Occasional blog of
Tobias Revell

5th Germinal, 228

I'm away from the calendar in the office. I can only say it's the 5th day of Germinal. There's not much to add really. You know what's going on. As you might imagine, we're in a scramble at the moment to make everything work and keep everyone healthy. The Office for Students wants one thing Public Health England another. The left shift key on my keyboard broke and I can't reset the SMC without it, I need to get a proper Mac screwdriver and open it up to manually pull the battery. I caught up on my reading yesterday and I'm spending this morning organising my old essays and texts, including the ones I need to read. I've saved so much money (I used to eat out all the time) that I treated myself to a new Garmin GPS computer but now I feel bad about going out riding. I'm going to go tomorrow. I like social isolation so I'm not doing so bad but I know lots of people are and it sucks. The Disco Elysium soundtrack is on repeat. Be amazing.

Vélar, Ventôse, 228; Reading GANs


Oh I had lots to talk about but to be honest I'm tired an a bit sad so I'll just dump some quick thoughts on a thing and leave you to your week.

Wes sent me this to read which he's featured in of course. It's all good but I was particularly there to read How Generative Adversarial Networks (GANs) Changed the Way we Look at the World by Lenka Hámošová. I appreciate a straightforward title and it's also a useful breakdown contextualising machine learning in the story of photographic forgery and propaganda-driven editing. Interestingly, the author also pushes at the idea of over-scepticism, that as well as the possibility for social manipulation through forgery, we may become overly suspicious of images that are in fact, unaltered. In my work on this subject I've drawn many of the same parallels; Stalin, photoshop etc etc but hadn't considered the idea that publics might wholesale distrust visual media as a result of its very production. For some reason I'm minded here of the sharpie issue when Trump altered a map of Hurricane Dorian's path with a Sharpie. Despite the obvious fraud (and Trump's ongoing fractious relationship with Sharpies) there appears to be an implicit notion that a direct connection between the author (Trump) and the artefact (the adapted map) implies truth while a digitally produced image without the hand of an author visibly present could be mistaken.

To be honest, there's not much more to the text than a description of the current state of play in the technology and a call for tools to interpret images produced by GANs. It's easy to speculate on dystopian visions of total distrust and then demand better tools for verification. I'm more interested in the wider social and human effects on visual culture.

Violette, Ventôse, 228; Falling through Earth

Hi. This is a short missive. I know I didn't do one last week but time just ran away with me. My sleep pattern has become incredibly erratic. Some nights I get three or four hours sleep, some times I crash out at like 7pm and just sleep straight through 12 hours. A couple of years ago I tried to train myself to need less sleep and just couldn't; I am an 8 hour sleep person and know that the key to good sleep is regularity. This also means I'm trying to drink less, normally I'm out three or four nights a week and I need to cut that down to a maximum of two or at least not drink every night.

I'm just going to post some links up and ahve done with it this week. I haven't read anything (because of the sleep thing) and you already know about the thing on Friday with natalie at the V&A? I learned about the Royal Game of Ur the other day which I guess is the world's oldest and longest-played game. There's a video from Tom Scott here on how the rules were kind of reverse engineered from correspondence hundreds of years after its first engineering.

Channel Recommendation

I already recommended this so it's not necessarily new but here's Standup Maths showing you how it wold take exactly 42 minutes and 10 seconds to fall through any object with the density of Earth, no matter how far you fell through. So weird.


There are so many good science communication channels out there I wonder what design and art have been doing wrong. I suppose 99% Invisible is about as close as you can get to a genuinely accessible and popular thing but it's still an audio podcast about design and there's something about the production values that I sometimes don't like; it's too shiny. I like Standup Maths and others because it's just someone who's really excited about something talking to other people about ideas. Should I do a design vlog?

I've been assembling a list of axioms I go by. I find I have quite a well self-articulated ruleset on how and why I do things which makes my life quicker because I hate prevaricating and waiting.

Lièvre, Pluviôse, 228; Speculative design is still a thing and Warhammer is great.

What if Our World is Their Heaven?

I got around to pulling together the video from 'What if Our World is Their Heaven?' and uploaded it to Vimeo. I also stuck up some images and the text we used in the brief up on the Haunted Machines site. The whole workshop was based around the 'automated production and dissemination of images'; a phrase which, if you've spoken to me in the last month, you would have heard me use a lot. The talk here introduces some of the key ideas of the area and identifies some existing weak signals and indicators that could be used by the students to kick off their thinking.



Coming up

There's a quite a lot going on this month. Not least of which I'm doing a lot of actual teaching which is why this is a day late. I spent a while trying to pull together a Blender workshop for Eevee on Saturday but really couldn't find a way to make it do what I wanted it to do and do it in a way which was easily teachable. It's definitely really promising but at the moment there's just too many hoops to go through for an 'intro to Blender' class. 

Other than that is a bunch of speculative design stuff. I'm teaching MA Service Design students tomorrow with the old Critical Exploits and thanks to my old friend and colleague Radha Mistry have found myself on the jury for the Core 77 design awards for speculative design. The submission are open now until the end of March I think. It'll be interesting to see what people are playing with in the field. I suppose it's a field now.

On 28th February Natalie and I are presenting at Pre-histories and Futures of Machine Vision, an event put together by Joel McKim. Honestly I'm not 100% on what we're talking about yet but we've titled it 'What if Our World was Their Heaven?' again.

Channel recommendation – Warhammer and climate change

So I suppose the commonality about my viewing habits is I like watching people build things. Not in a Grand Designs way but in a really grounded craft-based way. The algorithm has pushed me recently into miniature painting which is very enjoyable to watch mostly for the remarkable amount of skill involved. Anyway, I came across Goobertown Hobbies and really like it. The guy has a good pace and voice in talking about what he's doing. However, about half way through he completely switches, turns out he's a biochemist and he wants to use his platform to engage people in talking about climate change. He talks in this one about becoming confident in who you are and what you believe – in his case that he likes Warhammer (which he was 'closeted' about for a long time) and is really concerned about the lack of public engagement with climate change. It's just a really lovely, non-aggressive, non-ranty way of calling for openness, honesty and meaningful conversation. Loved it. 



Ok. In the words of Mr Buckles: I love you. BYYYYEEEEEEEEEEE!!!!!

Buis, Pluviôse, 228; What if everything was ok?

Stuart and Nicolas basically said it was ok to keep using French Republican dates as titles so that's where we are now with this blog. Incidentally I told a colleague that I blogged every week and they made a joke about 2015. 2015 was a good year for music. So. Anyway, whatever. Friday was Brexit day and like a lot of folks I found myself once again feeling the profound hopelessness and despair that we felt in 2016:

Sometimes I have a dream where I'm desperately imploring someone to listen to me and stop and change their ways. I'm not sure who my interlocutor is; I usually see myself in the third-person with my antagonist off-screen. In my dream I'm utterly convinced that they are so incorrect and so misled that if they continue what they are doing it will irreparably damage us both. I start persuading them calmly but they refuse to listen, or ignore me, or continue doing the thing I'm trying to get them to stop and it escalates into shouting, screaming for them to stop but they continue to ignore me, or simply can't hear me. In the end my throat is raw from screaming, my head throbs with rage, my back is bent over and I'm exhausted and crying but they carry on.

I hate that dream. It hurts. Maybe you have it too? I'm sorry if you do. It probably has some symbolic meaning about insurmountable adversity but like a lot of my dreams I tend to ignore it and pocket it until it later bears a semblance upon life when I can draw on it for learning.

But that dream came to mind on Friday evening while watching the symbols of Brexit happen. I'm always wary of blaming or singling out individuals for things that I personally find to be wrong because people are usually the victims of calamitous events rather than causes. And unless you are a murderer, sexual predator or other nefarious being the chances are that circumstance has as much a part in the situation as free will. But it was hard watching some of the vox-pops with folks celebrating this historic catastrophe and not want to blame them for their choices in our particular calamity: You must have seen the interview; (I generalise from despair, but you get the gist):
'We'll be in control again.'
'Of what?'
'You know, our country.'
'Ok, but what specifically?'
'Our sovereignty.'
'What does that mean for you?'
'Oh, well, control of our own laws.'
'Which laws?'
'All the laws that Europe took away.'
'Ok, which ones?'
'Like...fishing laws. We'll have our own fishing laws.'
'So how will that affect your daily life?'
'Oh, well, it won't but we'll have our own laws.' 
And on and on and on it goes like the greatest Monty Python sketch writ large on the rhetorical path to nowhere. You can't blame folks for deploying words like 'sovereignty' and 'laws' without (as I don't) even really knowing what they mean. They're parroting the Eurosceptic words they've heard since the early-2000s.

So then if we don't blame the folks gathered in Parliament Square to celebrate the ritual sacrifice of fifty years of mutual cooperation, do we blame and scream at the politicians? (you know specifically the ones I mean) I mean, it's good catharsis if you like your throat cut to ribbons but they're just doing politics. Let's imagine a pleasant fiction:

As with our world, the end of the Cold War leads to an end of a clear 'us and them' narrative simultaneous to enormous growth in the economic prosperity of the most wealthy leaving the once exhorted working and lower middle classes behind. Instead of blaming non-white people (War on Terror) or 'the elites' some right-wing think tank (supported by the tabloids, fintech and green tech investment) puts together a cohesive, straight-forward and digestible narrative that lands the blame for social inequality squarely at the feet of exploitative extraction and fossil fuel industries. New politicians like Noris Fohnson and Bigel Jarage campaign and harry – out of political expediency rather than conviction – for an anti-fossil fuel platform in the right wing, swinging MPs – out of political expediency rather than conviction – to call a referendum in 2016 on a carbon neutral economy by 2020. They promise jobs, new industries, growth, wealth for the 'forgotten' and a nationalistic vision of Britain leading the way. 

Sure, it seems unfeasible but you know, the mechanics are broadly the same. And you can't blame politicians for being political. You CAN blame them for shirking any sense of courage or integrity in the face of a opportunism and of knowingly committing the country to a policy path which they fully understand (and most have admitted before this debacle) will lead to a worse outcome for most people. You can go to fucking town on that one.

So anyway I posted a Political Opinion on Instagram on Friday night and braced for the inevitable backlash but instead received some sympathy, kind words and two interesting debates in which I learned something. This continues to support my conviction that Instagram is my favourite (great articles to the contrary aside). Had I done the same on Twitter dot com I would have received the inevitable 'eat rocks and die you fascist' response. This is a symptom I think of how much Twitter's panopticon structure (you can see what everyone else says) rewards collective outrage. On Instagram, where it's direct messages or you have to go out of your way to read what other people have written about another's thing, there's no need to play to the crowd.

Reading

This week I started reading Designs For The Pluriverse by Arturo Escobar. I actually stomped through about at third of it in one sitting (practically unheard of with my easily-distracted mind.) It explores the possibility of a design that goes agains the grain of design's inherent destructive tendencies, beginning with Tony Fry's notion of 'the "defuturing effects" of modern design, by which he means design's contribution to the systemic conditions of structured unsustainability that eliminate possible futures.' (p. 16) From here, Escobar points at a fork in the road for design and the future; the first drawn form notions such as participation, conviviality, non-dualistic ontologies and matriarchal ideas. The other; Claudia von Werlholf's 'patriarchal alchemy' based on hierarchies, dominance and control. He then scopes out the territory for a nascent new form of 'critical deisgn' present in emerging areas such as transition movements, Latin American feminism and climate activism.

To be totally honest, I don't understand half of it (the cultural theory half specifically); but in a good way. Sometimes I read things where I struggle with the ideas and terms and give up. There's so many things to read that I refuse to engage with things where the author doesn't at least try to engage an audience beyond their immediate peer group. In this case, Escobar really is trying to engage people exactly like me – a western-educated designer – in shifting my conception of my subject. His writing makes me want to re-read sections to understand where he's going at. I'm apprehensive of getting to several areas of the book – the ontological turn and transition design specifically – both of which I've taken several runs at each and come up only slightly more comprehending but I'm kind of excited to tackle those things through his writing.

However, in a book referencing designers, inevitably to be read by designers (even if he is clear that is not his sole audience), it could use some pictures! Escobar refers to a lot of practices throughout the book and rarely illustrates them through description and never through images. The thread of a thought can easily be lost when he drops the name of, for instance, a co-design practitioner I was unaware of and then doesn't expand on what they do and how or use an image of their work making it hard to interpret them as an example of his theory. I also actually like his tendency to string out lists of adjectives which I know some folk find poor style. I do that. So that makes it feel ok. More conceptually, I also feel that sometimes his ideas border on nostalgia such as at one point lamenting the replacing of the fireplace in the home (a site of community) with the television, or enthusing the value of blood relations and physically-local communities over dispersed technological social networks. Maybe there's more to go into here later in the book but I have a niggling concern that (at least early in the book) he off-handedly discounts the role of media technologies in building new kinds of families and communities that for many folks (perhaps western, yes) are more fulfilling – even safer – than the physically proximate ones. Anyway, I'll write more once I wrap it up. It's intense but I'm enjoying the challenge.

Sorry, no learning or channel recommendations this week. This is long enough for you. I've got them in my notes for next week.

Night, x