Author Archives: Paul

The beauty of difference of opinion

Excellent! There is a social object (often a cultural work – a piece of art, an episode of a TV show, a song) that we have a shared experience/knowledge of.

Oh. Your opinion/reaction/interpretation to/of that thing is different from mine. It could be negative, whereas mine is positive, or maybe we agree overall, but have picked out different aspects of the thing to react to.

That’s OK though. Right now, our reactions are not the same. Rather than shoot you down and dismiss your opinions as wrong and invalid, I would like to learn more about your opinions. Tell me more. Point to specific things within the Thing, and educate me on the reasons behind your views.

I may end up agreeing with your views, and sharing them. I may not. But what’s most important is that I understand, as much as possible, what that opinion is, and the reasons behind it. Because I want to learn. Because, if and when I create my *own* social objects or cultural works, I want to understand and anticipate the ways in which people might react.

And, I want to make things better. I want to make better things.

I want some way in which, once I’ve seen that there’s someone I can talk to about a shared cultural social object, we can discuss it – each of us without fear that the other is trying to knock us down, or might interpret our actions as belittling them.

Some way in which I can say “hey, you watched that thing too? I don’t understand your opinion, but I want to. Show me, teach me. Help me understand.”

Total agreement and consensus is very, very difficult, if not impossible, on these things. But that is OK. That is fine. That is the beauty of these things. Not every opinion is correct (if, indeed, there is a ‘correct’ definition at all), but understanding the reasons behind the opinions, that is the crucial thing.

Understanding, learning. Creating a giant patchwork of multiple, differing opinions, some shared, some not, all with common reference points. The biggest network of cultural understanding possible.

All this ‘one-URL-per-Thing’, all that work that I do – that’s not the end game. What I’ve written here, is. The goal is to give us the hooks, the handles, the things to point at, all so that we can use them to discuss, share, learn and understand. We come together over shared social objects. We share opinions. We discuss, we understand, we learn, we grow, we enjoy the beauty of difference, the fact that it doesn’t all make sense.

We revel in the absurd idea of stringing it all into one coherent line. The fun is in the nonsense.

A future of Politics and News Online

Warning – personal opinions, not official BBC policy or product announcements, within.

What with the Local and EU Parliament Elections, the Scottish Referendum, and a General Election next May, 2014-15 is a momentous year for UK politics. The BBC has, and will have, a big role to play in bringing coverage and results from these elections to the nation and the world.

Today, I talked to the team at the Government Digital Service about some of the work I, and others I work with, have been doing in the political arena of BBC News Online. Here’s a write up of said talk.

The BBC has a mandate, as part of the Royal Charter, to “encourage citizenship and civil society…by promoting understanding of the UK’s political system.” For ‘Vote 2014‘, the name the BBC gave to the local and EU elections, we used semantic tagging to bring together relevant content from across BBC journalism – traditionally siloed as TV, radio and online, centred around the things that were most important to our users – the councils and constituencies where they live.

There’s a lot more about the work I did, including making sure our tags were linked up to open data sources, in the blog post I wrote for the BBC Internet Blog, back in May. But there’s another side to the BBC’s coverage of Politics, online, aside from day-to-day reporting and election coverage.

Democracy Live is a part of the BBC News website which seeks to directly fulfil the requirement to ‘promote understanding of the UK’s political system’. In essence, it is the equivalent of the BBC Parliament channel on TV. Yet it has some added features – transcripts of the proceedings of most, if not all, of the representative institutions, are made searchable, and there is a page for every representative in each major House or Assembly.

Unfortunately, it is a part of the BBC News website which is also rather siloed. And whilst it has an important role to play, and an appreciative audience within the political class, it runs the risk of super-serving that audience – when surely the point of the clause in the Royal Charter is to bring the political understanding to a much wider audience.

As a result, in my role as Data Architect, working with both BBC News Online and with BBC News Labs (part of the BBC’s R&D division), I’ve recently created a prototype which explores how we might integrate the content and concepts present within Democracy Live, with the rest of BBC News Online. It’s also been a great opportunity for me to get back into the coding game. Having had a taster of Python at the beginning of the year, I’ve used this prototype as a chance for me to learn one of the MVC frameworks for Python, Flask.

the homepage of my Politics Prototype

the homepage

 

As part of our tagging effort, we have tags for every MP, every political party and every Government Department. So the first thing I did was build a page for each of these. The page brings together tagged content from across BBC News.

A party page

A party page

Importantly, though, I’ve tried to go to authoritative sources wherever possible. The BBC is not the canonical store of knowledge about Parliament or Government. Those institutions are. So, bearing in mind the principle of modular design, and of stitching into the wider Web, I’ve sought to include information from Parliament and Government APIs wherever possible.

For instance, for every Political Party in the prototype, if they have MPs in the House of Commons – I get a list of those MPs from Parliament. For each person, if they’re a member of the Cabinet, I ask GOV.UK for the role they play, and the department that role belongs to. And likewise, for every government department, I ask GOV.UK for the roles, and current role holders, in that department. There’s lots of other things that I could link up, too – GOV.UK has pages for each country the Government has dealings with, and ‘topic’ pages too – just as we’ve been trialling internally at the BBC. Linking these up would give our audiences both the latest news, and engagement with their own Government’s activities in those areas.

Using Parliament's APIs to display the seat for an MP

Using Parliament’s APIs to display the seat for an MP

Department and role information using the GOV.UK proxy API

Department and role information using the GOV.UK proxy API

That’s the idea, anyway. In truth, I’ve only been able to get this far because of the limited, but at least slightly useful (and currently being improved upon, I believe), Members Data Platform from Parliament, and a proxy API built by a kind developer at GDS, Camille Baldock. And of course, I’ve had to stitch the two together, maintaining a local store of mappings between IDs and things like that.

This shouldn’t have to be the way it is. Obviously, there is important distance to be kept between the BBC, the Government and Parliament – too closer a partnership, and the political independence of all three is brought into question, also blunting the role of a free press in holding the Government or Parliament to account. But releasing well maintained and structured data about the things each institution is an authority on, and using shared, web-scale identifiers? That should be a given.

As much as each institution will devote time to serving the needs of its’ own specific user base, time and again we have to remember that the concepts are separate from the providers – users don’t see the difference between a politician on GOV.UK, in Parliament or on the BBC – they are one and the same person, and it’s time the Web reflected that.

Of course, joining up information about MPs is only the start. The work that GDS do is brilliant, and quite rightly, they have focused on delivering services to users. But personally, I believe that the part of GOV.UK formerly known as ‘Inside Government’ is an untapped goldmine. It’s not just reference data – it is the cornerstone of the actual material of what Government consists of.

The fact that every Government policy, every statement, every minister, has a publicly addressable URL, and has structured information, is a potentially massive statement about our democracy. No longer does it have to be the case that politicians (and, indeed, the media) can get away with making announcements or press releases that are soon forgotten within the 24-hour rolling cycle of news. The commitments that a Government makes to its’ population are written down and made available to anyone. It’s the closest thing we have to a constitution. And we should be using it to do so much more – holding the Government to account, for instance via linking the latest developments in news, back to the policies, is just one way.

Directly linking the massive audience the BBC has, into GOV.UK, actually showing people that politics isn’t just about spin and publicity (or at least shouldn’t be, if we truly want to at least have a go at being some form of accountable government), is as much about serving users as any of the services the GDS team are working their way through improving right now. Those are important to – they nail people’s necessary interactions with Government – but for civic engagement and democracy? That’s what together, the BBC, Parliament, GDS, and all the other representative institutions (some of which are further ahead in this game – see, for instance, the good work being done with the Northern Ireland Assembly) in the UK, could build, if we work together.

Falling out of the world – RIFT’s Macbeth

Saturday, and to Balfron Tower to witness the Rift Theatre Company’s immersive staging of Shakespeare’s Macbeth. A little context – Balfron Tower is a landmark structuralist tower blocks, designed by (Erno?) Goldfinger (he who would lend his surname, unwillingly, to the James Bond story), in the 1960s. Still inhabited today, it is about to undergo major renovation work, and thus retains its’ decaying and imposing, alien atmosphere.

I was fairly familiar with the idea of immersive theatre, despite not having experienced one yet, and was equally familiar with the play, given hazy memories of reading it whilst studying for GCSEs. So all in all, this promised to be an interesting evening. Consider this a review – three things that really leapt out at me, and a couple of minor, hopefully constructive, criticisms.

Crossing the Rift

We’re met at the base of the tower by the Bordurian border guards, and, having checked our (pre-delivered) visas, we’re warned of the dangers of crossing over the Rift into a fictional world. This immediately appealed to me – an explicit acknowledgement that we’re about to travel into a fictional world, albeit one which will feel entirely real, both to us and to those we meet inside.

View this post on Instagram

Doing a @poppet – Macbeth in a tower block

A post shared by Paul (@r4isstatic) on

This means we retain a sense of extra knowledge over the characters – we know the general shape of the narrative that will unfold, and they don’t; and we have an almost supernatural presence in the world. The characters can see us, touch us, speak directly to us, and vice versa, but the extent to which we can truly interact is limited. It is like we are truly liminal beings in this fictional world, trapped between being and not being.

Which, of course, puts us on a similar level as the very first characters we meet – the witches. They do have an active role in the world – indeed, it can be argued that they are the ones with an almost authorial force, influencing Macbeth and Banquo, setting in motion the chain of events that propels the drama.

This, in turn, blurs the boundaries between the meaning of us being in a fictional world, and them having supernatural powers – are they, therefore, closer to us than the other characters? Are they, in effect, audience members who’ve taken control of the world they’ve joined?

The Bordurians we meet, too, have a similar liminal status – they’re aware their own reality, ours, and that of the main characters, acting as our hosts, guides and chaperones, but also, at key moments, are in effect the opposite of the witches – the Bordurians are imposed upon by Macbeth and the others, so rather than having authorial influence, or the limited power of ourselves, they flit between acting in all three worlds.

This dynamic, the awareness of how our reality overlapped, or otherwise, with the rest of the people we met, was key to the immersion, for me.

The world unfolds

The other thing which strikes you, as you are led from room to room, from floor to floor, by the Bordurians, is the sheer scale of the production operation. As much as I was immersed in the fictional experience, I couldn’t help but wonder and admire how difficult this was to pull off successfully.

There are several audience groups going through the experience at a time, and staggered start times throughout the evening. Only one company of actors, though, which means that each actor plays several roles throughout the evening, being consistent for a single group, but different between the groups.

This had two effects – firstly, as we were led from room to room, our sense of the geography of the tower being fully disorientated, the world came alive. You’d be walking past nameless guards or Bordurian housekeeping staff, and hear snippets of other scenes going on. Not enough to fully realise the repeating nature of the production, but enough to feel like there truly was a world here, and you were only taking a particular path through it. Again, this really helped the immersion.

The second effect was that there would occasionally be delays whilst the actors moved from scene to scene, and from group to group. To negate this, the Bordurian hosts would essentially keep us in a holding pattern, entertaining us and making conversation. For the most part, this worked well, providing welcome moments of rest. But there were two moments of this type that had major impacts on the enjoyment of the experience – one positive, one less so.

Falling out of the world

The positive one first. As I said, moving from room to room had the wonderful effect of disorientating you, and almost forcing you into, for the most part, forgetting this was a play with a known narrative. And so, whilst your head’s spinning, and you’re still trying to keep a track of where you’re up to in the text, something truly brilliant happens.

I mentioned above about our relationship to the characters, and especially the witches – we’re visiting the world, able to be seen but trapped behind an indefinable barrier, preventing us from truly deforming the narrative – whilst the witches have that power too. So, when, in one of those lulls between action, and more precisely, during one of those mad dashes from room to room, we’re suddenly pulled aside by the witches and trapped in a room with them, the experience really becomes magical.

It’s hard to explain how much I loved this moment. The timing of it, combined with the murky and stormy weather as the sun descended through the hazy clouds, all leant to the supernatural atmosphere. We thought we knew the shape of what was going to happen, but here, in this moment, the witches aren’t content with taking control of the characters lives – they take control of ours, pulling the rug from under our feet, and pushing us into a story which isn’t the one we were expecting. A parallel narrative, which once again opens up the prospect that what we’re experiencing isn’t the full story – there’s a much wider, longer game at play here.

The actual details of what happens in those moments, I’ll not spoil – in a way, the detail matters least in this case. It was the feeling it evoked – of falling out of the world, of having a real twist in the experience. Not the kind of Hollywood twist in terms of a big reveal, but the sense of jumping a narrative track – one that really made you think, well, now, anything could happen, I don’t know what to expect from this moment on. That’s the kind of thing I really enjoy – you go into something expecting one kind of story, and you may ultimately get that, but there’s unexpected kinks and paths along the way, placing you in a real sense of narrative danger and uncertainty.

Some minor bruises

Some critique, then. The second major lull in the action comes towards the end of the play, as Birnam Wood comes to Dunsinane. This is a moment which should produce one of the most evocative images of the experience, being something that is incongruous on a stage, the audience anticipating exactly how the producers will choose to bring it to life.

Unfortunately, the choice made at this part of the story feels like the only mis-step – almost all the action takes place on video, which you watch whilst (mostly) safely ensconced in the flat you’ll be staying overnight in. Whilst the news reporting angle is a cute idea, for a short while, it falls flat when extended over a longer period, and I’m not convinced that the TV debate, studio guests, and reporter coverage, was the most visceral way to get this experience across.

It has a whiff of the war from The Day Today to it, and whilst part of the appeal may be the humour derived from the situation, it does deflate the drama somewhat. It’s completely understandable from a logistical point of view, of making sure the actors are able to cover the main scenes for everyone, but with the promise, suspense, and raw action right in front of you that’s been built up over the past couple of hours, it is probably the only major mistake in the production overall.

The only other small criticism I’d make is that it wasn’t made clear that the story would continue the following morning. Part of the experience is staying overnight in the tower once the main action is done, and then having breakfast (on the roof, weather permitting!) with the characters and others.

Now, there were three packages for tickets, one where breakfast was included, and two where breakfast was available for a small fee. What wasn’t made clear was that there was a coda to the story taking place during breakfast – as far as my group were aware, it simply was breakfast, and the story was over. Had we been aware of this, I think we may have been more likely to stay.

Back to reality

In conclusion, then, I really enjoyed the experience – others who have experienced Punchdrunk shows and the like may feel this didn’t compare, but for a first timer, it was wonderful. The immersion, the atmosphere, the setting – and that moment when it all turns upside down – fantastic. And lastly, a huge logistical and ambitious achievement on behalf of the cast and crew. Some minor problems, but overall, a great thing, and I’d love to do it again.

A Song from a Band You Hate (30 Days of Music)

AqualungJethro Tull

I’m not really sure about this one, to be honest, but it’s taken long enough for me to get around to writing anything for this category, so here goes. Can you really withstand six minutes plus of this?

“Sitting on a park bench….I don’t know the words, except park bench!” Jack Donaghey, 30 Rock

There’s something traditional about rebelling against the culture of your parents. Whilst this isn’t true in every aspect of my experience, it certainly hits the spot here. I was born in the eighties. It’s generally accepted to hate pretty much everything from the eighties now, whilst the seventies remains, it seems to me, culturally dominant (to be fair, in the nineties, the sixties held sway, so I’m sure this is a consistent time lag thing).

Mainstream nostalgia and notions of ‘golden ages’ of childhood all seem to hark back to the seventies. Things like ‘the future we were promised’ of jetpacks and so on, all seem to be couched in the brown/orange haze of the seventies. But this never rings true with me. Because I’m not from the seventies. So all those people claiming things were much better then, or trying to ‘connect’ with me through seventies iconography – no thank you.

One of the rough parts of going to watch football regularly, is seeing the makeup of the crowd – mostly late-middle-aged men, again, nostalgic for the ‘better times’ of hooliganism and so on. As a kid, my brother, my dad and I used to hitch a lift with one of my dad’s friends-through-work. And on more than one occasion, in their frankly ridiculous Bentley with shag-pile carpet, they’d force us to listen to Jethro Tull’s Aqualung album.

For me, it’s symbolic of indulgent, and frankly, boring, rock music. It has that false-folk-mystical lyrical style, which now seems creepy. It goes on and on, never progressing. To be fair, it’s probably wrong to say I hate the band, not being overly familiar with their work, but then this is more about that style. It means nothing to me, and it reeks of nostalgia, and an imposition of one generation’s culture on another. Give me some KLF or Coldcut any day.

Future (and Past) Imperfect

aka the first in an occasional series of analysis pieces on film, TV and popular culture, this time focusing on X-Men: Days of Future Past. Disclaimer – Spoilers for the film lie ahead, and it’s worth saying that I’m no expert in film critique (though hopefully writing this will help me learn) and I’m not hugely familiar with the comics and source material for this story.

The Mutant Gene

For my money, the central theme of the X-Men stories has always been one of interrogating difference and discrimination in society – be that sexual, racial, disability and so on. It is, in my view, a very clear reaction to the horrors, ideology and reaction to World War Two. The message being one, ultimately, of tolerance – whilst acknowledging that there are different responses to the issue of difference in society. Magneto’s more antagonistic approach isn’t presented entirely without sympathy, but it’s clear, ultimately, which side the writers fall on – that of Professor X’s calm pleas for tolerance.

This then, should be the interesting theme to explore in any X-Men story. And Days of Future Past certainly sets up some interesting issues. Leaving aside the established Magneto/Xavier approaches, we’re told that the threat in the future essentially stems from a technology designed to identify the mutant gene, and destroy the carrier.

Whilst initially conceived as a way to tackle current mutants, the flaw in the technology soon becomes clear – the mutant gene may be present, but that doesn’t mean that it’s active in the current host, or even that it will necessarily become active in future generations – but the mere presence of the gene is enough to trigger the destructive technology.

This could be the spur for a really interesting (and exciting, of course!) film which ultimately hinges around how we judge difference and how far into the future we’re willing to pursue grudges. How much should what we know about the present inform our decisions about how we shape the future?

And yet, the explanation I gave for what we’re told is the main cause of everything we see, is glossed over in a couple of sentences. Instead, the film concentrates essentially on the chase to find Mystique, and a confused dilemma between Mystique and Magneto about how their decisions might shape the future.

Note that this is subtly different from what I outlined above – it becomes one of “will the characters fulfil their destiny or change the future” – there’s even that whole discussion of whether the future is immutable or not.

But in a story like this, that’s a dead end – it reduces the whole film down to a choice of two endings – either the world is saved, or it’s doomed, and it doesn’t really matter which, given this is a film franchise which could either just stop or find some way to continue.

Instead, the more interesting angle, I would argue, would have been to stick with the main action in the past, yes, but really explore the consequences of Trask’s technology, and how that causes former enemies to unite.

Obviously the producers and writers had no control over events in the real world around the time of the film’s release, but watching it in the cinema, only days after extremists have made major strides in the both the UK local and EU Parliament elections, meant that this felt like even more of a missed opportunity. Now more than ever, we need a mainstream blockbuster that really concentrates on that main message of how to deal with difference in society. And Days of Future Past is found wanting here.

Developing Relationships

The film starts in the future, essentially in the final act of the narrative. We’re told that Magneto and Professor X are allies now (although it’s a strangely passive alliance, hardly even a hint of their different approaches which has been so central to almost any other story with them in). It’s completely glossed over in those few lines, and slightly acknowledged as Magento apparently dies.

Again, surely this would have been a better tack for the movie to take. In the excellent First Class, we saw Magneto and Xavier as allies (so we know it’s within them to work together). We then saw the friction and ultimately the consequences of their differing approaches to dealing with the rest of humanity.

Yes, we’re given some good scenes in Days of Future Past where the two characters confront what happened in First Class, but again, it doesn’t really move on from there. I would have loved to have seen the circumstances in which their, and indeed, the ‘normal’ humans’ antagonism, is forced to falter in the face of Trask’s weapons. Confronting the horror of what has been unleashed, and seeing how the consequences unfold, would have been a much more interesting story, than just skipping to the end and telling us that there’s an unstoppable menace at large.

Time Travel

The other main selling point for this film was the time travel aspect – or rather, the blending together of the cast from the original trilogy, and the First Class crew. Once the film settles into the initial premise – stop Mystique – there was one moment in the film where I thought we were going to be in for something really special.

There’s an assault on the White House, and in the ensuing chaos, the young Stryker (he who will go on to experiment on Wolverine) is electrocuted, and is on the verge of dying. This leads us to a lovely sequence where the consequences of such a death are played out – very reminiscent of Back to the Future, where the consequences of time travel are real and dangerous.

This was excellent – for the first time in the film, it felt like there was real jeopardy for the main characters, and the potential of a real twist in the plot. Sadly, it was never followed up on. Which is strange, because we’re told that changing the past is essentially what will save the future. So, aside from the film not seeming to want to concentrate on what the underlying theme probably should have been, when the *apparent* main message is dealt with, it’s thrown away moments later.

This is especially evident in what happens with Magneto. The film takes great care to make something of the relationship between him and Mystique – quite rightly (Fassbender and Lawrence are great in their respective roles). But once the initial crucial event is prevented, and Magneto starts to take matters into his own hands, this would have been the moment to reintroduce the concept of both changing the future, and of the real underlying theme I discussed previously.

Because this is the interesting thing – what is Magento’s motivation, and how is it shifting and changing throughout the film? Like I said at the beginning, his rationale is ultimately presented as wrong, but it’s never really presented as evil – it’s understandable, and thus ripe for exploration. That conflict – whether to take arms to protect your kin, or to work together with your enemy to acknowledge a diverse society, lies just behind all of Magneto’s actions, and yet it’s never really explored. Instead we get flying stadia and Iron Man-lite robots.

No Future

I’ve already talked about why the scenes set in the future don’t seem to carry much menace – instead being an excuse for special effects. But this is worsened by two other things.

Firstly, the aforementioned lack of antagonism between Magneto and Professor X in the future. Yes, it’s fine for them to be allies, and yes, McKellen and Stewart are getting on in years, but there’s hardly even a flicker of what surely should be an age old argument of different approaches between them. They’re allies, certainly, in the face of an enemy without empathy, but you would have imagined that their fundamental differences would have manifested ever so slightly more.

Secondly, Ellen Page is criminally underused – forget the slight plot weirdness over her powers, and presuming that her part is small due to other production reasons (ultimately we have to be realistic and realise that such things will affect the story being told, though I’d be interested to hear whether this film passes the Bechdel test) – there’s the moment when Wolverine, in the panic of the assault on Stryker, impales Page’s character.

Now, given the cold start to the film, where it’s assumed the audience is pretty familiar with most of the characters, we can also make the assumption that this moment is meant to be a call-back to a similar incident (albeit I think with Anna Paquin’s character?) in one of the previous movies, where Wolverine accidentally does the same thing, but the victim is healed.

Given too, that this moment of tension occurs at the exact same time as the plot is seemingly about to go into full on twist mode, finally giving us something that would be an exciting surprise, it’s strange that again, there are really no consequences to this action. Yes, we see in a couple more scenes that Kitty Pryde is still mortally wounded, and that this *might* have an impact on her ability to send Wolverine back in time – but it doesn’t. It’s not even hinted at. Which again negates the whole point of it.

Imagine if those two moments, which seem to work in perfect harmony, had been given a much bigger impact – not only is Wolverine expected to change the past by uniting Magneto and Professor X much earlier than usual, and stop Mystique, but he now has to do it whilst the future is ripped out from beneath him. Again, real danger for our protagonists.

Indeed, apart from having the thrill of having Patrick Stewart utter a single word (alas, it’s ‘Future’ rather than ‘Space’) as the first line, I would have *started* the film in the 70s. Take it from the point of view of First Class Magento, Xavier and Mystique. They have their own problems to work through, their own conflicts and different approaches to resolve, when suddenly Wolverine appears on the scene, seemingly crazy and talking about the future.

This way, we have no idea if we can trust Wolverine, but we slowly reveal what’s happening in the future – via the Back to the Future-esque moments, and then finally we flick between the two eras as the conclusion comes into view. That’s what I would have done, anyway. I appreciate I’ve offered a lot of critique, with relatively slim solutions, but I’m not a screenwriter (yet), and well, I’m not intending to insult the choices made in production – just put across my thoughts after having seen the film.

So, whilst being a fairly entertaining film, with some moments of quality, and a brilliant cast, Days of Future Past ultimately feels like a missed opportunity and a disappointment. I can only hope that the third instalment in the series returns to the roots of the franchise and concentrates on developing characters, rather than fancy set pieces and an emotionless future.