Friday, 13 August 2010

Mass Observation

In the 1930s, a UK social research organisation commissioned a program of Mass Observation. A panel of volunteers was encouraged to go out and write down and describe all that they saw in great detail. The result was a detailed and layered portrait of everyday British life.

In 2010, the University of Sussex, having revived the program in the 1980s, is promoting the topic once again. You probably couldn’t do the program on the same descriptive detail as in that past survey without being labelled a terrorist, or at least being accused of invading someone’s privacy. Instead, ordinary people are being encouraged to take six photographs of the community they live in on one specific day and upload them to a website, in order to capture a snapshot everyday life once again. One could argue that this has already been achieved by Google Street View, but the hope is to gain a different perspective than a camera on top of a car can, and to create a tapestry of community life as it was in Britain on 12 August 2010.

The experiment is being run through local community blogs, of which there are surprisingly many, and I came to it through Brockley Central, and you can read the post here. Unfortunately, I was leaving early to catch a flight, but I managed to get a few pictures before I left (on my way to the station!), which you can view below (click on them to make them bigger and see the detail). I would ideally have liked to get more of people going about their everyday life, but there wasn't really anybody about, so I focussed on locations and snapshots reflecting the community.

For more details on the scheme, see:

Monday, 9 August 2010

The effect of emotion on memory and personal narrative

From time to time, I intend to write about my own impressions and experiences, bouncing off articles I read online. I saw this article today, from Oliver Burkeman in the Guardian: This column will change your life: How real are your memories? The title is a little misleading, but the subtitle reflects more accurately what I wish to write about: When it comes to recalling experiences, intensity matters more than duration.

Burkeman in his article is writing about the ‘peak-end effect’:
a now well-established psychological phenomenon whereby we remember and judge our experiences, whether good or bad, not in their entirety but according to how they felt at their emotional peak, and at the end.
By the emotional peak, which is where I’m choosing to focus this blog entry, he is referring to the time of the greatest emotional intensity. In particular he makes reference to holidays, that we remember trips away as good or bad based on the most intense emotion we experience during that time.

I can vouch for this from my own personal experience. My trip to Oslo in May for Eurovision was filled with fun experiences with friends, and I know in my head that I had a great time. But my instincts tell me otherwise, because the sharpest memory is of one night when I was tired and wanted to go home to sleep. I was then told by a friend that I was boring to be around, and didn’t know how to have fun. That down period was strong and intense, and unfortunately it coloured my perception of the weekend so that now, looking back, my first instinct is that I didn’t have a good time. Rationally though, I know that’s not true.

The same is true of a previous holiday in Stockholm, when one night I just could not get into the clubbing mood and felt down and alone until rescued by a good friend. The remainder of that night was great, as was the rest of the holiday – but the moment that sticks in my mind is of being down and alone whilst the world had fun around me. And it’s made me strongly question whether I want to go again next year, in case the weekend is as ‘bad’ as that base part of me feels it was last time. I know it’s not rational, but memory and recollection are strong things, as Burkeman writes in his article, and those peak memories shape the recollection of the overall experience.

A friend asked me today if I could think of an example where I felt I’d been attacked or ganged up against on an online forum. I could, I gave him a firm example of the conversation and how it made me feel, and how it still makes me feel; that experience has since made me reluctant to speak up. He then asked me to give an example of a time when my friends there stuck up for me and supported me. I couldn’t give one, not a specific example. And what does that say about me? Am I a negative person, only retaining those negative memories and shaping my impressions on them? Or is it that those negative emotions were stronger for me at the time, and therefore have been the ones that have been the most clearly retained?

It’s a case here of memory forming one’s personal narrative, a topic I’ve always been very interested in, both on a personal level and an academic one, examining war experiences, for example. My personal narrative of these experiences has been negative, because of these memories and their associated emotions. Of course, this begs the question of what it says about me that the negative experiences are the ones that provoke the strongest emotion, and that the negative emotions are stronger than the positive ones, a level further than Burkeman goes in his article. Is it actually to do with the experiences themselves, or does the individual’s own psyche further contribute to one’s personal narrative?

Thursday, 5 August 2010

Song Review: Sunny Sweeney - From A Table Away

I don't intend to make this blog a music reviews blog, but from time to time I intend to write about songs I absolutely love, or ones I despise. The latter's a lot more fun to do, but I'm actually going to start off on a positive note. Shocking, I know.

'From A Table Away' is Sunny Sweeney's first single in several years, and marks a change in direction from the traditional honky-tonk sound of her first album, Heartbreaker's Hall of Fame. The production here is more modern country, and Sweeney's voice has echoes of Natalie Maines', which is certainly no bad thing indeed!

The song tells the story, in the first person, of the 'other woman', who finds herself at the next table in a restaurant to her lover and his wife, and listens in on their conversation, in which she realises they're still very much in love, and confronts her man afterwards. There's several ways this song could have been taken by a lesser vocalist, and that's where my admiration for both the song and singer comes in. The song doesn't tell us how to feel, it doesn't tell us all the background, and lets us fill in the gaps for ourselves. Did this man lie to her? Did he ever intend to leave? Or have his feelings changed? And then there's the fact that we are hearing the song from the perspective of the other woman, the potential homewrecker. Is that where our sympathies lie?

There's slight echoes of anger and resentment in the song, but they don't take over at any point. I'd say the main emotion here is sadness, and of a realisation. In overhearing and watching their conversation, the narrator realises that her lover is still in love with his wife, or is at least prepared to make another go of it with her ("I heard you tell her you still love her"), and that this spells the end for her relationship with him. Then there's the line "I guess that means that things are better", could be interpreted in several ways. It could be sarcastic, bitter or desperate, and there's possibly even a little bit of pleasure, that the man she loves, even though she cannot have him, is happy.

I guess that's my overall feeling with this song, and the reason I like it so much. There's so many lines that can be read in many ways, and Sweeney interprets them beautifully, managing to bring across all of these emotions without letting one dominate, giving the song an ambiguity that demands the listener think, consider, and listen again.

The multiple layers of the lyrics can be summed up in the final line: "You're gonna stay a table away". This could be anger, pushing the man who has hurt her away. Or it could be sad resignation, developing the metaphor of a crowded restaurant to where she realises she will never share a table with the man she loves.

Listen on MySpace

Wednesday, 4 August 2010

"80,000 people stole my song!"

A few weeks ago, I read a quote from country singer James Otto over on The Boot. He says:
This week I sold 7,500 singles (which is pretty good), but 80,000 people stole it. No wonder so many of my friends in the business are losing their jobs. Kinda scary. Half the [song]writers in Nashville can't get a job anymore because of this. People pay five bucks for a cup of coffee, but not 99 cents for a song?
I commented on that blog at the time that, while I don’t disagree with the spirit of his comments, I do wonder where this figure of 80,000 copies comes from. A lot of the problem with illegal downloading is that it's not trackable and not public. It's not like you go somewhere official and allow the illegal downloading to be counted when you do it. So, where has Otto got this figure from? 299 subscribers have listened to it, so it’s not that. Has he uploaded it to Rapidshare himself and pushed it around the net in order to see the result? Or is he simply making up a figure to boost his argument?

My other problem with Otto’s statement is that the song he’s referring to, his single Groovy Little Summer Song, is only the second single from an album that is not yet released. Personally, I wouldn’t pay a dollar for a song if I were then planning to shell out for the whole album, essentially paying for the same song twice, and, in that scenario, I might well download it illegally to listen to until I obtained my legal copy on the album.

In this case, I haven’t, since I’m not a big fan of Otto’s. However, one album that came out earlier this year was Whitney Duncan’s nearly two years since the first single, and since several of the songs were released as a ‘selections sampler’ on mp3 download. I refused to pay for these songs at the time, and knowing I was always planning to purchase them as part of the album, I enjoyed them illegally. So, now the album’s finally been released, I’ve bought my copy, right?

Actually, no. Because it’s not available on mp3 download in the UK, or on a physical CD that isn’t an overpriced import. In these days of digital sales, there’s no excuse for an artist’s material not to be available everywhere, and, when it’s not, it simply encourages piracy. This is an issue that the music industry desperately needs to sort out, as, when given the choice between paying £21 for a CD they can see their US peers paying $5 for or simply hopping on to a file-sharing site, it’s often not a hard choice. And in this way, record companies, artists and songwriters are losing sales and losing money that should and could have been theirs.

There are far more detailed issues to be looked at regarding piracy and the music industry’s antiquated and ill-advised methods, but I’ll save that for another post.

Tuesday, 3 August 2010

The myriad rules of Formula 1

This weekend’s Hungarian Grand Prix featured yet another example of a problem that I feel has the potential to cause many issues for Formula 1 as a sport, and that’s the way that small infringements and the resulting penalties can decide the results of races.

When following teammate Mark Webber behind the safety car, Sebastian Vettel slowed considerably, backing up Alonso and the rest of the pack, allowing Webber to get a lead, which he needed for his upcoming pitstop. Quite rightly, this is against the rules, as it could be abused and, while Vettel and Red Bull have claimed that there were no team orders involved, it is right that a punishment was given. However, this penalty cost Vettel a likely win, and certainly cost viewers an exciting race.

The main issue I see with this is not with F1 die-hards, but more for casual fans, and particularly those who are fans of a particular driver. For fans of Sebastian Vettel, seeing him penalised on what may seem like a silly technicality would be a bitter pill to swallow, and would potentially raise accusations of favouritism and race-fixing. Seeing a race effectively decided in the stewards’ room, rather than on the track, is damaging for the sport in the long run.

Another example of this happened earlier this year at the European Grand Prix, when several drivers were penalised five seconds after the race for speeding under the safety car. Fortunately, this didn’t change the outcome of the race, at least at the front, but potentially could have done, which would have again made a mockery of the previous two hours fans had invested watching the race. And that’s before we even get to the inevitable jokes about racing cars being penalised for being too fast!

Don’t get me wrong – I don’t feel for a moment that these drivers shouldn’t have been penalised. After all, a footballer who has played well but fouls another player is still booked or sent off. The rules have to be enforced otherwise there is no point in having them, and these rules are there for important reasons, as outlined above. However, I do think there is a problem with how things stand at the moment, when F1 could seem to some to be all about the technicalities and the rules and less about the actual racing. So maybe the solution is to try and instil better racing into F1.

Which, of course, is a whole other problem. To which I certainly don’t have the solution.