“Si vous réussissez, vous serez bientôt couverts de gloire” – Thoughts on 200 Posts

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So WordPress told me today that I’d made 200 posts on The Semaphore Line. I had no idea! So I thought I’d throw a few thoughts out on this obviously momentous occasion.

I set this blog up in April 2012, 5 months before I started my PhD. I wanted it to be a space where I could develop my own thinking in a relatively public way. I wanted to link to things I’d read online that I liked and felt like sharing. With my starting of the PhD it gave me an opportunity to write on various topics that – although not knowing whether they would comprise my final thesis interests – would at least allow me to explore the terrain in some way.

I named it The Semaphore Line after the Chappe Brothers’ communication system. The title of this post references the first message that was sent between the two signal towers in 1791 (“if you succeed you will bask in glory”). I wrote about it in my first post, going back to say a little more on it in November 2013. As I said in April 2012:

As a historical example of the nexus of military needs, political and revolutionary events, and visual informational devices, the Semaphore Line acts as a grounding for thinking through the dynamics of geospatial technology, interactive media and the digital frontier. This blog will collate some of the work done at the intersection of these fields.

I’d like to think I’ve stuck to these interests over the last 3 ½ years – and as the sub-title of my blog hints at, I like to think I’ve appropriately covered ‘technology, space and politics’. Even if I may have gone a little off-topic sometimes.

Of course, the stats are important to a degree. 11,933 total views. 95 followers. 57 comments. 4 thematic categories. 560 unique tags. And of course: 200 posts. Hardly earth-shattering – but for a personal research blog I’d say not bad. Although, I’m hardly going to be topping my other (now long retired) blogging site for hits anytime soon (69, 253!). And nothing is going to top being linked to on a Guardian live football blog.

During 2012 and 2013 I blogged more prolifically. I think this is a fairly common experience. The first year of a PhD has a certain freedom to it. You can get away with saying ‘I’m still thinking about it’ and not be challenged on your output. Blogging, it seems, was the output itself rather than a means to an end. This year (2015) as primary research, journal article drafts, collaborative book editing, conference session organizing, fieldcourse game design and *actual* thesis chapter writing (!!!) have ‘got in the way’ I’ve been restricted to a whole lot more re-blogging and ‘signposting’. That’s to say, trumpeting (for better or for worse…) my work in other spaces (journals, websites) than using the blog to throw ideas down.

The top 3 posts in terms of hits (ignoring the home page and ‘about’ page), however, do somewhat sum up my evolving, shifting priorities over the years. In 3rd place: a muse on ‘Constant Nieuwenhuys, New Babylon and Henri Lefebvre’ from December 2012, in light of a first-year presentation we had to give on our thesis topic. In 2nd: a dissection of ‘The Abercrombie Plans’ from May 2013; stimulated in part by coming across the Utopia London (2010) film. In 1st place: ‘A Night in Balfron Tower’ from July 2013 – a photo-led article on gentrification in London spurred on by – yep, you guessed it – spending a night in the (in)famous Balfron Tower. Each of these seem to have cross-cut the blog’s general themes quite well, intersecting with spatial theory, the city and architecture along the way.

This like many of my posts has been written in transit on the CrossCountry train (a typical view is above!) back from Warwick (where I study) to Manchester (where I live). It’s provided me with both the space and the rhythm to write some more explorative and provisional things. And whilst sometimes it’s certainly been easier to sit back, mindlessly flick through twitter or just fall asleep, I’ve often found my most lucid moments on such journeys – and when I have I’ve tried my best to share them on here. 200 posts later and that hasn’t changed much. Writing can be tough but not writing is tougher. Blogging – however frequently, lucidly, expansively, briefly, or rambling-ly – has given me space to discover that.

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How Napoleon’s semaphore telegraph changed the world

A BBC article from back in June this year that I happened to miss on the world’s first telegraph network.

Hugh Schofield recounts the wonderful description by Alexandre Dumas in The Count of Monte Cristo on one of these ‘Chappe stations’  (named after their creator, Claude Chappe):

The count sees the contraption “like the claws of an immense beetle” and feels wonder that “these various signs should be made to cleave the air with such precision as to convey to the distance of three hundred leagues the ideas and wishes of a man sitting at a table”.

The video at the top of the article also contains some information on the relay of messages. Telegraph operators, although mechanically involved, were not privy to the content of the messages sent. Only ‘superintendents’ were able to decode such commands. This was because a code book or vocabulary was required in order to parse the message and understand its sending.

The reason why this is so incredible is that semaphore lines required a line of sight. The mechanical arms of each station needed to be visible to other stations in order for messages to be received and decoded. In so being, anyone in the surrounding area and within the line of sight could indeed see the mechanical arms, but crucially for its deployment as a military technology, not actually read the message. To all without the code book the content of the message remained a mystery. For something so visible there is a startlingly secret dimension to its operation. Despite the possibility, as Dumas evocatively notes, to “convey…the ideas and wishes of a man sitting at a table” there were actually very few people to whom this transmission was deemed accessible, open and actable upon.

Muki Haklay on Which? magazine’s satnav methodologies.

Po Ve Sham - Muki Haklay's personal blog

The Consumers’ Association Which? magazine  is probably not the first place to turn to when you look for usability studies. Especially not if you’re interested in computer technology – for that, there are sources such as PC Magazine on the consumer side, and professional magazines such as Interactions from Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) Special Interest Group on Computer-Human Interaction (SIGCHI).

And yet…

Over the past few years, Which? is reviewing, testing and recommending Satnavs (also known Personal Navigation Devices – PNDs). Which? is an interesting case because it reaches over 600,000 households and because of the level of trust that it enjoys. If you look at their methodology for testing satnavs , you’ll find that it does resemble usability testing – click on the image to see the video from Which? about their methodology. The methodology is more about everyday use and the opinion of the assessors seems…

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Castells on Protest and Space

A Comment is Free video over at the Guardian. Aside from taking rhizomatic as his own concept, this is a relatively good introduction by Manuel Castells into the dynamic of protest movements, urban space and what he calls ‘cyberspace’. I’m always a little wary of the latter category hence the scare quotes.

I find it a little odd people like Castells are still trying to make sharp boundaries between urban (‘physical’) and cyber (‘non-physical’) space. The city is full of digital technology – in fact, contemporary cities are positively built on it, so why when it comes to discussing protest movements do we essentialize urban space as being pure, physical, non-digital space? Conversely, why do we see the digital as not having an effect on ‘on the ground’ protest? It patently does.

‘Why It’s (Still) Kicking Off Everywhere’ – In Conversation With Paul Mason

Paul Mason

I’m a week or two late to this but Novara Media have an excellent discussion with Paul Mason (Newsnight) on his new book ‘Why It’s (Still) Kicking Off Everywhere’ (Verso). Talk of technology (Printing Press, New Media), horizontalism, and geographical differences (OWS, 15M).

Some frank criticism of contemporary activism here. Can’t help but think the concept of scale is rather crucial, as much as I don’t want to say it.