Friday 21 December 2012

#FridayFlash - They're Here

It's early Friday morning and folk everywhere are running around, panic buying like the world's gonna end. I guess in some parts of the world it's already late in the day so maybe it is gonna end. I can't stand the hustle, so I go to my usual bolt hole - the diner on Forth Street. It's a tacky little dive on the edge of town, all cracked red vinyl seats and streaky chrome fittings, but it's warm and the staff are nice. It's empty aside from a homeless guy warming himself by the heater, so I make for my favourite booth. Macy pours me a black coffee and fixes me a waffle with syrup.

"You ok, hon?" She's about fifty, with a bright red beehive and purple eyeshadow. Looks like some kind of retro cartoon character who never left the 1950s. She's like the kind of mom I wish I'd had, if mine hadn't been crazy.

"I guess."

"All this stuff gettin' to ya, huh?" She vaguely waves at the window and I watch a man run past carrying a small flatscreen TV. I've no idea what good he thinks that'll do him in the apocalypse but maybe he just wants to watch it all on the news.

"I just wanted to get away from these end of the world nuts. I've had this all my life, I don't need everyone coming out with it at the same time."

Macy raises an eyebrow and leans forward across the counter. I scoot across the booth and take up a seat opposite her. I tell her all about my mom's theory, about the aliens. She always said the world wasn't gonna end today, it was just that the world was gonna end as we knew it. She even reckoned that’s what the REM song was about. You learned to never ask what she meant, 'cause that's what got her started on about the aliens. Said she'd been abducted back in '73, and they didn't take her to a spaceship, said it was some kind of ancient ruin. Sounds like the kinda thing you'd see Indiana Jones running about in. Anyways, she'd get on her high horse and start saying the aliens had always been here, and the Mayans knew all about them. Hell, some of them probably WERE aliens.

I finish my story and drain the last of my coffee from the chipped mug. Macy gives me a funny look and leans closer, so close I can smell her lavender perfume. She waits until the homeless guy shuffles out.

"Your mom weren't wrong".


"The aliens ain't invading, hon - they never left. They're just coming out of hiding."

For the first time, I notice her eyes - yellow irises, flecked with red. That ain't normal. When she moves her sleeve rides up and I see the tattoos on her arm. Some kind of marking, looks like the kind of Inca art I saw on the Discovery channel once.

"So all this end of the world crap is real?"

"Oh yes. Well, not for me." Macy smiles that strange crooked smile of hers.

"I suppose you're one of 'em, huh?"

"I am. I already saw you clocked the tattoo. Got it when I was eighteen. Jeebus, that was over 1300 years ago. Bet you're wonderin' why I dress like this, huh?"

"I'm wonderin' a lot of things, Macy."

"I just like the style, I guess. Anyway, all this ain't just a new beginning for me, hon. It's the same for you."


"Your mom did meet us in 1973, only it weren't no abduction. She met your dad in 1972, and he was damned smitten by her. Took her to meet everyone back at the Prime Colony, only she couldn't take the truth and she went a bit crazy. After that, we scattered, and didn't try to start nothin' with the humans."

"So where does that leave me?"

"Don't worry, hon. Your dad'll come get you. It's time for you to go home."

“You’re sayin’ I’m an alien too?”

“Well half alien, hon. Guess that makes you legal.”

Macy winks and straightens up. She flicks the TV on and it's all over the news - total pandemonium. Looting, rioting, fires, everything. I head back to my booth, and eat my waffle. I try to feel something, some kind of panic, or fear, but somehow I can’t. I worry a bit about my mom but all I can think of is my dad. Humanity tears itself apart and I’m sat there wondering if I look like a guy I’ve never met – who isn’t even really a guy.

It’s a funny old world, ain’t it? And now it’s ending. Huh. Never saw that one coming.

Tuesday 18 December 2012

Instagram - Yes or No?

A rather stunning sky over Jarrow

So Instagram, the photo sharing service that was bought by Facebook earlier in the year, have changed their privacy policy and terms of service. I actually read them yesterday, and found that apparently "Nothing has changed about your photos’ ownership or who can see them"...which appears to directly contradict point 1 of their Rights section, in which they state that "Instagram does not claim ownership of any Content that you post on or through the Service. Instead, you hereby grant to Instagram a non-exclusive, fully paid and royalty-free, transferable, sub-licensable, worldwide license to use the Content that you post on or through the Service". In point 2, they point out that "some or all of the Service may be supported by advertising revenue. To help us deliver interesting paid or sponsored content or promotions, you agree that a business or other entity may pay us to display your username, likeness, photos (along with any associated metadata), and/or actions you take, in connection with paid or sponsored content or promotions, without any compensation to you"...yet in point 8 they say that "you agree that Instagram is not responsible for, and does not endorse, Content posted within the Service". So basically, Instagram are saying that they aren't responsible for your content, nor do they own it, but it's perfectly okay for them to let other people use your username and photos etc. in promotions without paying you.

The Leazes Park bandstand
I used to love Instagram, but since they were bought by Facebook, I haven't been impressed by some of their decisions. This one in particular makes me feel very uneasy. Theoretically, Newcastle City Council could pay Facebook to license photos I've taken around the city in their advertising - without me seeing a penny of it. By comparison, Google can't sell photos you upload through Picasa or Google+, and Flickr can only use the images you upload "solely for the purpose for which such content was submitted or made available". True, there don't appear to be any immediate plans to monetise the images currently available on Instagram but that doesn't mean that they won't.

It's bad enough having people using your content without crediting you (I've had people steal my photos and cover up my copyright with their own tat, as if that somehow nullifies the existence of the copyright) but to force the change through your terms of service? I suppose the question comes down to whether or not I'm prepared to put up with that possibility (bearing in mind no one might ever use my images) or whether I'm irritated enough to delete my account. After all, I put most of my images on Facebook and Twitter anyway, as well as Flickr, so would it really matter if I didn't use Instagram? I can achieve all of its filter effects through Photoshop so it's not like it's really going to bother me if I'm sharing photos through Twitter instead.

My Halloween 'Lady Beetlejuice' costume
Thing is, there are a lot of photos of me on Instagram - do I really want someone using those without my express permission? There was an episode of Friends years ago in which Joey's photo was used on an advert about VD, and it put off countless women as they assumed that meant he had one form or other of it. I don't want to get into the situation where someone I don't even know decides to use a photo of me, and the association is a negative or embarrassing one. I'm quite happy to embarrass myself or project myself badly but I don't want someone else to do it for me. I wouldn't mind leaving up photos of cakes I've made, or daft signs I've found, but there doesn't seem to be any way of deleting individual photos, so I can't even alter the way I use the service by removing those images that I wouldn't want them to make available.

So question I stay or do I go?

Monday 17 December 2012

Culture Cuts

Newcastle's Laing Art Gallery

I've been annoyed for quite some time about the plummeting status of culture and the arts in the UK, and the growing clamour for better funding for sport following the success of the Olympics has further demonstrated the divide between those who think the arts are important, and those who don't. It's become particular apparent in my hometown of Newcastle upon Tyne, where the City Council, in a glorious fit of short-sightedness, have announced their intention to slash the entire culture budget of £2.5 million due to a reduction in funds from central government. I'm well aware that we're living in times of austerity and that cuts must be made across the board, but unfortunately it could be argued that the City Council, currently held by Labour, are using the budget cuts as a political tool. They can cut whatever they see as being unnecessary, and then blame the fiscal ineptitude of the Coalition government for the need to make cuts in the first place. Back in 2008, Newcastle entered their bid to be crowned European Capital of Culture. Liverpool ended up winning, but how on earth could we possibly enter such a competition again, with no culture to speak of? The Council claim that their contributions towards these institutions are the smallest portion of each institution's funding, and that removal of Council support would not result in closure, but that sounds like very cold comfort indeed.

For those of you who have never visited Newcastle, the city isn't all drunken nights out and women wearing no coats in the depths of winter. The city centre boasts two museums, two major art galleries, three theatre spaces, an independent cinema with links to the BFI, and a handful of small comedy venues. The north east as a whole has produced the likes of Sir Ridley Scott, Neil Marshall, Sting, John Martin, Thomas Bewick, and Terry Deary. Charles Dickens enjoyed visiting the city and even J. R. R. Tolkien had links with the area. Surely this qualifies as a rich cultural heritage that is both worthy of preservation and celebration?

Some time ago, the City Council also announced their intention to close ten public libraries around the city - libraries which, it must be remembered, grant access to knowledge to those who perhaps cannot afford to buy piles of books. The Council have argued that no one will live more than 1.5 miles from their nearest library, but for some, even this distance could be too great, making library visits difficult, if not impossible. Besides, libraries do not simply offer books, they also allow users to enjoy IT facilities and internet access. Not everyone has both of these at home, and in a time of increasing digitisation of such things as job applications, banking and even paying your TV license, the only way some people can do these is to use their local library. How can we get people back into work if they can't get online to send a CV? The two sets of budget cuts go hand in hand - after all, this decimation of the cultural budget would affect such institutions as the Great North Museum. Imagine this scenario - a class of primary school pupils visit the museum, and enjoy one of the shows in the planetarium. Several of the pupils express a particular interest in astronomy, their parents locate relevant books in their local libraries, and the seeds are sown for the next generation of Patrick Moores and Brian Coxs. Without the libraries or the museum, how can we expose children to future career paths? Instead, we bombard them with reality TV shows and they grow up wanting to be pop stars or models.

Thankfully I'm not the only one who finds these proposed cuts utterly abhorrent. Northern musical heavyweights Bryan Ferry, Sting, Mark Knopfler and Neil Tennant have penned a letter to the Council in The Guardian, pointing out that without funding to culture and the arts, both avenues become the preserve of the wealthy, and opportunities are denied to the next generation - the next generation which is currently being told it MUST go into sport. The arts and culture provide employment prospects, and things like the film industry even raise the prospect of bringing investment into an area (e.g. Glasgow doubling as Philadelphia, for World War Z).

I leave you with one final thought. Truly one of the most outstanding contributions to the Olympics was the ambitious opening ceremony by Danny Boyle. Without cultural funding, how can we possibly support the next generation of filmmakers, artists, writers, dancers, actors and photographers, those people who will document our culture and society, preserving it for those who will come later?