The most stationary of all stationery items, scissors hate to be hurried. I learned this as a child. You did too, probably. Don't run with scissors. A clear and simple instruction. Pencils, glue, staples... no problem. For them, like us, it's a finite existence. Time is short so don't dilly dally. But don't run with scissors.

Saturday, 31 March 2012

i live in a country populated by idiots and run by buffoons

Last year parts of the UK were blighted by riots and looting.

Last week the more feeble-minded of the country's car-driving population started panic-buying petrol and diesel. This was sparked by concerns over a possible strike by lorry drivers, and was exacerbated by remarks made by Francis Maude - a government minister - who advised people should stock up on fuel for their cars. This was stupid and dangerous advice, driven by an idealogical desire to thwart the impact of a potential fuel strike.

Our less-than-impressive Prime Minister, David Cameron, echoed these sentiments.

What happened next was an explosion of the same attitudes and outlook we witnessed in last August's wave of arson and theft - a complete breakdown of perspective and an overwhelming sense of utter selfishness. I'm all right Jack is the attitude du jour.

To begin with there was fear over a shortage of fuel at the pumps over the Easter weekend, brought on by striking tanker drivers. But it soon began to sink in to these fretful idiots, many of whom had queued for hours at petrol stations to fill their cars and their many portable containers, that there would not be a strike-prompted shortage of fuel over Easter. After all, no strike had been called. Added to which, in the event a strike is called, seven days notice would be given prior to the actual strike.

On Thursday 29 March, sales of petrol and diesel were up 172%.

The queuing and panicky behaviour extended into Friday, with long queues, petrol stations running out, tempers fraying and people generally carrying on like confused, frighted children.

Why continue to panic-buy fuel when there is no impending problem?

Perhaps because if you don't go and buy as much as you can there won't be any left when you need it, because other people will have bought it all.

In the wake of last August's riots, David Cameron said: "For me, the root cause of this mindless selfishness is the same thing that I have spoken about for years."

He was right and his home-spun truism works well here too.

Back then I wrote:
He went on, as politicians often do: “It is a complete lack of responsibility in parts of our society. People allowed to feel that the world owes them something, that their rights outweigh their responsibilities and that their actions do not have consequences.”

You can read the full post here.

All of this has left me more convinced than ever that there is a bitter streak of unpleasantness that runs through people in this country. We do not stand together. We squabble and complain. We are mistrustful of others. We put our own short-term wants and needs ahead of everything.

The UK gets more like a Lord of the Flies LARP with each passing year.

Sunday, 25 March 2012

why i like pinterest and why you should too

New terms of service from the many and varied sites and feeds we’re all subscribed to are a regular occurrence. Apple, for example, routinely updates its Ts & Cs. You haven’t read them, nor have I. Pages and pages of jargon-heavy legal terminology that, let’s face it, aren’t going to stand between you and your iTunes account for any longer than it takes to blithely scroll down and tick the “accept” box.

Of all the online too-ings and fro-ings I’m signed up to, the latest to update its terms is Pinterest.

Ah… Pinterest. Admitting to using Pinterest is a tricky business. Some people enjoy it. Some are still valiantly looking for the crock of doo-dah at the end of the “how brands can maximise their oopmpah using Pinterest” rainbow. And others will just sneer at you.

But I like Pinterest.

There, I’ve said it.

Unlike blogging, tweeting and jibbing about on Facebook, Pinterest is a wholly-visual medium where you get to interact (in a very limited way) with a bunch of strangers. A bit like Chat Roulette but without the promise of having video-phone sex with someone else’s bored wife.

One of the best things about social media is the exchange of ideas, opinions and information from sources and individuals you might not otherwise have encountered.

But one of the worst things is the exchange of ideas, opinions and information from sources and individuals you might not otherwise have encountered, and in many cases wish you never had.

When asked a few months ago why I liked Pinterest I said I liked the lack of discourse with other users. I also like the visual aspect of it. Not just because I can’t get enough of looking at pics of cupcakes. But because the written form isn’t for everyone. Being able to share images of things you like with an online community is – and here I risk sounding like a colossal smunt* – a great example of the democratising nature of social media.

I find someone’s half-baked opinion, or massively dull world view far less irritating when it manifests as a image than as a tweet infected with bad grammar and insufficient thinking.

I regularly get emails, tweets and DMs from people who read stuff on this blog and then say to me “oh, I could never do that. I can’t write.”

True, most people can’t express their thoughts and opinions as clearly and, dare I say entertainingly, in writing as they might be able to when speaking. I’m not sure that means they shouldn’t have any form of outlet, though.

A lot of what I see on Pinterest is not very different from retweeting or sharing links to articles other people have written. Neither of which are creative exercises, yet they rarely come in for much criticism.

It’s not all kittens, cupcakes and wedding dresses on Pinterest either. In fact, I see more pics of cats and cakes shared via twitter. And don’t be fooled by the whole “it’s a mummy-blogger thing with a prevailing female wind” schtick.

Two things… 1) so what if that’s the case; 2) that’s not the case.

Within two weeks of being on Pinterest I was carefully unfollowing users who were pinning porno. Not the soft kind. There’s a time and a place for most things but I don’t really ever want to see some fat German bloke’s favourite stills of people having sex.

Like all things social, if you pick the right people to follow Pinterest can be interesting and funny. Sad how many people I’ve seen on twitter writing Pinterest off because they aren’t enjoying the experience. It’s as though they’ve forgotten what it is to put time and effort in to developing your networks.

But let’s not forget the copyright stick that many people have sought to beat Pinterest with. I can only imagine these people have only started using the internet very very recently. Either that or they have very very selective memories.

Stealing other people’s content is bad. Illegal even. But it didn’t start with Pinterest and it won’t end with criticism of Pinterest either.

OK, so some lawyer or other closed their Pinterest account because it all looked wrong to them.

Massive so what alert…

Get a grip people. There’s no Father Christmas, there’s no Tooth Fairy and lawyers get things wrong sometimes. Maybe those people placing so much importance in this lawyer’s actions have never actually had to deal with lawyers in a professional capacity.

As an interesting comparison, I haven’t seen Soundcloud, for example, come in for the same kind of criticism. Maybe that’s because music, like writing, is deemed a worthy and creative exercise. Whereas sharing images of the things you like is something it’s ok for the twitterati to look down on.

Funny thing, looking down on people. I’ve almost always found myself looking down more on those who do the looking down.

But the thing I really like about Pinterest is the approach they took a few days ago to updating their terms of service. They issued an email written in very accessible, non-legal language, explaining there had been a change. There was a summary of some of the changes and a link to the terms in full, which the recipient of the email is encouraged to read.

I think this compares very favourably with the likes of Google, Facebook and Apple who could do a lot worse than start talking to their users and customers like human beings again, rather than treating us like assets.

Pinterest, like every other shop in the social media mall, is far from perfect. But it is clear to me that unlike many others they are listening to naysayers and at least attempting to correct the course they’re on. There’s a lack of arrogance in that approach that I wouldn’t mind seeing go viral.

* - yes, I invented a word... smunt.

pinterest’s updated terms of service

If you’re not a Pinterest user, you won’t have received the email regarding their new terms of service. You might not care. But if you do, here’s the email. I think more organisations should send emails like this when updating their terms.

Note: the Pinterest team have addressed two issues in particular that have led to criticism of their platform - selling users' content, and policing copyright infringement.

Over the last few weeks, we've been working on an update to our Terms. When we first launched Pinterest, we used a standard set of Terms. We think that the updated Terms of Service, Acceptable Use Policy, and Privacy Policy are easier to understand and better reflect the direction our company is headed in the future. We'd encourage you to read these changes in their entirety, but we thought there were a few changes worth noting.

Our original Terms stated that by posting content to Pinterest you grant Pinterest the right for to sell your content. Selling content was never our intention and we removed this from our updated Terms.

We updated our Acceptable Use Policy and we will not allow pins that explicitly encourage self-harm or self-abuse.

We released simpler tools for anyone to report alleged copyright or trademark infringements.

Finally, we added language that will pave the way for new features such as a Pinterest API and Private Pinboards.

We think these changes are important and we encourage you to review the new documents here. These terms will go into effect for all users on April 6, 2012.

Like everything at Pinterest, these updates are a work in progress that we will continue to improve upon. We're working hard to make Pinterest the best place for you to find inspiration from people who share your interest. We've gotten a lot of help from our community as we've crafted these Terms.


Ben & the Pinterest Team

Monday, 19 March 2012

love and marriage

I don’t want to live in a society where discrimination is hard-wired into the institutions that surround us.

I don’t. It’s as simple as that.

I don’t want to be discriminated against, and I don’t want the people I share this island with to be discriminated against either.

As lovely and wishy-washy as those sentiments are, I am drawn to this topic, on this occasion, by the rumpus surrounding the UK government’s proposed changes to marriage.

The 2004 Civil Partnership Act gave same-sex couples the option to enter into a legally recognised and binding partnership with all the same rights and responsibilities afforded through marriage. But it’s not marriage, it’s a civil partnership.

Now the government wants to open out the scope of marriage, so that it is available to same sex couples. Not surprisingly there has been a lot of negative reaction from some quarters, the obvious ones being the Church and the right-wing moral majority lobby. But I’ve also heard criticism of it from gay men (ok, one gay man) claiming that this attempt at equality will just push people to more extreme oppositional points of view.

The Church – Catholic and Anglican – is against marriage being made available to same sex couples. This should not surprise anyone. Nor, frankly, should it concern anyone.

I respect anyone’s right to follow their religious beliefs right up to the point where they impinge on the dignity and freedom of other people. So, this is not an attack – even a mild one – on organised religion.

However, I think the Church needs to wind its neck in – as they say in Liverpool. It doesn’t own marriage. It didn't invent it. It existed during the pre-Christian Roman Empire, and further back was evident in Ancient Greece.

Traditionalists… behold the wound-in neck of the Church and prepare to follow suit. Anyone in the “we shouldn’t tinker with important societal traditions” camp needs to consider the changes to their precious tradition in the past. For example, women no longer lose all property rights when they marry. This is a good thing. It is also a good example of why things like marriage need to keep changing over time.

Marriage exists today as a legally binding state of personal affairs between two people, and has been modified over the years to ensure it is – broadly – in step with wider social and economic concerns. And when, as some people do, you’ve had enough and you want out, you don’t get divorced in a church, you get divorced in a court of law.

Arguments about marriage being about a natural state of affairs between a man and a woman, or that the best environment for raising children is in a happy, stable home with married parents – one of each gender – are all well and good.  But they start from a set of assumptions that are plainly unrealistic.  After all not every marriage is happy and not all children are raised by loving parents.

Whatever your vision of an ideal world, chances are we don’t live in it. But that’s no reason to do nothing, or to adopt an entrenched oppositional stance.

Replacing the current two-tier approach of marriage for straights and civil partnership for the gay and lesbian community is an indication that the UK is committed to eradicating discrimination.

To me, that can only be a good thing.

Thursday, 15 March 2012

No place like home

The view from my childhood bedroom window is still there. A tower block, an open green space, gasometers in the middle distance.

The bedroom window itself, much like my childhood, is no longer there; the street I grew up on was demolished in the 1980s. The rows of low-rise blocks of flats, packed in densely so they resembled something like the layout of a series of prison blocks, has been replaced by a smaller number of smaller dwellings. They look like houses, but in reality they are two-up-one-down maisonettes.
Me and my dad, when I was just a few months old

I haven’t set foot on that street for almost 30 years, although I drove along it once about 15 years ago. But thanks to the wonders of Google Streetview, last night I went for a stroll through my old neighbourhood. It’s a lot greener now than it used to be, and there are many more cars, despite there being fewer people.

I stared at the space where my bedroom window once was – easy enough to find as there was a lamppost outside it. That’s the kind of thing that tends to remain in situ, so finding the last lamppost was all it took.

After that, I crossed the road to the tower block where my cousins lived, then walked down the street to the library, built in the early 1900s. I visited my schools, and walked past the renamed pub, outside which there was almost always a trail of blood after closing time. The row of shops at the end of the street is still there. There’s a chicken/pizza/kebab place where the haberdashery used to be, but William Hill is still there. 

I know I’m far from unique in this regard, but it felt odd looking at the places I knew as a boy, knowing that the one place I knew as ‘home’ no longer existed.

I left the city I grew up in, Birmingham, when the first opportunity presented itself and I’ve rarely gone back in the years that followed my mother’s death.  This week I am set to return, for the inquest into my father’s death, which will be heard at Birmingham Coroner’s Court.

It's something that has led to a little more reflection than usual, of late.  On the role of fathers, on childhood memories, on family and on what it means to have roots.

Friday, 9 March 2012

beating domestic violence needs more than clare’s law

Read the next sentence slowly and carefully please, because it’s important you understand my position on this subject.

Domestic violence - of any sort - is inexcusable, wrong and should not be tolerated.

At a time when charities are struggling to provide real practical help to women who have been the victims of domestic abuse, the government is introducing a piece of legislation which, in my opinion, will never achieve its aim of helping women avoid abusive relationships in the first place.  At least, not in meaningful numbers.

Furthermore, it does nothing to shift the focus and responsibility away from women and on to men, who make up the majority of abusers.

The introduction of the so-called Clare’s Law will be done via four 12 month pilot schemes in Wiltshire, Nottinghamshire, Gwent and Greater Manchester.

For those who don’t know, Clare’s Law is an idea predicated very much on the existing sex-offenders’ register – only relating to crimes of domestic violence.  The idea being that a woman can check if the man she is about to start a relationship with has a criminal conviction for domestic violence.

But I see a number of flaws in what I am quite sure started out as a laudable attempt to do something to help women who are suffering domestic abuse. Maybe that's because I think that doing something is not at all the same as doing the right thing.

Perhaps the biggest flaw I can see is this - no crime = no criminal record.

You can be bullied into psychological submission, ground down, have your self-worth and self-esteem eroded, live in fear that the threats and sinister atmosphere will one day become a painful, life-threatening physical reality, all without anyone ever laying so much as a finger on you in anger.

Leave morality to one side - if you can - because the law is not a function of morality, and Clare’s Law is indeed a law.  While I’m no lawyer, I don’t think you’ll find many people have been convicted of bullying behaviour toward their spouse.

Similarly, you can avoid a criminal record by not getting caught or not being reported in the first place.

Over the course of my adult life, I think I’ve known two close female friends who had been physically assaulted by their male partners.  Or perhaps what I mean is I’ve known two women who felt able to talk about it.  In both cases it was after the fact, not during.

The 2010/11 British Crime Survey revealed that at least one-in-four women will experience domestic violence at some point in their life.  According to other estimates, there may be around 40,000 incidents of domestic violence in the UK every year.  These are sickening statistics.

I know a serving police officer who works in the Met’s domestic violence unit.  The biggest problem she faces, she says, is convincing the victims to see their abuser arrested, charged, and tried.  Far too many will back down at the point of having to commit to a statement or giving evidence, leaving a prosecution impossible. The police can now prosecute without the partner’s direct involvement, but this means the possible omission from a case of the only witness, the victim, and a great deal of evidence.

The cases that have made it to court and secured a conviction are, sadly, the minority.  The Liberal Democrat Party undertook research in 2009 that showed only 6.4% of reported incidents of domestic violence resulted in acriminal conviction
That’s a lot of people (men, in the overwhelming majority) not picking up a criminal record for domestic abuse.  A lot. 

Clare’s Law might be able to tell a woman that the guy she might be about to fall in love with doesn’t have a record for domestic abuse.  But it’ll never be able to tell her the reason might be because he’s one of the 93.6% of cases that evaded a successful prosecution.

However, something Clare’s Law does achieve effectively is create the impression that we have a government committed to helping the victims of domestic abuse.  It’s a very visible thing to do and legislation is a great way of demonstrating to the country that you take a matter very seriously.

Let me be clear here… if it helps just one woman avoid falling into the clutches of one of the 6.4% that will, of course, be a good thing.

But it doesn’t address the causes, only the symptoms of the problem, and will never offer real help and real hope to the overwhelming majority of women many of whom find their only lifeline to be charities and support groups.

Local authority funding to charities working with the victims of domestic violence fell from £7.8 million in 2010/11 to £5.4 million this year, according to the Guardian

In fact, the decline in government-funding of this vitally important sector is such that some campaigners (again, according to the Guardian) claim as many as 230 women seeking help are turned away from shelters and refuges every day.

One of the leading charities looking after these women (and their children) is Refuge.  It has had its funding slashed by 50% and may have to close.  Clearly, that would be catastrophic for the 1,600 or so women and children it currently supports, not to mention all those who will never be able to turn to it for help in the future.

(The above points can be referred back to here.)

Sometimes having a safe place to turn to can literally mean the difference between life and death.  Sometimes it can mean getting the right support to be able to find the courage to press charges and cooperate with a prosecution.  Sometimes it is the first step toward rebuilding your life, regaining a sense of self-worth and everything that comes with it.

On one hand I see charities that save lives, and that provide shelter and support, having to turn women away now and possibly facing closure in the future.

On the other hand, there is a piece of legislation that will record the past crimes of the fewer-than-10% of men convicted of domestic violence and make that information available to those who request it.   And let’s not forget, there’s nothing anyone can do to make it compulsory for women to CRB check all their future partners, so even some of those will slip through the net.

This is another key flaw in the make up of Clare’s Law in my opinion.  It puts the responsibility on women to conduct background checks on men they may be starting relationships with.  From a practical point of view, I can’t help but wonder how likely it is that this will actually happen? This mean every woman having to request a background check on every potential suitor, anything less is a failure of the system.

Human nature will be the undoing of that, I fear.

There is also a role for men to play in tackling the problem of domestic violence.  I’d like to see the government do something more inclusive and more sustainable, that involves men (the whole of society even) in an attempt at breaking down the taboos that still surround so many of the issues connected with domestic abuse, something that engenders a real deep-rooted sense of the unacceptable. 

If you’ve read this far, thank you.  If you’ve read this far and are thinking “you’re a man, you could never understand” you’re an idiot.  Domestic violence can, and does, affect everyone. 

I will offer this hesitant apology though.  This is a very serious topic.  I don’t claim to be an expert.  Nor do I claim to be the most eloquent of writers.  So, reader, I implore you to forgive any rough-hewn turns of phrase or arguments that don’t quite go as deep as they could. 

Frankly I could have written several thousand words on this, decorating it with anecdotes and more research. I haven’t even touched on the countless cases where women had lodged complaints with the police about their partner (or former partner) only to end up being murdered before the police had done anything meaningful to intervene. In fact, Clare’s Law is named after one such woman.

But that isn’t what this piece is for. 

This is my opinion on things my government is doing that will ultimately allow tragic loss of life to occur by reducing access to life-saving refuge, while blithely seeking to appease us with a piece of no doubt well-intentioned legislation that will never do more than warm the tip of the iceberg.