Saturday, 30 October 2010

Clouded Judgement

Word clouds tell a detailed story, perhaps more meticulous than their name would suggest. Constructed using a piece of text the size of the word is proportionate to the number of times it is used in the text. One is able to deduce implicit or subconscious messages from them, be they intended or unintended. If anything, word clouds are useful to the author in terms of illustrating whether or not they are saying what they want to be saying or, indeed, communicating something slightly less desirable. It’s not telepathy, but it’s the next best thing.

To demonstrate my point, I looked at word clouds which were generated from two interviews with Tony Blair, one with Jeremy Paxman about the Iraq war and one more recently with Martin Kettle, concerning the recent publication of his memoirs.

The former, as one would expect, contains brutal language: war, regime, weapons, inspectors, chemical, oil, nuclear, aggression, sanctions, threat, destruction, breach, extreme and terrorism. It’s raw and clinical, not to mention defensive: effectively, agree, believe. There’s even a small indication of frustration on the right hand side in the words ‘done’ and ‘talking’, surreptitiously sat together below a beacon of apparent ‘resolution’. Surprisingly, ‘inspectors’ crops up more often than ‘war’, perhaps Blair was unintentionally trying to shift blame onto the sources of what was perceived to be false intelligence.

Furthermore, a specific tone of voice can be gauged from the Iraq interview, as opposed to the one about memoirs. Blair regularly identifies people and countries: George (Bush), Colin (Powell), Saddam Hussein, Iraq, Korea and Afghanistan to name but a few, pointing an invisible finger at the many facets of the situation he has found himself in. The lack of this direct language in the Kettle interview shows how Blair is now distanced from his former political situation, aside from the smaller yet undeniable presence of ‘Gordon’. The language is softer and retrospectively vague: end, issues, support, state, reason, progressive, going, time, know, welfare, respect, reforms, relation, conversations, public, explain, sense, social, engaged, frank. However, a lasting strain remains in the former prime minister’s words, perhaps a hint towards his continuous involvement in the public eye, and the incessant criticism which follows: still, difficult, argument, danger, problem, order, changes, completely, absolutely, never.

What becomes clear from comparing these two images is that the insightful phrases in fact lie in the periphery of the clouds. Political language is permeated irretrievably with words such as ‘think’ and ‘people’, and so the larger words, in these clouds, don’t really tell us much about the particulars of the person or situation. Further evidence of this can be seen in the word clouds that were produced from the televised political debates during the election earlier this year, where ‘think’ was the predominant choice of word for both Nick Clegg and David Cameron. The truth therefore resides in the words that sit outside of the main bulk of political jargon. There’s still hoping then, for those than can squint hard enough to see the ‘sorry’ that sits pitifully between ‘country’ and that ubiquitous end goal: ‘resolution’.

Word cloud generated from Tony Blair's interview concerning his book with Martin Kettle.

Word cloud generated from Tony Blair's interview about the Iraq war with Jeremy Paxman.

Friday, 29 October 2010

A Lust for Leather

Remember that episode in Friends where Ross wears leather trousers on a date, goes to the loo and can’t get them back on again? The one where the lotion and the powder come together to form a paste? Well if you thought that was a fate that was far beyond you, this season, think again…

That’s right folks, leather trousers have made the comeback of all comebacks. The epitome of a sartorial nightmare, leathers were thought to have bitten the dust along with the Backstreet Boys, 5ive and most other forms of mid-nineties paraphernalia, but woe betide those who believe this to be true. The fashion powers that be have hailed the return of the most difficult item of clothing to wear. Ever. The woman to blame is French fashion designer of the moment, Isabel Marant. Her skinny, cropped leather trousers in cherry red and black sparked a stampede of trend-hungry stylists and French fashion editors with long, lean legs. Now clearly your average British body doesn’t exactly match up to this vision of chic, but I’d like to think that we could give them a run for their money.

The question is, should we embrace leather trousers, or run screaming in the opposite direction? Perpetual recollections of unshaven men, mid-life crisis, atop gleaming motorbikes might dash your hopes of achieving goddess-like, leather-clad proportions, but perseverance is the key. If you’re going to embrace, do so with utter confidence and conviction. Not for the light-hearted, leathers need fierce heels and an attitude to match, unless you have the legs of Elle Macpherson, in which case go as flat as you like. What’s more, the British high street is unbeatable; so trawl the stores until you find a style that suits. Leather trousers are risqué, but they are also ever so slightly risky, so be on your guard for any mutton-dressed-as-lamb-esque incidents. If in doubt, drag a skeptical friend along to view your transformation.

It is important to keep in mind that leather trousers say far more than good old denim. Like your friend for life, jeans will stick around throughout your moments of black, biker madness, whereas leathers are for now. They’re the friend that tells you that one more drink won’t hurt. For women, they’re about fashion and power, for men they cannot help but be sexual and slightly scary at the same time.

Of course there are other ways to wear leather this season: shorts, boots, skinny belts and shearling-lined jackets, but for me at least, none incite a distinct lust for dishevelled insouciance in quite the same way. For the ultimate in edgy yet minimal, trend-led but not try-hard, look no further that the leather trouser. They’re having a moment, a moment of madness perhaps, but a moment nevertheless.

Saturday, 16 October 2010

What does the decrease in popularity of French at GCSE level mean for Britain and its students?

Parlez-vous Francais? Apparently not, any more. With the recent news that GCSE French has dropped out of the top ten choices for secondary school pupils, it would appear that communications between us and our francophone neighbours aren’t going to improve in forthcoming generations.

Taking a more long-term perspective, the number of students studying GCSE French has dropped by 45% in eight years. Although Brits have never exactly been the linguistic answer to Mensa when compared with our European counterparts, French is a language that most of us could always vaguely grasp thanks to our early experiences with tedious vocabulary and grammar lessons at school. We’re a dab hand at asking for l’addition and never forget to say merci, but is this all about to change?

Not without reason, says language learning expert Paul Noble. School-level French is notoriously unhelpful past basic conversation, he says, ‘Even students who come out of doing French A-levels can be surprised at what they can't say - the teaching should be far more conversationally based.’ Furthermore, a modern foreign language at GCSE is now no longer compulsory, so students are opting for seemingly ‘softer’ subjects such as media or religious studies.

But this research does not explain why Spanish is up 16% among GCSE students since 2002, Mandarin has increased by 38% largely because of ambitious pupils with hopes for careers in business and German has become more attractive since it became the central language of the EU’s most dominant economy. These statistics would indicate that students are now selecting the languages that they feel will be most relevant to their lives and job prospects. Far from a communication breakdown, the decrease in the popularity of French when aligned with figures from comparable languages points towards school students actually becoming more in-touch with global development.

The world around us encompasses a myriad of cultures, languages and, increasingly, potential job locations. Practically, it can only be a good thing that students are realising the latent possibilities of exploring other languages aside from seeing French as the solitary choice. The more options that are open to school pupils the better, and Britain can only benefit from its discerning adolescents broadening their perspectives and widening their horizons beyond the English Channel.

Friday, 15 October 2010

Ad Wars: Should companies focus on their assets or aim to outsmart their competitors?

If you were a passenger on the London Underground in the latter months of 2009, you may have noticed a fairly immodest advertising campaign run by low-price high-street electricals retailer, Dixons. One ad boldly encourages shoppers to ‘Step into middle England’s best loved department store, stroll though haberdashery to the audiovisual department where an awfully well brought up man will bend over backwards to find the right TV for you’. Then the font changes into Dixon’s red and white lettering and adds: ‘Then go to and buy it’. If Dixons weren’t struggling against the onrushing tide of even cheaper and exclusively online stores such as Amazon, then the campaign probably wouldn’t be so tragic. The discerning buyer inevitably realizes Dixons catch-22 predicament whereby they cannot supersede John Lewis’s quality but in the same breath cannot afford to undercut low-overhead online brands. As it desperately tries its best to do tongue-in-cheek, DSGi-owned Dixons becomes the victim of a similar strain to Woolworths.

So was this attacking strategy ill-advised? The 2009-2010 Sales results indicate that the answer is a resounding ‘yes’. Whilst DSGi International Sales were up 3%, the John Lewis Partnership Sales rose 6.5%, boosted by the opening of their second-largest store in Cardiff and a new chain of John Lewis Home stores, the first of which opened in Poole. Taking the upper moral ground, John Lewis reacted to Dixons blunt campaign with a series of exquisitely photographed images of their products, placing emphasis on quality and service. It would appear that the smirk has been wiped clean from Dixons face.

Dixons’s M & C Saatchi adverts assume that price is king, which to some extent it is, but of all the side-effects of the recession-ridden past two years, one has risen to the surface quite surprisingly. Shoppers are looking for quality too. We’d rather spend a little more on something which is built to last, which is sold to us by someone we can trust and who knows their stuff, which we can return with ease in the unlikely event that it is faulty. By belittling the John Lewis brand and its associated stereotypes, Dixons opened the eyes of many a shopper who had previously rejected John Lewis for being too ‘middle England’. The ad campaign became famous, neglecting John Lewis couldn’t be cool any more if it was the obvious thing to do. People thought, hang on, maybe there’s a reason for John Lewis’s status as a ‘best loved department store’? And ‘I’d quite like someone knowledgeable to ‘bend over backwards’ for me? And finally, if I drive off with ‘the right TV for you’ then surely all is well?

Seemingly, Dixons learned the hard way that the best advertising sells your product and doesn’t rely on disparaging competitors to make a fast buck on the back of a derisive laugh. Parody is a dangerous tool.

Thursday, 14 October 2010

Freedom, the camera and what lies beneath

There are very few people who aren’t photographers these days. Very few people who don’t carry a camera, knowingly or otherwise. We’ve become both the victims and the perpetrators of our own loss of freedom. Blame it on digital cameras, mobile phones, CCTV or simply health and safety gone mad, but you’d be hard pushed to find anyone who could argue that they were truly free.

This summer, an exhibition at the Tate Modern, entitled ‘Exposed: Voyeurism, Surveillance and the Camera’ looks at the subversive ways in which cameras and photographers capture people, either aware or unaware, whilst going about their daily lives- and much more besides. The Tate’s Curator of Photography, Simon Baker, rightly points out that we’re all photographers now, but it took this exhibition to point it out to me. The artists use photography to capture the people looking at the spectacles, and not the spectacles themselves, and engaging in illicit or sensitive activities. The photographs are invasive, explicit, seedy and compelling in the same moment.

Artist Merry Alpern’s photographic work ‘Dirty Windows’, is about as invasive as it comes. Alpern discovered that from a friend’s attic, she could see through the toilet window of one of New York’s secret clubs. For months she surreptitiously photographed the workings of what looks like a brothel and drug den. This prolific piece encapsulates what this exhibition is all about: exploiting the camera’s ability to capture the fragility of people in pictures, without the knowledge of some or all of their subjects.

Today, we are not free for two reasons. Firstly because we are being watched. Secondly because we forget that we are being watched. We assume that people only see what we want them to see, but the pathways into the inner workings of our minds and the plethora of mediums which we use to express ourselves mean that it is all too easy for humans of our generation to expose themselves far beyond their intentions. Did the New York sex workers and drug pushers think that anyone was capable of anonymously recording their antics? No, of course not. They took for granted that their identity existed within only that club and only that city. But neither do we help ourselves. Many of us use Facebook haphazardly, saying intimate things meant for close friends on a social networking site has become the norm. For this reason, we are also our own jailkeepers. Cheaters text because they think they won’t get caught, but networks intertwine, and information cannot be fenced in so easily. As out foibles with modern technology have taught us, it transpires that these methods of communication, which we believe to be infallible, are in fact those that let us down.

Sometimes we are watched in manners that are threatening and abrasive, our freedom is ripped, as opposed to eased, from us. At the Tate, the photographs showing a KGB spy rifling through documents illustrate this. The exhibition even goes as far as to display the newspaper coverage from the death of Princess Diana, who allegedly died at the hands of the lenses that marred her short life. Brutality plays a big part in the camera’s invasiveness. But turn another corner, and you come to see Harry Callahan’s ‘Women Lost in Thought’, a tentative approach to record women in a state of musing. Although this is a voyeuristic exercise, it is also a candid one, which tells a story without, presumably directly harming its subjects.

Shepard Fairey, the artist behind the iconic red, white and blue image of Obama that became the unofficial poster of his campaign, has found that free speech is a fallacy the hard way. When Iggy Pop interviewed him for a recent issue of Interview magazine, Fairey spoke of how Associated Press, the owners of the news photograph from which he took inspiration, are going after him for copyright infringement. Fairey sees his free speech as being ‘exercised visually’, but we aren’t even allowed to interpret any more.

This idea that we are being constantly policed is one that inspired the tagline of ‘OBEY’ for Fairey’s work. There is an increasing sense that there are forces surrounding us which have agendas and make us act in certain ways without our direct knowledge. He aligns advertising with propaganda. Indeed I believe it to be true that whilst we may believe some advertising to be ineffectual and passive, the subconscious impact may be quite different. So long as the package is friendly, the content must be harmless. But it is not, and we are increasingly affected by the existence of these power mechanisms. Discursive regimes dictate how we act, speak, think and feel and their place in our societies is getting more and more oppressive by the day. Whilst we might all want to be masters of our own destinies, we are not, and the camera acts as the façade for the devices which are unspoken.

People don’t like the idea that there is something out there controlling them, they like to think that their free will is paramount, but deep down, we all know that the structuralised network of power is there, we just have to look hard enough.