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Saturday 7 November 2021: Running, Listening, Thinking, Understanding

Trapped under the ice, blinding white above, deep, endless, frozen dark beneath, struggling ever more weakly, knowing he is about to die, terrifed…

Understanding by Ted Chiang on BBC Sounds.

Leon finally emerges from his deep coma and the nightmares caused by the accident that almost killed him in hopsital. He’s been given a test treatment, Syndrome K. As he takes more of the drug, an unexpected side effect emerges: the startling increase in his intelligence.

Not particularly academic at school, Leon notices with astonishment how K opens up his mind and his perception. The drug makes Leon first notice and then begin to understand strange patterns, the interconnectedness of art, music, science, everything that surrounds us.

But the drug soon starts to take over and Leon becomes increasingly enmeshed inside his own consciousness, turning ever more inward while his brain searches restlessly for the ultimate Gestalt, the pattern that underpins the entire universe.

Award-winning US writer Ted Chiang’s sci-fi thriller was published in 1991 and explores with rich lyrical density, what it is like to become ever more self-aware. The sad irony: the more self aware and hyper intelligent Leon becomes, the more he’s becoming locked inside his own head, separated from the rest of humanity while seeing how connected we all are, the strands of energy that vibrate between person to person.

‘Benevolence’ muses Leon, ‘being able to bestow generosity on other people. How many emotions are required by the presence of another person….’

Leon creates his own language from all the languages of the world so he can express the inexpressible. He writes a poem ‘which is like combining Finnegan’s Wake and Pound’s Cantos…’

Ted Chang’s book is packed with rich descriptions: Leon’s search for the ultimate Gestalt and the struggle to describe what lies beyond the capabilities of human language – yet still having to use language to describe what lies beyond words and most mere mortals’ comprehension.

Gestallt – the patterns and the systems that underpin us, climb inside and understand the secret machinations of the universe…

After his third dose of K, Leon watches his mind watching itself working itself out, each time creating chemical reactions and interconnections. Leon’s watching himself watching himself fall into ever deeper understanding but the more understanding, the less that is understood as the universe expands out in a giant fractal. Soon, he’s using more of his brain than any other human in existence but his mind is getting too big for his brain, a mere piece of organic matter, to contain.

Exploring the nature of reality and existence – that life is an illusion, that life is just a dream – that the true reality is just out of reach. That to be biologically concious means we can never get to ultimate reality – our thoughts, our emotions, our attachments constantly getting in the way.’

Ladywell Fields, Saturday 7 November, 7:49am

Patterns everywhere. Life ending and beginning across the globe one second at a time. The condition inexorably changing as time moves constantly forwards one moment to the next. Steam rises from the subway, smoke curls up from the bonfire, the child laughs, the clouds chase each other across the sky.

Plane trails, leaves falling, people walking. The exhalation of my breath running on a cold Autumnal day.

The universe: zero point, one giant fractal. Half into half into half and back out again.

Further Thoughts and Reading

There was a definite mind expanding, examining theme to this weekend. The trailer at the end of Episode 3 was for The Haunting of Alma Field.

I discovered Gestalt Therapy – developed in the 1930s by Fritz Perls in Berlin:

And then explored the infinite expanding and contracting beauty of fractals:

Meditation and T.S.Eliot


‘The still point of the turning world.’  ‘Mankind cannot bear very much reality.’

T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets

These were the two quotes that kept floating unbidden to my mind at my first mediation class. It was a cold Sunday morning in February and I was sat cross-legged on a cushion in a small, white walled, intimate room with several strangers. I was looking up at our teacher, a doctor in two very different languages and cultures with one foot in the East and another in the West.

She was writing on a white post-it note with a black marker pen.

‘This is the Chinese word Chan – there is no direct translation in English,’ she said. ‘Meditation is part of it, it’s about learning to control the wild wolf our heads and understanding that our thoughts are an illusion and shape our reality.’

I took no notes. This was all written from memory later in the afternoon. I am a copious note taker so to write something up without referring back to hastily- scrawled notes is a strange experience. There is nothing to fall back on other than my fallible memory, busily constructing what may or may not have happened earlier in the day…

Our teacher told us to be completely present in the moment. ‘Accept the past is gone forever and can never be changed and there is no point fretting over what might or might not happen in the future.’

So the future is unwritten. The future is what we can have an impact upon. But first we need to learn to control our minds– the ‘wild wolf’ that lurks in our subconscious and drags us down unseen, twisting avenues.

A spoon passed over the front of a white cup. A shadow fell on its glossy white surface.

‘Here under the shadow is where other people’s behaviour can have a negative impact upon you. Here is where you store all the hurt and the anger deep inside. Maybe somebody shouted at you earlier in the day. Maybe you didn’t react then but later on you snapped at your family for no reason. But the ‘tranquil mind’ has no shadow falling on its glossy white surface. You have controlled your inner self and so external pressures falling upon you can have no impact.’

But surely I thought, for positive change to happen, people have to get emotional and worked up? Or how can societies evolve? If everybody walked around in a state of Zen-like acceptance, what kind of world would we end up with? How can we all deny external events? Maybe these are questions for next time…

‘Remember,’she continued, ‘your thoughts create your reality. But your thoughts are an illusion – they are transitory, they are the flashes of light on a pond, they are moments vanished instantly into the  past where they can never be repeated.’

She told us that the mind is a mischievous monkey that doesn’t want to be tamed. The mind flits restlessly from one thing to another.

Our eyes were closed, our right hands sitting cupped inside our left, thumbs touching so the energy could circulate around our bodies. Slow breaths in, slow breaths out.

It was time to take the first three steps.

  1. Centre – With your eyes closed, focus on an internal spot. Or eyes open on a candle, or on the patterns water makes. The important thing is to find your still focus.
  2. Constant – Keep your attention at this spot. Breathe in and breathe out slowly. Count your breaths if that helps – but only go up to 10 and then return  back to 1.
  3. Control – If you find your attention wandering, bring it back to the centre and keep it constant. There is no harm in your attention wandering as long as you bring it straight back to your chosen central point.


‘You should aim for 3 minutes a day for the first week. By the second week, try to build up to 5 minutes a day, ‘ our teacher told us.

So, time will tell if our internal mind monkeys have begun to be tamed, whether we can all begin to find our still points in this constantly turning world.




How the arts can help you get into e-learning

If you’re thinking of a career in e-learning but don’t know where to begin, have a look at this Creative Choices article.

Written by e-learning and Multimedia Specialist Laura Taflinger, it features advice from a range of contributors – including me in my previous incarnation as Multiplatform Producer for the BBC Academy.

Laura and I were part of the team who set up the Creative Choices website in 2007. Laura also edited many training videos for me while I was at the BBC Academy.

Branching narratives

Choose your own story

If, like me,  you grew up in the 1980s, chances are you would have loved reading  Choose Your Own Adventure books.


You were right in the centre of the story – and actions you made had a direct impact on the narrative. There were many possible endings – many of them fatal! But eventually, you’d learn the correct path through the story. You can learn a lot risk-taking in a completely safe environment.

Branching narratives are not only great for storytelling; they are great for learning too.

We are all natural storytellers. If the learner is asked to take decisions rather than passively watching or reading a narrative, they are more likely to be engaged and thus absorb the information.

A branching narrative can be a really useful learning tool for soft skills where there are no clear right and wrong answers. But producing branching narratives can be technically challenging and costly.

The BBC Academy used Twine to produce a interactive pilot Choose your Own BBC Career.

Below are some more examples of branching narratives.

Take the Knife

Take the Knife demonstrates one way of getting around the technical issues around video narrative by using You Tube– but the video still has to be produced many different ways so the cost factor could still remain.

You can see why this was made a branching rather than linear narrative. The decisions are the users to make. It shows rather than tells. The user is an active participant taking responsibility for their actions rather than a passive observer.

Connect with Harj Kamal

This was made by Kinection.  It takes a very sensitive subject and plunges the user directly into a warzone. The choices they make will determine whether the mission is a success or not. They have to decide themselves what will be the best way to connect with Harj Kamal.

Poetry Prescription

If you’re feeling a bit blue and you don’t know what to do…take a poetry prescription and find words just right for you…

Ahem. I am no poet laureate…but this commission for the Open University will help you find  the right poem for your mood. It sits on the  Open Learn platform – so after discovering your Poetry Prescription, you are in an ideal place for deeper learning on the subject.  This project was developed by Chromatrope.

And…branching narratives can teach people what your company is all about

US Interactive marketing company Jellyvision use a branching narrative technique to illustrate what their company is all about. Rather than just tell you straight off, they ask you to interact so you’re engaging with the company from the outset. This  gives you much more of a sense of what the company is all about. Personally, I had the impression the company was  fresh, slightly cheeky and creative.


BBC Academy joins iTunes U – press release

The BBC Academy today announced it has joined iTunes® U, the world’s largest online catalogue of free educational content from top schools and prominent libraries, museums and institutions, that helps educators create courses including lectures, assignments, books, quizzes and syllabi, and offers them to millions of iOS users around the world.

The BBC Academy on iTunes U will offer behind-the-scenes footage of BBC1 programmes Crimewatch and Countryfile, revealing exactly how a television programme is created and produced. For those interested in storytelling, Sarah Phelps, popular writer of BBC1 dramas including JK Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy and Crimson Field; along with Sally Wainwright, who wrote BBC1 dramas Last Tango in Halifax and Happy Valley, are among those sharing their expertise. Finally, for those wanting to make people laugh for a living, Richard Curtis, writer of comedy classics like Blackadder, The Vicar of Dibley, Four Weddings and Notting Hill, will share his thoughts on being productive, staying creative and honing the process of comedy.”

The free iTunes U app, featuring courses, collections and educational resources, gives educators and students everything they need on their iPad®, iPhone® and iPod touch® to teach and take entire courses. With iTunes U, students and lifelong learners gain easy access to enriching educational content no matter where ideas are shared or interests are explored.

For further information, please visit The BBC Academy on iTunes U

Notes to Editors:
The BBC Academy is the BBC’s training and development division. It puts training and development at the heart of the BBC and also works with the wider industry, equipping people with the skills they need for a lifetime of employability in the ever-changing media landscape.

The BBC’s training and development division has a charter remit to train BBC staff and to help to train the wider industry. As part of a recent review and ahead of its relocation to Birmingham in 2015, The Academy has signalled that it will increasingly focus on digital delivery for much of its learning content.

BBC Academy – i Tunes U

After a year of careful negotiations, the BBC Academy’s i Tunes U site goes live today – Monday 19th January – in the Beyond Campus section.

It’s a very promising start to the week. The BBC Academy iTunes U site was one of the development projects I’ve been working on with external supplier Chromatrope.

New content will be added every week and we will be watching with interest to see what we can learn from the statistics and feedback.

The BBC Academy’s move to Birmingham in July 2015 has meant re-thinking what it can offer digitally.

We have been exploring different freely available platforms to see how they might be used to provide more creative learning options.

Our other projects are coming along very well and hopefully there will be some more news on them shortly.