Fata Morgana

Thine eyes deceive: A cold-weather mirage on a hot summer day. Anchorage Daily news. Dec. 7, 2012

This post is dedicated to my two sons, currently in their teens.

Beside the anxieties of cramming for exams and generalised collective growing pains, one question continually assails me: how can the voracious, wondering curiosity of young minds survive in a world devastated by globalised capital?

Traditional strategies fall short. Thinking things through clearly, rationally, responsibly is now woefully inadequate, counter-productive even. There is no shared vision of the future to act as yardstick, no alternative pathways for comparison.

Time out for travel is expensive, and where is one to go in an all-pervading, mono-cultural world of radicalised interiority, bereft too of biodiversity?

And where lies profundity? Like refracted images in water, depth of thought has become illusory, treacherous; aphorism has replaced analysis, entrepreneurs essayists.

Not to speak of community, extended families, embodied, temporal/spatial networks of people, squeezed aside by monetised asset sharing, the lonely gig economy.

No, wait. This is not the spirit. There is still marvel in the banal (‘le banal merveilleux’). Physics and metaphysics can still play peaceably together and we should join in the performance. As Virginia Woolf observed of the ever-changing, cloud-filled sky from the solitude of her sickbed,

“One should not let this gigantic cinema play perpetually to an empty house.”

In the monochrome hopelessness of our times, we must be alert to the prodigious in the here and now, to the poetry of the mundane. As André Breton asserted in the preface to his Surrealist poem ‘Fata Morgana’,

“elle (poetic analogy) tend à faire entrevoire et valoir la vraie vie “absente”.”

Science and logic describe the world but only our imaginations make it intelligible.

On August 14, 1643, in the Strait of Messina, Jesuit priest Domenico Giardina wondered at “a city all floating in the air, measureless and splendid, adorned with magnificent buildings, all of which was found on a base of luminous crystal, never beheld before.” He knew it was an optical illusion, a ‘fata morgana’ or superior image, and that there was no cause to impute divine intervention. He even gave his own chemical analysis of the phenomenon, which he described as a mobile specchio – a moving polyhedric mirror. Nevertheless, it was nature working her miracles and, as such, to be wondered at.

It was then and remains a wonderful world. There’s plenty of time for disillusionment later in life. Let it wait.

So I wander and wander along,
And forever before me gleams
The shining city of song,
In the beautiful land of dreams.

But when I would enter the gate
Of that golden atmosphere,
It is gone, and I wonder and wait
For the vision to reappear.

from Fata Morgana (1873) by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Algorithmic Prudery

This month we were plunged into the deep freeze. Consequently, the stream of thought iced over for a while. What ideas one could muster came in short mental blurts – like tweets. In defiant contrast, however, our avian friends, the master twitterers, following seasonal instincts even deeper than the cold, have latterly become noisily frisky, pursuing each other from branch to branch and chirping brightly. Watching them at breakfast time is enough to de-frost the brain.

It seemed appropriate, therefore, to dedicate this post to them, in the style of a satirical twitter storm, with the seditious letter ‘n’ judiciously redacted, naturally, so as to offend no sensibilities. The theme, prudery, would of course leave the birds (and the bees) completely cold. Humans, on the other hand, get over-heated about it.

Twitter storm

 

Fourteen next month

Robin Hood holding smartphone

1895 promotional illustration for a theatrical production of “Robin Hood”.

To celebrate the upcoming anniversary of everyone’s favourite social media site, I’d like to invite you to join me in a little sing song. Here, to the evergreen theme tune of the “Robin Hood” TV show is

The Sugerberg Song

Sugerberg, Sugerberg, sitting in his dorm,
Sugerberg, Sugerberg, the sophomore hub is born.
Steals from his friends to boost his IPO.
Way to go, way to go, way to go.

He came to Palo Alto, with Fakebook on PC,
Now the accidental billionaire.
His algorithms hook us with the news we like to read,
Though the stories have their roots we know not where.

Sugerberg, Sugerberg, advertisers’ friend,
Sugerberg, Sugerberg, the users never end.
At work or at home, all we need is our phone,
Never alone, never alone, never alone.

The elections prick his conscience: What monster have we spawned?
He vows that he must combat fake news.
To save our democracy we must be well informed.
Let the users decide what news is true.

Sugerberg, Sugerberg, the gas-lighting must stop.
Sugerberg, Sugerberg, thinks he’s a philanthrop.
But it’s the trolls, the hackers and the bots,
Who call the shots, call the shots, call the shots.

Incomplete erasure

Mid winter is a time for extra layering, of clothes, of food ingredients, of wood preserver on the garden shed.

Layers sometimes accumulate, sometimes replace, sometimes interweave. In any case, each is the foundation for the next, hidden, wholly or in part, but never completely erased.

Anyone who has tried to rub out and re-draw a shaky pencil line knows this well. From the moment pencil touches paper, the hand is subtly drawn into a web of the faintest of traces, real or imagined; one experiences an effect midway between being channelled along the groove in a vinyl disc and weightlessness. Using an eraser just heightens the effect, impressing the memory of the undesired line on your mind’s eye rather than on the page. The paper shares its memory with yours.

Even if visible, layers may require to be brought to the surface, highlighted. In sheet music, though all equally visible to the eye, individual voices, however assiduously notated, may need to be accentuated acoustically. Likewise, in text, graphemes, though evident in black and white, require further contextual clues to reveal their layered shades of meaning.

Paradoxically, it is easier to overlook layers staring us in the face. By contrast, well-hidden underlying layers may remain insidiously present. The new is only fresh when it contrasts with the old, that which it gleefully brushes aside, yet ends up being defined by. TV programme schedules are a good example, especially at Christmas and New Year. No amount of layered re-confectioning can counteract the mental benumbment of endlessly re-hashed festive ‘favourites’.

Much of our world is a palimpsest: land- and cityscapes, archaeological sites, paintings, manuscripts and inscriptions, all bear traces of their earlier forms, readable to the discerning eye. As architect/planner Giancarlo De Carlo demonstrated in his sensitive modernisation of the town of Urbino,

‘reading’ and design are but two sides of the same coin, involving the identification of layers in the palimpsest before overwriting can take place. (Jones 2004)

In many areas of activity, including higher education and the use of digital technology in particular, we behave as if the layered encrustations of the past have dissolved, clearing the way for each successive innovation to blossom on virgin ground. Overnight, traditional behaviours become poison ivy, deplorable anachronisms. Yet, in reality innovations are firmly rooted in traditional soil. Synchronised cloud storage appeals to the deep desire for tidiness without effort, Google docs convince us we are collaborating, Twitter that we possess the aphoristic wit and wisdom of Oscar Wilde.

This post was in part prompted by a sentiment of indignation, that which one may feel when being instructed on a new IT system. “We will train you on a need-to-know basis,” you hear. In other words, we will erase what you knew and replace it with an impoverished notional subset of the same process in a new guise. We won’t waste your time (and ours) giving you information you don’t need. Training materials will be localised, i.e. cobbled-together from poorly written, generic third-party Powerpoint slides sporting your institution’s ‘branding’.

In sum, your vision is blinkered by those seeking to divest you of the power of informed action. You are expected to make do with a myopic, single-layered view rather than a synoptic, multi-layered one. Even the most nebulous grasp of the permeating power of layered understanding and experience should tell us that such an approach is preposterous in an HE context. No-one but me decides what I need to know.

To end on a semi-humorous note, layers of the digital kind, such as feature in a well-known image editing package from Adobe Systems Inc., can have unexpected advantages.

A year ago I drew a satirical cartoon for our annual Learning and Teaching Conference. It was well received, so I was asked to do another one for the 2018 conference, on the topic of transformation (see below). Satire must have bite but I knew that the darker side of the image might be challenging for some. So I built the whole thing up on separate digital layers, layers of meaning one might say. When, as predicted, the organisers asked for a brighter, more optimistic version, I was prepared! Click, click and hey presto, no sinister lepidopterist or bleak city skyline. Thanks, Richard. Um, we’re not sure about the crows…. No problem. Click, no crows.

No crows but no principles compromised either: the image will be used integrally as a discussion prompt in the run-up to and during the conference. Only the banner and programme header will be all cheer, no chill. The erasures are only surface deep. In a sense, the darker layers will be just as telling for their absence, like the feeling of unease one has when aware that something is missing…

Cartoon for BLTC18

© Richard Francis 2017-18

Reference

Jones, Peter Blundell 2004. Giancarlo De Carlo: layered places. The Free Library (November, 1), https://www.thefreelibrary.com/Giancarlo De Carlo: layered places.-a0126076005 (accessed January 03 2018)

La Tendresse

(with thanks to André Bourvil)

I have no stomach this month for commentary on the digital world. Coded, pre-fabricated, self-serving and self-fulfilling.

Fortunately, there is much else in life. A gentle lilt d’autrefois caresses my ears. It is La Tendresse sung by André Bourvil. Take a moment if you will, to listen to its words, to which I humbly append some of my own below.

I am driving to work on a Tuesday having spent Monday at home with a stomach bug. I’m still a bit delicate, tender; normally mild odours remain pungent, gentle movements jolt, subdued light glares. And the disgruntled murmuring from my midriff continues.

I am at a pedestrian crossing near the station. On the kerb side a schoolboy draws up on his bicycle. There is a squeal of brakes and another bicycle judders to a halt behind him. The boy’s father, a man in his forties with less bike control than his son, topples over his handlebars onto the kerb, upending both himself and his mount. The boy emits a concerned cry, “Daddy!”. Shaken and red-faced, the father rights himself and remounts, smiling timidly in a general direction. As the lights change to green, the boy gently guides his father into a side street to regain composure.

Half a mile later, as I turn into St. Giles, I notice an elderly couple outside the Taylor Institution. They are motionless, wrapped in amorous embrace, lips touching. Enfolded in each other’s arms, they are oblivious to the world. My car tracing the broad arc of the turning gives me a sweeping, cinematic view of them, emphasising their stillness and calm.

I continue on my way. Traffic builds up and progress slows to a snail’s pace. My windows open, I am party to snippets of conversation, small gestures and interactions. Two ladies, I guess in their fifties, glance in my direction. One turns to look closer. Her face lights up in an impish gleam and she gives me a vigorous thumbs-up, apparently delighted by the vehicle I am driving. “Fascinating!” she declares.

As I approach the car park, the tenderness I still feel is now of a different nature, prompted by the expressions of human emotion and dignity that I have witnessed. The best antidote to daily digital drudgery.

 

Transportation (or lucidity by degrees)

One day last week a five-kilometre car journey to work took an hour and forty minutes. I could comfortably have covered the distance on foot in less time. Normally I would take simultaneous advantage of two more sophisticated forms of transport: the bus and a good book. I suspect the era of privately owned motor vehicles must soon come to an end.

If queuing in traffic for a hundred minutes was folly, so was the task I had set myself once at work. I had resolved, with two colleagues to run an extra-curricular workshop, during which students foolhardy enough to attend would build a musical instrument from rubbish and then play it, not only in physical but in virtual reality. A crazy idea undeniably but not the senseless folly of the earlier commute; this was folly of underlying good sense. There was method in the madness.

Our small but intrepid audience reported having a very enjoyable time. As we had hoped, they remarked on having felt transported, in three ways: out of their daily routine, beyond their existing capabilities, into an unexplored virtual realm. Could we please tell them when the next workshop was to be?

This then was pre-meditated folly, of good intent. Though a successful outcome was by no means guaranteed, we worked purposefully and conscientiously towards it – we thought our actions through. Rays of light penetrated the quotidian gloom.

Robert Schumann Op.6 Davidsbündlertänze No.XVII

I return home, daylight dimming – a transport of delight. The penultimate of Schumann’s Op. 6 dances is playing. Though the light of day is gone, that of the music is bright and limpid; no burdensome reason dulls it. Time stands still.

I’m in my study now, pencil in hand, drawing the goddess Hygeia. I have come to her face. A plan of action forms in my head but I pause. If I think through every step, as I did the workshop, the outcome will surely disappoint me. I must let my hand be my guide. I shut out all thinking and my head is lucid with movement, form and colour. Gesture and thought become one.

Some time later, I don’t know exactly how long, I am looking at Hygeia. Her eyes are dark pools of intense concentration with a trace of ruefulness. Her hair is plaited, some loose strands playing around her cheek. The corner of her mouth suggests a smile. I feel weightless.

The clock in the hallway chimes the hour and the lead-weight of gravity re-descends. I re-enter the sullen world and see that dawn is less than four hours away.

Moments like these are rare – I treasure them for the lucidity and calm they bring. Only later do my thoughts catch up. Much of my time otherwise is spent in the opaque folly of misguided logic by which all our lives are habitually driven, thoughts running ahead in agitated clamour, vying for attention but unable to be fulfilled.

I have sometimes to step away, release the creative from its rational stranglehold and, through the act of making, let gesture formulate thought, not vice versa.

Contemplation

Dog mourning companion

© La Repubblica, 20 settembre 2017

There have been many thoughts this month that I haven’t managed to commit to words, bits and pieces that wouldn’t coalesce. My mind has been elsewhere, intensely focused on drawing, with no room for reflection, no room for thoughts to take shape as they need to, whether in words or images.

First there was the nth episode of circularity of IT logic – a reprise of the Hole in My Bucket situation. I try to log in to Google mail; PC rejects login, thoughtfully asks if I’ve forgotten my password. I say I must have. PC sends an authorisation code to my email. Dear Liza, what should I do?

Then there was the Guardian Long Read on F***b**k.

Algorithms have retired many of the bureaucratic, clerical duties once performed by humans – and they will soon begin to replace more creative tasks.1

Including, according to the author, the exercise of free will. Naturally, the ‘data scientists’ are delighted; thanks to FB and company, and data sets approaching infinity, social behaviour need hold no more mysteries.

Poveri illusi! Algorithm and PC user, the eternal collusion of salesman and consumer. What worries me is when willing gullibility (free will) becomes apathy, generated by distraction: the inability to concentrate, the unfelt need for authenticity or veracity – too costly, and thus valuable, in emotional terms.

Emotional contemplation of the infinite [actual not presumed]2 is what makes us human or, more precisely, what characterises all sentient beings. It is the thrill of enquiry, the passionate curiosity that seeks (never fully) to unravel the mysteries of existence. Woe betide us if we ever decide we’ve got to the bottom of everything! The aesthetic beauty of natural forms are one such exquisite mystery, as are the subtly different emotional shades of musical keys, and the semantic nuances of syntactic variants. We must be willing to focus our minds on such things and resist any attempt (however well-meant) to crowd out or predetermine our emotional response to them.

Finally, as if on cue, a few days later, the press carried a story of a mongrel in mourning for the death of its companion. Intense pain, borne in silence, undiluted by words.

Like the drawing, it all comes together when I concentrate. But logic has little to do with it.

  1. Facebook’s war on free will. How technology is making our minds redundant. Franklin Foer. Published 19 Sept 2017.
  2. My thanks to friend and colleague, George Roberts for an earlier version of this phrase.

Lines of separation

This being August, I have been on leave. I have neither checked my email, nor been assailed by system updates, feature changes or licensing deals that I neither desire nor have requested. Instead, between extended bouts of home improvement, I’ve spent time reading and reflecting. This, as a result, is a predominantly philosophical post, focused on disruption generally rather than on the specifically digital form of it.

War is perhaps the most extreme form of disruption. To survive one cannot afford to make mistakes: destruction must be clinically efficient, prone to the minimum of human error. Technology holds the perennial (illusory) promise of achieving this and science is roped in to seek ever more technologically sophisticated and mechanically reliable ways to kill rather than be killed.

Disruption can also take other, more intimate, personal forms. Every now and then a thought, an idea, a sound, image or aroma stops me in my tracks. The sudden menace of an unexpected musical interval, the deformed beauty of a ballerina’s plié, the nostalgia of a long-forgotten perfume.

The text below provoked a response of this kind in me. I had been contemplating the absurdity of the east/west division of post-war Germany, a subject brought peremptorily to my attention by Alexander Dierbach’s excellent German television drama series entitled Tannbach – Schicksal eines Dorfes. The series has a surreal, nightmarish air. It narrates the crude and indiscriminate enforcement of communist and capitalist ideologies on the traumatised, exhausted inhabitants of a provincial German town split in two by the Iron Curtain. Amid the fratricidal mayhem, however, one is struck by the indomitable biological and spiritual exigencies of the human spirit – the immutable, ultimately unifying truths of life.

Then I came across Renato Serra’s fleeting and enigmatic essay Esame di coscienza di un letterato1, published in 1915, on the role of literature in time of war. It captured extraordinarily well the dilemma of artistic endeavour during violent conflict. Is it futile, even treacherous, desperately to preserve and cultivate literary ideals when duty calls for action and personal sacrifice? Or should we rest easy that literature (indeed all art) is so fundamental to the human spirit that it will emerge from any man-made conflagration completely unscathed?

I have my own response but will leave the reader to decide theirs. Whatever view we take, this is an eternally relevant question and one to which we should frequently return if we wish to remain true to ourselves as conscious, sentient beings.

La guerra non mi riguarda. La guerra che altri fanno, la guerra che avremmo potuto fare…

Wars are not my concern, other people’s wars, wars we could have fought…

È una così vecchia lezione! La guerra è un fatto, come tanti altri in questo mondo; è enorme, ma è quello solo; accanto agli altri, che sono stati e che saranno: non vi aggiunge; non vi toglie nulla.

Non cambia nulla, assolutamente, nel mondo. Neanche la letteratura. Voglio nominare anche questa, appunto perché è la cosa che personalmente mi tocca meno, forse; in margine della mia vita, come un’amicizia di occasione; verso la quale ho meno diritto di essere ingiusto.

When will we learn? War is a fact of life, like any other, past or future; a hugely important one but nothing more: it neither adds nor takes anything away. Absolutely nothing in the world is changed by it, not even literature. I make special mention of literature as something that has been in the margins of my life, like a casual acquaintance whom I have no right to malign.

E poi non devo scordarmi di avere avuto qualche cosa di comune – mi sarei rivoltato, se me l’avessero detto; ma era vero egualmente – con tutta quella brava gente, piena di serietà; da tanto tempo va gridando che è ora di finirla, con queste futilità e pettegolezzi letterari, anzi, è finita; finalmente! passata la stagione della stravaganza e della decadenza, formato l’animo a cure più gravi e entusiasmi più sani, attendiamo in silenzio l’aurora di una letteratura nuova, eroica, grande, degna del dramma storico, attraverso cui si ritempra, per virtù di sangue e di sacrifici, l’umanità.

Nor must I forget that, though I may have denied it, it is true that I have had a certain amount in common with all the good and high-minded people who exclaim that it is time to stop all the futile literary gossip; that the era of decadence and extravagance is finally over, and that, with our souls purged by sterner cures and our wills strengthened by worthier passions, we must await the dawn of a new literary era, grand, heroic, worthy of the historic drama of war, through which, by bloodshed and sacrifice, humanity will have been reinvigorated.

Ripetiamo dunque, con tutta la semplicità possibile. La letteratura non cambia. Potrà avere qualche interruzione, qualche pausa, nell’ordine temporale: ma come conquista spirituale, come esigenza e coscienza intima, essa resta al punto a cui l’aveva condotta il lavoro delle ultime generazioni; e, qualunque parte ne sopravviva, di lì soltanto riprenderà, continuerà di lì.

Let me therefore reiterate, in the simplest possible terms, that literature is not changed by war. It may be interrupted, caused to be put on temporal hold: but as a spiritual conquest, intimate need and conscience, it remains anchored at the point to which the work of previous generations had brought it; and, whatever part of it survives, it recommences from there.

È inutile aspettare delle trasformazioni o dei rinnovamenti dalla guerra, che è un’altra cosa: come è inutile sperare che i letterati ritornino cambiati, migliorati, ispirati dalla guerra. Essa li può prendere come uomini, in ciò che ognuno ha di più elementare e più semplice. Ma, per il resto, ognuno rimane quello che era. Ognuno ritorna – di quelli che tornano – al lavoro che aveva lasciato; stanco forse, commosso, assorbito, come emergendo da una fiumana: ma con l’animo, coi modi, con le facoltà e le qualità che aveva prima.

It is useless to expect transformation or renewal from war, just as it is to expect writers to return from war changed, inspired, better. War may claim them as human beings in the simplest, most elementary sense. But, for the rest, each one remains the same. Each returns – of those who do return – to the same work he or she had before; tired perhaps, shaken, overwhelmed, as if engulfed by a tidal wave: but with the same will, the same habits, abilities and qualities as before.

  1. Serra, R. (1915) Esame di coscienza di un letterato. Palermo: Sellerio, 1994. First published in La Voce 30 aprile 1915

Digital humour

I’ve suspected for some time that my computer has a sense of humour.

Sitting inert in front of a screen for hours on end with no more than the clickety-clack of the keyboard for company is sure to induce a mild form of hysteria, even in the most level-headed. When the PC malfunctions we cry: “Why is it doing this to me?”, overlooking the fact that the most likely cause is an error or oversight on our part. We vent our frustration with expressions of exasperation and incredulity, imprecation and even mild physical mouse abuse.

But let’s spare a thought for the poor machine. Why should a PC suffer all this indignity in silence? Cursed and sworn at when it doesn’t perform to expectations, taken for granted when it does. We should hardly be surprised when, provoked by all this insensitivity, the emotionally challenged machine gives in to the urge to get its own back.

When it does act, the PC is more subtle, inscrutable, wry in its humour. It knows its audience very well. Here is an example.

I log in to Google (PC and Google, the perfect double act – top billing) and open my calendar. It’s July but, unnoticed, my calendar has jumped to January; all is greyed out, out of date. I suffer momentary disorientation and mutter disapproval.

Up pops a question.1

I stare, repeat the question (aloud) and say “No”, rather too emphatically.

I click on No, fast forward to July and proceed with my work.

But I’m distracted. It dawns on me that a calendar called BJH666 did indeed exist and was used to book the room BJH666, including by me. Now, room bookings are done differently – since January in fact. So why is my PC now suggesting I resuscitate this defunct calendar?

The next day, the same thing happens. “No, I do NOT want to add this calendar.” My tone has changed to irritation. But I move on. Perhaps it’s a caching thing, short term memory loss, by my PC. This is what I often tell myself. Something akin to when I’m seemingly the only one at the dinner table who hasn’t registered that the in-laws urgently require a visit or some such inconvenience. Pre-announced but forgotten.

On the third day? Yes, it happens again but this time I’m primed. I’m going to fool the computer. It clearly doesn’t understand ‘No’, so I’ll say “Yes, go ahead and add the [expletive deleted] calendar for BJH666, (under my breath) which we don’t use any more.”

Of course, this is what PC knew I would do. The punch line is ready and waiting.

 

 

 

Fool the computer? Some chance; I have been out-witted. I recognise a good sense of humour when I see it, even if the joke’s on me.

Tanto di cappello, PC.


Footnote

1. Strictly speaking it’s a ‘dialog box’ but I’m not sure anyone uses that term any more.

Different beasts

Let us be clear: directors and facilitators are different beasts. One leads, the other supports. Neither can do his or her job effectively without the ability to listen. There is a school of thought which maintains that facilitation is neutral, requiring no prior knowledge of the subject. However, since both director and facilitator are required quickly to marshal thoughts and ideas into concerted action, both must at least be able to comprehend and synthesise what they hear.

Though both roles can be played in clandestine manner, facilitation and direction should normally be explicit, consensual and rule governed. Those directed or facilitated must be clear and consentient as to the conduct of the task in hand. Both roles also demand humility: since the actual work is done by others, the director or facilitator can take no credit for their efforts, only satisfaction.

In the video below, one of the main characters is directing, the other facilitating. Which is which?
(Profound apologies for any intrusive advertising.)

The Vienna Chamber Orchestra performing among the ruins of Ephesus with canine facilitation.