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May 2005

Online life and education

It's been well over a year since I and my colleague, Ian, started dabbling with TypePad. We've learned a lot and made many connections — face to face and online — and learned, too, to join "small" bits together (TypePad, Basecamp, Flickr, del.icio.us, 43 Things, Backpack, Ta-da, Audioscrobbler/Last FM …). It's been a stimulating and creative time.

The online magazine that is again waking up, Sed contra, is soon to be relaunched with its own Flickr and music feed, and with podcasting. I was very interested to see that Musselburgh Grammar School has already got to the podcasting stage. Indeed, its work in the blogging sphere (its geoBlog is a collaboration with a school in Silesia) has won it an award as Scotland's Best School Website for March 2005, and it has been nominated for a New Statesman New Media Award for education and innovation (news via Blogger Me, where Alistair Shrimpton, UK Business Development Manager for Six Apart, reports that via their weblog MGS 'received over 1400 letters and emails exchanged between pupils in 20 schools in seven countries with four languages'). Earlier this month, the TES had a very brief article on podcasting and schools, and I've just come across Adam Burt's mobile learning blog, m-learning.

Reboot 7.0 lies ahead for Ian and me, and thereafter plans for further developments at Radley (online calendaring, student-camphone feeds, video blogging, internet-radio/podcasting, state-sector/private-sector collaboration — the last is a major project). It's a good time to be involved in the internet and web-based applications, and teachers have lots to learn and exploit.


The Eels: moments of beauty

Blogs are supposed to be up-to-date diaries, right? But, heh — a week can be a long time in teaching …

Eels_1

So last Monday Archie and I were at the RFH for the latest Eels' tour. It was a great evening. Centred mainly around the music from Everett's new CD, Blinking Lights and Other Revelations, it of course bore the stamp of the same — highly reflective, markedly introspective, sometimes sombre, often subdued, frequently melancholic. These elements have always been there in his songs; they're just more prominent now. From the band's website page about the new album:

Everett's father, famed quantum physicist Hugh Everett III, author of the Many Worlds Theory, died in 1982. His sister, Elizabeth committed suicide in 1996 and his mother, Nancy, who appears in a childhood photo on the cover of Blinking Lights, succumbed to cancer in 1998. "I would have ended up like my sister a long time ago except for one thing -- music," says Everett, "I've been very lucky to have that to hold onto. I take it very seriously. Maybe too seriously. It's everything to me."

"The family I grew up with was completely gone by 1998. I dealt with it at the time by making Electro-Shock Blues. But it's something that is never going to change for me and its implications are far-reaching in my life," he says. And the "curse" didn't let up after 1998, either: Everett's cousin Jennifer was a flight attendant on the plane that hit the Pentagon September 11, 2001. "There's kind of a ghostly sound to a lot of Blinking Lights," says Everett, "maybe because I'm living with a bunch of ghosts."

My favourite song of the evening and the album? The album's closing track, 'Things The Grandchildren Should Know'. Excerpts:

… I'm turning out just like my father
Though I swore I never would
Now I can say that I have a love for him
I never really understood
What it must have been like for him
Living inside his head

I feel like he's here with me now
Even though he's dead

… So in the end I'd like to say
That I'm a very thankful man
I tried to make the most of my situations
And enjoy what I had
I knew true love and I knew passion
And the difference between the two
And I had some regrets
But if I had to do it all again
Well, it's something I'd like to do

Why my favourite? The Telegraph briefly mentioned the new album here and David Cheal said the necessary: 'It grapples with death, with waking up in the morning and not wanting to go on, with grief, and with anger; but it also seizes on the beautiful moments that punctuate the life of this troubled individual, beginning in his childhood when he used to sit in the dark and stare at the lights flashing on the Christmas tree … ultimately Everett seems to reach a kind of resolution, an acceptance of his place in the universe'.

I think both The Independent and The Times missed the point of the evening — as did our neighbour, a moderately extrovert American who swore his way through the opening Russian cartoon, was in the bar for the short film and was expecting a trad Rock concert for the rest of the evening. When, oh when, will people grock that the best of today's non-classical musicians are always going to be breaking new ground? That's ground, not wind. (See the Eels' site's FAQ no 6.)

(The brief Observer review got closer. Reviews of the 2003 tour can be found here and here.)

Last word to Mark Everett:

After a life full of some intense and horrific episodes, while looking back and taking stock in disc two's closing 'Things The Grandchildren Should Know', there's an extraordinary moment when the bloodshot and world-weary Everett clears his eyes and finds that life is still sweet enough to live all over again.

"There are two kinds of Christmas people," Everett says, "those who like their Christmas lights to stay on solid and those who like them to blink. As a kid, I always had a thing for sitting in the dark and watching the lights blink on and off at random." Now he says this fascination goes much further. "In the end, what we have are these little, great moments. They come and they go. That's as good as it gets. But, still, isn't that great?"


Hoodies

Thank God for Private Eye. It's been a busy fortnight and I'm catching up. The hoo-ha about hoodies — are we supposed to take this seriously? Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, writing in The Independent (registration and fee required):

… as soon as they have latched on to an issue, New Labour falls headlong into trite, headline-grabbing, dangerously Maoist ideas, thus alienating those who would be onside. The young shall not wear hoodies at the false churches of modern Britain, the consuming malls which only respect money. The Bluewater shopping centre in Kent and others like it, which have killed the human spirit of this country, now have the power to dictate what people may wear - not for reasons of decency, but arbitrarily. Young men and boys and women and girls, too, in sweatshirts with zips and hoods are deemed a terrible threat to the nation.

My sweet daughter loves them, and has just bought two tiny hoodies for new twin boys in our family. Our delicate Deputy Prime Minister has thrown his bulk behind this ban, saying he is scared of hoodies, finds them intimidating. Are we meant to respect these views of the legendary Mr Fisticuffs? Does he respect our intelligence when he comes out with this rubbish? Sure, for some criminals, the garment helps them to avoid identification on CCTV, but for others it is only ever a fashion item. By the way, are they going to ban shops selling hoodies in the centres, too? And what next? Women in burkas? People in large sunglasses and caps?

Mark Steyn in The Daily Telegraph (free registration) blames CCTV:

The British are the most videotaped people in the history of mankind, caught on camera by official surveillance devices as they go about every humdrum public manoeuvre. If you're a grown-up, this might not seem a big deal: you can go back to your pad, collapse on the sofa and pick your nose far from Tony Blair's prying eyes, though doubtless this chink in the 24/7 monitoring system will eventually be rectified. But, if you're an adolescent, far more of your social rituals take place in public - meeting friends at the bus stop, enjoying a romantic moment by the non-operative ornamental fountain outside the KwikkiJunk Centre, etc - and it seems entirely reasonable that adolescent garb has artfully evolved to provide its wearers with such privacy as can be found under the constant whirr of the Big Blairite Brother's telly cameras.


Google homepages

Ever since the appearance of Google accounts, it's been a question not of 'if' but 'when' Google would make fuller use of them. 'My search history' was a stepping-stone en route to what is now emerging, personalised homepages. A Google portal by another name?

Google_personalised_1

Google blog

Comments and thoughts: Jeremy Zawodny, John Battelle. Julian Bond: 'What I want is Google-About-Me, not My-Google. A page for *other* people to see everything I do, not a page where I can do everything. Or as Marc Canter would say, a Digital Lifestyle Aggregator.'


Jyri Engeström at the James Martin Institute

Friday, 6 May: to the James Martin Institute, Oxford, to hear Jyri speaking about 'The Practice of Innovation: how new technology gets defined as sustaining or disruptive' (pdf flyer here).

Great morning on three counts. First and foremost, to see Jyri again and to catch up a little with his news. Then, his talk, which started with Clayton Christensen's The Innovator's Dilemma: it is a common assumption that 'new technologies are inherently either sustaining or disruptive to the organisation'. But narratives can be seen to influence commercial decisions about innovation, with materials playing roles in the narratives that ventures tell about themselves. Working with an example of a venture drawn from a particular organisation, Jyri proposed that the 'venture's success in the internal competition for resources depended on its ability to make the materials speak for its potency — in the context of prescriptive frameworks which the management of the company mobilised to make resource allocation decisions.'

In this model, ethnography can have a key role to play in creating 'an alternate framework for conceptualising the relationship between the ventures and the main business' (quotations from seminar handout).

The discussion at the seminar seemed to me polarised between commentary from academic ethnographers and those with another kind of "pure" (!) interest — commerce. As an English teacher, the role of narrative in interpreting innovation struck a deep chord with me. My dime's worth: I think Jyri's pursuing something that's fundamental and important — I don't buy a hard-nosed response that dismisses this talk of narratives and wants instead to talk only a sparer language of organisational structures, etc. It is also true that how we tell a story matters and depends upon the audience — who are we talking to and why? An ethnographer working within, say, a school would have her/his work cut out (schools are commonly conservative) and would have to find excellent language and strategies to re-create the reigning institutional narrative(s). I've seen it done (by that strange incarnation of an ethnographer, the headmaster), but it's not easy.

The third thing that made the morning good was the Institute itself. These seminars are free. They are of a very high standard. An email will put you on the mailing list. The Insitute's mission statement and the Research Seminars page offer compelling reasons to sign up.

After the talk, Jyri and I spoke about how we can try to stay fresh in our thinking, in the narratives we live by. I owe my pupils a great debt — it's simply the best thing in teaching, this constant source of renewal, stimulus and challenge. But I promised Jyri a Coleridge quotation that I think also says much about how we break new ground, albeit (perhaps) in a more introspective and personal way:

The extenders of consciousness – Sorrow, Sickness, Poetry, Religion. The truth is, we stop in the sense of life just where we are not forced to go on — and then adopt a permission of our feelings for a precept of our Reason. (3632; Sep/Nov 1809)

'Extenders of consciousness' or, as we might say in this context, important disruptions.


Google local mobile

We were on a roll after we launched Google Local UK last month, and went on to build a mobile web browser version of Google Local for our UK users. Users can now access Local on their mobile by going straight to the Local home page (that's http://mobile.google.co.uk/local) or the Google UK home page (a.k.a. http://www.google.co.uk/xhtml). So we say: step away from that computer. Click a few buttons on your keypad and head to that new Thai restaurant near Piccadilly Circus. If you're slightly disoriented once away from the screen, Local gives you Google Maps and driving directions too. Google Blog


An Incomplete Manifesto for Growth

Came across this via 37 Signals:

Written in 1998, the Incomplete Manifesto is an articulation of statements that exemplify Bruce Mau's beliefs, motivations and strategies. It also articulates how the BMD studio works.

There are (currently) 43 points. At this present time, I like these in particular:

1. Allow events to change you. You have to be willing to grow. Growth is different from something that happens to you. You produce it. You live it. The prerequisites for growth: the openness to experience events and the willingness to be changed by them.

4. Love your experiments (as you would an ugly child). Joy is the engine of growth. Exploit the liberty in casting your work as beautiful experiments, iterations, attempts, trials, and errors. Take the long view and allow yourself the fun of failure every day.

6. Capture accidents. The wrong answer is the right answer in search of a different question. Collect wrong answers as part of the process. Ask different questions.

7. Study. A studio is a place of study. Use the necessity of production as an excuse to study. Everyone will benefit.

8. Drift. Allow yourself to wander aimlessly. Explore adjacencies. Lack judgment. Postpone criticism.

9. Begin anywhere. John Cage tells us that not knowing where to begin is a common form of paralysis. His advice: begin anywhere.

10. Everyone is a leader. Growth happens. Whenever it does, allow it to emerge. Learn to follow when it makes sense. Let anyone lead.

11. Harvest ideas. Edit applications. Ideas need a dynamic, fluid, generous environment to sustain life. Applications, on the other hand, benefit from critical rigor. Produce a high ratio of ideas to applications.

12. Keep moving. The market and its operations have a tendency to reinforce success. Resist it. Allow failure and migration to be part of your practice.

13. Slow down. Desynchronize from standard time frames and surprising opportunities may present themselves.

14. Don’t be cool. Cool is conservative fear dressed in black. Free yourself from limits of this sort.

15. Ask stupid questions. Growth is fueled by desire and innocence. Assess the answer, not the question. Imagine learning throughout your life at the rate of an infant.

16. Collaborate. The space between people working together is filled with conflict, friction, strife, exhilaration, delight, and vast creative potential.

17. ——————————. Intentionally left blank. Allow space for the ideas you haven’t had yet, and for the ideas of others.

18. Stay up late. Strange things happen when you’ve gone too far, been up too long, worked too hard, and you're separated from the rest of the world.

19. Work the metaphor. Every object has the capacity to stand for something other than what is apparent. Work on what it stands for.

20. Be careful to take risks. Time is genetic. Today is the child of yesterday and the parent of tomorrow. The work you produce today will create your future.

21. Repeat yourself. If you like it, do it again. If you don’t like it, do it again.

23. Stand on someone’s shoulders. You can travel farther carried on the accomplishments of those who came before you. And the view is so much better.

25. Don’t clean your desk. You might find something in the morning that you can’t see tonight.

28. Make new words. Expand the lexicon. The new conditions demand a new way of thinking. The thinking demands new forms of expression. The expression generates new conditions.

29. Think with your mind. Forget technology. Creativity is not device-dependent.

30. Organization = Liberty. Real innovation in design, or any other field, happens in context. That context is usually some form of cooperatively managed enterprise. Frank Gehry, for instance, is only able to realize Bilbao because his studio can deliver it on budget. The myth of a split between “creatives” and “suits” is what Leonard Cohen calls a 'charming artifact of the past.'

32. Listen carefully. Every collaborator who enters our orbit brings with him or her a world more strange and complex than any we could ever hope to imagine. By listening to the details and the subtlety of their needs, desires, or ambitions, we fold their world onto our own. Neither party will ever be the same.

33. Take field trips. The bandwidth of the world is greater than that of your TV set, or the Internet, or even a totally immersive, interactive, dynamically rendered, object-oriented, real-time, computer graphic–simulated environment.

34. Make mistakes faster. This isn’t my idea — I borrowed it. I think it belongs to Andy Grove.

35. Imitate. Don’t be shy about it. Try to get as close as you can. You'll never get all the way, and the separation might be truly remarkable. We have only to look to Richard Hamilton and his version of Marcel Duchamp’s large glass to see how rich, discredited, and underused imitation is as a technique.

39. Coffee breaks, cab rides, green rooms. Real growth often happens outside of where we intend it to, in the interstitial spaces — what Dr. Seuss calls “the waiting place.” Hans Ulrich Obrist once organized a science and art conference with all of the infrastructure of a conference — the parties, chats, lunches, airport arrivals — but with no actual conference. Apparently it was hugely successful and spawned many ongoing collaborations.

40. Avoid fields. Jump fences. Disciplinary boundaries and regulatory regimes are attempts to control the wilding of creative life. They are often understandable efforts to order what are manifold, complex, evolutionary processes. Our job is to jump the fences and cross the fields.

41. Laugh. People visiting the studio often comment on how much we laugh. Since I've become aware of this, I use it as a barometer of how comfortably we are expressing ourselves.

42. Remember. Growth is only possible as a product of history. Without memory, innovation is merely novelty. History gives growth a direction. But a memory is never perfect. Every memory is a degraded or composite image of a previous moment or event. That’s what makes us aware of its quality as a past and not a present. It means that every memory is new, a partial construct different from its source, and, as such, a potential for growth itself.

43. Power to the people. Play can only happen when people feel they have control over their lives. We can't be free agents if we’re not free.

I also enjoyed Dean Allen's commentary to the above.


Rufus Wainwright

Friday, 13 May: to the New Theatre, Oxford (me, Olly, Ed and Ben). Rufus Wainwright in town. Our first gig by him. Audience ranging from the very young to some seriously dedicated middle-aged female fans. One 30-something man said to me as we waited outside, 'Are you going to hear Rufus?' — European accent (? Belgian); reverential, awed tones.

I like his CDs and there is no question his is a top-drawer song-writing talent which, like his audience, ranges widely: genres a-plenty, straight or parodied, melancholic and romantic. We enjoyed the gig a lot, but his tendency to blur words wasn't helped by the sound-system. I knew several songs, but others were simply … sound.

Memorable songs: 'The Art Teacher', 'Peach Trees', 'Old Whore's Diet', 'Dinner at Eight', 'The One You Love', 'Crumb by Crumb' …

Memorable comment: 'chanson terrible'.

I forgot my camera. Some very indifferent camphone photos here, here and here. (These fail completely to capture the full nature of his and the band's fairy/witch encore 'tease act — so oddly safe and … popular with the crowd.) Some notes on a number of the songs we heard can be found here, and a review in the Independent of an earlier leg of this tour, here. More reviews on RW's own site, here.