Sunday, 24 June 2012

'Bild' and the Intention Economy

Yesterday morning, I went to collect my post and discovered a copy of Bild sticking out of my letterbox. So I threw it in the trash with all the other unsolicited junk mail.

Bild, for those who don't know, is a German tabloid which is not even allowed to call itself a newspaper. Although that's an urban legend, the very fact that so many people believe it tells you how the German public feel about Bild. Since 1998, its circulation has fallen from 4.56 million to 2.84 million (in 2011). And in March this year, it decided to remove the daily nude from the front cover (my incredulous emphasis). But my point today is not (only) to criticise Bild, but to discuss how it ended up in my letterbox.

Today, 24 June, is the 60th anniversary of the newspaper's launch, and in order to celebrate Bild sent itself to 41 million households in Germany (the Sunday edition of Bild is a separate publication and a couple of years younger, so that's why we received the anniversary issue a day earlier). In doing so it apparently set a world record for "the largest circulation for the free special edition of a newspaper." Except, of course, nobody asked for a free Bild to be shoved into their letterbox, which makes this achievement sound rather hollow. And let's not forget that the sheer expense of the event: the printing, logistics and waste generated could hardly be anything other than significant.

Unsurprisingly, when Bild announced its plan to effectively spam every household in the country, many people were upset—upset enough to launch a counter campaign which resulted in a legally-binding right to refuse. In the first twelve days of the campaign, some 200,000 people completed an application to not receive a copy of Bild. Naturally enough, Bild is claiming some kind of victory here as well, since only 0.6% of German households did not want to receive the free issue—surely, the reasoning goes, 99.4% were happy to join Bild in celebrating its 60th birthday.

No. The reason that only 200,000 dissented was because the whole approach was opt-out rather than opt-in. After reading about the plan months ago, my girlfriend and I considered joining the counter campaign, but decided against it since opting-out actually entailed sending our personal information to Bild. And opting out would still not stop Bild from feeding our letterbox with rubbish: instead, we'd receive an envelope containing a letter which said, more-or-less, 'Thank you for not taking part in Bild's 60th anniversary celebrations...' Damned if you do, damned if you don't.

So after that I forgot about the whole thing, and only remembered yesterday when I was confronted by the offending article in my mail. And my response was the same as with any other junk: remove from letterbox and fling in the large cardboard box which stands behind the front door, specifically designed for collecting such trash. I probably didn't even break my step as I continued on the way to collect bread rolls from the bakery.

Actually going through the opt-out process seems to have met with mixed results: some people still received Bild (perhaps because they didn't click on the confirmation email they were sent), and some people received both a red envelope and Bild (perhaps because the postman/woman were not sufficiently instructed about what they were supposed to do). The counter campaign is now collecting evidence before deciding how to proceed.

Bild decided that the German public would all take part. Sure, we were able to refuse, but doing so required considerably more effort than just forgetting and using the trash when the day came. We were, without solicitation, opted into a campaign, with the choice to opt out if we could be bothered. Most people couldn't, and didn't. But what if the choice had been the other way around, if we'd had to ask to receive a free copy of Bild, rather than getting it automatically? Obviously, the entire event would have been a massive failure.

* * *

Serendipitously, a short while later the post delivered my copy of The Intention Economy, by Doc Searls. Now, I'm a slow(ish) reader, so I have barely started the book, but what I have read (and seen in his interview with Leo Laporte on this week's Triangulation) got me thinking about the Bild I'd thrown away.

In essence, the Intention Economy stands in sharp contrast to the Attention Economy, which Searls argues "has shaped marketing and sales since the dawn of advertising." In the Attention Economy, companies seek to deal with an over-abundance of information (or competition) by winning the attention of a customer. All traditional advertising is attention-seeking: even the modern, supposedly individualised online advertisements still do this by hoping to appear relevant. The first step of the AIDA principle of marketing (Attention, Interest, Desire, Action), attention is a crucial part in achieving "a customer who is ready to buy," in Peter Drucker's words:

The aim of marketing is to know and understand the customer so well that the product or service fits him and sells itself. Ideally, marketing should result in a customer who is ready to buy.
The problem with this is that it treats the customer as a subject to be studied, or a source of data to be collected. What it fails to do, and what modern technology could and should enable, is actually listen to the wishes of the customer. Instead of desperately collecting as much information about their customers as possible, in order to find the best way of attracting their attention, companies would be better off—in the long run—asking customers what they want, and finding effective ways of listening to them. Marketing typically places the customer at the centre of the operations of a company; but what it has not done is ascribe the customer agency or intention. Marketing has researched the customer rather than communicated with them.

This, I take it, is what The Intention Economy and Searls' ProjectVRM is attempting to address. And now, back to Bild.

* * *

The 60th anniversary 'celebration' of Bild is clear example of attention-seeking. Having seen its circulation fall by roughly a third over the last decade, the newspaper decided to force its way into the German consciousness like a petulant child shrieking 'Look at me! Look at me! Pay attention, damn you!' Bild did not in the slightest care what we wanted, and made it more difficult for us to object than to just let it have its little public tantrum.

Perhaps I exaggerate after the fact. But then again, perhaps we should not underestimate Bild's aggressive, cynical, opt-out-only attempt to increase its circulation. It is a particularly visible example of the Attention Economy at its worst. Bear in mind that the whole of modern advertising is based on similar principles; as are, necessarily, the advertising-supported internet and social networks. Do not forget that Facebook, with nearly a billion users, derives its (disappointing) market value from advertising and that it very much operates on a 'choose to opt-out rather than choose to opt-in' basis. Bild is far from being alone.

Yet neither are we. At the risk of sounding too inflammatory, I'll end by saying this: if we do not tell companies what we want, and what we do not want, they will never listen to us. Bild, Facebook and others like them are based on a model which, on the one hand, encourages consumer passivity, and on the other rewards whoever can make themselves heard over the attention-seeking masses, either by sheer volume, or by being the most intrusive and obnoxious. If that is not what we want, we need to find a way to gain their attention, and inform them of our intention.

Saturday, 23 June 2012

Digital Vertigo, by Andrew Keen

Without a doubt, @ajkeen is a fine writer. The only word I can think of to describe the introductory chapter to his latest book, Digital Vertigo, is 'intoxicating'. He led me through the rainy streets of London to the corpse of Jeremy Bentham and expressed his inner turmoil over the posting of a neo-Cartesian tweet with such skill that, when I paused to reflect at the chapter's end, I wondered if there hadn't been some literary slight of hand involved, if the quality of the writing was blinding me to some sophistry. But no, it is simply that Keen is a fine writer.

The style settles down somewhat after that, but the method does not. Keen sees connections everywhere, and the result is a heady concoction of philosophy, history, cinema, art, hippy culture and technological commentary. I will not attempt to summarise the argument in any detail: it twists and turns like a twisty-turny thing. Perhaps it goes too far sometimes—I was never entirely convinced by the relevance of Hitchcock's Vertigo (from which the book draws its name), although that may be in part due to my unfamiliarity with the film, which Keen would undoubtedly be horrified by. But there is a great deal that can be said about the modern sharing, public, digital world by taking a step back and looking at it from a wider historical / philosophical perspective, and I greatly appreciate Keen's efforts in drawing attention to such parallels.

One of the central arguments of Digital Vertigo is that the major proponents of the social web are those who stand to gain the most from it. It may ostensively be 'free' to join Facebook, but the consequence is that you are not actually a customer, in the traditional sense, of Facebook, but rather a product. And, as a product, the more you share, and the more social you are, the more valuable you become to the company. As such, it is no wonder that such the entrepreneurs behind such companies believe that privacy is dead, or that the future is social, or that humans are, by their very nature, social animals. It is no wonder because these technological gurus have a vested interest in encouraging you to be as social as possible.

Keen wishes to go further than that, however, arguing that we risk losing the essence of what makes us human when we succumb to the pressure of becoming hyper-social. Referring to Mill, he says that

our uniqueness as a species lies in our ability to stand apart from the crowd, to disentangle ourselves from society, to be let alone and to be able to think and act for ourselves.
Or to put it another way, the digital narcissism implicit in today's social networks is dangerously dehumanising.

Keen is no Luddite, which is why it's a cheap shot to criticise him for inviting people to follow him on twitter (as the book cover playfully illustrates). If anything, he's interested in informed consent; people should be aware of what they're getting into, of the dangers of excess, and free to choose not to. And naturally enough, the default setting of the social network should be privacy: we should choose to be public, not choose to be private.

If I have concerns about Digital Vertigo, it's with the occasionally disingenuous argumentation. Needless to say, Jeff Jarvis and his recent Public Parts comes in for a fair amount of criticism, but Jarvis is generally more sophisticated than Keen's treatment suggests (that being said, Jarvis' unquestioning idolisation of Mark Zuckerberg began his book with a sour taste that I could never quite dismiss). But there are other points where the polemical narrative seems to take over: for example, in describing Josh Harris, the subject of We Live In Public, Keen suggests that Harris is now more-or-less living in isolation and disgrace in Ethiopia. Not so, according to Jarvis, who spends several pages describing 'The Wired City', a next-generation reality show planned by Harris (admittedly a kickstarter project which failed). Another example: Eric Schmidt's rather ridiculous comment that young people should be able to automatically change their names on reaching adulthood, which, as Jarvis points out, was intended as a joke. Keen is well aware of this, as I've seen him acknowledge in an interview, but it's not mentioned in the book, presumably because it would have weakened, or distracted from, the point he was trying to make. Also, I've always considered novelists less than reliable sources for philosophical arguments (because what they are writing is, by its nature, fiction), but Keen is more than happy to cite authors, novels, and films to illustrate his argument that we're heading in the wrong direction.

These points may well be pedantic, and I do, in principle, agree with where Keen is trying to go with the book; there were just times when I was sceptical about how he was getting there. And that is true of pretty much every mention of The Social Network, a (semi)fictionalised account of the birth of Facebook which Zuckerberg refused to be interviewed for. The film may have been Oscar-nominated, but that hardly grants it any credibility; and suggesting, as Keen does at the end of Digital Vertigo, that we should watch it in order to help make the choice "between being human and being an elephant or a sheep" is almost farcical. At best, this is preaching to the converted, because none of the 'proponents' of the social network will have any time for the film (think: hatchet job). At worst, it's a cynical deception: trust a Hollywood, old media, fictionalised cinematic account rather than seeking the truth. I don't actually think that Keen is being so manipulative; but if Jarvis' hero-worship of Zuckerberg is the sour taste in Public Parts, Keen's praise for The Social Network is the bum note in Digital Vertigo.

All in all, though, I enjoyed my time with Digital Vertigo, and my copy is enthusiastically dog-eared. It's a well-written, insightful account of the potential dangers of the social web we find ourselves increasingly caught up in. And if, at times, Keen gets a little too wrapped up in the point he's trying to make, it doesn't stop that point being any less vital or timely.

[Keen's recent opinion piece on CNN is worth a read to get the gist of what the book is about...]

Sunday, 17 June 2012

Kamasutra (o.s.t.), by Can / Irmin Schmidt (2009)

The Inner Space - KamasutraAccording to The Can Book, the band did not hit upon their name until December 1968; and music included in this soundtrack was recorded a month before that. And so Kamasutra is credited to Irmin Schmidt & Inner Space Production. Indeed, none of the musicians involved in the recording are mentioned in the sleeve notes, which instead summarise the contents of the obscure German film. Only Malcolm Mooney, and one Margarete Juvan, receive any credit, and only because they sing on one track each.

And in a way, that's fair enough. This is, after all, proto-Can, Can before they found their groove and identity. In some ways, the music here resembles some of the entries in their occasional Ethnic Forgery Series, but that's not quite fair, as the most of the EFS pieces which have been released are decidedly tongue-in-cheek—they're 'forgeries', after all—while the ethnic elements appropriated here are played more conventionally. Both the ethnic elements and the rock elements sound fairly typical of the sound of the late 60's, and so unrepresentative of Can themselves. That's not to say the album is of no interest to a Can fan; it's just a recording of the band in their earliest stages of development. And at several points I thought I heard references to later pieces, riffs or rhythms which would soon make their way onto record in a different form.

It's also interesting to hear David Johnson's flute playing here; if I remember correctly, there were only a couple of points on Unlimited Edition where we've heard it before. To be sure, that flute is what part of what makes the album not quite sound like Can; but this was apparently the only time when the six musicians of Inner Space played together, and it's a fascinating insight into the band's development.

Verdict: Much as I appreciate this release, it's hard to rate the album higher than Decent. Dedicated Can fans may consider this to be an essential part of their collection, but anyone else is not likely to be impressed.

[Review also posted on rateyourmusic]

Livemiles, by Tangerine Dream (1988)

Tangerine Dream - LivemilesUntainted by any hint of nostalgia, I've just listened to the album for the first time. One of the words often used in connection with Livemiles is 'warm', and that seems appropriate to me. In a way that's surprising, because all those keyboards and computers were typically thought to lead to soulless music (in part Kraftwerk's influence, no doubt). But warm this album is, while thankfully avoiding being too drippy or saccharine.

Despite that, Livemiles is still basically wallpaper, or coffee-table music. It doesn't challenge, it doesn't really excel, it doesn't excite. It does what it does well—and warmly—but it never even attempts to scale the heights of previous Tangerine Dream albums, live or otherwise. For its time, and its place in the band's discography, it's pretty good; but that's like saying it's the best of a bad bunch, or the lesser of many evils.

To be fair, I probably will listen to Livemiles again; somehow, I see the point. I wish it was a more interesting point, but at least it has one.

Verdict: Not really good, but not a total waste either. Still, the album probably represents the point at which I part company with Tangerine Dream.

[Review also posted on rateyourmusic]

Underwater Sunlight, by Tangerine Dream (1986)

Tangerine Dream - Underwater SunlightWay back when, I used to listen to a compilation of Tangerine Dream which, bizarrely, contained a single track from their pre-Phaedra records, and then material from nearly a decade later, skipping their Virgin years entirely. It made for a weird mix—krautrock experimentation rounding out a selection of 80's electronica.

In the early 90's, of course, the 80's were not so far away, and I had not yet come to a) despise the 80's as the worse decade of music in the entire history of the universe, and b) love early krautrock. And so I thought the two-part (and side-long) 'Song of the Whale' was pretty damn epic and pretty damn fine. Twenty years later, I decided to pick up the remastered edition of Underwater Sunlight, the original album containing that piece.

The problem is, in the end, that I've delayed so long in picking that album up because I've been testing how far my patience with Tangerine Dream goes. I love the pure krautrock years of the band, and I like most of the Virgin period a great deal. But by the time we hit the 80's, my interest begins to wane; there are just too many synths, too much New-Ageiness, too many soundtracks. Though I appreciate the band were still capable of putting out side-long tracks on both studio and live albums, the overall feeling I get from them at this point is of pastiche rather than progress.

And so 'Song of the Whale', while clearly the best thing on Underwater Sunlight, is far away from what I really want to hear from Tangerine Dream. To be sure, after all this time, I still know the whole track note-for-note, and the Big Guitars™ which turn up about half way through each part of it do remind me of what my younger self liked about this, bombast notwithstanding. But it no longer captures my imagination—musical or otherwise—in the way it did, and I've never been very susceptible to nostalgia (in the sense of liking what I used to like because I used to like it).

The rest of the album is increasingly worse, gradually dropping the guitar solos and devolving electro-pop, with the bonus 'Dolphine Smile' representing just how far Tangerine Dream had fallen by this point.

Verdict: I considered being lenient towards this, given the nostalgia I said I wasn't affected by. But I can't. Underwater Sunlight is simply Bad. The only time I'm ever likely to listen to it again is on a Tangerine Dream marathon, and then only to make myself sad about how good they used to be.

[Review also posted on rateyourmusic.]

Thursday, 14 June 2012


Thinking about a new course on internet, information and critical thinking, I've been tempted by the idea of doing a lecture. But of course that's wrong: standing in front of a bunch of people and attempting to impart my supposedly superior knowledge would almost contradict what I was trying to say. Inspired by what I've been reading in Jeff Jarvis' book, I think I need to find a way of using the same resources and/or media that I plan to be talking about; and maybe, just maybe involving students in the content of the course...

Monday, 11 June 2012


Was listening to Tangerine Dream's Zeit today, with a view to writing something about it, but I just couldn't get away from the idea that it would have made an awesome soundtrack to Tarkovsky's version of Solaris... After all, they were both released in the same year...

Sunday, 10 June 2012

Clannad (2007)

I came to Clannad principally because the second season, After Story (reviewed separately), is the highest rated show on the Anime News Network. Needless to say, user ratings should always be taken with a pinch of salt (as should any ratings), but After Story is highly rated on other sites as well. As someone with a general interest in good anime, this was enough to make me check it out, even as the character designs screamed their warnings at me.

Make no mistake: Clannad is moe. To be sure, the body designs look like adults (or teenagers) rather than children, but the facial design, particularly of the girls, is very much the big-eyed, tiny-mouthed stereotypes that most people associate with anime. This isn't the kind of thing I normally like, unless it's being spoofed (as in Lucky Star), but to get anything out of Clannad you'll have to be able to deal with it.

While we're counting potential black marks against the show, it should be said that Clannad is also a high-school romance. If you can't stomach school kids failing to communicate their feelings, this show may not be for you. And finally, the show is based on a visual novel (by Key/Visual Arts). Visual novels, for those who don't know, are basically role-playing games; they often fall into the dating-sim or erotic territory, though thankfully Clannad doesn't go there.

To summarize the list of preconceptions: Clannad is a visual novel-based moe-style high-school romance. That mixture has lead to some of the most dreadful examples of anime ever created, and would be more than enough to make some viewers avoid the series like the plague.

But the thing is, Clannad does what it does very well. While its various story arcs do have a certain feel of questing about them—solve the riddle of Fuko, make Kotomi come out of her shell and come to terms with her past, find a way to get the drama club established for Negisa—the writing introduces the various plot lines some time before they become the main focus, making the structure of the series as organic as it can be, rather than a succession of stages which need to be completed. Perhaps more importantly, there is never really any question that Tomoya will get together with Negisa; other possible romances are entirely one-sided affairs, and only really occupy two episodes late in the series (in which Toyoma is suitably flummoxed by the attention he's receiving). So Clannad avoids cheap 'Which one will he choose?' dramatics, and instead allows its two romantic leads to grow together gradually. (Three of the other romances are given room to breathe in two of the specials which accompany Clannad and After Story, but they are presented as just that: alternate romances in alternate realities).

The other thing that keeps Clannad from slipping into mediocrity (or worse) is that it has underlying theme: family. Tomoyo says in episode 18:

"When I say family, I don't necessarily mean your real family—it could be your friends instead. All that matters is that you have something like a family to support you."
From this perspective, pretty much the entire show is about family, be it Tomoya's estranged father, Negisa's crazy parents—who steal every scene they're in—or her favourite song (hell, one of the plays shown late in the series is Oedipus). Kotomi's arc is a good example: although concerned with her parents, it really involves her friends gathering around her to offer support, ultimately through actions rather than words. It ends up being far more subtle than 'Tomoya solves the problems of possible romantic partners', and Clannad should be commended for that.

Tomoya himself is a genuinely nice guy with a playful sense of humour (as is true of the series as a whole), and that helps the show considerably, not least in providing a fairly convincing reason why all these girls might be interested in him (rather than wish fulfilment of the player/viewer). And as for the girls themselves… Ryon wins the Complete Drip award, as Negisa (arguably) manages to grow a spine as the series progresses. Tomoya and Kyon, as the boisterous tsundere-types, are much more dynamic and fun. Tellingly, Kyon has to train the socially inept Kotomi in the art of delivering comebacks; so guess who is responsible for more comebacks over the course of the show? But all of them, detached as they are from their possible roles as romantic interests for Tomoya, fare better than they might have otherwise. Moe or not, Clannad is mainly focussed on friends doing things together.

(Incidental aside: Kyon and Ryon are twins, and mirror the twins Kagami and Tsukasa from Lucky Star, even down to the colour of their hair, and the fact both Complete Drips (Ryon and Tsukasa) have short hair and the tsundere types (Kyon and Kagami) have long hair. It must be a tradition, or an old charter, or something).

That isn't to say that it doesn't delve into melodrama and sentimentality, especially at the climaxes of Fuko's and Kotomi's arcs, launching into Clannad's Sentimental Music Cue™ and Emotional Fireworks Display™. Whenever this occurred, I found myself disappointed; the show is, for the most part, too well written and structured for such heavy-handedness. These emotional 'pay-offs' seem more like cop-outs to me, as if the writers were unwilling to let the stores play out to their natural conclusions, and instead felt obliged to offer viewer an Uplifting Resolution™. In both arcs, the journey is rather better than the destination, and that may be true of the show as a whole.

Special mention should also be made of the haunting 'Girl in the dying world' sections; these are probably my favourite sections of the series. The understated images, the narration of the little robot, and the tone of loneliness they set are simply another reason why those descents into sentimentality just don't work for me.

Ultimately, Clannad is an often funny, occasionally cute, sometimes sentimental, but always leisurely high-school romance, bolstered by a surprising thematic depth. It isn't as funny as Azumanga Daioh, as clever as Haruhi, or as bizarre as Lucky Star, nor as complex (and generally different) as His and Her Circumstances. To be sure, it doesn't exactly rise above its origins, but it does largely play them down, for the most part successfully. If you're going to make a visual novel-based moe-style high-school romance, Clannad is pretty much the way to do it.

After Story is an entirely different beast, however.

Verdict: Very good: don't miss it. Really, unless those potential black marks I mentioned at the start are just too much for you, Clannad is definitely an enjoyable watch.

[Version watched: Region 1 English dub; review also posted at MyAnimeList]

Friday, 8 June 2012


I'm not very keen on giving numerical ratings to reviews. They tend to imply that some form of mathematical or logical process was involved in assigning them, which is demonstrably not the case. Take computer games, for example: too often on websites, you see ratings for (say) Graphics, Sound, Gameplay, and Coolness Factor, followed by an overall score which bears no relation to the others, accompanied by a disclaimer which explicitly says that it is not. So why bother? Why award the game a score of 88.6, when you yourself admit that the score is arbitrary? Ultimately, this kind of behaviour is a kind of appeal to authority: the authority of numbers. At its worst level (Metacritic, arguably), it's intentional deception.

So this site will not use numerical ratings, at least explicitly. Instead, I plan to adapt the rating descriptions used on the Anime News Network, which I've become used to using and generally seem more appropriate to me. These ratings can nevertheless be approximated to numerical values, and reviews I post to other sites will sometimes require those. But here on my site, I'll only be using the descriptions, as shown below.

Description Out of 10 Out of 5
Outstanding; a defining moment. 10 5
Excellent; should be in anyone's collection. 9 4.5
Very good; don't miss it. 8 4
Good; worth seeing/hearing. 7 3.5
Decent; I didn't waste my time. 6 3
Average; it didn't really grab my attention. 5 2.5
Not really good, but not a total waste either. 4 2
Weak; I wish I'd done something better with my time. 3 1.5
Bad; not really recommended. 2 1
Awful; should be avoided at all costs. 1 0.5
Absolutely dreadful; may be useful as a sadistic torture device. 0 0

The topmost and lowest descriptions have been changed from those on ANN into something slightly less superlative, and which I feel a little more comfortable with.

Now I just have to go back through existing reviews and correct them...

Thursday, 7 June 2012

Cnut and the internet flood.

In a previous post (which I've added to the site, and was coincidentally the only post I'd made this year before my creativity resolution) I wrote the following:

The internet, portable computing, and constant connectivity are increasingly ubiquitous. Denying that is like Cnut trying to hold back the tide.
But perhaps that wasn't entirely fair, either to Cnut or those internet deniers. First of all, it seems that Cnut's 'attempt' to hold back the tide may (I stress may) have been an act of piety rather than arrogance. But more importantly, is it truly appropriate to use the story as a smilie or metaphor for something which we might consider inevitable?

Let's recap. Cnut reputedly placed his throne on the shoreline as the tide was coming in and commanded it to turn back. Naturally, he failed. But what if, instead of attempting to command the tide, he had build a sea wall to contain the tide?

Then again, perhaps Cnut could have gone surfboarding. Or built a hydro-electric plant. (Weston-super-Mare, by the way, is said to have the second highest tidal range in the world, and the photograph doesn't show the highest part of the wall.)

The point I'm trying to get across is that while the story of Cnut is commonly used as a metaphor for the futility of trying to hold back progress (or nature, and so on), there would still be any number of things he could have done instead, all of which would have responded to the incoming tide in different, but more successful ways. Even if he could not command the tide, he could perhaps have controlled it, or prevented it from flooding a nearby town, or harnessed its energy.

The same goes for the internet and technology. I still fundamentally believe that trying to deny, prevent, or ignore the digital age is futile and even irresponsible. It is simply the world that we are living in. But that does not mean we should just submit to some imagined inevitability. The tide may be coming in, but that does not necessarily mean that we must resign ourselves to being swept up by the tide and pulled under. We could also learn to swim.

Wednesday, 6 June 2012

Wednesday is the cruelest day...

...always have little time left at the end of it, and we're off to the Open Mic Night at the Nachdenker in a moment. But I did make some more notes for my upcoming review of Clannad, upload the release of E2-E4 to rym, and have some ideas for my (planned) class on the eighth continent.

Tuesday, 5 June 2012

E2-E4, by Manuel Göttsching (1984)

Manuel Göttsching - E2-E4 Clearly way ahead of it's time, that's for sure.

Recorded 1981, released in 1984, E2-E4 was arguably the first recognizable trance album (I say arguably because I don't know of any other contender, but could be proved wrong). In some ways following on from where 1974's  Inventions for Electric Guitar left off, E2-E4 is a single 59 minute track, composed principally of electronic rhythms. For the first 30 minutes it builds and builds, adding more instruments and variations until a solo guitar enters the scene. At that point, for my taste, the album becomes a little less impressive: the guitar somehow never quite takes off, and I prefer the moments when it falls into playing rhythm and lets the electronics carry the melody (such as it) is. Also, although it continues to vary, the background electronic rhythm more often becomes just that: a background to the guitar in the foreground.

Personally, I like it less than Inventions: it's perhaps just that little bit too long, that little bit too monotonous, with a little bit too much guitar noodling, to reach quite the same level. That being said, E2-E4 is still a landmark album in modern (electronic) music.

Verdict: I'll say it's Very Good, but it should really be in anyone's collection, unless you're the kind of person who despises all forms of electronic music.

[Review also posted on rateyourmusic]

Monday, 4 June 2012

A Modern Education

Jeff Jarvis (Public Parts, p. 54)

In our schools, we teach students there is one and only one right answer to every question. Then we add the questions together in tests and teach to those tests, expecting students to spit back what we feed them. We call that achievement. We should instead be encouraging experimentation, rewarding challenges to our accepted wisdom, and designing schools around learning through failure.
I couldn't agree more. If I can find a way to truly implement this idea in my teaching, I will.

New Site Info

As part of my attempt to get on an information diet, this site is being appropriated as my new blog / rant space / online presence.

To be a bit clearer, my plan is to ask myself, "What shall I create today?" That may be writing something for this blog, taking photographs, or working on a mod for Skyrim; but the goal is to consume more wisely, and contribute more often.

I'll be adding more posts on diverse topics, hopefully frequently, and redesigning the site to suit my current tastes and mobile internet requirements.

Friday, 20 January 2012

Education and technological incompetence

A couple of years back, I completed my Masters degree. It was principally concerned with open, online and distance learning; in short, educational technology in the modern learning environment. Now, while I never really expected to be able to apply all those ideas in my job, since our learning institutions are still very much based around classrooms and traditional structures, I did at least think that it would be generally accepted that, as the information age moves into the digital age, the importance of such technology would be basically unquestioned. The internet, portable computing, and constant connectivity are increasingly ubiquitous. Denying that is like Cnut trying to hold back the tide.

Some six years before that, I worked for an institution which was integrating the internet and computing into examinations. Instead of pen-and-paper exams for each separate discipline, we were beginning to do combined, networked exams. Students would begin in the morning, have a number of tasks to complete over the next few hours, had full access to computers and the internet, and took breaks when they wanted. The general idea was to make the examination as 'realistic' as possible, essentially reflecting a day at work, along with the resources and skills required to deal with it.

By no means was the procedure perfect, but it nevertheless embodied the principle that education and examinations should adapt to the actual way the world works. Educational institutes do not exist in a bubble; they should prepare students in a way which is relevant to society and the work environment into which they will be thrust upon graduation. Even if not all institutes could or should be consistently cutting edge, surely all must be informed by the realities of the world outside.

When I began teaching in the late 90's, I purchased a briefcase which ultimately broke under the weight of the stuff I had to carry around in it: textbooks, dictionaries, cassette players and so on. I quickly lightened the load by purchasing an electronic dictionary, which was soon supplemented with and ultimately replaced by a Palm handheld. Nowadays I have only a MacBook Air, a set of USB speakers, and the occasional textbook. The university has a wireless network which, even if a bit flaky, covers the whole campus. Beyond that, smart phones have expanded internet connectivity to the point that essentially all my students are online at all times. Not being able to access the internet is the exception, rather than the rule.

Textbooks are next for the chopping block, as Apple's keynote yesterday indicates. As mobile computing becomes increasingly powerful, yet also more lightweight and affordable, and as the digital publishing becomes easier, lugging heaps of textbooks to lectures will become a thing of the past. I'm not fantasizing here, nor jumping on the 'Apple will revolutionize education' bandwagon; this is just the way the world is now. This semester, for the first time, I have students using iPads to write academic papers. Between exams today, most students pulled out their smart phones and checked Facebook or whatever. In many ways the important point is that this technology is not brought into the classroom by teachers, but by the students themselves.

In this context, I would argue that it is largely anachronistic that my students today are writing an exam with pen and paper. After all, the only time in their lives that they will actually do such a thing is in an examination. But I accept, with qualifications, that our institution does not have the resources or confidence to administer the kind of networked examination that I described above.

Worse, in my view, is the professor who says, amidst sexist jokes, that universities should be the same today as they were 60 years ago.

But what I truly cannot stomach, and the reason for my post today, is the recent decision by my department to ban the use of electronic dictionaries from examinations. We only permit paper dictionaries. Let me make this clear: a year ago, electronic dictionaries were allowed. Now they are not. And I'm not talking about smart phones, or iPads, or something with an internet connection, but a technology that I would consider two generations out of date (electronic dictionaries to PDAs to smart phones). Why? Because some of my colleagues, by their own admission, are unable to tell the difference between an electronic dictionary and a smart phone, and are unable to tell whether the student using one might have an internet connection and be cheating; and because these same colleagues think that, because you can find words more quickly using an electronic dictionary, it gives the student an unfair advantage over those who don't have one.

These 'arguments' are so vacuous that I refuse to dignify them with a direct response. I do not expect everyone to be as much of a geek as I am, but people whose job it is to offer instruction to the youth of today should have a basic level of technological competence and understanding. Without that, how can you possibly stand in front of a classroom and offer your students relevant instruction in an appropriate manner?