Category Archives: Life

2017 Year Notes

2017 is a year that, personally speaking, I suspect I’ll look back on fondly. Inspired by Alyson, here’s my 2017 ‘year notes’.

My 2017 in nine photos.

My 2017 in nine photos.

Work

When I left the BBC and joined Springer Nature in September 2016, I did so with the aim of getting more experience in product management. I’ve made no secret of the fact that I have ideas I’d like to bring to fruition in my career, and having a few years of product management experience would be no bad thing.

2017 certainly delivered on the promise of ‘experience’. Together with a small but determined team, we grew ‘Recommended’ from an experimental prototype to a fully launched product across all of Springer Nature’s journal portfolio, with data-informed experiment-driven product development at its heart.

It may be a cliche, but it was an excellent ‘learning experience’ for me, and the team were one of the best I’ve been a part of since the days at the BBC working on the /programmes platform.

Extracurricularly, aside from a workshop at World IA Day back in February, I made progress, but failed to finish off, parts of my main side project – A Craft of Storytelling. It’s still something I’d like to persevere with, though, and hopefully something from it will see the light of day in 2018.

The book that I’d been helping to edit, ‘Designing Connected Content’, was published in December, which was a lovely way to end the year. The book is a distillation of the domain-driven design approach to UX and content strategy, essentially summing up my practice when in an information architecture role, so it serves as a good book-end to that phase of my career.

Non-work

After a somewhat fallow 2016, I was lucky enough to go on three holidays this year – a trip to Salerno in May, a mini-tour of Europe (Paris, Girona, Barcelona and back to Paris) before my birthday in July, and a mediterranean cruise with my brother in September. Travelling through Europe (France, Spain and Italy in May) was a highlight – it was so easy and stress free, I’d certainly do it again.

Aside from holidays, what else happened?

– Saw Chelsea win the league (again) in my 23rd season as a season-ticket holder.

– Attended a ‘Parks and Recreation’ themed dinner party

– Went bouldering for the first time

– Enrolled in an ‘Introduction to Acting’ evening class

– Played Settlers of Catan for the first time, and started a ‘legacy’ board game, Seafall (still in progress!)

– Treated myself to an Ableton Push.

2017 is the year that unfortunately, social media became more of a net negative than positive for me. I’ve made many good friends on Twitter, enjoy Instagram and still use Facebook, but the move to obtuse algorithmic-driven news feeds and timelines has been hugely frustrating. I’ve increasingly grown tired of the technology industry’s fascination with machine learning and algorithms as a panacea, and viewing Twitter has become an 80% depressing and angry experience. Which is a shame.

Highlights of the year

TV

Orphan Black was my stand-out, favourite show of the year, by a mile. Sure, it drags a bit at the beginning of the third series, and the final episode was rather different to what I was expecting, but as an action-packed, entertaining thriller, with frankly amazing performances from Tatiana Maslany, it blows everything else out the water.

Parks and Recreation continues to be my go-to show when I’m in need of comfort TV; Toast of London was fun; The Good Place shined, and Star Trek: Discovery had a slow start (the Klingons are so boring!) but picked up well towards the end (I can hear you, Clem Fandango..) Halt and Catch Fire made a late run for my new addiction, but it’s not quite there yet.

Doctor Who, my first love, was…OK. Capaldi was excellent, the writing was patchy. Really looking forward to Jodie Whittaker’s stint in the lead role, though I’m slightly nervous about Chris Chibnall taking over (Bradley Walsh as a companion?), though I’d be delighted to be proven wrong on that. I’d have voted for the Orphan Black show runners, myself.

Music

A quiet year for music, partly due to swapping to Google Play Music in Spring. Discovering Matt Berry’s music (via Toast of London) was a good thing – ‘The Small Hours’ and ‘Witchazel’ especially.

‘Concrete and Gold’ by the Foo Fighters was probably my album of the year.

Books

– Hope in the Dark, by Rebecca Solnit
– Complex TV, by Jason Mittell
– The Influencing Machine, by Brooke Gladstone

Special mention, although it’s a report, rather than a book, to Claire Wardle & Hossein Derakhshan’s ‘Information Disorder: Toward an interdisciplinary framework for research and policymaking’ – sounds dry, but is an excellent read, and it could prove to be extremely influential and useful in the coming year.

Looking forward

Work-wise, I’ll be taking over as the Product Manager for BMC and Springer Open, and I look forward to getting more experience running a site.

I’d like to overcome my frustrations at never really grokking musical theory, in order to learn to use the Ableton Push properly.

I’ll be speaking at World IA Day Manchester in February, on the topic of what we can do to deal with the current journalistic/information landscape, and I hope to be able to make concrete contributions to improving journalism, society and culture next year, too. Something to pull the world out of the socio-political nose dive that has been 2016-17.

I’m acutely aware that I don’t do as much as I could, or as others I know, do, but I do think the things I want to do in my career, long-term, will help.

Aside from that, I need to get into the discipline of exercising more (as always!), improving my diet slightly, and overcoming my instinctive lack of social confidence to get out there, meet new people and make new friends.

Thank you to Alyson, Sian and Daniel for being travel buddies and great friends this year. Wishing you all, and everyone else reading, a healthy, happy and good new year.

Onwards!

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.

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.

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Doing a @poppet – Macbeth in a tower block

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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.

A Song From Your Favourite Band (30 Days of Music 2014)

Enjoy The SilenceDepeche Mode

I even love the video-exclusive intro..

This looks like I planned it, doesn’t it? Oops. Didn’t mean to have two songs from the same artist on consecutive entries. Ah well. Nowadays, I don’t really have a favourite band. There’s great songs, good albums, bands I have affection and/or personal attachment to, but a ‘favourite’, if you took just the last 5-10 years, that’s difficult. So my criteria for this is – band who have the most songs that I enjoy. And, since 1998, that has been Depeche Mode. I remember liking this particular song when it came out, but didn’t really pay attention to the band behind it – indeed, in my head, thanks to Now! That’s What I Call Music VHS tapes, Martin Gore and the slightly scary looking one from Heaven 17 (Wikipedia reliably informs me he’s called Glenn Gregory), were one and the same.

It was only with the release of The Singles 86>98, bought by my brother, that I fell in love with the band – there is no song on that compilation I don’t love. There’s a consistency of theme, of atmosphere, and yet a very different and evolving approach, which makes every song a delight. My love of electronic music, being a child of the 80s, probably helps, too. Then I started to explore the older stuff, and the albums, and again, it’s pretty much all gold. The videos are often works of art, too.

Yes, the 2000s have been less kind to the band – Exciter, the first release since I became a ‘fan’, was disappointing, but not a complete failure, and it’ll always be special to me – the thirty second preview clips were great for speculation. Playing the Angel and Sounds of the Universe were definite steps in the right direction, and yet it’s symptomatic of my waning ‘favourite band’ thing, that I’ve still not listened to the latest album, Delta Machine, in full.

Enjoy The Silence is wonderful, and the album, Violator, is a masterwork, oh, and Andy Fletcher is brilliant.