Scotland being fed a completely false narrative about a dishonest, shifty First Minister who promises the Earth and refuses to acknowledge any possible problems.

Obviously I’m coming to this from the perspective of a (converted) Yes voter, but it’s very clear from conversations I’m having online and off that many people will be voting in part based on outright lies and some very carefully worded claims (so for example the Better Together literature points out that Scotland benefits from transplant deals with English hospitals, implying that independence will mean the end of such deals. It won’t).

I’m not naive. I know that political campaigning means lying, distortion, dog whistle issues and other unpalatable things. But journalism is supposed to counterbalance that, to investigate the claims, expose the falsehoods and to hold campaigners (on both sides) to account. Its number one purpose is to ensure that the electorate are well informed – and from where I’m sitting, much of the media appears to be doing quite the opposite.

Journalism is supposed to be part of the solution, but here in Scotland* it’s part of the problem.

* With some honourable exceptions, of course. 

“The comments have failed us”

Margaret Eby argues that online comments on news pieces “are, most of the time, a disservice to both the writer and the reader.”

It’s true that putting your work out for public consumption requires some heartiness of spirit. But it is now not just tolerated but expected that journalists should suffer abuse at the hands of their audience. This is a relatively new occupational hazard. Newspapers always got their fair share of cranky letters, but no reporter was required to read–let alone publish–all of them. There is no other job, save comedian or bar band, where heckling is so routine.

The Magazine Diaries

I’ve contributed to The Magazine Diaries, “a little book publishing project designed to let magazine people tell the world how they feel about making magazines in the middle of the biggest disruption in publishing history and raise some money for a great charity.” The project is asking magazine people to submit 100-word articles about their jobs, and my one is here:

I worry about thinning walls between advertising and editorial, about writers who don’t need paid because someone else is picking up their tab, about slideshows and pop-ups and weird tricks for flat bellies.

But I still feel lucky.

You’ll find a full list of contributors here.

“The music business is a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free and good men die like dogs for no good reason.”

While I’m on an old-article tip, I’ll republish this as part of my ongoing and Quixotic battle to stop Hunter S Thompson from being misquoted. It’s from .net back in 2008.

Flies and death and stuff

“The music business is a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free and good men die like dogs for no good reason. There is also a negative side.” Legendary gonzo journalist Hunter S Thompson said that, and it’s been circulating around the internet for years now.

The thing is, he didn’t say it. If you pick up his book Generation of Swine, you’ll see that what HST really wrote was this: “The TV business is uglier than most things. It is normally perceived as some kind of cruel and shallow money trench through the heart of the journalism industry, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free and good men die like dogs, for no good reason.” The misquote has become an Internet Fact.

It’s a similar story with Mariah Carey. Despite what you might have read in Grazia last year, she didn’t actually say of starving children that “I’d love to be skinny like that, but not with all the flies and death and stuff”. The quote was invented by a satirical website, but it soon became an Internet Fact that ended up in print.

Internet Facts are a good example of the wisdom of crowds being drowned out by the mooing of herds: what survives isn’t necessarily the truth, but what people would like to believe. It’s funny when it’s making Mariah Carey look daft, but when it’s something more serious the effect is chilling.

In June, The Sun reported that an Anglo-Indian couple had abandoned their newborn baby girls because the dad wanted boys. The following day, it returned to the story – this time to quote the relevant NHS trust’s statement, which denied the allegations and said that the parents were perfectly attentive and very much in love with their daughters. Dozens of blogs quoted the original article; not one of them ran a correction when it turned out that the story was flawed at best and completely false at worst. And on The Sun website, it’s clear that most commenters simply ignored the correction. The result was several pages of knee-jerk nonsense, often bordering on the racist, sometimes crossing the line altogether. The story – the original one, not the corrected, accurate version – has become an Internet Fact, fuel for casual racists and Stormfront posters alike.

There are countless examples, ranging from the relatively harmless – for example, lurid and entirely invented tales of celebrities’ sexual proclivities – to the downright dangerous, such as the false dangers attributed to life-saving vaccines. Thanks to blogs and comments, we all have the right to publish this stuff and to circulate it more widely – but with that right comes the responsibility to ensure that what we say or post is actually true. Everything we post online has the potential to become an Internet Fact. As with most things in life, it pays to listen to Cher: as she sang in If I Could Turn Back Time, “words can be weapons. They wound sometimes.”

Life through a lens

This nice piece by my friend Craig Grannell on experiencing life through a smartphone screen reminded me of this, a column I did for .net in 2009.

I was visiting the BBC recently, and I arrived just after a large delegation of Japanese visitors. As I waited to be ushered inside, I watched the group unwittingly living up to the stereotype of gadget-wielding photography obsessives. They filmed and photographed the receptionists at work. They filmed and photographed the security guards. They filmed and photographed people coming in and out. Most of all, they filmed and photographed each other filming and photographing.

The first thing I thought was: I’m glad I don’t have to edit all that footage into something interesting. But my second thought was more serious. Photos and videos are hyperlinks to memories, icons that your brain double-clicks to bring back the full experience – the sights, sounds, smells and sensations of a happy day or a crappy one. Increasingly, though, we’re using gadgets to record the whole experience. That makes us passive observers, not active participants.

As soon as you start fiddling with a piece of technology, your attention is on the technology – so if you’re filming the bit of a gig where the singer hits those emotional highs, you’re removing yourself from the very thing you paid all that money to experience. When you tweet about the cute thing your kid just did, your attention’s on Twitter, on making your point in 140 characters, not on what your kid’s doing.  When you check email during a conversation, you’re temporarily tuning out the person or people you’re with. And when you film every waking moment you’re giving your attention to the framing, to the focus, to the F-stop, to the battery warning light that’s flickering in the corner of the viewfinder.

What you’re not doing is experiencing the thing you’re photographing, or twittering about, or filming. You’re not paying attention to the sounds, the smells, all the little details that make the moment special and burn it into your brain. For all our fancy trousers and our clever gadgets we’re a fairly simple species, and our caveman minds weren’t designed for multitasking.

That means that your gadget – your iPhone, your HD camcorder, your Blackberry – is the digital watch in the Biblical epic, the Ford Mondeo in the costume drama. It’s the bit of the novel where the author suddenly addresses you directly. It’s the drunk who bumps into you at the rock gig. It’s the noisy crisp eater behind you in the cinema. It’s the faraway music that stops you sleeping. It’s the thief that steals your attention, ends the immersion, takes you out of the moment and leaves you outside, looking in.

Of course gadgets have their place, and the world would be a lot poorer without smartphones, camcorders and other devices. But we need to be careful, because if we give them too much of our attention, if we experience our entire lives through a lens or lit by a screen, we’re no longer creating hyperlinks. Instead, our photos, our Facebook updates and our tweets are dead links, shortcuts that can only ever lead to a mental Page Not Found.

I thought about this at last week’s Eels gig, when the woman next to me filmed the whole gig on her phone. As she watched the screen throughout, that means her video isn’t a reminder of what the gig was like; it’s a reminder of what filming the gig was like. It’s an important difference.

 

“The constant scream of OMG OMG WHAT A DORK from family, friends and passing members of the clergy”

Me, on Techradar, writing about wearables.

It’s often said that smartphones are driven by fashion, but that isn’t really true. There are trends, of course, such as the current vogue for gold. But ultimately if a phone’s good enough and doesn’t actually frighten small children you won’t care too much what it looks like, because you’re either using it or it’s in your pocket or bag.

Wearables are different, and watches especially so.