Nov 10

War, what is it good for?

Quite a lot as it turns out.

Both of Monday’s talks as part of the Festival of Ideas (@festivalofideas) Autumn Programme looked at how much of the technology that we all rely upon started out with military funding.

(Disclosure: I was invited to attend both talks in return for writing this short review)

Whilst both speakers were looked at technology from war (and other base instincts) they were separated by over 150 years. Peter Nowak (Sex, Bombs and Burgers: How War, Porn and Fast Food Created Technology as we Know it) looked at mostly post World War II innovations that were now commonplace, and Rachel Hewitt (Map of a Nation: A Biography of the Ordnance Survey) looked back to the 1790’s and the birth of the Ordinance Survey.

Peter’s book is an enjoyable romp through just about every gadget, meal and (ahem) alternative entertainment you’ve ever heard of (and a couple you probably haven’t) and how they can trace their roots back to either military research projects or the companies that produced them. If anything was missing, it was a sense of grand narrative. A couple times during both Andrew’s interview and the subsequent Q&A he was pressed on the ethical questions raised but never really answered them.

Peter did make one prediction that robotics are now, where the PC was 20 years ago and that in 20 years time robotics would be as ubiquitous as the computer is now. Not quite sure I agree with that, there are lots of deeper sociological issues with robots such as challenges to our sense of self, issues over robot rights (robot is, after all, literally serf labor, in Polish), and the sheer creepiness of human-like robot forms.

A very interesting comment from the floor suggested a fourth base instinct to go with war, food & sex which was our innate curiosity and desire for the next shiny shiny thing. Whilst some of these companies can trace their origins to military activity, their current innovations and particularly their speed of innovation, are driven more by consumer competition rather than warmongering.

Map showing Trig Points used in the 1936 Ordnance Survey "Retriangulation of Britain" between 1936 and 1962.

By contrast, Rachel gave a fascinating and engaging talk about the origins of the Ordinance Survey and the people involved. It was quite clear that whilst the maps were commissioned to provide Britain with a military advantage in the event of invasion, the cultural impact of having a unified map of the country was also very important to those early cartographers. I was especially taken by the notion that William Mudge encouraged alternative uses of the original map series.

Rachel also noted that the early trig points were located at the sites of the national chain of warning Beacons (as these were on natural sight lines around the coast). Their rudimentary theodolites frequently needed flares to provide them with sufficient light to focus upon, and these flares naturally gave rise to the very real fear of imminent invasion!

In the equally entertaining and informative Q&A that followed, Rachel explored the cultural importance of maps and the role that the Ordinance Survey played in the cultural life of Britain, national rivalries with France, technology advances, and the location of the original Base Line (now mostly under Heathrow Airport).

A great evening all round!

Jun 06

Improv concerts & what social media can learn from them

Yesterday evening I attended the live premier of a BBC Concert Orchestra & Festival of Nature commissioned concert. (Disclosure: Science City Bristol are sponsoring the Science Cafes @ Festival of Nature, but I’ve not been involved in this concert, other than attending.)

The performance was in two halves; a short sequence of clips from the BBC Natural History Unit with the orchestra playing live, short chat with Q&A and then a repeat performance. Why two performances, and what’s it got to do with social media?

Well, the orchestra wasn’t the full BBC Concert Orchestra, 5 members of the orchestra and a composer were joined by 24 young people from schools across Bristol. They met for the first time on Tues, worked for 3.5 days and gave the performance on the Friday. They hadn’t seen the film clips beforehand, and they hadn’t played as an orchestra before. They also didn’t have any written musical score at the performance; it was all played from memory and partly improvised. And it sounded fantastic, both times!

December 28, 2009 by manning999

The key came during the Q&A. When they first watched the film and asked the young people about the music to go with it, there were lots of suggestions about a cymbal crash here, some flute there, and so on. Lots of focus on the individual instruments and notes, but no ‘bigger picture’. The first thing the composer and the BBC Concert Orchestra’s Learning Team did was to re-view the films and talk about that bigger picture, the emotions they evoked or wanted to bring out, the sense of majesty (Humpback Whales) or playfulness (Giant Otters).

Once they had those broad messages and the overall framework of the pieces, then they began to experiment with chord sequences and harmonies. By all accounts it was a very egalitarian approach with ideas being voted on, and continuous refinement selecting or disposing of small parts that worked or didn’t.

In the final performance, most of the music was played from memory, but there were still flashes of inspiration by individual orchestra members, and because they’d gone through that development process and the ground rules were clearly laid out, those individual flourishes could be included without grandstanding or throwing everyone else into confusion. They were all listening intently to each other throughout the performance, as well as having great fun.

You can see the whole thing (well a recording of the concert mixed with the films) on the BBC Big Screen in Millennium Square as part of the Festival of Nature (12-13 June 2010).

Business as music

The parallels with some types of business are quite striking. They had a CEO that was clearly in control, and he empowered this team to do what they do best. They worked on a shared vision and understanding of the broad task at hand, and willingly contributed ideas to other sections if it made the overall performance better. In the actual performance they were working to agreed boundaries but within those boundaries there was freedom to do what was best at that particular instant in time.

Social media as music

Too often people talk about social media in the same way as the young people first approached the films. We could use twitter to send out little updates, and that would link to our Facebook page, and we can pull in our blog rss, and mash up with a Google map, and…

Twitter is not a Strategy

There needs to be a bigger picture. Even if all you’re doing it trying out these tools to see how they work for you or your business, you need to have some thought as the purpose. You also have to have some thought as to the socially acceptable way of doing things. The musical rules that the BBC used were a based on a heptatonic scale, rather than the pentatonic scale. Neither is right or wrong, but you can’t do both at once (at not without calling it ‘experimental’). 🙂

There’s nothing wrong with breaking a few rules, that’s almost the definition of being a stand-out excellent entrepreneur / artist / individual. But you really need to know which rules you’re breaking and to what purpose.

Of course, with social media the rules aren’t quite the same as in other forms of social interaction, and as new tools come along they can mutate. Fortunately one of the rules that has completely reversed is lurking, allowing you to observe behaviour before you dive in.

Once you have that bigger purpose, knowing what the rules of participation are, then you can choose which tools / instruments will deliver the required performance.

Plans are worthless. Planning is essential. – Winston Churchill, Dwight D. Eisenhower, & many others

And of course things won’t go according to plan, but that’s where having the clear shared sense of purpose means that people can act without having to fight through layers of bureaucracy. And they can act honestly as human beings rather than PR spin-doctors or script-reading robots.

What’s your social media strategy? Listen, plan, listen, act, repeat; or deliver a stream of ‘messages’ across all channels in a blitzkrieg approach?

Aug 08

Outside interests

In addition to our various ‘day jobs’, Sam and I also maintain a number of outside interests including various catering engagements.

Some time ago, Sam began helping with the staff and artist catering backstage at the Cambridge Folk Festival. A couple years ago I joined her for the first time and we were back there again this year. While some of the backstage crew are ‘professional’ (in that they travel around all the festivals doing lighting, sound, etc) most are loyal to the Cambridge Folk Festival and only meet once a year.

Everything starts about a week before the music begins with rigging marquees, setting the infrastructure to cope with the influx over the weekend. We pitched up on Wed when Sam began serving egg & bacon butties from ‘Bob’s Country Bunker’ (a porta-cabin with a hotplate, grill, fridge, and not much else by way of catering equipment). By the end of the day the main catering Marquee was full of the cookers, fryers, hot plates, storage, boilers and serving equipment that is a functioning kitchen; including the kitchen sink! A walk-in fridge and a separate walk-in freezer kept everything nicely chilled, whatever the temperature in the kitchen.

Our routine was then 6am (breakfast served from 7am) until 10pm (last dinner serving at 8pm but people always turned up late); either preparing, cooking, serving, or cleaning up. At it’s peak we served 438 for Sunday dinner in just over 4 hrs (including stragglers).

It wasn’t all hard work. There are four ‘gators’ (4 or 6 wheel drive buggies) that are used to transport the heavier bits of equipment around the site. Tradition is that on the Sunday they hold a fancy dress parade with each of the gators being ‘decorated’ by the Sparky’s (electricians), security, stewards, and artist hospitality teams.

Apologies for the ‘sideways’ view, Qik doesn’t seem to let me rotate the image.

We were also blessed with the. best. toilets. ever.

Update:- someone has asked and no the music isn’t post-production, its piped from the black loudspeaker you can see beside the fluffy hand towel. Without smell-o-vision you can’t tell but the hand-wash was a fragrant lavender.

It’s also worth noting that these are on a trailer, just like other portable loos (only posher)! 🙂

It isn’t all festival food.

My sister was also over recently from Boston with my newly born Niece (7 months old) for her Christening at Mum’s local church. Sam did the cake and constructed the baby from Marzipan & icing, and the lettered bricks from icing blocks and letters piped individually to spell out “Evangaline” and individual “e”s on each of the 70 cupcakes.

cake

baby
Jun 06

Grafikea – the good, the bad & the WTF?!

[This is a re-post from the Bristol Design Festival where I’m a guest blogger – check out the original and all the other action over their blog.]

LACK SIDE TableAlong with a couple hundred others, I thoroughly enjoyed the Bristol Design Festival’s launch party last night, however, I was taking a specific interest in the Grafikea entries. As in previous years, the standard was excellent with some ingenious and occasionally subversive uses for a simple LACK Side Table from your friendly blue and yellow purveyor of Scandinavian style.

For those that haven’t seen Grafikea before, the rules are quite simple. You purchase a table (as on the right) and then, according to the official rules:

Let your creativity run wild and modify the table.

And that’s pretty much it.

The results are quite astounding.

Before the prizes were announced I took a walk around the entries and a few leapt out at me. Apologies for the photos, I was using my camera phone, I’m sure better quality press-pics are available; even better, get down to the Old Fire Station and see for yourself! 🙂

IMAG0070One of the first that caught my eye was a very Bristolian scene of the SS Great Britain sailing under the Clifton Suspension Bridge, all on a coffee table! There were even a few fishes in the Severn that younger visitors seemed particularly entranced by.

I later discovered that this table (together with another 5) was designed and made by the ASD classes at Kingsweston School. This particular one was from Oak Class.

IMAG0078There were a number that had been decorated with graphics and very well executed designs (as you’d expect) along with the quirky and fun. I quite liked the ‘Coffee Table, Coffee Table’ and ‘Table to Die For’. On the quirky and subversive was this inverted table-come planter. Another table that caught my eye was ‘Exhibit yourself’ which had completely deconstructed the table and turned it into a pole-dancing platform!

There were only a couple that didn’t really do anything for me. One had some licorice allsorts spilled across and lacquered, another with digestive biscuits, I also wasn’t entirely convinced by the loud speakers & Mp3. Just my personal opinion.

The WFT award this year definitely went to ‘Shadows of a Table’ – you have to go along and see this in person! No photo can do it justice,part Alien, part Necromicon it positively broods in the corner looking down on the other tables and viewers alike.

And the winners are: (these are the official competition winners in two categories, Junior and Grafikea)

Junior

Beware the Table First Prize went to this entry from St Bede’s Catholic College. Transforming their table into a weird and ferocious monster. This is right by the entrance so keep an eye out at ankle level!
Delectable Second Prize went to Delectable from Lime Class at Kingsweston School. I had a long chat with one of the Specialist Teachers about the ASD Unit and how all the kids had contributed to designing their tables. In total there are 6 tables from Kingsweston showing creativity and ingenuity.

In addition to Delectable & the Bristol Bridge, there are 4 other tables from the other classes in the ASD unit. I’ll let you find them in the exhibits, suffice to say that you have to look at the identification cards to know they’re from Kingsweston, the quality is that high.

You Scream We Scream Also from St Bede’s this beach scene obviously captured the imagination along with Third place. Perhaps the title of ‘You Scream, We Scream’ helped.

Grafikea

Entemology First Prize went to a stunning entry from Helen Ward; Entomology. Each of the butterflies is cut from coloured paper and laid out as you might expect in any Victorian collectors house or museum.

My apologies to Helen for the poor quality photo, please visit the exhibition to see the exquisite detail that has gone into this table and also take a look at her website for more images and additional background on the artisan paper and history behind the butterflies.

Cork Second Prize went Cork from Jack Patient, a fun table surrounded by colourful corks.
Production Line Error This entry, entitled ‘Production Line Error’ from Dave Stannard won Third Place. A quirky mix-up between a table and chair.

Congratulations to everyone that took part, all the tables are available to buy from the artists so head down to the Old Fire Station for the opportunity to take home some local art!

Aug 12

Cambridge Folk Festival 2008

Photo by Clare Borley

Photo by Clare Borley

The Cambridge Folk Festival might be a strange topic for this blog, but it is a function I have been working for the past sixteen years!  Most people attend events such as this to watch great bands performing live.  They get to enjoy the atmosphere and attempt to dance between the rain drops. I however am there to work!  Obviously many people are there to work; security, general helping staff, vendors, bar staff, stage hands, electricians, gas engineers, not to mention the performers, but as it is often said an army marches on its stomach.  That is where I come in……

I meet up with a select team of people each year under Bob the chef as part of the ‘Quintessential Cuisine’ team tasked with providing food for the “Staff and Artists”.  This merry band of 5 produce breakfast, lunch and evening meals for 2000 people over a four day period.  I am part of this team, but I also specifically look after the artists and their riders.

A contract rider includes specifications on stage design, sound systems, lighting rigs, as well as an artist’s wish list-from transportation and billing to dressing room accommodations and meals. At some festivals, a promoter will refuse a demand (crossing out the request on the document), but at Cambridge the stars usually get what they want, whether it’s new black cotton soaks, or a box full of fruit so they can prepare their own smoothies.

So I spend considerable amount of time preparing special meals for some artists and vast numbers of sandwiches and deli platers for others.  What this does mean is that when the rest of the catering team are not working I am in the kitchen trying to get on top of things so that when the main rush hits, I can help out with the staff meals and coordinating service times.

This break from the routine of health/clinical psychology and research analysis is wonderful.  As a qualified chef, preparing food is a careful balance of colours, flavours, textures and presentation not to mention getting it on the table in time (no mean feat when you’re basically working on a camping gas stove).  I also experience a whole different side of humanity.

It essence it keeps me fresh and if you’re not going away on holiday then a change is as good as a rest!