Author Archives: Richard Francis

About Richard Francis

Richard is Principal Learning Technologist at Oxford Brookes University and a National Teaching Fellow.

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

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

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

Concertante

Sinfonia concertante

Sinfonia concertante © Richard Francis. All rights reserved.

In the run-up to fraudulent elections, words may fail/words fail may/may words fail. For the moment, words are simply out of tune.

In their place, this month, I offer a visual/musical note, an antidote to bullish handshakes and shoves, to puffed-up self-celebration, to the jarring cacophony of the wilful dismantling of democracy.

Sinfonia concertante, no matter the instrument, the era, the stage, is a balance of solo and ensemble playing, in which the individual is prominent but never pre-eminent. Union in diversity. Exactly that which is missing from current social and political discourse.

Over-engineered

This is a blog about digital technology. I must not forget it. However insignificant digital technology may have become in my private life, I must continue to write about it, come what may. What, May? Yes, even her. Even though May is come, with all her deceitful, robotic monotony, I will not be distracted. Today is the 30th of April; I must write something before tomorrow, the 1st of May. But not about May, May is out.

Somewhat inconveniently, my digital competence is diminishing. That is, I am more aware now of what I don’t know than I was twenty years ago. This is re-assuring, however. Were it otherwise, I would be at risk of complacency. I would be sure of myself, of my way of doing things. I would be happy with what I know. As it is, I am always dissatisfied, perennially experimenting, in anticipation of new revelations. I still have the will to learn.

Happily, revelations occur, not infrequently in fact. They give great joy and sustain my enthusiasm. Largely, however, they come from classical sources, from art, music, literature, language, philosophy. Very seldom from technology, which has become monotonous in its perpetual, micro-incremental restlessness. I do not care if every millimeter of my smartphone is screen, or whether the resolution is 4K or 5K or Special K. I am engineered out, tired of ever more pointless technical sophistication, of ephemeral social media gimmickry masquerading as human interaction, of stifling, mechanistic business processes, above all of the insistence on digital competence as an index of professionalism.

I once successfully taught a group of Polish academics in a hotel bedroom equipped with not a trace of ICT, not even chalk. How was this possible? Well, because we were focused exclusively on and trusted each other, we drank at the well of motivation and nourished ourselves with satirical humour. We questioned everything we were told and did as we thought best for our common purpose. Such technology as we had – pen, paper, scissors and glue if I’m not mistaken – was at our service, anciliary … and worked. No training was required, no time was wasted in using it.

In its place technology is wonderful, because it enables us to fashion new ideas and realities, new ways of being in the world. Our world currently having become de-railed, there was never a better time to re-assess technology, to re-appropriate it according to our individual wills, to make it personally relevant and empowering. Otherwise, in the words and music of Maria Pierantoni Giua, our affair with the digital may become a Disamore infinito.

Mirror Mirror

absynthe

Edgar Degas – In a Café, also called Absinthe. Paris, Musée d’Orsay

This post is a one-off written for a workshop on minimalist technology. I put it down to having spent rather a lot of time experimenting in Virtual Reality at work recently. I should try to get out more.

I’m grateful to Sandra Cockburn for running with the original idea.

 

I attended a meeting the other day, which, shall we say, lacked the X-factor; it seemed irrelevant, even slightly unreal in its strict adherence to rules despite the absence of substance. I began to switch off and, as my mind wandered, a sense of surrealism set in. Even the room in which the meeting was taking place began to feel more imagined than real. That is to say, details of architecture, furnishing and lighting began to appear incongruous, out of scale, even anachronistic. When one’s attention is caught for too long by some minor detail, the brain can start playing tricks, causing the familiar to appear bizarre, the humdrum special, as when a word repeated over and over becomes devoid of meaning and turns into gibberish.

A large mirror hung over the boardroom-style table at which we were seated and our images were reflected in it. As I gazed, however, the mirror’s reflective function slowly merged into that of a proscenium arch, inviting me onto a stage on which a parallel meeting was being enacted of which I had hitherto been unaware. Though our alter egos in the mirror were familiar and their meeting shared our agenda, their actions were no longer ours, nor were they beholden to the same protocols. And their minds were certainly not on the matters in hand.

Offstage, the dreary discussion dragged on, eyes glazed, yawns were suppressed. To my surprise, by contrast, our virtual contra figure, far from seeking to dissimulate their boredom, became energised by the lacklustre proceedings and gave conspicuous, emphatic expression to their feelings, in true thespian style.

Not content with facial expression, they conveyed their sentiments with the aid of extraordinary props: I watched in wonder as they caused bright, bold signs, messages and gestures to light up around the room as the situation dictated and as their mood took them. If a speaker’s intervention was clear and concise, the apparition would be appreciative, with clapping hands or a glowing halo beaming out from above the speaker’s head. If the speech was tedious and long-winded, the clapping mime would switch menacingly to an admonitory throat slash. The stage became alive with question marks, up- or down-turned thumbs, assorted emoticons and grimaces, liberally accompanied by snorts, guffaws and tutting sounds. This had turned into the most entertaining meeting I had attended in a long while.

“Ahem.” My reverie was broken by an impatient cough. “Perhaps Richard would like to illuminate us further…”

I jumped down from my imaginary stage and blotted the magic mirror from my mind. But as I stuttered back into real life, I swear I heard it emit a malevolent chuckle.

Father PC

[With apologies to Lewis Carroll]

Sir John Tenniel - “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” (1865) Father William somersaulting in through the door

Sir John Tenniel – “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” (1865)
Father William somersaulting in through the door

 

“You are old,” said the smartphone, “and your software’s so slow

That a cuppa can be brewed while it’s loading.

My apps zip along

And can be had for a song.

I hope you’ll forgive me for goading.”

 

“It matters quite little,” the desktop replied,

“When updates become unavailable.

Though apps overblown

My CPU have outgrown,

The old ones remain unassailable.”

 

“You are old,” said the smartphone, “and your hard disk is full

Of photos your owner has forgotten.

If you took just a day

To throw some away,

The rest would be looked at more often.”

 

“In my youth,” said the desktop, “photos were treasured

And printed for all to see.

Now we have such a horde

That in the cloud they must be stored.

The blame for it lies not with me.”

 

“You are old,” the phone persisted, “and I beg to affirm

That you’ve come to the end of your reign.

A lump so static

Should be consigned to the attic

For the tablet your heritage to claim.”

 

“Enough is enough,” the desktop exclaimed, “I’ll hear no more talk of heirs.

Your battery makes you greedier

For fake news and social media.

Log off, or I’ll throw you downstairs.”

 


 

TITANalytICs

I was asked to create a cartoon-style banner for the 2017 Brookes Learning and Teaching Conference, the theme of which is open learning and transnational partnership. Here, with apologies to Gillray, Daumier, Chappatte et al, is the result.

bltc2016_cartoon_web

HMS Titanalytics © Richard Francis 2016-17