Monday, December 30, 2013

2013's top ten posts from the blog

As an end of the year flourish, here are the top ten posts from my blog this year by page views.

My top ten gleanings from the Sheila McKechnie Foundation campaigning conference.

Big Issue columnist Brendan O'Neill presents climate scepticism as a censorship issue rather than a science issue - I respecfully disagree.

What happens when you can't - or won't - keep artists' self-serving cant or the indirect promotion of hate speech out of your pages. 

My photo-blog of life in the office and community space in Digbeth where I work.

The first time I think we've really gone to a festival and shown the audience the true depth of Friends of the Earth, and what it might mean for the future. 

'Twitter in full-on outrage diva mode is like being in one of those pub-discussions-gone-wrong where people tell you earnestly that something is awful, that the world is doomed, the Government can't do anything right, or that Knightmare wasn't anywhere near as good after they introduced the Eye Shield'

Prep material for a game with friends this Spring - a bit of an outrider as the sole intrusion of full-on geekery into the list.

When the Beatles and the Velvet Underground are as experimental as your Top 10 gets, then you know you've got serious ancestor-worship problems.

Open thread in the wake of the May local elections - I did actually get some responses!

The top rated guest post this year was a frontal assault on 'that useless piece of plastic that functions neither as a spoon or a fork.' 

When I audited my blog around this time last year (see part one and part two), the top change i decided to make was to write more about my work with Friends of the Earth, about organizing and politics more generally. As I noted at the time, many people write about the Hobbit movies, less people are writing about the interstices between politics, organising and geek culture.

As the majority of these posts have had more views than all of last year's top ten, albeit still not huge numbers, we can say this is probably paying off. I'm carving out a small but perfectly formed niche for myself. A lot of these views are probably bots, but hey, I have no other way of keeping score. :-)

The other main change I've made is increasing the number of posts - from 72 posts in 2012 to 169 this year, inclusive of this round-up. That's with some help from guest posts (thank you - you know who you are).

What I haven't yet gotten as good at as I might like is regarding the blog as a dialogue rather than a monologue. There have been more comments left this year but with honourable exceptions like the UKIP thread I haven't consistenty sought people's views out. 

I also haven't linked across to other people's blogs or @'tted people on Twitter as much as I might have done, although the top two posts both benefited from RT's via the Big Issue and the #peoplepower hashtag.

So, 2014 should probably be the year when this space becomes a conversation.

More than anything, I've enjoyed the task of regularly writing, of using this space like an auxillary brain, sharing my views and working out what I actually think.

If you've been reading - thanks for visiting and I hope you come back next year.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Gin & Flamingoes present Weihnachtsmarkt

Here's Weihnachtsmarkt (Christmas Market) my annual spoken word contribution to Adam Ings' Bibby Factors Christmas music compilation - audio version here.

I had the idea of filtering a typical experience at Birmingham's German Christmas Market through Kraftwerk's The Hall of Mirrors -  so the following works better if you read it in the meter of the song. Possibly also in a slightly blank, robotic tone of voice, although your mileage may vary. 

The last chorus in particular only really works if you assume it's being declaimed in a very Mitteleuropa accent.

And if Ralf or Florian by some strange twist of fate are reading this, all I can say is that I'm very, very sorry.

The young man stepped into the Christmas market
Where he discovered a reflection of himself
Dressed in a Christmas pudding jumper
Hat and ears like he was cosplaying an elf

Said his double "Change your ways and fast"
"For I am the spirit of the Weihnachtsmarkt."

"Yeah, you'd better change your ways and fast.
For I am the spirit of the Weihnachtsmarkt"

His doppelganger led him through the market
A panopticon of robotic St Nicks
As they moved past the booths and the parties
He found it harder to be detatched
To be i-ron-ic. 

They shot the breeze over sausages and Gl├╝hwein
Under the lights of the golden carousel
Looked at rock salt lamps, dream-catchers and crystals
A descent into some yoghurt-weaving hell

Asked our Scrooge "is it me or is it that"
"No one with any taste would buy this tat?"

"Is it just me or is that
No-one with any taste would buy this tat?"

But suddenly he fell in love with Christmas
He understood the Weihnachtsphantom's pitch
The creepy Santa automata turned heartwarming
To step into Xmas, you must embrace the kitsch

So he made up the partygoer he wanted to be
And changed into a festive personality

And even our humbugger
Has been changed for good in the Weihnachtsmarkt
Yes, even our narrator
Has been changed for good in the Weihnachtsmarkt

Friday, December 20, 2013

Why campaign meetings aren't just about decisions and doing, but cake too!

First law of meetings: a good meeting gets stuff done. 

Second law of meetings: a great  meeting gets stuff done but also includes cake.

In my old Friends of the Earth group there was a great woman called Margaret. Among the many things she did was ensure that all our meetings were welcoming affairs with tea and biscuits. Sometimes even cake.

Margaret may not have spearheaded any campaigns and her role might have been invisible to most. But her contribution was crucial to the cohesion of the group and to the quality of experience people had at our meetings.

Cut to the (management) science bit

Let's bring in a bit of chin-stroking. John Adair sets out a pretty simple model for a well-functioning team with three interdependent areas - the needs of the task, the team and the individuals which make it up.

TM John Adair - see his website here.

Pretty much any volunteer group with an eye on its long-term sustainability would want to make sure its meetings were delivering on all counts - getting tasks done and taking decisions, making sure people are working together well as a team and trying to meet the needs of the individuals (familiar and fresh faces) that have turned up that evening. 

However, I propose the following collective mea culpa on behalf of campaigners: our groups and our meetings are sometimes overly task-focused. We're very busy putting the metaphorical smack-down on bad things happening. Dare I say we tend to the overly Puritan in approach, if we don't watch ourselves?

And while just looking at action can be very motivating in the short-term, if we want to be successful in the longer term attention must be paid to the rest of the equation. 

People won't come to meetings if they're not having fun or getting some kind of validation from attending. We can't assume we're instinctively providing an inspiring evening for people. We can't assume we're getting it right through benign neglect.

And that's why I think we need to talk about quality of experience. 

And cake. 

It's not all about the cake, but I do think the presence of bakery items at a meeting is a good indication of whether a group is thinking about whether people are having a good time there. Custom and human behavior wouldn't place so much importance on hospitality, on breaking bread and the informal conversation that goes with a cup of tea, if it wasn't such an effective method of bringing people together and lightening the atmosphere, however serious the occasion.*

Hospitality and welcome brings quality of experience front and centre for groups alongside the need to do. It gives people like Margaret who might not be your key campaigners the chance to exercise a significant role in your group. It could be the glue that holds you all together and helps you grow.

There are lots of other things a group can do to ensure that a meeting doesn't just trudge, but swings, which perhaps I'll write about in the future. But cake is a good finger-in-the-wind indication that you're on the right track.

And if your group doesn't offer cake (or the equivalent) at your meetings yet, why not try make this small resolution next year and see how it works for you?

With thanks to Tom Wright for inspiration.

*I remember hearing Victoria Harvey, another Friends of the Earth activist once say that meetings with council officers went better with chocolate cake as well. So this approach works externally too.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Cake IS quality of experience, unless the cake is a lie

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Living fossil

Found between the pages of a book from - yes - the mid nineties on sale in Hay.

It's not quite an exact comparison, but in 2013 an off-peak return ticket from Cardiff to London bought on the day will cost you £70.50.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Douglas Rushkoff on role-playing: one part hurrah to one part facepalm

It's rare that you'll find a writer outside the hobby covering role-playing at all, let alone with any insight. So it was interesting to come across a chapter dealing with just that in cyber-critic Douglas Rushkoff's early 90's book Cyberia (full version available from the Cyberpunk Library here).

Cyberia itself is a wide-eyed hymn to the the emancipatory potential of computing from an observer on the cusp of internet culture, with much musical and pharmaceutical cross-referencing to the Second Summer of Love. 

If this book were a band, it would be The Shamen.

Rushkoff makes connections between various forms of self-actualisation and -exploration, which goes some way to explaining his take on RPG's.
 Having fully accepted ontological relativism as a principle of existence, Ron and his posse of 'gamers' live the way they play, and play as a way of life. It is not just that life is a game, but that gaming is as good a model as any for developing the skills necessary to journey successfully through the experience of reality. It is a constant reminder that the rules are not fixed and those who recognise this fact have the best time.
He goes on to describe a not-untypical session (in a GURPS fantasy setting, in case you're wondering) in detail we shall skip over here, before concluding that role-playing games are
surprisingly engrossing. They share the hypertext, any-door-can-open feeling of the computer net. 
Rushkoff concludes:
Role-playing games are based on the texture and reality of the playing experience. They are the ultimate designer realities and, like VR, the shamanic vision quest or a hacking run, the adventurer moves from point-to-point in a path as non-linear as consciousness itself. The priorities of [fantasy role-playing games] reflect the liberation of gamers from the mechanistic boundaries imposed on them by a society obsessed with taking sides, winning, finishing and evaluating.
This is a high-minded perspective, and you do wonder what Rushkoff would make of a party of munchkins, or the raid and level-up reductionist take on role-playing demonstrated in MMORPG's. But he does get to the heart of the liberating potential inherent (even if not always realised) in the medium of open-ended gaming.

And he actually makes gaming sound pretty cool.

Then it all starts to go a little wrong.

In the second half of the chapter Rushkoff describes the GURPS group's fondness for 'edge games' - translating role-play into real life through assuming new identities and refusing to break character, and activities such as theft and chasing each other around shopping malls on acid. 

Or as we gamers like to call it: acting like bloody idiots.

The gamesmaster Ron in particular comes over as a more than a bit creepy, what with his 'learning how to manipulate others through new forms of hypnosis and experimental cult activities.'

And just when it was all going so well, we get another piece on the dangers of role-playing :-) Still, at least it wasn't a satanic panic this time. 

But then a typical gaming group, where the action stops when the dice are put away, wouldn't have fitted Rushkoff's gonzo cool-hunting brief quite as well as a massively unrepresentative bunch of Luke Reinhold groupies.

It's one thing to compare the storytelling dimension of role-playing to a therapeutic or spiritual process - an analogy I would be comfortable with in theory even if in practice most games rarely achieve such heights. It's quite another to forget the other important things gaming and therapy have in common: ground-rules, safe space and a clear distinction between the space and everyday life.

In short: some really good analysis in here mixed up with some regrettable misrepresentation.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Caption competition: who let the dogs out?

Can anyone sum up this terrible piece of art adorning a fairly respectable fantasy novel? (found in a recent trip to Hay-on-Wye)