Our shadow selves…

“Imagination …. reason in her most exalted mood” (William Wordsworth)

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Technology trials & tribulations

The Prospectory agenda  (assuming we were ever formal enough to have such a thing) suffered a significant set back when Peter was diagnosed with Motor Neurone Disease in December 2017.

Having said that, our combined interests in technology and psychology are getting well exercised as we learn how to adapt to living with Peter’s progressive loss of muscle power.

Some things we are learning for the first time; others we are re-encountering from  experiences over the years in technology research. Here are some examples:-

Single function wins every time

I confess to a long term dislike of multi-function devices. They lack affordance ( an object’s visible or tangible properties that signal clearly the actions users can take with it), e.g. door handles, push buttons, hooks, sliders or well designed screen icons). In contrast, multi-function devices require a user model – “what will it do?” and “how do I make it to do that?”. You can find yourself in the ‘wrong’ mode just when you need to act and sometimes the different modes interact in unfortunate ways.

So, here’s an example. Peter can no longer turn the lock and open our front door. Generously funded by the ever wonderful NHS, we were assessed for appropriate technology support which was installed some months ago by the private technology company who design and manufacture it.  Unfortunately, it’s a multi-function system designed (at least in principle) to control a whole range of household functions mainly via an app on a dedicated ipad. – TV, lights and phones as well as the front door .

Radio key fob for opening door

The best thing is that the “system” includes an independent single function radio fob. You can hang it round your neck and press its one button (from anywhere in the house) to open the front door. It’s perfect for our needs except you can’t distinguish between friends and axe murderers (not that we have a lot of these in rural Wales) before opening the door to let them in.

But the all singing, all-dancing ‘system’ includes an intercom with the doorbell so, in principle, you can talk to the caller to establish their identity before opening the door to let them in. But, unfortunately you can’t do that from the radio fob. And the doorbell, rather than sounding a loud bell in the house, causes the ‘phone (well at least one dedicated handset) to ring. If  we don’t happen to be in the same room as the handset,  we don’t hear it or, if we are otherwise occupied and think it’s a phone call (which it kind of is albeit with a different ring tone) we might leave it to go to Voicemail to pick up later – all while some poor friend, delivery person or even would-be axe murderer is stuck waiting on the


i.e. Please use the other doorbell, not this one!

doorstep. If you hear the ‘phone, what you are meant to do is pick it up and you can then speak to the intercom. You can’t actually open the door though. That requires the ipad or the key fob. So, embarrassingly,  we have had to sellotape a sign on the intercom bell pointing to the old (less conspicuous) doorbell which we need people to press if they are guaranteed to get a response.

The function which seems to really excite the suppliers is the TV automatically muting when you answer the ‘phone! However, unfortunately if you are using the ‘phone when the doorbell goes, it interrupts the call completely not offering the chance to ignore it or explain to your ‘phone caller what is happening.

So, we’ve switched off as much of the system as we can and are just happily using the simple radio key fob.  Ironically though, the lock on the door having been changed, Peter now finds he can now open the door by hand!

Physics 101 for MND sufferers – Friction vs slipperiness

If you have very poor grip or muscle function, then suddenly textural properties of everyday objects gain huge significance but they have to be the right way around. Friction when you need slipperiness means things get stuck and slipperiness when you need friction means things get dropped or can’t be picked up at all.  So,  we have switched to fleece jackets and coats with slippy nylon linings and silky night shirts because otherwise, you’ll never get them on or off or (in the case of night shirts) be able to turn over in bed. But the opposite (friction) is what you need when you can’t squeeze your fingers together to create friction and you need to pick something up or open a jar. And friction is also useful (we discover) for working one’s socks on by pushing the foot against the carpet or to work one’s trousers on by lying on the bed and wriggling!

This kind of easily obtainable grippy material is invaluable.


Useful grippy/sticky stuff

Physics 101 for MND sufferers (cont) : Skeletons are invaluable

There’s nothing like losing muscle function to discover the value of your skeleton! The trick is to find ways of using your skeletal structure instead of using muscle. A skeleton is arguably like a  table – it’s a strong and stable structure which, physics will tell you, involves no energy to support a weight. So, Peter can carry surprisingly heavy things as long as his arms are straight and we’ve found a way of attaching them to him which don’t require grip! If the arms are bent at all, it won’t work because then muscles are involved. As Peter happily explains to people, a dead horse can carry the same weight of rider as a living one – it just won’t take him anywhere!

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Enjoying irrationality

What I like doing best is Nothing.”

How do you do Nothing?,” asked Pooh after he had wondered for a long time.

Well, it’s when people call out at you just as you’re going off to do it, ‘What are you going to do, Christopher Robin?and you say, ‘Oh, Nothing,’ and then you go and do it.

It means just going along, listening to all the things you can’t hear, and not bothering.”

Oh!” said Pooh.”

A.A. Milne Winnie-the-Pooh


Activities with my artist colleagues, the Larks & Ravens, sometimes feel like this. When the Larks & Ravens are struggling to understand something or don’t know what to do next, we make an effort to stop talking or thinking and start doing instead – sometimes drawing, sometimes making or manipulating physical materials and seeing where that takes us. This is so different to my previous experience of beating a troublesome topic to death through endless discussion. Doing is nearly always rewarding but, as with Christopher Robin, the tricky bit is when someone asks you “what you are doing?” and you simply have no rational answer. Is it our fear of looking or acting crazy – i.e. not in a way which makes logical sense to those around?

Last Friday we were ‘playing’ with materials by a bus stop in a community (where we are working) because we had got stuck as to what made sense to do next to trigger conversations. All we had to hand was a very large red hot air balloon cover and a council wheelie bin so we started seeing what we could do with them. A lady waiting for the bus asked “what are you doing?”. “We don’t know” we replied. Another man, who’d watched us for a while, came over asking “can I help at all? … just explain to me what you are you trying to do!”. We “explained” that we had absolutely no idea but would he like to red bus stophelp?!  Having such conversations in public is certainly awkward but also interesting. It makes you question why we think our normal life makes rational sense when ‘playing’ with a red tent and a wheelie bin by a bus stop doesn’t. What’s the critical difference?  Is it just that we have a set of culturally acceptable narratives of what counts as rational activity?

(I have put ‘playing’ in inverted commas here because we certainly weren’t playing in the dictionary definition sense of “engaging in activity for enjoyment and recreation rather than a serious or practical purpose” (OED). Our actions were both serious and practical (as well as playful) but I can’t find another word which works in this context).

Some argue that an important role of art in our modern society is as a resistance to the logic of making sense … or, should I say, believing that what we do in our everyday lives makes sense … because does it? really?




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A small rant about project ‘outcomes’

I’ve just completed a project proposal which required a section entitled ‘Outcomes’ ( “The way a thing turns out” according to the OED). Grant Applications often require this too along with a description of  “Outputs” (“The amount of something produced by a person, machine, or industry” according to the OED).

The most rewarding aspect of work I do in collaboration with my artist colleagues is that we don’t know what might happen until we do something! No-one does. We can certainly tell you our motivations and roughly what we plan to do first but even what we do after that will change depending on “the way things actually turn out“!.  To me, that’s the power (and joy) of art.

Of course, there are cases where you know exactly what you want the outputs and outcome of a project to be (although, in my experience, it still rarely works quite as you planned). But, even in such cases, the fact that you declared your outcomes in advance can shut down alternatives or surprises emerging en route and may mean you miss out on a better or more interesting result.

Thinking back to my more traditional working days as an experimental psychologist – I didn’t have to declare what the desired outcome of any planned experiment would be but rather the outcome (a.k.a. a null hypothesis) which my carefully designed experiment would set out to disprove. Designed well, the actual ‘outcome’ could still surprise (and often did) challenging one’s developing theory and forcing you to think again.

Declaring desired outcomes in advance and then setting out carefully to realise them as stated feels at best narrow minded and, at worst, self confirming. You are likely to select the data which fits and consult the experts who agree with you. Disruptions and misfits (data or people) are not welcome.

I guess the question may be – do you want to have your pre-conceptions challenged and be open to surprising or uncomfortable outcomes? If you don’t, my advice would be to stay clear of involving artists and live an altogether duller life!

(For some reason, I’m reminded of 3M’s accidental invention of Post-it Notes as a result of a failed experiment with a glue which didn’t stick properly.)

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What’s £10 worth?


My artist colleagues and I are on Day 5 of our short residency in Newport Market – learning surprising things every week about exchange and value and the weird and distorting nature of money.

The last 2 visits we’ve been copying a £10 note and painting a huge version on the wall of our stall. This week, market customers stopped to chat and draw with us. The questions about value just keep on coming…


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Market Value?

IMG_20180201_112332The Larks & Ravens (of which I am one) are currently “artists in residence” for one day a week in the old Victorian Market in Newport. The stunning market building was once a thriving attraction with an abundance of stalls, a diversity of merchandise and crowds of daily customers. These days it looks a bit neglected, down at heel and struggling. Many stalls are empty (holders unable to afford the rent) and there is only a small, mainly elderly, footfall. It is located uncomfortably close to a shiny, newly built shopping mall (a flagship “regeneration project”) with its contrasting world of global brands, consumer fashion and free market capitalism.

But the long serving, Newport Market stall holders are wonderfully welcoming and friendly – deservedly proud of their stalls and wares and always ready to spend time chatting to their customers, many of whom they know by name and have cared for over many years. So are the values they represent no longer relevant in today’s Newport?

The Larks and Ravens are using their sojourn in Newport Market to take further our own exploration of ‘values’ – what are they? how are they exchanged and how does money either enable, reflect or distort those values? And, most challenging, can 3 artists give value in exchange for being in the Market for the next 6 weeks?

This week, we offered people in the market a £2 coin and invited them to go and find something they liked in the market and bring it back to our stall. We then invited them to stand on one of our round podiums, place their chosen object on a 2nd podium and tell us why they chose that object. Sometimes a small audience even gathered to hear what the latest individual on the podium had to say and see what object they had chosen.


We then mounted each object on our stall wall along with the words people used to describe their choice – a “Gallery of Exchange”, if you will. Some objects were charming, some emotionally resonant and some just making us laugh out loud. Each carried personal meaning.


Reflecting on the day’s experience, I was struck by how people responded to their ‘podium moment’ (including ourselves!). The podium we used is only 12″ high but stepping onto it affects how you feel and what you do next – you are noticed, significant and immediately want to perform. Similarly, placing a £2 object on another (higher) podium has the effect of making it significant as well for that moment in time. Is this simply a case of ‘embodied cognition‘ where how we think and feel is determined by the physical position, action or sensation of our bodies? I don’t know but stepping up on the podium certainly had an effect on perceived value – however momentary – of the individual and of the object selected.

So, what was the true value of the day? – the £2 objects? the podium moment? the laughter and chance to play together? a hug exchanged? the conversations? or a blank wall transformed for a few hours into an attractive and eye catching gallery?

You can follow our Larks and Ravens’ adventures here.


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Role of Hydrogen in Transport – A Seminar Report

The energy for the vast majority of transport, and certainly personal transport, still comes from burning fossil fuel in vehicles. Delivering that energy as electricity poses technological challenges with few solutions that promise a complete replacement for what we have now:
1.Catenary or underground inductive cables delivering electricity to every point along a restricted set of transport routes. This is fine for railways and trams but it difficult and expensive to for all transport routes.
2.Portable batteries in the vehicles can store and deliver electricity on demand. This is the focus of most technical R&D today, but the energy density of current batteries means that long distance transport vehicles are heavy and difficult to charge quickly, cheaply and safely – particularly at locations remote from the power grid.
3.A new portable fuel, with energy density comparable to fossil fuel but derived from renewable sources would be ideal. It could in principle be stored and distributed in much the same way as fossil fuels are today. It could then be burned directly in an internal combustion engine or used to produce electricity to power an electric motor. The most promising candidate for this new fuel, in the eyes of many, is compressed hydrogen.

We attended the Advanced Propulsion’s Centre’s recent seminar ‘Hydrogen – Time to Put our Foot on the Gas?’ in Cardiff.  Attached is our report of the main lessons learned from the panel of speakers.

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