Sandy speaks on matters of life and mirth.
Monkeys are seldom present.

Monday, July 26, 2010

A Memory

I sat in the back of the car, and I watched as my mother-in-law slipped a sweet out of the bag. Something caught at my memory, and I frowned. I recognised the packaging - the red Bassett's logo, the green text... the way the wrapper curled around at the edges - even the sound the hard pastille made as it was unwrapped. I tilted my head, and I knew immediately what it would taste like, what the texture would feel like, pressed against the inside of my cheek - the raised dots rubbing against it, the sugar inside teased out, causing a kind of numbness. I took one, and as if in a half-remembered dream, I pulled the two ends gently, slid the hard pastille out of the crinkled wrapping.

I put the Sherbet Lemon in my mouth, and I remembered.

I was twelve, maybe thirteen, and I wrote for the school newspaper. We were a tiny prep school, barely 170 pupils, and so the scope of the articles wasn't particularly grand - an expose on the removal of chocolate splodge pudding here, an appeal for the older boys to be allowed to sit on chairs at assemblies there - hardly Watergate, but we got by. The newspaper was 10p, and I remember that we used to give away a sherbet lemon with each one - it was an early exposure to 'value-added' marketing. We never sold many newspapers - even fewer when I became editor, but we got by, and given that parents print-shop published the newspaper, there were never any costs to cover. What little money we made went to sponsor a young boy in Africa somewhere. His name was Issa, and he used to send us letters. I wish I knew what happened to him. The newspaper was short-lived, and didn't survive my leaving the school, but for a while, it was important. I hadn't thought of it in years - The Chorister News. I wish I still had a copy.

It was an unimportant memory, but it was a good one. Sometimes, that's all that matters.

Monday, July 05, 2010

Dear Mr Gove, Thank You for Devaluing My Education

So I saw this today, and it kind of frustrated me. I've become used to the standard stories every July and August of how A-levels are too easy, how they don't really mean anything any more, and how the youth of today are probably stupider than previous generations. These stories, of course, come out just when students are receiving their results, so that, at the moment when they should feel proudest of themselves, they are told that their achievements should carry an asterisk.

So when I read that Michael Gove wants to change to A-Level systems, I figured it was just another July "Exams? You were lucky! When I were a lad..." kind of story, and was ready to dismiss it. On further reading though, I became intrigued:
[Gove] said he wanted to switch emphasis back to examinations taken at the end of two years of study in order to revive "the art of deep thought".

Really Michael? The art of Deep Thought? Now I have no idea what that phrase means, but I'm guessing you want it to mean 'students being able to write long essays in three hour exams potentially two years after they studied the topic the question is about'. Which to me, seems a little silly.

Regular examinations encourage you to stay on top of your learning. Modular exams allow you to focus on one topic at a time, and thus to study it in more depth. One exam at the end of two years encourages you to kick back and do nothing for those years, and then cram in a mad panic. Of course, if that's what you mean by Deep Thought, I suppose that's fine.

But hang on, Mr Gove says:
"We need to ensure that the knowledge expected of A-level students is such that they can hit the ground running (at university) and they don't need, as some have suggested, four-year courses or catch-up tuition"
His argument is that we should make A-Levels more like university exams, so that people are more prepared for university. That makes sense I suppose... until you realise that universities have exams at the end of every year, not every two! Added to the fact that many universities are moving to, yes, a modular system, and you start to wonder whether Mr Gove knows what on Earth he is talking about. Where are these universities that have two years between exams?

Oh, I see. Well, good to know where our priorities lie, right?

Sunday, June 27, 2010

An Angry Rant About The England Football Team

You know how I'm usually the person who calls for restraint and to give managers time? The one who says that managers get to much blame for poor performances? Not this time. Fabio needs to go - ridiculous starting elevens (Heskey up-front next to Rooney... twice. Upson when Carragher was available, Ledley King who clearly wasn't going to last ninety minutes), ridiculous substitutions (WHY was Gareth Barry, a defensive midfielder, still on the pitch when we were two goals down? And then Heskey... for DEFOE? And why the hell was Milner taken off?); ridiculous over-loyalty to players (Rooney and Lampard played every minute of every game, and were pathetic); ridiculous formations (remember Rooney in left midfield in the the USA game?); and to top it all off, ridiculously poor performances from supposedly elite players in the biggest competition they will ever play in.

 I don't care how much it costs, we need to start over - let's get a manager with proven international credentials (Guus Hiddink?) and tell him to start with a blank slate - no-one is an automatic selection any more. We should pick our best player (probably Rooney, although you'd never know it from this tournament) and build the whole team around him - players are only selected based on their ability to help Rooney score goals. Either that, or go with my previous idea of using the team that wins the Championship that year. 

OK, Rant over. No, wait, no it isn't! Have you heard all the England players? They're blaming the no-goal, and saying that the scoreline doesn't reflect the tempo of the game. Why are they being allowed to get away with this? The team played crap, and they LOST BY THREE GOALS, not one! Fabio should be doing a Marcello Lippi and apologising. The scary thing is, Germany weren't even that good - we gifted them at least three of their goals. Argentina could probably have scored seven or eight. It's time to start again. We may not be the best footballing nation on Earth, but we're better than THAT.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

David Cameron's Arm Longer Than Previously Advertised

Sunday, May 09, 2010

A Short Explanation of Why British Politics is Messed Up

So I was speaking to an American friend, who was asking why electoral reform was so important, and what was wrong with the system that we had. I came up with this example as the best way of explaining it:

Imagine you live on a desert island. (Not like the one on Lost - this one doesn't have a make-up department) On the island with you are 99 other people. You decide that, in order to survive, you will need a group of ten people to be in charge, with one of those people further selected to be the Chief. So, you have an election, right? Everyone votes once for their preferred candidate, and the five people with the most votes get to be the ruling council, and the one with the highest vote total gets to be chief. This makes sense to everyone, and is very simple to organise.

The British electoral system is NOTHING like this.

Let us return to our island. Imagine, if you will, that we are having our election once more. Only this time, instead of having 100 inhabitants, there are 1000. So, let us expand our number of representatives to 100. Now, we have a problem - 100 people are unlikely to be able to reach a consensus through discussion alone, and so we introduce a system of voting - if a representative likes an idea, they vote yes, if they don't, they vote no. An idea requires more 'yes' votes than 'no' votes to be passed. The representatives are still voted for by the population, with the 100 people getting the most votes getting to be representatives, and once more, the person who has the highest vote total gets to be Chief.

The British electoral system is A BIT like this.

Once more, back to the island. We still have our thousand voters, our hundred representatives, but now, the people are spread out a bit, and so the representatives are assigned to a specific geographical location. The people who live round the waterhole get to vote for one representative, the people who live on the beach get to vote for one representative, and so on. The Chief is decided by all the representatives getting one vote for who among them they would like to be in charge.

The British electoral system is KIND OF like this.

For the last time, we return to the island. This time, the areas that elect a representative are all different sizes, with the largest comprising five times as many people as the smallest. People who don't subscribe to one of three sets of largely interchangeable sets of values have no chance of becoming representatives. When, inevitably, someone from 'The Big Three' is chosen as a representative, their ability to disagree with the other people who say they hold those values is almost non-existent, reducing them to little more than puppets. The three value sets, despite being broadly similar, are so antagonistic towards one another that any idea proposed by anyone will only be agreed upon if the people who came up with it have more representatives than anyone else, and so are able to force it through. Any discussion is treated more as an opportunity to score points off other people, so much so that the second largest group of representatives has the official title of 'The Opposition'. Oh, and the chief? The leader of the biggest value set gets to be Chief... no matter how many votes he got, regardless of what the population of the island think of him.

The British electoral system is EXACTLY like this.

Except that we don't live on a desert island. It rains. All the time.

Now do you understand why we need electoral reform?

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Thank Goodness I'm Never Miked

So this story really bugged me.

Basically, Gordon Brown spoke to a woman briefly on camera, and then got into a car, and got frustrated about his inability to answer the woman's questions succinctly. He made a few remarks, including calling her a 'bigoted woman'. Unbeknownst to him, his microphone was still on, and the Sky news crew decided to broadcast it, and play it to the woman in question.

I'm not going to talk about my views on the Prime Minister, but I promise you that who I'm going to vote for has nothing to do with my opinion on this incident, which put briefly, is this: this was a low-down dirty trick by Sky News that was all about sensationalism and nothing about journalism. The clip should never have been broadcast.

Gordon Brown was having a private conversation about a woman he had met for all of thirty seconds, with close advisors. I work at a High School, and I have said plenty of things about the kids that I work with which, if played to their parents, would cause me to have to do a heap of explaining. Do I always mean them? No. Usually, they're said in the heat of the moment, and there is a reason the conversation is private. Sky News invaded Gordon Brown's privacy, and they should be apologising profusely themselves.

How does playing this clip serve the country's best interests? How does it do anything but cause scandal and gossip about an incident that frankly, doesn't matter. I'm sure David Cameron and Nick Clegg have said things just as bad in private, and I think they should have a right to.

To put it simply, I'm pissed off that this is the level that our newscasters have lowered themselves to. Shame on you, Sky News.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Things I Remember From Growing Up in the Nineties - The Sodastream

Get Busy With the Fizzy

This may have been the coolest thing ever when I was growing up. I tried to explain the concept of having a machine that could make fizzy drinks to the teenagers that I teach - they just didn't really get it. "But you could have all different flavours!" I argued. "And it cost significantly less than buying bottles of the stuff!" They looked at me blankly. "You could also choose how concentrated you made each drink!"

In desperation, I showed them this advert. It didn't help.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

To A Volcano

Nature looked up, and saw,

That we were all taking her just a little bit for granted.
"I've put up with it for years." She said,
"And frankly I've got bored.
"You people need to understand that I placed you here.
I provided you with food.
And water.
I gave you things to build your houses with.
And animals to marvel at.
And all you care about is getting from Place A to Place B as quickly as possible.
I don't know why. I made Place B, you know - it's just as dull as A."

And Nature looked at the planes, belching their way across the sky,
Filling her eyes with smoke,
And staining her new white dress until it was
Quite, quite brown.
And Nature said. "That's enough of that."
So Nature opened her window, and threw out the contents of her chamber pot.

And all the planes were grounded.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

The Other Type of SMS

OK, So the other day I posted about advertising, and mentioned this article about women in advertising as being a springboard for the post. I realise now that this gave the impression that I was writing a response, or tackling the same issues as she was. In all honesty, the post was not designed as a response to Alex's - I try to leave commentary on 'women's issues' to her because she says the same things I would, only better - but more of a cataloguing of interesting things I have noticed about adverts, with a couple of trite and not particularly well thought through paragraphs about sexuality on the TV screen tacked on the end.

This one, however is a response, and does address the same issues, hopefully in a bit more depth. Well, similar issues, anyway. I know less about a narrow image of beauty in print ads, so I'm going to talk about presentation and objectification of women on television instead, because as we all know, I do watch a lot of television.

Before we begin, however, I'd like to quickly some up with a useful catch-all term that I can use instead of continually reusing phrases like 'objectifying women', 'sexist behaviour', 'characters who exhibit chauvinistic attitudes', 'promoting an unrealistic expectation of beauty' and suchlike. Let's just lump all of these (and many others) under the phrase Sexist Misogynistic Shit, or SMS for short. The categorising of what makes material SMS follows the old rule about pornography - it's hard to define, but you know it when you see it.

So, those three prologues out the way, let's talk about SMS in advertising. Why does it happen? Well, as I intimated earlier, it works. This is not really something that we can argue with, and thus in a discussion based on pure efficiency, SMS is clearly a tool that should be used as often as possible. So, that's settled why it is used - advertising is the ultimate capitalist idea - it's sole purpose is to sell things, and if SMS works, then it will be used. Those of us who oppose it therefore, must look to legislation and guidelines such as those mentioned in GT's post to curb the use of such tactics, rather than reason. If the legislation passes, fantastic, we no longer have adverts that contain SMS. Job done.

Except that it isn't. Because yes, we've treated the symptom, but we haven't even touched the cause. While it can be argued that removing these adverts from TV will avoid young women being exposed to them and thus allow them to develop a more positive self-concept, and young men not to be pushed towards objectification of women, SMS still surrounds us. So the legislation that has been mentioned is amazing, but it can only be a first step.

An example of SMS surrounding us can be seen in movies. The award-winning movies, the great movies, those tend not to be SMS, but they're only a small number. Off the top of my head I'm sure we can all think of several movie adverts that we have seen just in the last few days for movies that will make millions at the box-office that are based on SMS (The most recent example I can think of is the trailer currently running on UK TV for 'Extract'). The same ideas apply here, although in perhaps a less directly commercial way. The easiest way for a bad movie to make lots of money is for it to contain an attractive women disrobing (see 'Wild Things'). The second easiest way is to fill it with ridiculously attractive women becoming more attractive and snagging attractive men who are attracted to them because of their sheer attractiveness.

So, can we apply this guidelines and legislation further to all types of media? And if we can, should we? Is there a way that as well as discouraging SMS, we can also promote positive content? Is it possible to change a culture so that SMS is not the easiest way to higher profits and greater returns from the box office?

It seems a bit of a cop-out to end with so many questions, but unfortunately I don't have any answers. Let's hope someone does

Friday, April 16, 2010

If You Buy This Toothpaste, Your Life Will Be Better

So Alex over at Galactic Teabag recently wrote a post about presentation of women in adverts. I won't quote the whole article here, but the cut and thrust of it was that there should be more honest and positive presentation of women and girls, which is an idea that we can all get behind. However, it got me thinking about a number of other issues that I was going to leave as a gigantacomment, but I thought worked better as a blog post in its own right.

Advertising as a whole is endemic to our society. It's not going away, no matter what the recession does, and so it is something that must be coped with, rather than ignored. There are a million different forms of advertising, but for the purposes of this post, I'm going to look at TV ads.

As far as I can tell there are 3 main types of ads aimed at adults:

Tangential - These are adverts that don't necessarily talk about the product in the slightest, but make us feel good about the advert, and thus fell good about the product. They can do this either through taking our breath away (the bouncing balls Sony Bravia advert almost single-handedly kick-started this trend) or making us laugh (Compare the Meerkat, anyone?)

Blinding Us With Science - These are adverts that throw enough fancy sounding words 'nutrients', 'polypeptides' etc, mixed with bizarre three animations of things bouncing off other things to convince us that our continued survival on earth depends on these products. Toothpaste, make-up and dishwasher tablets are the most common producers of these adverts.

Lifestyle - Oh, look at that B-List movie star/former soap star/glamour model/wife of a pop star! She shops at that supermarket and she and her Equity-carded children are so happy! I want to be happy, and therefore I shall shop at that supermarket!

My point is this - there are very few ads out there that do anything other than these three techniques, and it's been this way for a long time. So why do advertisers continue to use these same techniques? As a species, I'd like to think that we're pretty smart, so why don't we see through these shallow templates that ad-makers hang their products on?

The answer is simple - because they work. The most popular ads usually fall into the tangential category, and the most successful usually fall into the latter two. Every time it comes on, I deride the Febreeze 'Have you smelt this chair' ad, and yet if I want to buy an odour remover, I buy Febreeze. How do I know it's the best? Why, because it's the most advertised.

In this environment, is it any surprise that sexualisation of women is one of the major methods of selling products? Sex sells, and in such a lazy world, why ignore that? This is not to condone this behaviour, or justify it, but merely to realise that, sadly, a woman wearing very little draped over a product tends to be the easiest way to get people's attention.

This is not to say that this cannot be subverted. A mouthwash company recently used an image of a naked woman walking through a field, tastefully panning up her ludicrously toned and tanned body until it reached her mouth, where the image of beauty was shattered by her horrific gum disease. These adverts, however, are very much the exception rather than the rule. Advertising is, by definition, interested in finding the easiest possible route to the buy centres of the brain.