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 It’s July but, unnoticed, my calendar has jumped to January; all is greyed out, out of date.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.


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.


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.


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


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.”




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.


HMS Titanalytics © Richard Francis 2016-17

There shall be no clocks

-8ºC, a numb sun, every movement amplified by the silent stillness of the air. The pages of my book are warm like blankets.

Arriving at work I notice that the wall outside my office is blank. Where is the clock? I’m sure it was there yesterday. Come come, that cannot be. You just need to get warm.

I must be staring because a colleague notices my disorientation and takes pity.

“It’s 8:20.”dezeen_a-million-times-by-humans-since-1982-5
“Oh, thanks. I couldn’t see the clock.”

As if also trying to help, the clock reveals itself on a column two metres away.

“Has it moved?”
“No. And it isn’t going to. Not after all the trouble we had getting it.”
“Why? Is it in the wrong place?”
“It shouldn’t be there at all. In the offices, yes, but not out here.”

My eyes wander back to the wall, still stubbornly, defiantly blank. “Yes, this is where the clock should be but isn’t,” it taunts with a sneer.

“When we moved in we were told “There shall be no clocks.””

As autonomous individuals, instantiated in time and space, we are gradually dissolving into ubiquity. Though I wear a watch, its temporal referents are increasingly personal, of no concern to others. Appointments take place at “times” that have little to do with solar or biological rhythms. They are co-incident in our shared Google calendars, permitting us short periods of synchronous inter-relationship but do not correspond with shared understandings of times of day, nor can be measured in fixed temporal units such as hours and minutes. Instead we flow in and out of each other’s frames of reference, never out of range, acting upon each other with varying degrees of intensity at virtually any time.

In such a reality clocks may indeed be out of place.

Drawn in

This is the result of my very first experience of a new form of visual self-expression, “drawn” in 3D with Google’s Tiltbrush on a Vive 3D VR system. I was, so to speak, drawn in, more than I expected to be. Intriguing.