Monday, February 13, 2017

Women in tech: lessons from other sectors

I went along to a bunch of women entrepreneur events in the summer, when I was out of work, to both kill time, meet new people and potentially help my own career.  (I pretty much had a lingering job offer that took a few weeks to formalise, which I ended up taking in any case, which I hope to be made permanent in come the new year).  Anyway, in terms of the kinds of businesses I saw pushed, I was very surprised to find myself as absolutely the only woman in a technical field, in fact aside from a couple of marketers and an accountant, the ONLY woman to not be involved in a stereotypical woman's business.


The most common business was beauty, nobody, not a soul, represented sectors such as industrial, engineering, construction or even less "male" sectors such as law.  There was one accountant.  Just one.  Nobody in IT aside from myself.  While I am inclined to agree with much of what Cindy Gallop says about female start-ups in tech being denied funding, I'm also inclined to wonder if part of the problem is because women entrepreneurs overwhelmingly jumped into traditionally female business sectors.


It does remind me also of my own original background.  I studied music and left after giving up on an MA that was going nowhere.  Despite a decent Bachelor's and a few diplomas, there was pretty much crumbs off the table in terms of work.  I found bits of work playing the organ and teaching various instruments to mostly horrible middle class kids.  It literally was the scrapings of the barrel: in one case, a job, which had it been "fulltime" in terms of teaching hours would have paid the grand sum of £7744 per annum gave me a "contract" of a one page sheet stating, "no sick pay, no holiday pay etc." In other words, you'll be paid just for the piecework, don't complain about it.  To add insult to injury, at the end of a hard 5 month slog including some mammoth commutes, I was told I could apply for my job again next term.  In other words, oh yes but we also forgot to mention you are only ever on temporary contract.


While music in those days was about 90% female at college, I was surprised to find that even the guys who repeated multiple years and failed their finals got good, often senior leadership roles in arts organisations within a few years of leaving college, as much as 25% of the women I graduated with never worked a single day in Music.  Those of us who did had awful roles like the one I describe above, where you were paid a minimal sum for glorified babysitting the children of the wealthy, frequently in schools where you were then subjected to insult by children, parents and (public sector employed) teachers alike.  When two jobs fell apart together in early 2000, I figured I'd had enough.  By that point, I think a 7-day week 30 weeks of the year plus 4-11 hours the remainder, was paying me just under the average wage of the time.  I was physically and mentally exhausted, as the Celtic tiger appeared to be running full steam ahead (and the cost of living with it).  I hadn't had a pay rise in 3 of my 5 jobs for 3 years.  Only one offered me a "redundancy": a pitiful payment of about £500 (about £100 more than what I was officially entitled to anyway).


While I do have some sympathy for those limping along in the still precarious "freelance" sectors which still plague classical music work (and which, by the way, I suspect are still largely female) I've been surprised at the extent to which formerly amateur and volunteer organisations have professionalised, and the extent to which those already in choicely roles have almost exclusively occupied the even choicer roles available in that sector.  I recently had a chance to follow up on a course I took in 1999, and was greatly saddened to hear how most of the young professionals like myself had, like me, entirely withdrawn entirely from the sector.  Unlike those in the nice roles in grant aided organisations, like myself, most came from non-private school backgrounds, from outside of the elite music education sector, and didn't have families with connections sufficient to ensure that the good jobs were all theirs.


In a sense, we were like all of those women entrepreneurs, busy cramming our time and effort into a sector already rigged against us, and unable to tackle more promising opportunities elsewhere at the time.  I realise now, that I probably wasn't the only person going on those summer courses from 1997 to 1999 paying my own course fees in the hope that maybe, just maybe, it might help me either get made permanent, get more hours, or better still, a proper full time job (or even a part time with permanency, the holy grail either way).


Funny enough, the last course I did was in 1999, and I was 90% out of the sector by the following summer.  What happened in the meantime?  Firstly there was a major change in the law, designed to "protect" part time workers by forcing employers to give us equal pay and seniority to full time.  It also ensured that contracts like the one I was forced to sign in January 1997 would no longer be valid: the law established that part time workers be entitled to pro-rata paid holiday in line with full time workers.


What happened?  The one employer who had already been giving me most of these benefits already decided that it was no longer economically feasible to continue operating my department and laid me off.  I wonder, looking back, if my friends from the Cork School of Music summer school of '99 went the same way.  Far from being "protected", I was simply let go.  Nobody mentioned that in the small print.


I started working in IT support in 2000, and shifted to Infrastructure over the next few years.  One thing I noticed was that this area stood out for 2 reasons: 1) it was largely, if not exclusively, male and 2) it didn't require any qualifications as the technologies moved too rapidly to teach such skills in formal education.  The latter quickly explained the former: men, I noticed, were ready and willing to put up a wall of pretence around their real skillsets (i.e. none), whereas women just didn't.  Men would claim to knowing "not very much" on subjects on which their knowledge was in fact zero, while women who might have in fact known quite a bit would insinuate that they too knew "not very much" which bizarrely, was interpreted as "knowing zero."  Yet, thanks to very progressive diversity programs within most of those employers, however, women did tend to scale the ladder in terms of leadership, mostly due to it being seen as a "business" rather than a "technical" skill, though many of the companies I encountered had progressive policies that encouraged women to progress.  And some of them were, frankly, just wise to the fact that so many men lied about their skills.


Of course the push to contracting 10 years later changed all of that.  Women like security.  Women like security, not just because it's nice, fluffy and safe, but because they NEED maternity leave, they need sick and holiday pay, they require surety of tenure in a job in order to provide for their families.  Curiously, a lot of men, even a lot of the men I've worked with (and many are Neanderthals who prefer to be the sole breadwinner) don't worry much about this, because they are sure of themselves enough to not worry about losing a job, even in scenarios where they are under threat.  Straight white men NEVER worry about being unable to get a mortgage, or still have a job in 6 months' time: they are usually very confident that they will.  Why?  Because of white male entitlement.  They BELIEVE themselves to be worthy because they have been taught from early on in life that the world is for them.  Women, on the other hand, both experience rejection and exclusion, and while there is no doubt that they may be at a disadvantage in male dominated industries in Tech, I am starting to wonder the Christina Somers position that the constant talk of Tech exclusion is actually scaring women away from technical roles.  At the same time, there is a level of risk demanded of professionals that is based on a male risk profile entirely: this is deeply unhelpful.


Another issue of course is that a lot of technical roles don't require special skills or qualifications, but are increasingly demanding them.  So my nemesis in two jobs, "Stinky" and "RolyPoly" wouldn't get a foot in the door nowadays because they had no qualifications, but then, neither would I.  Indeed I have often been quite upfront about the overt discrimination I've experienced in Tech on the back of having a Music bachelors.  Even now, companies boast about hiring ex musicians because somehow they feel special on account of having let such unqualified outsiders to pollute their companies!  Its rather like the mental health paradox: everybody wants to be upfront and honest about mental health at work but nobody can be because it is still believed to be an unmanageable problem.


Of course, one of the biggest problems in Tech is that we need to plan for the unknown, which means planning for unknown skillsets of the future.  We have to recognise the reality that men grossly exaggerate their skills not out of malice but because of cultural conditioning, and up skill where relevant, but more importantly, we need to have cold hard conversations with the Stinkys and RolyPolys of this world and explain to them that the skills they believe they have are not what they believe, and that they will need to up skill.  While  such fellows do tend to get "caught out" eventually, usually by the time they do they are often quite senior, making it difficult to change the paradigm.  Contracting out of labour is a pernicious enemy of this process, encouraging deception and rewarding it handsomely.  For this reason I suggest deep caution in the use of consultants and contractors.


The biggest issue, however, is the persistent male entitlement in many sectors like this - creepy male behaviour tends not to result in transparent discussion of the perpetrator, fearing either retaliation or being regarded as a "complainer" with the result that women (and its mainly women, though not exclusively) targeted by such men tend to simply move desk and avoid the perpetrator rather than openly mention it.  Even if they do, it tends to be a slow chain of behind-the-scenes talk, by that time usually the perpetrator has established himself sufficiently to be able to evade the consequences.  The kinds of behaviours I have seen are nearly always similar: "mansplaining", bad personal habits, abuse of working from home, running personal businesses on company time, excessive personal calls, using domestic matters as an excuse to absent himself from work (or demand preferential holidays at busy times), butting in to "help" with technical matters to try to establish superiority, buttering up of management and perceived senior people in order to create "boys clubs" that benefit himself, and in one case, buying unwanted gifts for colleagues.  I've noticed that these guys target women, new hires, and younger staff, anybody they perceive as having less ability to stand up to them.


Unfortunately its often left up to those who have to endure such misbehaviours to manage it.  It is up to the movers and shakers, not the victims, to end such abuses in the workplace: otherwise we'll still be having this debate in 10 years' time.

Friday, January 06, 2017

Right2Water, Apollo House, Fake News & the coming socialist utopia

In the last few months no fewer than two multiple property owners have deigned to lecture me on the evils of homelessness in Irish society.  As a person of no property, I was bemused by their hypocrisy, and explained, yes, of course, when property is the main measure of western society's personal wealth, and that wealth is deeply unevenly spread, of course, we shall have those who fall through the large gaps in the net, and find themselves without a roof over our head.

How anybody in their right mind thought Apollo House, an ugly office, long since disused , was ideal for housing many of the victims of the housing mess in Ireland, was beyond me.  Also, how did they get in?  How was electricity connected for squatters using a building they don't own?  I spent a bit of time working on a business expansion project a few years ago and our biggest problem was gaining physical access to buildings, even after leases were signed.  Somebody on the "inside" facilitated this for Apollo House - either somebody connected to the receiver, or somebody with connections to whatever security contractor was supposed to be looking after the relic.

Similarly, how is it possible to ring up an electricity company and reconnect the electricity on a commercial building you don't own?  So why did ESB reconnect the supply for a derelict site it won't get paid for supplying?  Supplies have come in the form of donations, including, donations made by commercial operators with a grudge against NAMA, the State or somebody connected to the Apollo House receivership.  There is nobody there without some axe to grind.

The mainstream media has largely colluded with their distortion of the facts - if ever there was "fake news" - this is it, ignoring the obvious problem that "HomeSweetHome" has neither the resources nor the expertise to provide an ongoing service for housing a very vulnerable group of people.

However, I think there is another issue here, and that is what this protest is really about: Right2Water's ability to appropriate a privately owned building, get access and services supplied to it, and to manipulate the media into congratulating it for doing so.  Indeed it does so on the back of decades of struggle to deal with housing problems.  This essentially shows that the state has not got the ability to protect private property against illegal appropriation.  What if an elected socialist coalition simply decides in the future to seize property for its own use?  The media will be silent.  What this protest about was testing the waters of the Irish media to ascertain its resistance to fake news.  Once upon a time there was just one website which ploughed a lonely furrow in publishing furiously hard left positions.  Not anymore.  Mainstream media like RTE and the Irish Times now proudly backslap those who meddle in the lives of really vulnerable folk with barely a whimper about its long term consequences.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Where does a liberated world actually go?

Where it SHOULDN'T go:

  • Into a self defeating hole of endless point scoring between different scores (victimhood contests)
  • Into endless bouts of depression, self-reflection and defeatist acceptance
  • Back to the past, giving in to the prejudices around race and gender that embolden demagoguery
  • Into an unwinnable street war of protest that enables steam to be let off but doesn't threaten the status quo
  • Into denial
  • Into retreat, to the safe bubbles of the very existences than encourage accusations of elitism
  • into yet another continuous rant into how cruel the whole world is and how we need to pull down Angela Merkel/Capitalism in general (because that's precisely what has fed Trumpism)

What is helpful

  • Interpersonal reflectiveness about how to listen to others (have a look at
  • Climate action - this shouldn't just stop because two major nations have abandoned its ideals (start here
  • Considering better ways to embed socially fair critiques in a way that doesn't alienate the mainstream (start with Werner Ulrich here at - his paper introducing Critical Systems Heuristic is deeply hopeful)
  • Read the obituary of the late Stafford Beer at
  • JOIN your mainstream political parties and get involved in order to prevent them from being hijacked and/or sabotaged by extreme groups, or being crushed by opposing populists.  A big part of the current political problem is that people have abandoned the left: of COURSE they have, they have endured a decade of being screamed at by fucktards like Paul Krugman and Joseph Stiglitz who have asked ordinary taxpayers in wealthy countries like the UK, US and Germany to kindly gift huge sums to places like Greece, who don't give a toss about reform and just see the EU as a great big begging bowl to dip into.  As long as we keep piling blame on the mainstream of politics, there will be a huge hunger for extremists to eat into the mainstream vote.  This is causing the collapse of the political establishment in some countries, and its hijack in others (UK and USA are the first countries where mainstream parties have been taken over by extreme groups on both sides).  We CANNOT let this continue.  We MUST have a politics that is there for everybody, and not just people who can afford to wait until the most puritanical candidate comes along.
  • Politics is neither a purification rite of victimhood, nor is it a Nietzschesque crushing of the weak.  Power is a delicate thing, to be utilised to the benefit of the maximum number of people, and not special interest groups at either end.  Folk in the middle are very quick to adopt tropes of victimhood, even where it is not entirely justified.
  • Do be careful about the media that you support, whether explicitly, by buying it, subscribing, or by reading online through advertising.  "Fake news" is a hot topic but lets be quite honest, there has been so much utter rubbish written in the mainstream press (the Guardian is particularly laughable) its unsurprising it has lost so much.  Also, the so-called mainstream press happily advances the lifestyle of conspicuous consumerism while decrying avarcise: this is plain bullshit IMO.  You cannot tell people on one hand that they need to pay more tax to cater for the needy while in parallel telling them they need to spend €1000 on their partner at Christmas.  That's precisely what feeds the sense of political abandonment Trumpism thrives on.  Populists run around my town telling wealthy home owners on 100k a year how "poor" they are.  That's bullshit.
And finally, read these words from the late Dana Meadows about the media coverage of Chernobyl.   It is surprising that somebody writing about an event 30 years ago can give so much insight into the way the media works and the biases that conceal levers of power in the media and its social role.   I'll leave you with her wise words:

The Western media are more skilled and convincing, and we are too likely to believe them without reservation. We come to think that all politicians are crooked, that every tourist will meet a terrorist, that all of Africa is starving. We lose sight of the productive workers, bumper harvests, honest public servants, and human generosity that dominate the Soviet media but are to our media just Not News.

There’s no question about which set of media I prefer. I think Americans are the best-informed people in the world, or at least they can be, if they make use of the diverse news sources available to them. But I have to keep reminding myself that the free press I respect and depend on is not unbiased. To see the world whole I have to read between the lines as the Soviets do, factoring in not cynicism, but optimism and trust, a little faith in humanity, an awareness that much of the world, much of the time, is not making news.

You're fired

I woke up in the middle of the night in the early hours of November 9th to hear, as I had increasingly started to expect a "surprise" Trump victory slowly taking place in the US.  I have to say I was neither shocked nor surprised.  I had mixed feelings about the polls that had largely showed a strong probability towards Clinton and the DNC, although I also persistently just had a feeling that things were being missed, sentiments were being lost in the hubris.  To me it seemed like a sign of deep anxiety that so many media organisations, many for the first time in history, were endorsing Mrs Clinton. 

I would say, I regard Mrs Clinton with deep respect, a hard-working stateswoman and a "safe pair of hands".  Her husband's infidelities, I feel, is her own affair, not mine.  I would regard most of the blatantly partisan attacks on her as just that: in any case, none of the ridiculous level of investigations into her alleged misuse of power have resulted in anything more than spurious rumours that don't go away, and no official actions being taken because no real wrongdoing was done.

So what were HRC's sins?  It seems, the deepest sin of all was simply the contamination of a lifetime spent in the public eye in mainstream politics, as it were, "doing the work."  The "corruption" was that of working relentlessly, quietly, without shouting hot air to broadcast what wasn't being done (and simply getting things done instead).  The cardinal sin, it seems, was having the temerity to be a woman in a man's world, bereft of the manifold excuses that permit a man to make oodles of stupid mistakes but go unpunished.  That brass neck alone, for some, anyway, seemed to be the most hotly contested "rationale" of them all against HRC.

Most of all, she wasn't an "outsider".  She belonged to the "global elite."  She wasn't even duplicitous enough, hadn't sufficient brass neck (unlike Teresa May and her banker friends, alongside Führer Trump and his British fascist buddy Nigel Farage) to deny being very fortunate indeed.  Indeed, it seems to me, perversely, that Hill was denied the top job because she told the truth, understood the limitations of her post, didn't make promises she couldn't keep, and was generally polite about her opposition, in contrast to Führer Trump's echoes of Uncle Adolf's commentaries on having a Jewish Wotan in Bayreuth in the 1920s.  HRC's sin, then, was to be too much of a "politician" whereas, the electorate, intent on electing a man with no background of actual political work, were determined to introduce a quasi-idiot and alleged racketeering rapist into the highest office.  The last laugh is that her opponent was able to repeatedly bleat about the "elite" and "rigging" of everything from the media to the election itself, despite being born into the so-called "one per cent", being a property developer (a group who do more harm to the inequity of western wealth than all the bankers, fund managers and insurers of the world combined in my opinion), a business failure and reality TV "star."  HRC's simple honesty about not being (well not now anyway) actually experiencing the harsh realities of western life somehow managed to obscure that Führer Trump never has, and never will, have to experience what it is like to actually have to "get by" on a modest earned wage.

After Hill's now notorious "deplorables" comment, I couldn't help but think the obvious, and unthinkable: is she actually right?  Have these people "done badly" in life not because of misfortune and lack of opportunity, but out of sheer stupidity?  Are they actually undeserving of success because of their rampant hatred of "the other" and propensity to blame anybody but themselves for their predicaments?

We appear blind to this in Ireland.  Yet we have suffered the consequences of populist sentiment right from the early years of the state in 1921.  By 1925 the formation of the state had begun to include the kind of socially regressive policies we became infamous for later on.  In the Senate, WB Yeats made this famous speech:

"It is perhaps the deepest political passion with this nation that North and South be united into one nation. If it ever comes that North and South unite the North will not give up any liberty which she already possesses under her constitution. You will then have to grant to another people what you refuse to grant to those within your borders. If you show that this country, Southern Ireland, is going to be governed by Catholic ideas and by [436] Catholic ideas alone, you will never get the North. You will create an impassable barrier between South and North, and you will pass more and more Catholic laws, while the North will, gradually, assimilate its divorce and other laws to those of England. You will put a wedge into the midst of this nation. I do not think this House has ever made a more serious decision than the decision which, I believe, it is about to make on this question. You will not get the North if you impose on the minority what the minority consider to be oppressive legislation. I have no doubt whatever that in the next few years the minority will make it perfectly plain that it does consider it exceedingly oppressive legislation to deprive it of rights which it has held since the 17th century. These rights were won by the labours of John Milton and other great men, and won after strife, which is a famous part of the history of the Protestant people."

There are basically two narratives going around now about "why" HRC lost (i.e. 1. that there are millions of bigots with a vote and 2. we didn't listen sufficiently to white working class suffering), and really they've lost the obvious element: Trump, a disaster from day one, drove expectations around his own performance so low that the almost disbelieving media was generally kind to his bumbling, idiotic, if dark and menacing, methodology.  As a result he pretty much could say whatever he liked, enabling him to draw "unconventional" support from undesirable sources such as racists, misogynists, heterosexists, boring middle class conservatives, pro-lifers, evangelicals, homophobes, conspiracy theorists, anti-Vaxxers, climate sceptics, gamers, the "uneducated" - basically most of those baulked at by polite society.  Unfortunately for polite society, by the time you tot up all of these groups (not all of who cross over) they make up a large if unruly constituency. A constituency who were hungering for a champion of change, which they found in the unlikely arms of Trump.  HRC was simply too much part of the furniture to be a believable agent of change.

Add to this the pernicious revenge of Julian Assange's Wikileaks and a delighted Russian meddler, and you can see how the mainstream media struggled to portray fact from fiction, extrapolate myths and rumours, and handle the difficult environment.  The persistent criticism of Obama and HRC for not being radical enough from the left did not help.  Now its laughable to see Dr Angela Merkel receiving the sainthood award as the last bastion of democracy when Celebrity Economists such as Joseph Stiglitz and Paul Krugman have been vilifying her for the last 8 years.

The big lesson is that you cannot have it both ways.  Liberalism has to be about building coalitions, reaching out across difference, and not silencing inconvenient voices.  The penalty will be very dear for the minorities who will now have the full force of the backlash unleashed upon them, and it will fall disproportionately hard on them.  It might be late for the US and UK, but it might not be too late to avoid another race to the bottom to attempt to find the most puritanically perfect candidates to challenge the GOP and Trumpism, and if the rest of the world continues to fall, the alliances built between the hard-line populists may be much more difficult to dislodge.

Monday, October 24, 2016

Opera in Ireland - lets stop the whinging

I finally snapped after reading the latest whinging letter in the Irish Times today bemoaning the lack of opera in Dublin.  We don't have much opera in Dublin, simply, because audiences do not support what is there.  I'm writing a fuller post, and have sent a letter to the Times, entitled "where has all the opera audience gone?" but here is a quick summary of what the real issues are, and they are not merely funding issues:

1. Audience attendance is middling.  Small productions in small venues sell extremely well, but larger venues such as the Gaiety and Bord Gais Energy Theatre are often spotty and poorly attended.  This goes for both local companies (Lyric, OTC and Wide Open Opera) and visiting companies.  THE BGE resorts to group ticket discounting in order to stem the tide.  The NCH struggles also with both semi staged, concert performances and even recitals of good international artists are poorly - sometimes very poorly - attended.  As a result box office receipts are very poor, a situation exacerbated by low ticket prices relative to international houses in Europe.  We cannot expect the tax payer to take the place of a paying audience.

2. Capital and operational costs are skyrocketing for Dublin based companies due to the sheer cost of doing business in Dublin.  This could be offset by giving performing arts groups similar access to Local Enterprise schemes offering low cost space for start-ups.  More assistance could be made available to performers who are self employed in order to improve what are probably quite modest incomes.

3. A few years ago one of the colleges in Dublin started a course in Operatic Studies despite there being no full time operatic sector in any part of Ireland.  What other discipline would get away with running educational courses for sectors which do not exist in this country?  Students are being effectively educated for export.

4. One of the most frustrating aspects of this debate is its Dublin-centric focus.  Arts funding needs to be shared outside of Dublin and yes, to more "popular" segments that might attract a bigger audience.  It is no surprise that the only viable, feasible sector in Irish opera has been Wexford Festival.  Arts funding is about all of Ireland, not just Dublin, and multiple subsectors and other arts disciplines, not just opera.

5. Other subsectors of classical arts "enjoy" even worse funding than opera: ballet, orchestral and choral groups get no greater share of limited funding, and are often largely self-financed.
Music education outside of the core institutions in Dublin and Cork receive little, if any funding from the state.  Tutors live precarious existences on contracts not dissimilar to "sharing economy" subcontractors: and have done so for decades before Deliveroo or Uber existed.  Audience expansion unfortunately seems to be persistently seen as the job of educators, eliminating a large demographic who are outside of the major cities or are weakly networked.

6. Comparisons to sports are laughable yet persist.  This is a perception particular to Dublin, where sports spectators and participants are more dissociated from classical arts.  (This is not the case outside of Dublin: spectators of Munster rugby enjoy choruses from opera on the field before games by the Supporters Club Choir, something you would never see in Dublin).  Even the risible attendances at FAI league of Ireland games often far exceed attendances at classical music events.  Sports has its own issues which it does not demand the taxpayer bankroll when attendances are poor.

7. And finally, audience management is absolutely risible.  Aside from well managed events such as the festivals in Wexford and Kilkenny, there seems little effort to get paying customers into auditoriums.  Ticket prices have been largely static for many years, yet a huge proportion of, for example, NCH RTE NSO subscription concert audiences are now increasingly recipients of the thick bundle of complimentary tickets distributed shamefully at a huge stand in the foyer of the NCH.  This is a disgrace, given the already heavy subsidy of the RTE orchestral groups by license fees and other RTE activities.

Frankly, the current whine of "not enough opera" (which really translates as "not enough money for opera") doesn't grasp fundamental issues about audience support in Dublin (and Ireland: Ireland is NOT just Dublin - this is a national issue).  It is not propelling the issue forward, and like a lot of "give me back my sweeties" simply demands a return to Celtic tiger style profligate spending without dealing with core underlying systems problems.   I will personally buy an annual Phoenix subscription to any of the letter writers who wish to contact me at where they can read all of the criticisms of the "Bernadette Gravytrain", John O Connor's embarrassing abuse of public funding at the RIAM and Opera Ireland's sheer waste.  If classical arts in Ireland are to thrive, they will only do so through a combination of organic growth and grassroots promotion.  We can't just demand money to throw on half-empty auditoria, not now.

Monday, October 03, 2016

The Etiquette of "Ghosting": couldn't we all just, well, talk?

I am increasingly finally hearing a word for the phenomena that has existed online since I started using tinernet in 1994: "ghosting."  This is where you enthusiastically communicate with somebody online (it used to be IRC or various chat services, now its mostly social media) then quite suddenly they disappear.  You are unfollowed, defriended, maybe blocked, phone calls unanswered (or changing numbers).  The person literally "disappears".  Congratulations, you've been "ghosted."

That said, with an increasing number of people multi-purposing their social media accounts for business purposes, boundaries often get blurred.  A few incidents highlight the problem of using social media for many different purposes, and especially using the same account.  One acquaintance, a slightly controversial writer and relative of somebody who has recently been subjected to some of the worst online abuse I've ever seen, disappeared off social media for quite some time after finally giving up on the snideness.  Since we'd never actually met, I didn't have a direct contact, though I'm still in touch with her amazingly resilient relation.  Though not true "ghosting" as the Americans call it, her disappearance left a gap in the lives she touched online.  I was delighted when she eventually appeared again, it showed that it is actually possible to miss folk whose presence in your life is largely or entirely mediated by technology.

Another friend, whom I have had the odd pint in London when over, has been through a few dreadful years over an online abuse case she lost, which though not as obvious as the cases of some of the other celebrity abusers, makes you wonder who was really wronged.  Either way, the interpretation of the law in England comes down viciously on the side of the accusers, and appears to disregard physical distance when considering online abuse.  This has created a dangerous precedent of many folk being charged for making threats verbally in online recorded forms, or even, in the case of my friend, repeatedly referencing somebody who didn't want to hear from her and equating it with physical stalking.  This has created a dangerously manipulable online ecology where abuse is in the eye of the beholder: powerful interests can seek to silence criticisms as "abusive" through accusations of online abuse.  The impact on her life has been truly dreadful, far worse than somebody criticising a book or theory could ever be.

Then I was rather saddened to find that a couple of folk I regarded as distant friends, but friends nonetheless, having met a couple of times, just randomly defriended me, leaving an awkward trail of connections through other services, which was actually quite difficult to know what to do about.  There is a certain etiquette about social media defriending I find, that depends on really what the offline nature is.  If its somebody you've never met in your life, and to whom there is no real connection, well then its fine to disconnect, but selectively doing so on just one service while leaving them connected on others?  The message this sends is ill-considered, to say the least, and probably says much more about those carrying out the actions.  So you took the trouble to drag through your friend list and "punish" your acquaintance by defriending?  But you think you are still being "nice" by neither blocking them, and staying connected elsewhere?  Or is that simply a provocation to "prove" how dreadful they are by hoping they'll retaliate by blocking you?  Or have you not really thought it through, and just forgotten?  Given that social media is, well, social - couldn't you just, well, talk?

Thoughts on OTC's Don Giovanni...

Firstly, a lot of publicity went into Roddy Doyle doing the libretto for the translation for this.  I'm not sure how exactly this worked: I don't know if Doyle is a fluent Italian speaker, and I'm sure there's already numerous English variants around for the likes of ENO and smaller English houses.  (OTC have in the past worked with small English festivals with similar interests sharing resources).  This added a level of expectation around the production itself, inevitable, since Doyle largely writes not merely about Dublin, but a north side working class Dublin which itself is established enough to have many stereotypical tropes.

Secondly - and I think this was key - the production was placed in the Dublin Theatre Festival which vastly changed the audience.  The Dublin performance were in the Gaiety (much more friendly an opera venue than most).  Cork audiences have even more luck: two performances in the Cork Opera house.  This enables a full orchestra, and OTC have partnered with RTE for use of the Concert orchestra.  This makes a change from the small forces OTC make do with and potential for bigger audiences.

This made this OTC production both unpredictable and tantalising.  OTC was taken over at the top level by Rosemary Collier about 3 years ago (who'd come from a glorious run at Kilkenny Festival) and quickly appointed Fergus Shiel as musical director.  Both were contemporaries of mine at TCD, and I think its fair to say that Shiel in particular was 20 years ahead of the current trend of entrepreneurial musicians: I recall him setting up the TCD Chamber Orchestra to have something to conduct.  His work since then has been eclectic: from Scottish Opera to the Crash Ensemble and many others.  His direction is finely tuned and supportive.  Sometimes I felt tempi were slightly sluggish but on the whole the pace kept up.

Where OTC excelled was in its casting: a gold-plated Donna Elvira from Munich-based Tara Erraught (with chieselingly perfect English diction that meant you didn't need the provided surtitles), Alexander Sprague as Don Ottavio, Máire Flavin’s Donna Anna, and John Molloy's roguish Leporello.  The male chorus at the close was underwhelming: I would have put the men on stage, if only to incite more power against the RTECO force, which was at that point in competition with the small chorus.  The Commendatore also struggled to be heard at this point.
That aside, much of the singing was great.  While its easy to pick out the now very experienced Erraught, the others did a solid job.  What Doyle particularly excelled at was in the recitatives: his sometimes wordy Dublin slang sometimes tripped up in repeated arias, but the recits flowed, despite use of local phraseology such as "kick on the arse", "I'm legging it", "stupid slapper" and "you desperate eejit."  These brought plenty of guffaws from the packed audience, but I was left feeling that Don Giovanni is not a comedy, and Doyle egged it rather a lot this way.  Perhaps that is more the fault of others, but it remains fair to say that worldwide opera goers might not be willing to accept.
The production itself, was, as a result, dictated by the libretto: as it very much relocated the opera to modern urban Dublin, Giovanni effectively became a Dublin "businessman" - or perhaps one of those amorphous figures who uses the term to cover less licit activities.  It wasn't, however, clear what it was Giovanni actually does.  The 2nd Act opened onto a quite clear representation of Glasnevin pub "The Gravediggers", which I presume is supposed to lead into the penultimate scene where the Don is dragged to hell.  In practice it was unclear why exactly we were at the Gravediggers, aside from the plot device of introducing Zerlina and Masetto.

Another plot flaw was that Donna Anna spent most of the opera in a ball gown, for no particular reason.  It was unclear whom her father was, or what role he played, and difficult for an unfamiliar audience to link the Commendatore at the end back to the man shot by Giovanni at the outset.
Another peculiarity was the sleazy backdrop which provided a set and occasionally turned into a nightclub (which was clear).  Yet most of the quasi pornographic imagery was homoerotic and had little to with the lascivious Don's womanising.  This didn't really work.  However, the slightly tarty dress for Donna Elvira did.  It didn't make huge sense that the other women in the opera wore demure ball gowns throughout.  However, these were more plot failures than libretto.
Overall, I do think its the best thing OTC have done for years, albeit from a low bar.  It did show what could be done with a decent budget and more innovative planning from the small company and the potential for audience numbers in the event.

What I did, however, note, was that this is probably the first time in years (if not ever) that I've gone to an opera staging in Ireland that was actually a full house.  I think its fair to say that the demise of the Gaiety as a venue for opera has not been matched by equal numbers at the BGE Theatre (which holds 2.5 times the capacity, but records dismal sales for opera, even for heavily hyped events).  It really does call for planners to look more carefully at where/when they play, and to try to share and reuse existing resources: one of the biggest flaws of OTC in recent years was weak accompaniments, resulting in impoverished representations.  Re-use of orchestras from other organisations can maximise resources from a small cost base to be shared among multiple small companies.  This can, and should include the upper tier of semi-professional and student ensembles.  More careful choices of venues and associations with festivals has definitely been a scoring point in recent years: it was very obvious to me that last nights audience was more of a "theatrical" audience than a classical audience.  While this may cause a loss of a more traditional classical audience, it has worked in this instance.  I definitely think the 800 or so folk who packed the Gaiety solid had a good night out, and this is an achievement that should lead to better things for OTC.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Karma: or the great de-friending of 2008

In 2008, after the 3rd or 4th iteration of a scenario that had plagued me since 1999, I made an executive decision to cut a whole bunch of people out of my life.  Trim the little black book.  Make a harsh cut.
Most had my phone number, but by this point, only 3 of the group called with any great regularity.  Basically, it went right back to my huge drinking binge which started in August 1999 and went on for 8 months.  I collected a bunch of cronies, and hangers-on, and they, well, to use a systems concept, self-organise.

It started with one person who'd actually just done something pretty wrong.  Blocked on MSN messenger, disconnect on Facebook.  And well, it continued from there - I didn't stop, but cut off 2 of the drinking buddies in Dublin who, to cut a long story short, I really felt I had nothing in common with.  Well, it started with one person, and then I realised the other person was her friend really, so she had to go through .... slashed.  Or so I thought . . .

I remember going up to a friends house in Carrigbiste for the weekend to mind her cat, where reception was poor, having cut the chord before leaving the city, but by then at least one had noticed my defriending (HOW!!!? I thought: you've at least 1000+ friends?) and the phone calls started.  One from the original friend who had actually just done something quite, well, unfair, and the other, who had nothing to do with the whole thing (the one with 1000+ friends).  Oh no....

I had missed something that should have been entirely obvious to me: people take these systems very seriously.  Even people you find really annoying.  We all use these things for entirely different reasons, and so the response to a change in circumstances (or the delivery of the snub of de-friending) can be taken very personally, partly because it is impossible to conceal the fact that it is both deliberate and targeted.  If you're going to cut the chord on one, the only diplomatic way to do it is to do it to everyone.  Or at least deliver a proper message with it: not just the passive-aggressive jab of disconnecting on social media.  If this is somebody you actually know outside of the internet, and even if its not, its probably at least common decency to tell them what it is that has driven you to this.  If you are ultimately, being an asshole, well, so that might be, but cutting somebody off while having common friends delivers a massive snub that isn't forgotten, and hurts a lot.

In fact, so much so, that the bad feeling I generated was still in place circa 2011.  I was up in a club night at Powerscourt Centre, and started talking to the group when suddenly I realised the other one I'd defriend was standing up pugliciously and staring at me.  Next thing I knew, I was being snarled at and roared at.  Right she was clearly drunk or off her face, and those who didn't know me were so embarrassed they came up later and apologised.  I knew why, and to be honest, it was really upsetting.

Here's the thing though. To paraphrase Maya Angelou: people don't forget how you made them feel, especially if something you did made them feel awful.  Had I simply allowed all of those dying friendships to slip away into the mists of time, without actually doing anything, it would never have had lasting consequences.  I realise, looking back, that there were things I could have done, circa 2002, to discourage one of their bad habits of simply inviting herself everywhere.  I did the wrong thing by passive-aggressively inviting her along on the basis that she would turn up anyway.  It wasn't kind: it sent a wrong message about how I valued that relationship.  I didn't.

I think now, looking back, you don't really think about these things until after you've done them, and by then, the harm is done.  Its one thing if you've had a major row, or something has happened that means you both need a break, but quite suddenly selectively disconnecting people is cowardly.
So when recently, it happened to me, and I spotted it straight away, I realised how bewildered my former "friends" might have felt, and how hurt they probably were.  No wonder the anger was palpable 3 years later: they hadn't done anything, didn't know that, and had no way of knowing that.  Looking back, was it blame?  Yes.  Was it targeted insult?  Yes.  Was I wrong?  Probably.  I should never have allowed them to get so close in the first place.  I didn't draw appropriate boundaries, and inevitably, they broached every one.  Was that my fault?  Partly, yes.

We live in deeply tribal worlds, and social media is very much part of the "real world."  It is not a virtual world where people can be adopted and dropped like a Tamogochi.  They will be just as hurt as they would be if you snubbed them in person, if not more.  The answer, to be honest, is to layer your social media in such a way that you don't end up with no "inner circle" which is limited to people you really do want in your life.  If you don't do that, then you end up deserving the flood of lunacy that social media will inflict on you.

Most importantly, remember that the most important feature of social media is communication: if you are linked to somebody on a network, and you cannot be open with them about something you found offensive, then why are you linked on that network at all?

People do turn up again.  The world is a much smaller place now, and actions like this have palpable consequences.  I find myself avoiding certain places like the plague: for example I totally dropped out of Running Amach after my former cronies all joined en masse.  I was really annoyed but to be honest, I brought that on myself.  If you are going to dump an individual or group socially you better be willing to deal with running into them again later on.  Also, I should have massively turned down the volume on the pair of them on Facebook.  By going to the trouble of wading through my Friends list, and picking them out for defriending, I implied they had done something to derserve that, when really, they had not.  That I found myself still paying for that, 3 years later, in retrospect, is not surprising.

That's why I suggest being vigilant before you let people get too close.  I have a simple rule with Facebook: no friends you wouldn't give your mobile phone number to.  If you don't know them personally, let them at least be a friend of an existing friend, or somebody you've engaged with extensively on other networks.  Or maybe a former classmate or someone you've a big shared interest with.  These often turn out to become great friends.  But don't think that you can quietly turn off the link without somebody becoming upset about it.  They will be deeply, bitterly hurt, and possibly quite angry and offended.  If its just irritation or awkwardness, like my situation, its up to you to establish why you're cutting the cord.  But don't do so unless you are prepared to deal with the consequences, because there are good odds consequences there will be, even if you are fortunate enough to be banishing somebody mature and understanding.  I do believe there is such a thing as karma, and brutality you deliver, always comes back your way and "virtual" does not mean "free of malice".

And you know, looking back, was I right or wrong?  I don't know.  They tolerated a fair bit of angry drunkeness over the years.  They tolerated breakups, partners who wouldn't let me talk to them, mutual friends who then fell out with everyone.  I wasn't exactly a great friend myself.  They tolerated me, and I rejected them.  Then I rubbed salt in the wound by picking them off my social media lists.

Its no wonder then, I got that earful of abuse in 2011, and for this I still pay a price.  I left Running Amach the moment I spotted they'd all joined, en masse.  I couldn't go out for fear of them all turning up and things turning ugly after a lot of alcohol.  A couple of years ago I went out to a pride event and spent the whole night bypassing the corner where I'd spotted some of them.
I realise that while there was a need for a hiatus in the network of relationships, I effectively inflicted blame on them on a set of patterns and scenarios I'd effectively allowed to centre around myself.  I still pay for that now: these days I just go out with a couple of people I know and trust well.  My peace of mind was achieved but it came at a cost.

So next time you feel your temper and patience fraying, and your forefinger hovering over the block or disconnect button, think again.  If you are on Twitter, you can mute the person.  If its Facebook, unfollow them first, place them in the "Restricted Friends" group if they really bother you, only sever a relationship if it genuinely is a problem, if they are  really genuinely harrassing you.

Liking your posts, by the way, isn't harrassment.  Posting annoying little amorous messages, as I recently had from an online contact, is annoying, but ultimately harmless.  (Attempting to invite themselves over to stay with me was starting to push a boundary but straddling it. Its not a crime to like somebody a bit too much.)  If you've any kind of public profile, either realise you're going to be inundated with people liking you, and have a proper strategy for that.  Don't fall into the trap of allowing your personal account to merge with your professional online presence.  What you say WILL drift off into the world.  Your every gripe might as well be public announcement.  It might be time to get your agent to setup a website and a Facebook group for yourself.  (If you do this, after having several 1000 anonymous "friends" announce you are splitting off your account by the way - PantiBliss did this beautifully on Facebook a few years back.  He simply explained that he had hit the 5000 friend limit and was moving to a page, so don't be offended.  It worked).

Now don't get me wrong.  A periodic cull isn't a bad thing.  But if you've been interacting with somebody for 4 or 5 years, you'll hurt their feelings.  Be careful how you do these things, because, there is such a thing as karma, and as they say, what goes around comes around.

Friday, December 11, 2015

I'm fine, and you are too

Just a quick note to everybody who actually bothers reading this (thank you for your time and attention, whoever you are), that I'm ok.  My social media hiatus is now on it's 8th day, and frankly, I'm keeping it going for at least another week, if not longer and probably will entirely change how I use social media after that, when I do return.

I realise two things:
1) An awful lot of people linger under the false notion that what happens online is not "real" and therefore inconsequential.  No matter how much you understand this is not the case, it is still possible to fall into the trap of forgetting that well, there is no hiding online and increasingly less room for ambiguity.  This colours an awful lot of what goes on via social media, especially in a world where a lot of folk still linger under the illusion that they can "manage" their own self-image online towards others.
2) Otherwise there is a hell of a lot going on in our heads that is just in our heads.  We are incapable of reading each others minds, detecting agendas, rationales, etc.  We tell ourselves stories to suit our identities, beliefs and desires.  This often conflicts with the stories others, similarly, compose for themsevles.  This leads to a lot of misunderstanding and unecessary conflict.

A lot of what I'm working on at the moment is about item 2.  (Honestly, I'm not in trouble or anything, something seemingly very small happened online that triggered very deep hurt.  That's all I'm going to say about it).  Its requiring a lot of silence of different kinds, and a lot of reflective space.  I will be back soon, I promise, and will be dropping the odd blogpost to remind you that yes - I'm fine!