I’m fire ready

photo 1So I put the new fire app on my phone about a month ago, and boy, the updates! Every time I look at the phone I get all this information pushed at me – hazardous material in Brunswick, ‘other’ in Parkville (no idea what that’s meant to mean – maybe cat up tree?), fire in North Melbourne. Of course, a lot of these so-called fires are a little disappointing – not much more than false alarms – but they still get entered into the database and pumped out to everyone in the watchzone.

(To be honest, I don’t care about hazardous material any more, and I’ve changed my watchzones down to pretty small, cos with fires you really want them local. Mordialloc, you no longer rate!)

photo 2But it’s really amazing how many fires there are in Victoria on a high fire danger day – maybe 1000, and 400 of them serious enough. It certainly makes you appreciate the fireys. Gotta love those guys! But I do wonder about how good the alert mechanism is. The other day I was in the country, and you could literally see the smoke over Glenlyon. Sure enough the message came through – fire at Glenlyon. But when I went to the watchzone for details, there weren’t any. Why would they send a push message without the details? Indeed there were push messages about fires all the way up the road – Drummond, Malmsbury – but no details, and by the time we got there, nothing to see.

So I was extremely curious to find out exactly how good the app information was. How long does it take between the fire starting and the push notification being sent?

The first fire I set was a piddling little thing in Ascot Vale – a rubbish bin on a street corner. I made sure there was plenty of paper in the bin before I threw the butt in. No, it wasn’t a total fire ban day! I’m not irresponsible! Anyway it took no time for a passer-by to notice and phone 000. (Don’t worry, I was watching from the window of a nearby cafe, perfectly safe.) The fire truck arrived within 5 minutes, but what I really wanted to know about was the app.

My fire never made it onto the app. You can imagine how disappointed I was.

Next time I found a pile of rubbish in West Brunswick, on a building site – mixed paper, drink cans and rubble. It took longer to get it going, and longer for people to notice, but by the time they called 000, it was quite the inferno. Three fire trucks arrived, and it made it to the app, 14 minutes after I lit the thing and 2 minutes after the first truck.

photo 3It was a bit difficult to see how long it took to extinguish because I had to hide, and so I wasn’t able to take very good photos. But I thought the fireys did a really good job, and the app worked pretty well this time.

But unfortunately I do have to conclude that the app is unreliable. The bigger the fire, I figure the more reliable it gets – so maybe it’s not such a big deal. But on top of the other inconsistencies – confusing messages, and the fact that sometimes the warnings don’t come through until well after they’ve been on other media – on top of the installation difficulties that people have reported – Fire Ready is rather problematic. The info needs to be totally reliable, and its not. 75% right is not right enough when its a disaster.

so easy, so network / digital

I made these little poems using Visual Poetry on my phone.
thephoto (1)
I’ve been finding it very hard to find creative time, everything else seems to come first. But the combination of mobile, digital and network is a killer for productivity, and suddenly I’m writing poetry again.
thephoto (2)
I’m not sure whether I’ll grow tired of the templates in Visual Poetry, but it seems to offer quite a lot of creative freedom to combine text and image. Give it a go!

What I think you think

As a media maker I often wonder what you think of my work. In some ways, such queries are a hopeless hiding-to-nothing: the opportunities for direct feedback are rare, the possibility that I will misinterpret you are high, and what desire or ability do I have to change my work, even if I do understand your misinterpretation?

And yet, you are my ghost; I am haunted by your presence.

I decided to carry out an experimental project to try to understand our relationship. One strategy was to test out your interpretation of a very short piece of media.

The media in question consists of a 15 second extract of then Leader of the Opposition Tony Abbott answering an interview question. Mr Abbott pauses before answering. You can view the extract on Youtube at the 5:35 – 5:48 minute mark – and I strongly advise you to leap ahead to those all-important seconds if you want to experience the pause yourself:

I asked respondents to tell me their reaction(1). Here are some:

Respondent 1:

Polly on the run. He’s wondering what he has told his ministers to say – whether he will contradict them or they will contradict him.

ME: That word ‘Polly’. A sympathetic term. The Canberra Press Gallery uses it. I’m thinking that this person might be a Journalist. Checking for coherence is what Journalists do. Why does that matter? It does and it doesn’t. It’s your profession to commentate on politics. You have different motivations – but for all that, your opinion is just as valid as any other. Should my assumptions about who you are flavor my interpretation of what you are saying?

Respondent 4: Abbott leaves the surface for a brief moment; checks to see if there is anything, any intuitive intelligence, emergent from his depths; stumbles on the discovery that there are no depths to be had; returns to the surface none the wiser.

ME: I like these metaphors. It’s an interesting way of making Abbott’s thought processes visual. Does this respondent always think in such a visual way?

Respondent 5:

I don’t really feel anything – I’m waiting for what he says. Not because I’ll take every word as true, but because I expect all politicians to pause regardless of the honest of their responses. I also don’t think Abbott’s thought process here affects his ‘political future’ – we already knew he wasn’t taking action, and most planned to vote for him anyway. My reaction is that I’m sick of analyzing his character – attack the policies and not the person. He’s not a President.

ME: An unexpected response. Now I’m defensive. I am playing the man and not the message? This respondent is talking about me as much as she’s talking about the media moment … but I want to outside the media! S/he is thinking about the wrong things!

Respondent 6:

- He was thinking how he could not look like an idiot or be rude to “Andrew”;
-My reaction is that he was taking a deep breath in a form of a sigh … how do I answer this diplomatically when really he just wants to ‘yell’ that everyone else is just wrong about climate change;
-My reaction is that he is an idiot and slimy but that is motivated by my strong held political beliefs

ME: An angry person with strong politics. Wait a minute, I know this handwriting. Of course, I know she thinks like this. Maybe she knows I’ll recognize her handwriting. Maybe she knows that I know who she is, and she’s saying these things because she knows I know.

Respondent 7:

He is pausing because he needs to marshall his thoughts before responding to a contentious question. I think he is trying to work out the best way to communicate his skepticism about climate change without putting off too many voters. The pause has connotations of insincerity for me in this context but this may be due to my own anti-Abbott bias.

ME: This response echoes my view. Did I do something to encourage this response? Does saying this under-estimate your ability to think outside of my manipulations?

Respondent 8:

A practice of disconnection, putting emotive quality what has been conveyed by questioners aside … regathering
Giving space to allow everylay – re-entry of structure of opinions he knows.
Ultimately there is no room for conversation for listening, only surviving with your core messages intact.

Me: I can’t read your writing. What is ‘everylay”? But more – what does your writing itself say? What damage am I doing to you by typing it? I should print the poetic original, your pauses and spaces –
What have I learned? Tentatively:

  • often we don’t even acknowledge the things we understand in the media; interpretation can be quite subconscious;
  • we bring a lot of contextual information to interpretation
  • interpretation is expressed in language, and cannot be divorced from that language
  • it may also have a materiality
  • I don’t understand all your interpretations, and
  • I never will.

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Screen Shot 2013-12-18 at 2.13.06 PM

Channel 7 (29 June 2013) ‘Sunrise – Abbott Unfazed by Labor Polling’ http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BU52zYJs2O4 Viewed 18 December 2013.

(1) This project has RMIT Ethics Committee approval (DSC CHEAN B Project 0000015696-09/13)

RMIT won’t negotiate

Screen Shot 2013-11-15 at 10.58.23 AMLiam Ward and I whipped together these vids about the forthcoming NTEU strike action:

Short compilation

Caroline Norma on casuals

Liam Ward on casuals

Melissa Slee “Why we’re striking” [short]

Ruth Barton on academic workloads

Liam Ward on academic workloads

Bruno Doring “Why I’m striking”

Melissa Slee “Why we’re striking”

Bruno Doring on professional staff development

Ruth Barton on casuals

More info on the NTEU’s position at RMIT.

Putting participation in ethnographic film

I’ve been watching a lot of recently produced ethnographic films, either shot in the Asia-Pacific, or produced by its citizens, in the context of the forthcoming Aperture Film Festival. It has been interesting to note how conservative most of the films are – a very old-fashioned relationship between the ethnographer/filmmaker/anthropologist is acted out with the ‘subject’, who rarely has any dialogue with the film-maker, or any control over the object that s/he is making. Many of these films feel exploitative. The ‘subject’ seems to make the film-maker a gift of her/his life with no gain from the process at all. Furthermore, whether the subject would actually agree with her or his representation is quite unclear. The initial act of generosity is perhaps compounded by the subject’s often apparently limited understanding of the cultural and academic context of ethnographic film. Often filmed in an observational style, dialogue between subject and film-maker is usually poorly represented in the film, if it existed at all. However, there were some notable exceptions.

Whether we’ll be able to sing or not, we’ll be there because you’ve recorded it.

Indian film-makers Anjali Monteiro and KP Jayasankar have made a series of films over the last decades, including Naata (The Bond) (2003), Do Din Ka Mela (A Two-Day Fair) (2009) and So Heddan So Hoddan (Like Here Like There) (2011). The last is my favourite, although all are good. A beautifully shot, slow-paced meditation contemporary Sufi culture as it has been handed down and lived as everyday experience among the Jatts of Gujarat. The film makers show the subjects discussing among themselves the reasons to make the film; at times the subjects become the interviewers. In the other films, we watch the subjects viewing the film-makers’ footage. The result is not only a moving and beautiful film, but one in which the subjects appear to take ownership of the project, as they proselytise and philosophise about their place in the world. It’s a hard life, but one tempered by inestimable beauty and a deeply felt religious mythology.
The following two works embrace the participatory principle more explicitly, but in very different ways.

Still from We Want (U) To Know

Still from We Want (U) To Know

We want (u) to know, by Ella Pugliese and Nou Va (2009) and subtitled ‘remembering in the time of the Khmer Rouge Trial, Cambodia’. Cambodian villagers interview each other about the Khmer Rouge period. A boy interviews his grandma while his school mates look on, they even re-enact atrocities. Is it cathartic? I don’t know – perhaps not. But the villagers are very willing and excited about participating – to the extent that they proposed the idea of the re-enactments. At night the villagers watch the rushes under a tree in the village square, a festive atmosphere. They want to bear witness, but their attitude to vengeance is tempered by their Buddhism, and a historical perspective on the dubious outcomes of retaliation. The confused hope of the young generation, who have trouble understanding their country’s brutal past, is confronted by the usually silent despair of the older generation.

To remember the Khmer Rouge is a painful thing, yet it is an essential step for our country”

Although to a large extent produced by amateurs, the production values do not suffer as a result.

Still from Stori Tumbuna

Still from Stori Tumbuna

Stori tombuna (2011) is also a radically participatory film, although you wouldn’t know it from the first few minutes. Spoiler alert! Set up as a conventional anthropological film, it is not until the final scenes until we understand the full extent of the Papuan tribe’s penchant for playing jokes – and in this instance, the whole film is a very sophisticated joke, as we are duped by the tribes sophisticated story-telling. A plotline worthy of Calvino, it encapsulates a critique of traditional anthropology and ethnographic film making, but not at the expense of great story-telling. The director, Paul Wolffram, can be applauded for his willingness to immerse himself in the Papuan world, and collaborate with them in this great film.
There are many ways to be participatory, and none of the above use social media. My own developing project, Wherever I lay my hat, uses Instagram, Twitter and (hopefully when it is complete) a comment function, to creative a more inclusive project around the theme of living globally.


We want (u) to know (2009) Dir. Ella Pugliese, Nou Va and the people of Thnoi Lok, Cambodia (2011) Www.we-want-u-to-know.com
So Heddan So Hoddan (Like Here like there) (2009) Dirs. Anjal Monteiro and K P Jayasankar. Kutch, Gujarat, India (58 mins) http/::likeherelikethere.wordpress.com
Stori Tombuna Dir. Paul Wolffram (2011) (1 hour 29 minutes) http://storitumbuna.wordpress.com/

Sustainable media practices

sustainable-mediaA lot of professions are asking themselves how they can make their profession tred more lightly on the environment. A few of them – miners, engineers, car-makers, for example – seem more easily able to come up with the principles, although implementing them might leave a lot to be desired. Others – in particular, white-collar professionals – seem to have a harder time even developing the principles. Maybe they think they don’t have to? After all, there’s no smoke-stack arising from the game developer’s offices; there’s no sludge that can be traced back to this blog.

Or is there… Often indirectly, we still contribute to the state of our environment. So let’s start developing a few principles for the media production professions.


Perhaps the most obvious of our profession’s wasteful behaviours is our proclivity to travel. All that fuel, whether aviation or other, and we always have to be there yesterday, so taking the slow boat is never an option. For economic reasons, we’ve witnessed the turn to Skype interviews in mainstream news and current affairs. The drop in quality has been accepted, and we can expect that it will slowly improve. But is there more we can do, apart from virtualising our interviews?

I like the idea of more, and more accessible, libraries of footage. I don’t mean Youtube, and I don’t mean yester-year. I mean professional camera-people making general footage available for a fee to other media professionals. We already have it for stock photography and even, to a lesser extent, for music and foley. So why not footage too?

Unfortunately, this solution might step on the toes of the next one…

File-sharing and archiving

Google’s Senior Vice President for Technical Infrastructure Urs Hölzle tells us that

Data centers are responsible for between 1.1 and 1.5 percent of global energy use (compare that to transportation at 25 percent)

So we shouldn’t worry, right? Compared to carting our stuff around in postal vans, the Cloud has got to be better.

We-ell…. According to Richard Matthews, promoting the Cloud as a green alternative for data storage may be another case of “greenwash”:

According to a 2012 report in the New York Times, data centers use 30 billion watts of electricity per year globally and the U.S. is responsible for one-third of that amount (10 billion watts). A Gartner report indicated that the IT industry is responsible for as much greenhouse gas generation as the aviation industry (2 percent of the world’s carbon emissions). Just one of these massive server farms can consume the energy equivalent of 180 000 homes.

Most Cloud service providers don’t use renewable energy (Google leads the way), and while it would be great if we could all carry our own solar-recharging panels with us, it would somewhat diminish the portability of the production gear that we all love so much.

And if you take the cost of transferring data to the Cloud into account – which might be particularly heavy on your device’s battery life (Baliga et al) – as well as the ongoing energy costs in storing it, old-fashioned offline storage (for example, on an external hard-drive) is looking pretty good. Of course, it may not be as conveniant. Or as sexy.

But perhaps we should swear to only store current projects on the Cloud, and archive non-current stuff the old way, on hard drives.


Do you really need the latest bit of gear or the latest version of the software? Our relationship to gear is often fetishistic; based on no other need than looking good or distraction on the airplane (see above). I do have an itch to ‘upgrade’ my iPad – but to be honest, I’m not sure whether the latest iPad will be a life-changer. Mobile phones? Just don’t go there! Software, too – there’s a lot to be said for a little more circumspection. How many times have you ‘upgraded’, only to find that you’d wished you’d stuck with the older version?

‘Upgrade’. It’s all in the terminology. We all fall for it. We fall for the marketing that the tech and software companies push at us. It’s such a macho form of fashion, it doesn’t get critiqued the way that clothing fashion does. But it’s consumption gone wild, and I think we should try to resist … just a bit …

Do you have some other ideas?


Jayant Baliga, et al. “Green Cloud Computing: Balancing Energy in Processing, Storage and Transport.” Proceedings of the IEEE. To be published. DOI:10.1109/JPROC2010.2060451

Glanz, James (September 22, 2012) Power, Pollution and the Internet

Pettey, Christy (April 26, 2007) Gartner Estimates ICT Industry Accounts for 2 Percent of Global CO2 Emissions

Zyga, Lisa (Oct 08, 2010) How energy-efficient is cloud computing?

Magic meets fantasy

Giving a nod to the work of the seminal figures in a discipline is just as important as paying heed to new developments, so here’s one of the founding fathers of animation and former magician, George MélièsTrip to the moon (1902). Méliès was recently given reverential treatment in Hugo (2011), directed by Martin Scorsese.

Contemporary directors and cinematographers should remember and respect the magic of the moving image, its-real-but-not-real status. If you’re not trading on that conundrum, it seems to me that you’re not embracing the medium. Animators might routinely do this, but often their work is derivative, or not particularly innovative. We should all remember the whimsical innovations of Méliès, and try to emulate him in spirit.

Victoria Kallsen argues that we are Destroying the magic of cinema, one gadget at a time by introducing add-on media that splits our attention – media that we access on our phone or tablet, allowing us to engage in conversations with other fans while we are watching the show. Thus we fail to completely immerse ourselves in the magic of the cinematic experience.

But if we are immersed, we wouldn’t bother with the add-ons, so I think the threat is spurious. Being distracted by devices during a movie is probably only going to occur if the movie is flawed. In other words, we are already distracted or bored, and so we allow our gadgets to gobble the bit of our brain that is not engaged. I don’t think gadgets and add-on media is a threat, unless the product itself is poor – and then, ultimately, nothing can save it.

Everything old….

Check this music video by Cyriak Harris for Bonobo – the aesthetics and ethics of repurposing old stuff seems to have got a shot in the arm in our sustainability-conscious era, but this takes recycling to a whole new level.

What can we say it means, except that humans are repetitive creatures, and somewhat like machines? The percussive soundtrack lends its weight to the mechanical aura of the piece. Toaster production lines, women endlessly folding the same thing, girls on treadmills. Monstrous War-of-the-worlds machinalia stride across a horizon that is implanted with more infrastructure with every stride, but even the feet themselves are comprised of Small Domestic Acts.

Is the retro-ness meant to suggest Things Are No Longer This Way? Maybe Fordism has been relegated to the second world, and we can look down upon this imagery from our post-industrial, post-human heights, with a heady mix of superiority and nostalgia.

Or maybe my meandering thoughts are an example of interpretation gone wild, a la Susan Sontag’s prognostications? Or maybe a warning to be wary of the signifiers that we set up?

Whatever it means, a damn good music video.

Sontag, Susan (1964) Against Interpretation. Penguin Books.

Making media for kids: repetition and imagination

kidsmediaCan kids be categorised so easily? Maybe we all go through the phases identified in this image, by Maurice Wheeler, but it’s hard to predict exactly when. Some days I’m a copy cat or a role player. And hopefully the ‘confident consumer’ doesn’t represent the end point of some sort of consumption-based evolutionary tree. Howabout a delightful ‘confident non-consumer’ up there somewhere?

There’s a lot to be said for categories and stages, so long as they don’t stunt our vision of what our children might be. Woe be it if the media we let them see enshrined such stuntedness.

Not that it’s any worse than it was – but maybe it’s different. Not so long ago, a fairly high proportion of the toddler media was about socialisation – getting them to be good little children / citizens. Socialisation media would end with some sort of thumping, unsubtle moral. Humourless and unimaginative, socialisation media is about stunting imagination and play.

I want the books, TV and apps my daughter plays with to expand her horizons. She doesn’t need more of how to behave well (she gets enough of that from me!).

That doesn’t mean that toddler media can’t teach life skills, it’s all in how those skills get woven in to the narrative. One TV show I’m really loving is Charlie and Lola by Lauren Child. Ostensibly its about the most mundane domestic events – two kids at home, mucking about. But its really about imaginative play and love of learning. The kids look at a book on dinosaurs and they’re suddenly flying on a pterodactyl’s back. They get annoyed with each other, have tantrums, etc. But they also take flight, on many levels.


And it’s not even interactive.

So when it comes to apps, if they’re not performing some sort of jail-break from the mundane and into mind-altering possibilities, I’m wondering what they’re for.

Maybe that’s just me being too grown-up. My toddler loves the apps produced by TocaBoca, we’ve got about 5 now. The first one she loved (before she was two) was about shopping. She gets to play shop keeper and shopper and buys a fanciful bag of groceries. The next one was a tea-party. She’d be both hostess and guests and have a tea party. Then there’s the kitchen one. She gets to cook food for a variety of monsters with bad manners. This one has a little more humour. Finally, and most challenging of all, there’s a free-play 3D building one; 5 different characters have a different trick they can do with building blocks. She’s hasn’t conquered that one yet, but it is by far the most interesting, because basically there’s no script, just a range of possibilities. It stretches her, but increasingly that’s the one she prefers. Unlike books, which she wants me to read to her, she plays the games all by herself.

My daughter also likes some apps that aren’t aimed at toddlers at all. A drawing one; simple music composition one. She’s even experimenting with an animation one. You can do these over and over, they never get old. OK, so little kids read the same books over and over too, but it’s a different experience, I think. More comfort than challenge.

Getting the balance between repetition and imagination seems to be key to building a great app for little kids. It’s a significantly different challenge that that faced by producers of books or TV shows for the same age-group.

So I’m suspicious of apps that enshrine too much narrative into them. Narrative curtails freedom, and it doesn’t seem appropriate to play. Books aren’t play. Nor TV shows. Older media forms enshrine a different type of didacticism, one that can be very heavy-handed if you don’t have the light touch of Charlie and Lola. Games are play. I think we have to distinguish more clearly between experiences. The whole question of interactive ebooks, for example, is not yet decided in my mind. Can they really work? There needs to be rules about it, of that I’m sure.

Image: Engaging Kids online: Maurice Wheeler at TEDx Transmedia 2012

What’s in a name?


The other day a baby boy was born. Two days later, he was named George. Not a terribly exciting name, except that this baby, because of his parents, was already plugged into a whole range of social, cultural, traditional and ultimately highly privileged contexts, and this one word, George, managed to summarise them all. For George is the name of English kings, and it was this inheritance that this baby boy plugs into, and his name represents.

Some people never have to network.

Most of us don’t have names like ‘Prince George’ that instantly establish not only who we are, but our cultural exchange value.

Nevertheless, we unPrince Georges still have a name. It might not be so instantly recognisable. It might not so easily communicate who we are. It might have cultural resonances that a lot of people won’t recognise – resonances that were important to our namers, but no one else. It may never become hugely famous, but it’s all ours. We can insert it into networks, and hopefully someone somewhere will remember it.

About two weeks ago, in the Indian Ocean, a 10-month-old baby boy died. He drowned, after the leaky boat that was haphazardly transporting him to Australia sunk. They found his little limp body floating in the sea and they fished it out. Maybe they cradled him for a moment, wet, dead, on the deck.

But his name had been gobbled by the cold hungry sea, and they left it to sink.

I heard John Stanhope, the Administrator of Christmas Island, lamenting the nameless baby boy on the radio: how they had his body in the morgue with no name. Worse: even if they had his name, it could not be released, because publicly naming asylum seekers is a dangerous move. That’s the power of names. Cattle don’t get names. If you name your favourite cow, it’s probably not going to the slaughter house.

Into the unmarked grave you go.
In you go, in you go,
where your family will never know.

I guess it’s a lullaby of sorts. Lullabies often have a dark underbelly. Someone, find it a tune.

I’d like to make a guess that they have lullabies in Afghanistan, Iran, Sri Lanka and Burma. Singing to young children is hardwired; even queue-jumpers do it. And they name their evil, foolish, queue-jumping babies.

writer : maker : teacher

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