The left-right game – experiments in navigation, embodiment and control

Yesterday my daughter and I left the house and flipped a coin. Heads for left, tails for right. Right it was, then left, then left again, et cetera. A random journey along the roads, cyclepaths and alleyways of our neighbourhood ensued. It became a fun home-schooling lesson in probability. It revealed to me the habits that stop me from noticing so much of what surrounds me. And it was a fascinating experiment in not having a plan.

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Imprisoned with the infinite – the philosophical implications of an imaginary visit to Sweden

Yesterday our household returned home from an imaginary holiday. Despite being in lockdown, we realised that we could imagine going on a trip anywhere in the world. Our daughter suggested our Sweden. Too far to easily get to under normal circumstances without flying, with that constraint removed we thought, why not? Now back home, I have been using this visit as an opportunity to explore some philosophical arguments about how we deal with choice and how this affects our creativity.

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The satisfaction of learning what the buttons can do

A Casio fx-570s calculator, shown to illusrate a blog article called 'working out what the buttons do on machines'

I am reminded this morning of much I like working out what all the buttons do on a machine. Quite often the machines we use, be they an oven, a sports watch or a computer, have many more functions than we realise. Not all of these devices have the levels of user interface design that you might get from say a modern phone. While I’m a fan of good user design, I quite enjoy pouring through manuals to discover these more obscure functions… or better still, trying to discover them for myself.

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From self-help to help me.

Readers of this blog will know I started a project a couple of years ago to write a book called ‘Analogue Skills‘, a re-examination of the pre-screen skills that relied on to get through the day. I’ve always intended it to be part philosophical, part self-help. When I’ve stalled in my writing, one of the barriers has been not knowing how much of an authoritative voice to take. There is a well-troden self-help author path in which the writer spends a period of time – usually at least six months, sometimes a decade of a career – living the chosen lifestyle, and then writing about it. But that doesn’t sit well with me. I feel the Analogue Skills project to be much more of an experiment.

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The experience of distance

Marseille
A morning walk up the steep hill to the Basilica of Notre Dame de la Gard granted me panoramic views of the city of Marseille and the sea. I love the peaceful hum that can be extracted from high up of a limbering up for a day of activity.

I underlined these words yesterday in ‘In Search of Lost Time’. The narrator is talking about how his perception of distance was changed when, instead of travelling by rail, he starts to go by car.

‘We express the difficulty we have in getting to a place in a system of leagues and kilometres, which becomes false the moment that difficulty decreases. The art of distance, too, is modified, since a village that had seemed to be in a different world from some other village, becomes its neighbour in a landscape whose dimensions have altered.’

Proust, M. (1921). In Search of Lost Time, Vol 4. Sodom and Gomorrah. (C. Prendergast, Ed.) (Penguin Cl). Penguin Books.
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Derive #2 City of London – Log book

  • 19/3/18
  • Derive #2
  • Location: City of London
  • Context: preparation for my talk ‘Circling the Square

Moorgate x London Wall

  • 0:00:00 Moorgate and London Wall. Once solid-looking stonewalls are now façades pinned in place by scaffolding while new buildings are constructed behind. In just a few years the streetscape along London Wall has completely changed
  • 0:04:34 London Wall and Copthall Avenue Deep metallic groans sound out from behind these hoardings. I assume the core of the building is being demolished, and the sound is the building complain.

  • 00:09:41 Black Rock The circle leads straight into the offices of Black Rock. I enter the revolving doors and walk through a long dark lobby past whispering clusters of suited men and women. I emerge blinking onto a much quieter street, Tower 42 in the distance.
  • 0:13:31 Copthall Avenue The circle passes straight through the Angel Court building. I attempt to walk through the underground loading bay but I’m turned back by security. There are some places you really aren’t supposed to go.

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Circling the square – psychogeography in the City

Last night I have a talk at the first ever City of London Showoff called Circling the Square. The event was put on by the City Centre, a fantastic organsiation right at the heart of the City that hosts a fascinatingly detailed 3D model of the City of London.  I had been asked to say something entertaining and interesting about engineering in the City. I thought this was a great opportunity to try out and talk about my new hobby, psychogeography. The folllowing is a transcript of my talk (my full data log see my post Dérive #2 – City of London – Logbook)

As an engineer I love going on unconventional journeys: using odd means of transport, exploring forgotten paths, seeing the new from different perspectives. In his book, a Road of One’s Own, Robert Macfarlane instructs us to:

…unfold a street map. Place a glass rim down anywhere on the map and daw round its edge. Pick up  the map, go out into the city and walk the circle, keeping as close you can to the curve. Record the experience as you go, in whatever medium you favour: film, photograph, manuscript, tape. Catch the graffiti, the branded litter, the snatches of conversation…Log the data stream…Be alert to the happenstance of metaphors, watch for visual rhymes, conincidenes, analogies, family resemblances, the changing moods of the street. Complete the circle and the record ends. Walking makes for content; footage for footage.

Robert Macfarlne – a Road of One’s Own, cited by Merlin Covereley in ‘Psychogeogrpahy’

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Augmented reality stargazing: unintended consequences

For generations it has been a tradition on the French side of my family to spend summer evenings out in the garden looking at the stars. I happen to know that this is something my great-grand parents were doing from at least their retirement in the 60s, and it is what other families in the village were doing too. When televisions arrived, neighbours didn’t give up their stargazing; they simply opened the windows wide, put the TV on inside and watched it from outside, while still inclined heavenwards.

By the time of my childhood in the 80s, I have no memory of seeing other families outside gazing upwards in the evenings. I wonder if the people watching televisions from their gardens had switched to sitting inside and watching TV with the window open so they could see the stars, to eventually shutting out the stars altogether. But my grandparents, to their credit, shunned the phosphorus screens for the slower moving celestial entertainment.

It is for this reason that I have spent hundreds of nights staring at the same patch of sky from the same particular orientation. I know where the first star usually shines from; where the great bear appears over the horizon; where to expect to see different clusters and motifs of stars. But despite hours of dedicated study, I, nor any of my ancestors seems to have had any definitive knowledge of what any of the stars or constellations actually are. There has been much speculation and debate. That flickering red dot just above the horizon early in the evening must be mars/ no it can’t possibly be mars because it is always in the same place/ it’s actually called Beetlejuice. Our collective space ignorance is further demonstrated when we try and point out to one another where a satellite may be seen crossing the sky: you see that bright star, straight above? Go left a bit to the next bright star, then to that square of really dim stars, then go west about twelve inches, and you’ll see the satellite heading towards to the house.

I share all this to give a sense of the utter familiarity to me of this particular sky-scape, like someone who knows the view from their childhood bedroom window so well that it is impossible that anyone could show them anything new; a scene that is understood through layers of explanation, agreed between generations but never verified, so that you will appreciate the impact on me of downloading for the first time a star identification app and pointing it at the sky. It was as if I had been given a new set of glasses without ever having known that eyes were blurry.

All of a sudden, constellations stretched out in front of me. Scorpio reclining on the horizon, the diving fish of Pisces leaping over the trees in the east. I am looking at the same sky but I am seeing new things – this is augmented reality. That red star of which we had spent so many evenings arguing turns out to be the centre of the galaxy – incredible. I really felt ecstatic. We call out to each other, pointing out new things that we can see with more excitement and intensity than we have mustered for years from these seats.

The next evening, we return to the garden excited to return to our star-gazing. But I sense a subtle shift has come over us. The focus is on the screen and not on the sky; on the augmented reality rather than boring old reality. When the app loses its calibration, I start to believe what the screen tell me rather than what I can see with my eyes, even when the two clearly don’t line up. When I’ve got bored of looking at the app, I start to look at other apps: since I’ve got my screen out why not check my messages quickly. And at this moment the spell of stargazing is broken.

Very quickly the situation seems to be changing from one in which we sat under the cloak of the stars, sometimes in conversation, sometimes in silence, but always together, to one in which we are close-by but in separate worlds. I wonder if in a few years’ time a natural evolution of this scenario will be for us to sit inside where the light is better and check our messages there – with the windows open so we can still see the stars, like our predecessors did two generations ago with their televisions.

This future scenario that I present is of course by no means a foregone conclusion, but it has the characteristics of a pattern that I see myself falling into: using digital technology to solve or augment a particular situation, but in doing so, introducing a set of unintended behaviours, that overall serve to diminish the situation.

Of course none of this information is new. The Greeks new about these constellations. We just needed the technology to help us remember. Now that I know what I am looking at, I need to remember to turn my phone off again.