The Covid who came for G&T

G&T with CovidOK, so the unexpected ring at the door WAS a surprise but I (being both ‘home’ and ‘alert’) saw it as an opportunity to face the enemy and try to understand her perspective on causing a devestating pandemic.

She did suggest that I sit 2 metres away and keep the hand sanitiser handy.

The G&T and crisps disappeared pretty rapidly (do tigers and Covids have something in common maybe?) but we conversed for a while once I’d got over the initial shock and had a stiff gin inside me.

I suppose, not surprisingly, she said she sees herself “leading” rather than following “the science” – laughing disparagingly at my New Scientist lying on the table and saying she’s thoroughly enjoying leading those guys a merry and unco-ordinated dance (her words not mine).

I asked her motivation and, I guess fair enough, she pointed out that she simply exists to reproduce and have her species thrive even if that’s at others’ expense. “How am I any different from any other biological species? We are all concerned with number 1, no?

I slowly nudged the conversation round to the dreadful death and destruction she is causing. I’m afraid she laughed huskily (not a pleasant sound at all) before hitting back hard. “What do you mean ‘dreadful death and destruction’ – compared to you humans? At least I know the death and destruction I am causing. You guys are only just waking up to how your desire for endless growth by consuming everything in your path is killing the world and how your economy allows the poor to die”.

“…..And, more to the point, I’m simply programmed to do what I do. But you humans can make choices about what kind of values, lifestyles, politics and culture you want to replicate and what gets killed or destroyed en route. “

Hey, maybe I’ve even done you humans some good – cleaner air, time to stop and think, finally recognising who your critical workers actually are and I’ve even got your Tory government acting like big state socialists.. Who’d have thought?. Ever read Solzhenitsyn? “the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being”?”.

And with that, she polished off the second bowl of crisps and said she was heading back to England where life now looked a hell of a lot easier than here in Wales.

Making an imaginary Covid-19 was inspired by a combination of Grayson Perry’s Art Club on Channel 4 where the topic on Monday 11th May was fantasy and the children’s book by Judith Kerr “The Tiger who came to Tea”. I was curious about what we might talk about.

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What effect is Covid-19 having on our thinking?

Stuck at home in isolation, I’ve been wondering (as have many others) what impact Covid-19 is having on our thinking about the world we’d like to inhabit beyond the pandemic.

In this weird, lonely and suspended state, we long for a return to “normality”. At the same time, there’s a growing sense that we don’t want (or possibly can’t even have) a return to “normality” as we have known it. We are suspended in time right now between two worlds and that creates opportunity for reflection and change. As the quote says “never let a good crisis go to waste“.

I’ve been analysing hundreds of online comments discussing the economic ramifications of Covid-19 to try to gain a sense of the language and the mood at least in some circles.  Admittedly these are circles where people were uncomfortable already with the way our Western neo-liberal society was headed and the values and politics driving it. So, this is not necessarily representative of the wider population.

My symbolic burning of a sacred cow

However, whatever one’s views, there are certainly much garlanded sacred cows which, whilst not being slaughtered outright, are certainly having their value and importance questioned.

To name a few: economic growth (built on consumption and debt), GDP, the market, and paid jobs for all.

The following are some patterns I am seeing emerging (conceivably because I want to!)….

An acknowledgement that we got ourselves in this mess. It was inevitable given the way we had structured our society and its priorities for the past 50 years.

An aversion to “going back to “normal” because “normal” is what got us in this mess.

An ideal that, post Covid-19, we need to evolve a new economic model with many of the following characteristics:-

  •  it protects our planet and recognises that we humans are part of it not magically separate from it,
  •  it doesn’t rely on growth based on endlessly buying and consuming material stuff,
  •  it isn’t fuelled by debt,
  •  it redistributes wealth more equitably,
  • it recognises and pays well those people whose work and skills are most critical for the common good – e.g. nurses, carers, cleaners, drivers, shop assistants, etc
  • it prioritises public spending on that which benefits the common good – the environment, NHS, Social care, education, infrastructure, housing, community and creative and cultural activity,
  • it reduces people’s dependence on a wage in order to live,
  • it acknowledges death as part of the natural cycle of life.

These are reflections from my particular Covid island. For a much more thorough analysis of our economic choices going forward, I recommend this article.






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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?

The 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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A Psychologist journeying with Artists

For the past few years, I have been collaborating with two socially engaged, visual artists, Pip Woolf and Kirsty Claxton. We call ourselves The Larks and Ravens for reasons that I can’t remember but probably don’t matter!   As a life long cognitive psychologist, I am challenged, inspired and having a lot of fun.

So far, the 3 of us have created work engaging members of the public in exploring climate change, value and money.

And this is what I’m learning as we go….

Art is a different way of exploring and understanding the world….

Art is about DOING stuff. Not necessarily talking about it, not necessarily thinking about it, not even being able to explain why you are doing what you’re doing.

For me it still feels like an act of faith – learning to park my busy, over-analytical brain for short periods and use my hands instead – to draw, to  paint or pick up materials and make stuff and see what emerges from your hands and where that takes you. It’s wonderfully irrational – a challenge to the logic of everything making sense.

My natural inclination would be to talk, think and analyse a topic before turning to art to express that thinking, insight or concept in some visual or material form. As a trained scientist, I initially found the ‘doing’ way of working threatening, embarrassing even. Could I really just start with my hands – making marks on paper or manipulating materials without figuring out what I planned to do or why and how to set about it? It still feels uncomfortable but I have now been rewarded enough times by the novel and completely different insights which emerge when you start with physically doing.

The first ever drawing class I attended years ago taught us how important it was to learn to draw what your eyes actually see in the world rather than what your brain has already decided something looks like. The process I am going through now feels a bit like that only on another level. Having a thought or idea and then trying to express it in material form is entirely different from starting with the materials, ‘leaving the conscious brain out of it’ and seeing what your hands or body create and what new thinking and ideas that ‘tells’ the brain. What you get is much more surprising. It doesn’t always work – nothing does – but it’s an intriguing and excitingly different way of understanding a topic. It also links with the psychology of cognitive embodiment where what we do with our bodies can affect how we think.

I’ve also experienced what I call  ‘material imagination’ – playfully manipulating physical materials as a means to imagine new possibilities – letting the physical objects or images themselves suggest other uses or arrangements or meanings and thereby other ways the world could be. Things can be different from how they are.

Even the fact that it feels ‘crazy’ when you are doing it might be the point – i.e. it’s breaking you free from a familiar rational framework which has been constraining your imagination only to things you know are possible. Again there is a psychological basis for this – J.J. Gibson’s theory of Affordance – where the physical appearance or feel of an object suggests possibilities for what can be done with it. ‘Material imagination’ is taking affordance one step further beyond the bounds of rational action.

And what’s difficult about this kind of art approach?

Well, it’s awkward generating a credible narrative for friends and colleagues of what the hell you have been doing today and why! They are curious and you don’t have an account which “makes sense”! But that gets easier once one accepts that much of human behaviour is irrational but we are expert at generating post hoc narratives to explain or justify our actions in ways our society recognises and doesn’t question because they ‘fit’ an accepted ‘rationale’.

Applying for grants to help fund this kind of art work is also very difficult. Grant bodies are looking for projects with clearly stated, rational aims, plans and outputs and predicted impact. This is relatively straightforward when you work as a research psychologist – even if it never actually works out the way you stated on the application form! But, if you can’t state your aims, plans and output in advance, grant bodies are nervous you will waste their money (and indeed you might!). Even trying to describe one’s method (see above) sounds far too open-ended and vague. And the Grant officials won’t be comfortable if they can’t explain to others why they are awarding the money to you rather than to a project which reassuringly states its aims, plans, outputs and impact in advance. It’s simply too risky.

It’s therefore not surprising that many artists cannot do the interesting and radical work they would like to do and which would be beneficial to society because they have to find ways to use their time on more ‘rational’ and therefore culturally acceptable ways of supporting themselves financially.

Ironically, historians now believe that Stonehenge may also have been primarily about the act of doing – “experts now believe the construction of the monument was just as important to Neolithic people as worshipping in it” . Taking this further, what if the idea of worshipping was itself an afterthought – a use and meaning which emerged from the co-location of the stones?  Whatever, it’s likely that the Neolithic dreamers might have struggled to complete a Grant application form for that project!

Thank you to my 2 artist friends and collaborators for welcoming me on this journey – the delight of having no idea where it will take us.

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