Category Archives: other stuff

Working mothers – healthy or dangerous?

The Institute of Child Health at University College London has released a study that indicates that single children whose mothers work outside the home don’t eat as many fruits and vegetables, watch more TV, and are more likely to be driven to school than to walk.  The media has pounced – stories about the terrible difficulty of being a “working mum,” especially when the consequences are so dire.

It’s interesting to take this study in the context of another ICH study that the BBC reported in 2006 – that the same women who work outside the home are healthier than those who stay at home. What’s happening here?  Are women taking better care of themselves while (shock) letting their children drink fizzy drinks?  Or is something more complicated happening?  The 2006 study suggested that a balanced life of parenthood, work, and partnership is healthy for women.  Maybe a similar balance is healthy for children?  The conclusion of the 2009 study, which the BBC didn’t seem to report in as much detail, was that public child care needs – which is still difficult to find in the UK, and often of poor quality – should be improved, and include better food and exercise opportunities.

Of course, both of these studies are based on what seems to me to be an especially British (and pretty old-fashioned) assumption that mothers are the de facto child carers.  Wake up, UK parents – dads can stay home – and kids taken care of by neighbours, friends, and day care workers can grow up healthy and happy too.

Would you go to jail for your rights?

I went to the British Library on Saturday to see the exhibit “Taking Liberties:  The struggle for Britain’s freedom and rights.” Beginning with the Magna Carta (on display!) it showed how unstable British politics have been, and for how long.

I was fascinated by the section on the long struggle to give women the vote.  The movement started in the 1860s, but the exhibit claimed that it didn’t have much success until after the First World War – women over 30 got the vote 1920, and women over 21 in 1928.  The Suffragettes were more organized, and more radical than I thought.  They blew up post boxes, stages rallies in the street, and accumulated criminal records.  In fact, so many of them went to jail in the 1890s and 1900s, and then went on hunger strikes in order to be released, that the government passed a new law.  The “Cat and Mouse” law permitted the government to release a woman after a hunger strike and then rearrest her as soon as she had gained enough weight not to die in jail.

It seems unimaginable now that the suffrage activists would have to go to such lengths to prove that women should be allowed the same democratic rights as men.  But female suffrage was very threatening to the moral and social order of the times.  If women were willing to blow up mailboxes in order to get the right to vote, who knows who they might vote for if they got the chance?

The exhibit was a good reminder that freedoms and rights are often grudgingly given by those with more power to those with less.  Those with less  are often called to put their beliefs on the line.  I started to ask myself, “would I be willing to go to jail for my rights?”  If ever my right to vote were revoked, I would like to belive I would.

Democracy (especially in Britain) sometimes seems wounded and tepid – with too much balancing to truly bring change.  But another amazing event of this week proves that it can still work.  Obama’s inauguration, and the vision of millions of people on Washington’s mall, suggest that people with less power, working together, can still shift the heavy machinery of government.    But we all need to be willing to push.

YouTube’s Online Symphony Orchestra

I’m really excited about YouTube’s new project: an online symphony orchestra! Composer Tan Dun has written an Internet Symphony meant to be played by all the usual orchestra instruments – and any other instruments that participants want to play. It will be collaboratively performed online. You can upload sheet music, watch masterclasses on your instrument from London Symphony Orchestra players, get some video help from Tan Dun as conductor, and then upload audition videos. Chosen performers will play in the flesh at Carnegie Hall.

It is almost (but not quite) enough to make me want to bring my violin out of hibernation.

Montreal Book-blog: from John Ralston Saul to Net Neutrality

I’m holed up in icy Montreal waiting for a visa from the UK home office.  To keep myself occupied, I thought of blogging every day about what (and why) I’m reading.  So here’s the first installment.  If the weather keeps up like this, there could be many more – at least until I get to go home!


I devoured two John Ralston Saul books this week:  The Collapse of Globalism, and A Fair Country:  Telling truths about Canada.  These could be read sequentially:  after outlining how globalism fails, Ralston Saul presents a solution in his address to Canada’s elites.  Basically, the premise (oh so prescient) is this:  the system of globalism attempted to reduce society to economic terms, and in doing so, applied market logics so broadly that they ceased to be useful.  The principle of governance, so essential to democracy, was replaced with the principle of management.  Ralston Saul traces these principles, and the broader ideology of globalism,  through phenomena such as trade agreements, changes in intellectual property laws, and the privatizing of the public sector. He concludes by describing a potential of a return to nation-states, but notes that we should still be wary of “negative nationalism.”

The Collapse of Globalism brings together so many of the observable consequences of globalism that it would be tempting to say that it anticipates the current correction financial systems (which is also a crisis in governance and regulation) and the ensuing failure of trust in these systems and regulations.  But it doesn’t, really.  Instead it outlines in broad terms some of the things that I’ve observed in more focused situations:  frustration with the “it’s out of our hands” market ideology of globalism can provoke an identification with a more contained identity.  This could be national, local, or cultural.  In its negative form, such small-scale identifications confound our relationships with the other (Ralston Saul talks a lot about the other) and intensify conflict.  Positive nationalism, on the other hand, reflects “a renewed and growing desire to build our societies at all levels with our own hands – that is, to find ways to be involved”.

This is just one resonance in this book with what I’ve observed happening in grassroots (and not-so-grassroots) groups.  In response to a failing system, we can be remarkably ingenious in developing something better – if we build on our strengths.  This is exactly what Ralston Saul addresses in his next book, where he argues that Canada has been neglecting its third founding pillar – the First Nations.  The result of this has been the development of a colonial mindset and the divestment of many of the country’s resources through increased foreign ownership.  He entreats Canada’s elite (that would be you) to break out of complacency, and restore the sense of this country as a place where negotiation is valued over quick solutions, and where the founding principles of Peace, Welfare, and Good Government return.

You’d like to know how?  Well, one good way would be to lobby the CRTC to stop Internet throttling.  In a clear example of short-sighted management/market ideologies, Bell Canada has appealed for the right to continue to throttle P2P applications on its network, even as it begins to prioritize its own audio and video content.  SaveOurNet.Ca has more information.

Canada already has the most consolidated media companies in the world.  What’s more, its status as an internet leader is in sharp decline.  Why?  Because the telecom companies don’t want to invest in delivering the “last mile” of connectivity to homes and businesses.  Their construction ends at the neighbourhood loop level.  All the more reason for muncipalities/communities/neighbourhoods to invest in local networks.

Whew!  I got all the way from globalism and Ralston Saul back to local broadband.  I must say, it’s been fun.

Sticking points in the global flow

I went to the bank today, to cash a cheque. The cheque was written in US dollars which meant that I could not cash it directly: instead, two separate forms had to be filled and sent to the central bank office, where the cheque would be negotiated or sold for US currency. The whole matter would take one to two weeks, and likely involve several levels of bureaucracy for an amount that would buy me one decent pair of shoes. I experienced the same issue when trying to transfer money from Canada to the UK: for personal banking between two countries, paperwork and tax laws multiply to confusion. The thing is, I have three chequing accounts, in three countries. In the past year I have earned money in four different currencies. By all rights I should be one of the “network elites” moving fluidly around in the global space of flows (that’s Manuel Castells – 1996 and 2001). After all, international finance companies are transferring billions of dollars across the world every second in a network of operations constructed from transportation, information, and communication technologies.

But as I (and presumably others in this situation) find, the network flows are not always so easy to navigate at the personal level. Oh yes, we are mobile – but we can be suddenly made immobile by bad weather, human error, mechanical breakdown, passport control, banking imbroglio. I wonder if other frequent travellers find, as I have, that multiplying one’s identity is easier than carrying a continuous self through the flow? So my addresses multiply to minimize transfers overseas, and each jurisdiction is likely unaware of my identity in the other. In many ways, this makes me painfully aware of where I live at any moment (for example, I’m quite incensed about the bad planning for cyclists in West London) and also ferociously interested in what’s going on elsewhere (I read much more Canadian news when living abroad).

Mimi Scheller thinks that mobility and democracy don’t recombine in a network or flow. She argues that things like mobile people and communication devices make up more of a gel, where some movements between public and private are smooth, and others are held in place and space. Public life doesn’t suddenly appear in “official” public space: instead it emerges around and through and alongside people’s movements through all kinds of spaces and in all kinds of places.

I think Scheller’s right about the gel – for individual people, the flows of mobility and capital don’t move smoothly. We keep getting caught in the sticky parts of the gel, where we are reminded of where we are and challenged to make the actions we take as citizens relevant. Castells’ main criticism of the network society is that it isolates the influence of actions in local places. But if what connects us is not a rigid network but a slippery gel, maybe we can determine a way to connect local actions to global events. For those of us with different lives in different places, maybe this means thinking about the connections, not the barriers, between these spaces and places.

Media Policy – Publics vs. Celebrities

In this crowded room in Memphis, at the Media Policy Pre-conference just before the National Media Reform Conference, we are talking about policy, about media, about the essential overlap between activists and academics, but mostly about the public .

Craig Calhoun (who was apparently once a preacher and still speaks like one), argued that the challenge of articulating a public or community good requires a necessary knowledge. Further, for “those of us with less money and power, we need knowlege even more”. This knowledge is meant to assist with the opposition of what Calhoun calls, “the priviatization of everything”.

These comments are inspiring for someone who has always valued knowledge, but I wanted to take them in the context of the promotion of the Media Reform conference. Across town, in the mass media and online, the faces and names of celebrities: Jane Fonda, Danny Glover, Geena Davis, are working to attract attention to the “media reform movement”. But celebrities are *not* the public, and the “celebrity government” and celebrity philanthropy (Oprah and Bill Gates as major investors in African education) that attract attention might actually be deeply problematic for the development of knowledge.

Celebrities, and the necessity of using celebrity to get attention within dominant media, is, I think, a major barrier for creating knowledge. Celebrities are the accidentally mighty — they have wealth and power in some cases, accidentally. They attract attention, but Calhoun would call the appeal to celebrity a “forced choice” that reveals the arbitrary limits of our current media system.

We need strategies and tactics to make change. If more people come through the door to find out about media reform because they want to see Jane Fonda, great. But this tactic still opposes the overall strategy of producing, developing, and inspiring “necessary knowledge”

PS I will be guest-blogging the NCMR over at Media@McGill the next couple days

Is code beautiful?

This week, I thought a lot about beauty and sublimity in technological production. I am coming back to Winner’s idea that the sublime is the moment of imagined potential but also the moment of imagined terror. Nuclear reactors and surveillance technologies hold this moment, the moment when the world will either be much better or much worse. But there is another kind of beauty, too — one which I don’t think I yet understand. The informational equivalent of the perfectly designed glass carafes at the Louvre, in the tiny hot room on the way to the Venus de Milo. The mysteries of computer code, embedded and enfolded upon itself.

My problem is how to see that as beauty – it is so abstract and distant. I feel almost that saying code is beautiful is like saying that the insides of a refrigerator are beautiful. Of course they are beautiful for those who know how a refrigerator works, but it is hard for us to consume them as beautiful objects in the way that we consume the carafes at the Louvre – as aesthetically lovely outside of their functional capacity. My question is, for those people who maybe sometimes read this blog but never dare to comment, how can we see that beautiful (or elegant) code is beautiful?

UP! To Provence

I am off next weekend to a hilariously titled conference: the UPFING! Actually, it’s subtitled the EntreNet, and is a one of these “UN-conferences” where everyone is thoretically a participant. But the thematic looks interesting — what happens in between the dynamics of “bottom up” and “top-down” and how do associative technologies play an ambivalent role in mediating these dynamics. Also, it’s in Provence, which will get me out of the city.

In the rest of my life, I see a daily opposition between the rigidly bureaucratic structures imposed by the last vestiges of a French aristocracy, and the inclusive, chaotic “mani”res de faire” of people forced to live with a public service that is not interested in providing service but in providing stable jobs. With an unemployment rate of 12% there is enormous pressure to get in to the bureaucracy, and enormous stress for the rest of the people on the margins. So the tension between “top-down” and “bottom-up” is really lived, everywhere from the swimming pool the the post office. More on this later.

changing the world

I talked to two great friends yesterday. One is building water pipelines in Haiti; the other is starting to work for a human rights law prof on a project to help migrant workers in Quebec. At the same time, I am trying to develop the theoretical relevance of my thesis topic , which seems so far from this kind of direct, hands-on action as to be almost meaningless.

This is the burden: we know the world is a fantastically unequal place. If we have any sense of justice, we feel responsible for alleviating, in some way at least, that inequality (or guilty at participating in it). But for me, and I think for many people, this responsibility/guilt is frustrating. How to alleviate the inequality? I am not a lawyer, nor an engineer, nor even particularly skilled in much of anything. What to do? I have been wallowing in guilt so far, but this doesn’t seem very productive.

So, as part of the beginnings of a new year, I resolve to find a way to make my own community a less unequal place. If any of you know of good volunteer opportunities for the verbose but unskilled, please let me know. And to my friends who are on the world’s front lines, take heart. I am proud of you.

To my gentle readers . . .

. . if there are more than three of you. Yes, this blog is backwards. I began it as a place to publish the working paper you can read below, by chapter. But like most blogs it took on a life of its own. So, until the ever-patient and frighteningly talented flink reverses it, you will have to scroll to the bottom to read the new bits. That’s what you get when the luddite builds the blog . . .