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Archive for the ‘culture’ Category

Oscar statues -  ebbandflowphotography on flickr

So yesterday was the Oscars and Twitter was near-ruined for the day. So many tweets telling you no more than what you would be seeing happen on TV if you had chosen to watch it, perhaps with the addition of sparkling commentary such as “love her hair.” Urgh. So much vapidity.
But what’s really caught my eye as been several tweets along these lines: “I’m watch the Oscars with my kids and the actresses are too skinny. I wish they could be good role-models for my daughters.”

Here’s the thing though:  They don’t need to be role-models for your daughters at all.

To some extent that’s up to you. You already know the actresses are too thin. That’s unlikely to have suddenly changed since last year. You know that it’s a world (the world of Hollywood and the red carpet, not of all filmmaking of course) which is obsessed with a very specific definition of beauty, of which thinness is a central tenant. And you should surely realise that by making a big deal about it, getting excited, having a night in with your daughters and ooing and ahhing over the red carpet you are communicating to them that this is what really matters. That this red carpet celebrity is the highest order of achievement in our society. That being young and beautiful (and, yes, thin) is a critical component in making it in life.

I don’t mean to get all judgey here. We all have our vices and our distractions. I love sport and will no-doubt end up transferring a sense of disproportionate importance over it to my son, but at least sport has an active component of doing, of running around and being part of a team, even if the sportspeople you see on TV are not good role-models in other ways.

But celebrity culture is a cancer, distracting us from things that really matter by making us care about lives barely glimpsed or understood. Not the art produced by these stars, but the aura of stardom itself. The phenomenon of people being “famous for being famous”, of reality TV devoid of real skills (not competitions like Masterchef but voyeuristic exercises like Jersey Shore or Big Brother) and magazines devoted to the practice of harassment and embellishment, practices you implicitly endorse when you purchase Hello or OK! Or any other celebrity gossip magazines. And most concerningly it manifests in the increasing number of children who, growing up, aspire simply to be “famous.” Not to achieve anything in particular, not even to be rich, which might imply success in a specific industry such as music or films, but, simply, look-at-me, know-my-name fame as an end in itself. And because kids aren’t idiots they understand that there’s a strong correlation between fame and looks.

So if you don’t want your daughters to embrace red-carpet walking super-skinny female actresses as their role-mode then maybe skip the pre-Oscars show. Watch the ceremony, which is at least about artistic output, but skip the bit that is purely and simply about how people look and what they’re wearing. Because your daughters deserve to know that success is about what you produce and the meaning you create, not just your waistline and hair. Our fame-obsessed society will push their values at them no matter what you do, but it’s you inviting it into your living room and communicating to your children that this is what matters.

And if this all seems a bit over-the-top for a light-hearted bit of family evening entertainment, that’s fair enough. I know you work hard and you deserve to switch off a bit and enjoy a spectacle with your family. I totally get that. But accept that it’s not about role-models. Don’t blame the stars, they’re just doing what they’ve got to do to succeed in a system we all contribute to. Find great role-models for your daughters in other places, in changemakers, entrepreneurs, scientists or athletes.

/end rant.

Photo by ebbandflowphotography made available on a creative commons license on flickr.

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HourSchool classes

I attended my first workshop at General Assembly tonight, Introduction to the Sydney Startup Community, at the Fishburners co-working space. I attended not so much to learn about the elements of the startup process, which is not so new to me now, but to check out Fishburners for the first time, get a sense of how the newly-launched General Assembly Sydney was going and meet other local startups.

General Assembly is part of a new educational ecosystem which is fueling a renaissance in lifelong learning in our society. Whereas it used to be about lobbying your work to send you to (expensive) day-long workshops or multi-day training programs or saving up the funds to learn a new skill, now, for free or at low cost, you can choose to pursue continuing education and professional development on a huge variety of topics and in a manner that suits you and your learning style.

This has been achieved in many cases by democratizing now only who can learn but more importantly who can teach – allowing those with the knowledge to share it with those most eager to gain it, both online and offline. It’s this sudden supply of topic experts and new platforms which link us to them which has reduced the cost and increased the availability of learning opportunities. It’s an exciting trend.

General Assembly began in New York where they maintain a campus with permanent classrooms, co-working offices and community space. GA Sydney launched just last month and already has a full roster of upcoming classes at low cost, usually around $40. Skillshare allows anyone to propose a class and take bookings through its website. Where General Assembly tends to focus on tech and startup oriented classes Skillshare is literally for anything, you can do classes in bee-keeping or knitting, photoshop or poker.

Codecademy does away with the classroom completely, breaking down the process of learning to code into simple bite-sized chunks delivered online and inspiring over a million people to commit to learning to program this year (how many of them are following through however is unknown).

And the opportunities keep multiplying in a million different directions, with services like coachy which allow you to line up online coaching with a topic expert and Ohours which encourages you to offer real-world “office hours” to share what you know. Our Pitch Some Good event in Austin during SXSW this year was won by HourSchool who, somewhat like Skillshare, facilitate in-person teaching on, for instance, motorbike repair, in an hour a pop, and also included Pocket Hotline who facilitate telephone help lines on a variety of topics including rails, adhd and baking.

Whatever you want to learn, there’s probably someone prepared to teach it to you. And if you’re a bit of an expert on something interesting, fun or useful, why not offer to teach the rest of us? We’re ready to learn.

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It’s fun, and a strong blogging tradition, to look back over year just gone and create “best-of” lists. So here’s absolutely the definitive list of the best music, books and films from the year.

Just kidding, it’s just a random list of my favourite stuff of the past year, conjured by my imperfect memory and no-doubt riddled with omissions, but filled with gems regardless, promise!

Best Music (I discovered this year):

Tijuana Cartel

A great band from Australia’s Gold Coast introduced to me by a friend who stayed with us earlier in the year. alternative/electronic/hip hop/flamenco. Unique and awesome.

Jhameel

An incredibly-talented kid from Berkely whose first album “The Human Condition” will be released next month. We found him a couple of months ago via a friend and he’s been on high-rotation ever since. His sound is… um… pop-orchestral soul?

You can choose what you want to pay to download the album pre-release.

Jonsi

The ex-lead singer of Sigur Ros released his first solo album this year – “Go” – and it’s wonderful. As ethereal and soaring and gorgeous as you would imagine.

Shpongle

I adore Shpongle, so no surprise I think their latest album “Ineffable Mysteries from Shpongeland” is another classic.


Ulrich Schnauss

This album isn’t from 2010, or even close. A Strangely Isolated Place (which the track below is on) is from 2003, and Far Away Trains Passing By came out in 2001, but I only discovered them by chance this year and regret the years I was unaware of this gorgeous ambient music.

Best Books (I read this year):

The Tall Man – Death and Life on Palm Island – by Chloe Hooper

Absolutely my book of the year and genuinely one of the best things I’ve ever read, The Tall Man – Death and Life on Palm Island is the story of an Aboriginal death in police custody in 2004 and a searing portrait of white/indigenous relations. Should be required reading for all Australians.

Switch – How to Change Things When Change is Hard – by Dan Heath and Chip Heath

The follow up the Made To Stick, Chip and Dan Heath have done it again with Switch. It’s both an inspiring call to action and a practical hand-book for creating change in your life, community or world. Switch is written with the journalistic flair and storytelling style of Malcolm Gladwell but rather than describing a phenomenon it extracts lessons and teaches you how to do it too.

The Eternal Frontier – An Ecological History of North America and Its Peoples – By Tim Flannery

America is a very big, very diverse and very beautiful country. After we drove from DC-SF in June I wanted to know more about how it got to be the way it was, so read Flannery’s riveting account of North America’s evolution over the past 65 million years. Ever since I have been able to impress friends with insights on how the Sequoia’s survived the asteroid impact, why most of the world’s edible nuts are from North America and how horses evolved here. Americans – if you want to understand the continent you are standing on, read this book.

Cognitive Surplus – Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age – by Clay Shirky

Clay Shirky is the internet whisperer. He brings together diverse trends and disparate information and weaves them all together to reveal a deeper and more nuanced picture of the world social technologies are creating. Like his previous book Here Comes Everybody it is the most insightful thing I’ve read on the subject, aimed not at illuminating some business strategy or risk as so many books on the internet are but instead designed to reveal how these technologies are changing our cultures, societies and, ultimately, us.

Rand McNally Road Atlas

We set off from DC with two smartphones, an iPad and a GPS. They weren’t nearly enough. With coverage in the middle of the country incredibly patchy and the GPS being useless for choosing long-distance routes on day 3 we bought a proper countrywide map, the kind you spread on your lap in the passenger seat (or “navigation station” is it became known) and get an overview of your next three days of driving and imagine alternative ways of getting there. So much more fun this way too.

Best Films (I saw this year):

Exit Through the Gift Shop

Banksy’s first film and, like much of his art, it’s edgy, unique and a lot of fun. It combines incredible footage of now-famous street artists like Space Invader and Shepard Fairey with a is-this-real-or-not portrayal of the arts industry they (and he) have created.

Milk

A wonderful and bitter-sweet biopic of the short-lived but groundbreaking political career of Harvey Milk. And we live just a few blocks from where it all happened!

Howl

One-third Alan Ginsberg biopic, one-third the courtroom drama of the Howl obscenity trial, and one-third a psychedelic animated reading of Howl, Ginsberg’s most famous poem. 100% great.

Avatar 3D

A genuine technical triumph. Just a great cinema experience.

Best Websites (I used for the first time this year):

Posterous

I’m really enjoying keeping my alternative, shorter, “bits and bytes” blog over on Posterious. Check it out if you haven’t yet.

Quora

A super-intelligent question-and-answer site. So much wisdom so freely shared.

About.me

I’ve been looking for a homepage like this for a while.

Best Software (I used for the first time this year):

Rapportive

Integrates social media with gmail, a really powerful tool for building business relationships.

Focused

What I’m using to draft this post. The opposite of Rapportive in a way – it blocks out all the noise on your screen (social media notifications, tabs, various programs), giving you just a plain black box to type in. It’s helped me become much more productive when I write.

That’s more than enough, I hope you either had or are about to have (depending on where you are in the world) a fun and fabulous New Years Eve and that 2011 has amazing things in store for you.

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As I wrote recently, Burning Man is Festival 2.0. It is a user-generated community, built on the respect and responsibility of its citizens, a place where people are participants, not consumers.

The event and indeed the entire culture is based on ten principles, one of which is “leaving no trace”. This practice of leaving no trace creates a radically different consciousness than you see at other festivals. There is little-to-no trash anywhere on the ground as the community takes responsibility not only for our own trash but for each-others, picking up any pieces of MOOP (Material Out Of Place) we see. Camps build evaporation ponds to deal with their gray water and ship out all their own food scraps and recycling. Successfully leaving no trace requires more than the right consciousness, it requires intent, in the form of pre-planning, and responsibility in the form of follow-through.

This responsibility is most apparent at the camp level. The Black Rock Organization recently published the MOOP Map of Burning Man 2010, seen above. I am pleased to report that our camp, More Carrot, was given a green grade, the best possible, indicating low to no impact trace. Not that this was exceptional: as you can see the vast majority of the city is green, with only scattered patches of orange (moderate impact trace) and red (high impact trace). This is what a community looks like: people taking responsibility for themselves and taking care for each other and their environment. It’s one of the things that inspires me to participate in Burning Man.

Looking back over the past four MOOP maps it is clear that things are getting progressively better, with fewer and fewer camps leaving any noticable trace. As you can see this improvement was especially dramatic from the 2006 to 2007 event (click to see full size):

What changed between 2006 to 2007? The MOOP Map was published for the first time .

There’s a really important lesson in this: accountability resting on transparency made the difference. Despite all the power of the Burning Man culture an unacceptable amount of MOOP remained. Then, suddenly, this culture was reinforced with publically-available information detailing how the different camps and neighourhoods of the city were performing against the Leave No Trace goal. And immediately this public accountability produced a huge leap forward in the trash situation as camps worked harder than ever to avoid an orange or red grade.

Transparency reinforced existing community norms both by making deviance from this norm visible and thus additionally unacceptable and signaling to those doing the right thing that their efforts were appreciated. It felt good to see our camp covered in Green when the map was released. It feels good to be part of something that inspires and aggregates individual contributions towards a community goal in this way.

The question is how can we create this level of personal responsibility and community consciousness in all our communities? What sort of transparency is required to support this?

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My first-ever pumpkin!

My first-ever pumpkin!

This weekend I experienced my second Halloween, or my third if you count accompanying my host-sisters as they went trick-or-treating when I was on exchange in Spokane, Washington, when I was 16. And,  indeed, until moving here last year that was what I thought Halloween was: kids systematically hitting strangers up for candy, in violation of the rule we’re all taught when we’re young.

But it turns out it’s much, much more than that. In fact, it’s possibly the biggest party night of the year, up there with New Years Eve. And it’s certainly not just kids – big kids of all ages get dressed up and boogie down. You see superheros and fairies and Spartans and ninja’s and computers walking down the street, or rocking out on the dance floor at every bar in town. An entire country attending one big costume party.

Now admitedly my perspective might be skewered here by the fact that the two Halloweens I’ve been here have fallen on Friday and Saturday. If I’m here in a year or two I’ll be able to see how much of the manic energy carried into Sunday and Monday nights, or transfers to the nearest weekend night. But there’s something adorable and exciting about so many adults dressing up; it creates a sense of fun and play which is very immersive.

The Burning Man community figured this out a long time ago of course, so I find myself dressing thematically on an unusually-common basis currently. The weekend was a kaleidoscopic blur of people, colour, music and movement, filled with smiling faces and, of course, a spectacular variety of outfits. It was, as they say, a good time, with an energy in the air way beyond an average weekend, a sense of performative abandon which is perhaps only possible when you are wearing a costume.

You can see photos from TechArts: A Spooky Union, the party we attended on Saturday night, here.

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Radiohead are one of the great music innovators of our time and one of my favourite bands. Banksy is an iconic artist from our generation, the most famous street artist in the world whose work I love. So it’s brilliant to see Radiohead’s latest video featuring Banksy’s work:

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