What I think about when I think about maps

Back in January I gave a short presentation to some of my Jisc colleagues on maps and map making. The format of the event meant we could choose anything to talk about and I tried to not make it about storytelling, I really did but… well, you’ll see. Best laid plans and that.

You can have a good laugh at me struggling to work out how to get the Mac to play video about halfway through.

The headlines

  • I’m a big fan of maps because I did geography at university. Or maybe I did geography because I’m a big fan of maps. Who knows?
  • For me, maps are as important for understanding the world as stories are. If Stories make sense of experiences, maps make sense of places.
  • We’re mentally making maps all the time, even when we’re lost. That’s part of the fun of being lost.
  • Showing things spatially, particularly data, allows a deeper understanding of something and can help make data easier to relate to.

But my conclusion went a bit meta. Maps are still important to me, not just because of their usefulness and appearance, but because they’re a thread that connects me to m time studying at university. That was where I started my life as a learning professional and forms a big part of my identity.

And having a strong sense of identity and purpose is important when going through periods of change and upheaval as we’ve been experiencing in Jisc for the last year or thereabouts.

So, I could have said all that in 30 seconds rather then 10 mins. Never mind. It was a good exercise in planning and delivering a tight presentation and I learnt a lot from watching my colleagues deliver theirs. It’s one of the best aspects of working at Jisc, that we get these opportunities to be a bit more creative and spend time learning for the sake of it.

Rembrandt and the fall of Western Society (probably)

Look at this picture below for a moment. It’s taken by Gijsbert van der Wal. It’s from 2014 but pops up like whack-a-mole on social media from time to time.

What do you see?

A masterpiece hangs on a wall while a small group of young people huddle round their screens.

That’s what’s in the picture, but what do you SEE?

The caption that accompanied this on my Facebook timeline recently said:
“This picture was taken by the security guard of the museum. He just realized that this world was lost.”

Kids, eh?

The conclusion we’re supposed to draw is that these millennials are so absorbed in their screens (probably Snapchatting or playing Angry Birds or something), that they are ignoring the priceless Rembrandt 10 feet away from them. It’s a damning conclusion. Young people no longer value the cornerstones of our culture. We’re probably doomed.

Now look again

This is a trip to the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. The children seem to be huddled in pairs or small groups. The two boys look like they’re talking to each other. The girls have a piece of paper balanced on their knee. Perhaps it’s a worksheet.

Let’s say that they’re using their phones to access an app created by the museum that explains the pictures they are seeing in much greater detail. Maybe they’re being asked a set of challenging questions in the app that means in a few moments, they’ll all stand up again and spend 10 minutes trying to decide why the woman in the background has the claws of a dead chicken strapped to her belt (I googled it).

Or maybe they’ll move on to the next one and not think about it again for a few years.

Or maybe they’ll go the giftshop next. Who knows?

The fact is, this is old news. Check out this Telegraph article for the back story.

But the real irony of this image is that, if you look at the comments on some of the tweets in the article, we’re bemoaning the fact that the children aren’t using their critical faculties to appreciate the meanings in this artwork while we do exactly the same thing.

Digital literacy in the era of “fake news”

So what’s this got to do with the “fall of Western Society”?

It’s easy to believe at the moment that we on the West live in a society where truth is more and more fluid and “fake news” abounds. Before Trump adopted the phrase as his all-purpose come back for journalists critical of his ineptitude “fake news” was the shadowy web of misinformation on questionable websites and some reputable ones that aimed to shape the outcome of the democratic process by dubious means. (It’s amazing how quickly meanings change these days!).

I tried a while back to to explain why I thought false news stories circulated so widely and quickly. My conclusion was a bit like stating the obvious but I was interested in how we find comfort in narratives that confirm our view of the world rather than truly shock and challenge us.

For me this is a major plank of digital literacy; the ability to question the meaning behind images and other information on the web, the narratives associated with them and their impact on behaviour and society.

We’re starting to see how society’s inability or unwillingness to grasp this nettle can have dire consequences particularly for vulnerable groups far from the seat of power but potentially for all of us. Misinformation and misinterpretation in the digital realm isn’t the only reason for the rise of the far right but it’s certainly helped.

And no, I’m not saying that this picture of some kids on their phones is responsible for or even emblematic of the fall of Western society, but using it as a tool to help us talk round these fundamental issues isn’t a bad place to start for us as educators.

And maybe pictures like this one suggest that hope is not lost…

… but maybe that’s just my interpretation.

There’s something very odd about this movie trailer

Watch this trailer. It’s for the upcoming film Morgan and it’s very interesting. How effective do you think it is? Does it feel like all the other trailers you watch or different somehow. HINT: Don’t rewind it as the preamble gives some spoilerific context.

You probably picked up on the clues before you got the explanation at the end of the trailer (the title overlay gives it away).

The trailer was pieced together mainly using artificial intelligence. IBM’s Watson computer analysed the full movie and constructed the 1 minute plus trailer from what it thought were the key moments. There was some human creative input but it’s a bit unclear as to what that was.

Read the full post from The Next Web.

Beyond the eerie nature of the film, I found it a bit unsettling. I watch a lot of trailers and without knowing all the ins and outs of how they’re constructed I feel like I’ve internalised what a Hollywood style trailer should be like. I suspect most of us have – try watching one from a movie over 15 years old and you’ll probably be surprised how different they are.

This one, while seeming on the surface to follow the right patterns, doesn’t feel quite right. It’s a similar feeling to looking at one of those “realistic” androids where the features are all in the right place and the skin looks properly textured but as soon as it starts to move we’re in the uncanny valley.

What really interests me is how well AI can understand narrative. While a trailer only gives a partial story it still tries to convey a sense of the meaning of the story so you come to the cinema already understanding what the film will be about. How people do that is highly subjective and I don’t think easily computable. It’s a bit like the Turing test in that sense (and maybe a computer won’t be able to pass the Turing test until it understands narrative properly).

We’re also feeding the computer a lot of rules about what we think a good trailer should look like and Watson is emulating that. It’s not the same as creatively coming up with an original and creative way of doing the same job (although you could argue that’s exactly what some human marketing people in Hollywood are doing anyway!)

In this case, I don’t think Watson gets it quite right. It’s like a computer working through a checklist of things that work in theory but still manages to miss some important beats. Some cuts happen too early or too late and the pacing feels a bit wrong but for all sorts of intangible reasons I can’t fathom, annoyingly.

But…

…it still works.There are still some brilliant moments. The scene where Morgan talks to Paul Giamatti about his daughter, for instance. That genuinely made my skin crawl with the editing meaning the camera relentlessly focussed on his discomfort. Also the moment when the chair doesn’t quite make it to smash the window before the cut to black creates real tension. A human would be proud of those.

So all in all, the unnatural, unsettling feel suits this movie right down to the ground.

It would be interesting now to see how it handles a rom-com or a costume drama.

 

Passive Defensive – sticking up for the passive voice

At a meeting a few weeks ago a colleague and I were talking about active and passive voice in grammar. When I’ve done training on web writing in the past I’ve always encouraged people to use the active voice where possible as it’s more direct, the meaning requires less “decoding” with it’s “x did y to z” punchiness.

The passive voice, “z had y done to it by x”, sounds more complex and is tainted by weasly political evasiveness of the “mistakes were made” variety.

But increasingly, I feel the need to stick up for the passive voice. I’ve heard blunt advice from some quarters (not my colleague, I should add) that active is a sign of good writing where passive is not. I really don’t think that is the case.

The problem is not the passive voice. The problem is when we use it unthinkingly. Some people use it because they think it sounds more professional. That’s not what it’s for!

The key is to use the passive voice intentionally. I usually default to the active voice if I can but sometimes, only the passive will do.

Where would we be without the passive voice? Try turning these sentences into the active voice to see what I mean:

Rome was not built in a day.

Wisdom is only found in truth.

Libraries are not made, they grow.

See this site for more examples.

The point of voice within a sentence is to draw the attention of the reader to certain things, rather like a photographer frames a shot around a focal point. The passive voice directs attention away from the subject so we focus on the the thing that is being affected or maybe the action itself. You can have ethical reasons for not wanting to identify a subject, it might be more diplomatic, you may not know who or what the subject is or it may just not be important.

And it may just suit the rhythm and flow of the sentence better. That’s a pretty good reason, too.

For more of an explanation, try this post from Grammarly.

They that move in the shadows

My taxi ride on the way to catch the Glasgow train yesterday turned a little surreal.

After a brief chat about the ins and outs of booking taxis using apps, the taxi driver, a chatty but slightly intense man in his fifties, announced he was a member of the Anti Technology League. He didn’t own a computer, he said. Never had. Neither did the rest of his family. He used his mobile only for calls (his refusal to engage with voicemail had led to bailiffs trying to claim a £35 debt to a company after their 13 messages went unanswered. It’s OK. That’s sorted now). He only writes letters when he needs to contact someone officially (twice, so he has a copy).

It was his membership of this Anti Technology League that really interested me. Who are they? What are their demands? What are they going to do? Why have I never heard of them? They’re not really Googleable.

I began to picture a group like the shadowy “Reality or Nothing” terrorists that Dennis Potter invented for Cold Lazarus but the truth turned out to be a little more down to earth. They campaign against any organisation, councils, businesses and so on, that pressure people to use the web to access services. They are compiling a dossier of these organisations and plan to sue them for discrimination. He was very confident of success.

We talked a little about the benefits of social media, privacy, digital literacy and the need to switch off sometimes but it was clear he was resolute.

When he proudly talked about smashing up his mobile phone when he took it back into the Vodafone shop I started to get a little nervous. I had told him what I did for a living. He said he was much happier with the deal he’d been offered by Virgin so the mood lightened.

He also said he was surprised more people hadn’t heard of them.

I wasn’t deliberately trying to be a troll when I asked if they’d considered setting up a website but the joke did fall a little flat.

But ever since then I’ve been thinking about that problem.

How would you create a campaigning organisation, spread your message, recruit members these days if one of your founding principles is based on the rejection of digital technology? It’s entirely possible at the local level or on a small scale but the Anti Technology League seemed to have loftier ambitions than that.

It was obviously possible in the pre-digital world, but are we at a point now when trying to do that without recourse to the web is nigh on impossible?

Or maybe it’s because I’m now so fully enclosed in the technology bubble I lack the imagination to see how it would work.

I might fire up the app, book another taxi and see if I can continue the conversation.

The Chimes by Anna Smaill

 This wasn’t an easy read, but it was an enjoyable one. It was the other half of a 2 for 1 from Waterstones (the other was Jon Ronson’s excellent book on shaming) so I got it on the strength of the blurb rather then reputation.
It’s going to be hard to describe this book without giving away key plot points but I’ll give it a shot. The story is set in a post apocalyptic London which is a well-worn cliche but Smaill does interesting things with it. People exist in a state of musically-induced amnesia. Memories are reset during a daily event called Chimes, an almost devotional ceremony that draws on liturgical language and imagery where inescapable music seems to cover the whole country. The rare ability to remember is treated as a kind of witchcraft which adds the medieval feel.

It’s a disorienting world. Smaill writes in a way where day to day events are vivid but anything relating to the past is ambiguous and feels fragile even as Simon, the main character, gradually pieces together the past from the fragments around him. It’s his gradual awaking to his ability to remember and the reason that he finds himself away from his family in London that drives the book.

I’ve never had to draw on my ancient Grade 5 music theory for a novel before. Smaill is a violinist and music plays a central role in how the characters remember crucial information like routes and learned expertise. As a result, the text is littered with Latinate phrases. Events happen subbito and characters remain tacet. Sound and silence are almost characters in their own right. This was quite disconcerting initially and made it hard work to follow at times but after a while you become attuned to it and it has it’s own internal logic.

I did find it stretched credulity to breaking point at times. How would a society function if memory and consequently identity, reset every 24 hours? Smaill fills most of the gaps and after a while I found myself going with the flow, willingly suspending disbelief. 

One thing that resonated with me strongly was the use of objects as a way of retaining a link to the past. Characters carry round collections of keepsakes connected to past events and even if the memory they evoke has faded, the fact of their existence helps people keep a sense of self. Those that lose these objects become memorylost, stuck in a permanent catatonic state like the victims of the spectres in Philip Pullman’s Dark Materials books.

It resonated because one of the warm-up activities I ask people to do on my storytelling workshops is to find a random object they’ve brought with them, a set of keys, lipstick, ticket stub etc, and use it to explain something about themselves. Usually people talk about an event that’s connected to the object and that pens up a conversation about something more fundamental. It’s a bit of a game but it’s a great way in to looking at the art of storytelling and the link between narrative and identity.

Smaill puts this at the heart of her own story which, like all the best sci-fi, makes it a parable for something more important than the familiar setting suggests.

You can read the Guardian’s review of it here.

A week in the life

What I’ve been up to

  • Catching up with my colleagues in Jisc R&D in Bristol. Got sight of their vision for HE in 2020-2030  – now you can too!
  • 6 monthly review. All seems to be going well. Good to catch up with Steve B.
  • Met up with some other Subject Specialist colleagues, Marc Dobson, Janette Hillicks and Caroline Ingram. Started to explore possible areas of crossover work but it was just good to see them. Home working is fine but it’s important to connect with people face to face. Hope we can make it a regular thing.
  • I’ve started paying attention to Instagram again. Filling the hole that my current Facebook abstinence is creating.

What I noticed

  • VR and AR are bloody everywhere at the moment! We’re getting an increasing number of questions from institutions about AR in particular. They’re technologies I’m ambivalent about and I really should get some thoughts down here.
  • This article about how an adherence to Bloom’s taxonomy is affecting fieldwork skills in Biology was interesting.

What I enjoyed

  • You know you’re into a book when you really have to stop yourself from crying while sat reading in a restaurant by yourself. Thanks for that Kate Atkinson!
  • Finally watched Locke. It’s the Tom Hardy in a car film that isn’t Mad Max. It’s basically just him as a mellifluous Welshman taking a series of increasingly fraught and personal hands-free calls but it’s utterly absorbing.
  • One more ep of Happy Valley to go. I’m going to miss it. 
  • Played the fiddle as part of a scratch band/orchestra thing on Sunday. I’m usually playing bass but this gave me a real buzz. Energising.

What could have gone better

  • Time management – never a strong suit for me but it’s starting to mean I’m not dealing with big picture stuff.
  • I’ve got a blog post sitting in draft about what uses of tech are worth paying attention to and which are just fluff. I just can’t find the right angle. It’s doing my head in!
  • Could only manage 20 mins on the exercise bike in the hotel I was staying in on Monday.

Incoming

  • I’m likely to start blogging from a more worky perspective shortly. Looking forward to it.

 

OK Go – creativity and pushing the limits of one-shot promos

OK Go have released a new video this week. It seems OK GO aren’t really a rock band now instead becoming a video collective who write their own musical accompaniments. I mean that in a good way. They seem to pour as much creative effort into their promos as they do their music.

This, in the very best sense, is truly exuberant, joyful chaos!

Update: Video removed from YouTube. Try here.

It’s a neat example of creativity meaning working within a set of constraints. What sort of video could you produce if all you had was a band, a plane, 2 acrobats, some plastic balls?

Handily, they’ve given a fascinating breakdown of what went into producing it.

If you like that…

You can see more of OK Go’s videos here. They seem to have a thing for elaborate one-shot masterpieces.

Image: By OK Go – RGM18, CC BY-SA 2.0,

 

 

Tony Visconti – Making Bowie’s “Heroes”

This is one of the best things I’ve seen on the web for ages. Tony Visconti, David Bowie’s legendary producer talks to BBC Arts about the recording of Heroes in Berlin in 1977.

Using a digital version of the master tape, he breaks down all the constituent parts from the basic backing through to the vocals.

Play the video

Aside from the geeky thrill of hearing how a song like Heroes is technically put together, it’s actually quite eerie hearing the individual performances including Brian Eno, Robert Fripp and Bowie himself. It’s easy to forget, when all you know is the finished article, that there’s all this individual effort and creativity going on. Sometimes it’s buried so deep in the mix that you only become aware of it when it’s singled out or removed completely.

It’s also tempting to imagine that songs like this just magically emerge fully formed from some sort of cosmic rock egg. What you realise from this video is just how organic and serendipitous it all is (see the anecdote about Visconti’s sneaky snog).

I’m not a massive Bowie fan, but I did get caught up in the grief about his death. I just thought the world was a more interesting place knowing that he was in it.