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.

Pristine condition

When we buy something new, something that hasn’t been owned by someone else, we value its newness, its pristine quality, its untouched purity. If it is blemished, damaged, soiled, we are dissatisfied, may return it, seek a replacement. Had we desired marks, fingerprints, stains, dog-eared corners, we would have made our purchase from a second-hand outlet, an antiquarian, a charity shop.BIGscribbles002

This month I imagined I had purchased a new book, that is a copy that had not been handled by another person. I was eager to open it, turn its pages, take sight of its content for the first time, as if the first to do so.

I was wrong. This was an e-book.

Three pages in, I notice several annotations, several phrases and sentences that have been underlined. At first I associate them with the markings of a spell-checker, they must denote orthographic or grammatical errors. Strange because I detect none and the annotations are numerous and lengthy, as if someone had wished to highlight the passages in question, bring them to my attention. I move the cursor to the start of one such annotation and a note appears informing me that “four people have previously highlighted this passage.” Do I wish to view other annotations by the same readers? Do I wish to share my own annotations with them?

No I do not. I will almost certainly talk about what I have read with my family and friends, at some point – of my choosing. Right now, I want to enjoy the text for the first time, in a pristine state.

Why should I worry? I can de-activate shared annotations, it is my choice. No, the choice has been made for me. It should be my choice to activate them, not to have to switch them off.

I feel foolish, naïve. Of course I should have realised. I have merely licensed this book. If the publisher chooses to withdraw it from its catalogue, my licence to read it will expire. I have it on loan, it does not belong to me, I am accessing it by temporary courtesy of the publisher, as are they who have annotated it before me.

I will choose something from the library next time. It’s free and I won’t worry about the odd scribble.


Life in this age of constant connection is interspersed with episodes of incommunication, in which spontaneous, “natural” conversation seems to stutter and fail. Here are four examples, all genuine.


Episode 1

I walk into the Transport Office at work. There are three employees, no customers.

“How can I help you today?”
“Could you tell me the procedure for getting a bus pass?”
“No problem. The information is all on line.”
“How much does it cost?”
“The prices are all on the website.”
“How long will it take?”
“You should allow 10-15 days at peak times.”
“Is mid August a peak time?”
“Could be. Waiting times are on the website.”
“Do I need a photo?”
“Is there a booth anywhere?”
(In a tone of amused condescension.) “Er… use your smartphone.”

In search of the appropriate white backdrop, I retire to the toilets armed with an iPad and hope that no-one will burst in on my improvised photoshoot.

Episode 2

I am outside on the square, strolling back to my office after a coffee break with colleagues.
A stranger addresses me in an earnest tone.

“Excuse me. You’re a TV personality, aren’t you?”
(Smiling.) “Hardly.”
(With insistence.) “You’re from Oxford aren’t you? They said you were from Oxford.”
“Yes, but I haven’t appeared on TV for about 20 years.”
“I saw you last night.”
“I don’t think so.”
“On Robot Wars.”
(Smile waning.) “Sorry, I don’t know what that is.”
“It’s the programme you were on. Your robot got knocked out.”
(Smile now wry.) “Well, that’s a relief.”
(Stranger shakes his head and disappears into a shop.)

Episode 3

I am reading on the bus going home.

A large woman is seated next to me, earbuds firmly in place. She rises purposefully to get off, knocking my glasses onto the floor.

I retreat rapidly into the corridor to make way and to retrieve my glasses before they cease to be. Bending over, I back inadvertently into another passenger, also advancing towards the exit smartphone in hand. The bus jolts, I lose balance and tread on her foot. She yelps. I apologise profusely. Neither she nor the other lady makes any form of acknowledgement.

I return to my seat to resume reading but feel numb and resistant to the insensitive clamour of the words on the page. I toy with the idea of proposing myself as a new Marvel comic character – the Invisible Bulk.

Episode 4

The bus has reached the end of the line and the driver is having a cigarette break. We are still four stops away from my destination so I remain on board. Silence reigns. All nine passengers are gazing into their smartphones or into the middle distance with their earbuds on.

The silence is broken by a loud and doleful whining sound emanating from one of the passengers with earbuds. The lament continues, wavering between loud and soft, for about a minute, without apparent rhythmic or melodic form.

The relief is palpable when the driver re-starts the engine and we continue on our way. At no point is there any reaction of any sort from anyone.