Thursday, December 27, 2012

Breaking Culture Shock 1: Montreal

This mini-series, Breaking Culture Shock, fits within Place Memes in its focus on specific places (with most titles featuring a place of some kind).  But blog entries entitled Breaking Culture Shock: [Place] will also focus upon the use of maps, literature and geospatial technologies in processes of overcoming or, in some cases, succumbing to, culture shock.

This starts in Montreal when, after a period of reflecting upon the term past (my first in England), I assess successes and shortcomings in my process of becoming a real part of my (and shortly my wife's) new home. This starts with the question/cliche of whether or not culture shock is worse when you get back home when, in essence, you come to identify with the culture that has 'shocked' you and use that to criticize the 'home' culture, or the 'original' culture.

This process re-iterates itself with every displacement, and I have a fair bit of experience with culture shock. I invented my own special brand of flanerie when I first lived in Montreal, partly as an experiment in creating a methodology appropriate for my PhD, and partly as a way of overcoming the 'internal' culture shock one experiences without ever leaving the borders of Canada: that of an anglophone (to the core) entering the francophone (i.e. Quebec) world.

Christmas Cinema

The first two movies of the Christmas season were quite satisfying, each in a very different way.

This Is 40 is classic Apatow territory, humour infused with and given ballast by pathos.  The story is not exactly comi-tragic, as it seems to follow, at times, a very Hollowood-oriented path complete with a happy (if post-cathartic and somewhat violent) ending.  It is more, rather, comic than tragic, and that is just what the doctor ordered.  Sometimes you just want a good laugh.

At the opposite end of the spectrum I went with my wife Diane (who was with me at the Apatow-flick) to see Django Unchained, a truly violent movie with lots of camp and lots more to think about.  Upending stereotypes at the same time as playing upon the ability of those same stereotypes to make us think, when applied sensitively, Tarantino has, in much the same way as he did in Inglourious Basterds, managed to entertain in a way only he can.  His inimitable style, for all its questionable taste, and his ability to tell a compelling story, have real value.

I went through a long spell of over a decade of boycotting Tarantino on two principles, the first was a consequence of my being overly politically correct; and the second was my sense that too much irony is never a good thing.  Rilke pointed this out to me in his little book Letters to a Young Poet.  I still think the second factor true but now that I've loosened up a bit and let myself enjoy Pulp Fiction, Reservoir Dogs and all the rest, it is no longer enough to keep me from watching, fascinated.

Lincoln (we missed it yesterday) and Life of Pi are still on the roster for the weekend.  If we get lucky we might catch Argo and the Hobbit too, though I've heard the latter got mixed reviews.
(Source of all images:

Maps, Literature and Culture Shock

(Source: Verso Books web site)

Maps and literature will be two touchstones in the new year.

One of the best gifts I received this year was a mini-atlas including maps of the Egham area.  It's part of the same series in which London A-Z is published.

A storm of light powdery snow is whipping by outside and a big clearing machine rumbles around clearing things.  I'm in here plotting things about London, planning excursions near (Staines, Windsor and Bath) and far (Leeds, Ireland and Scotland), all places that will help give a sense of context once I'm back, ensconced in life 'across the pond.'

I'm dreaming about the wider world around London, places I've not yet been.

Another way of dreaming is through literature, through the novels of Emily Bronte and Thomas Hardy.

(source: Wikipedia)

These are all distant things that in the new year will become much much nearer (to me) and in the process and in almost a therapeutic way (like art-therapy) help ease the culture shock.

I plan to devote a goodly portion of this blog in the new year to documenting what exactly this culture shock is all about, why it is so deceptively difficult (it should be easy, but it's not), and what steps are being taken to alleviate it whether through art, literature or just writing about it, by creating in response to the stress of the unfamiliar.

There are some books on walking, like Rebecca Solnit's Wanderlust, and some books on London to look at too.  The Beach Beneath the Street looks interesting as does London: Bread and Circuses (all three published by Verso Books).

While all of this might seem a far cry from teaching GIS, I would argue that it is not and that, on the contrary, it is precisely the type of grounding-work that is necessary in bringing together qualitative and locally informed geographic information systems practices with the people to whom the technologies are often uncritically applied.

Psychogeography, flanerie, creative appropriation of ennui, ethnography, fiction, science, quantity, art, these are just some of the many categories of thinking I plan to bring to geospatial thinking at the root of GIS.  They might not all pan out, at least not in the way I might be expecting, but that is, I think, the whole point.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Ford on Wandering

Here's an excerpt from Richard Ford's Canada I could really relate to, told from the perspective of a 15 year old boy who has been kidnapped and shuttled into Saskatchewan to start a new life after his parents are jailed in Montana for robbing a bank:

"On days I stayed in town, whiling hours until I'd get to eat again -- following which I'd pedal back tired to Partreau before the dark highway turned treacherous with grain trucks and farm boys beered up for the evening -- I often walked about the town of Fort Royal, taking a look at what it contained.  I did this both because it was new for me to be alone and not looked after; and also because the little that was there made what I saw more striking, and I'd decided the way not to be forlorn and plagued by morbid thoughts was to investigate and take an interest in things the way someone would whose job was to write about it for the World Book.  But, too -- I took my tours because there was nothing else to do, and choosing to be an investigator conferred a small freedom I'd never known up to then, having lived only with my sister and my parents.  And finally, I did it because it was Canada where I was, and I knew nothing about that -- how it was different from America, and how it was alike.  Both things I wanted to know."

Here's a Richard Ford video as a follow up:

Christmas Listening

I'm decidedly not working today or tomorrow or the next day, even though I just got a 'revise and resubmit' with a 'hurry up too' email today, prompting me to download an entire book in response to one reviewer's 'suggested reading' note.  After working myself into a mini-tizzie about how I will meet this deadline (I will), I decided to take a few days to just relax before diving back in, in earnest.

I'm listening to Grizzly Bear's new album and if you're a fan you'll like this one.  They keep getting better.

The new Band of Horses album is pretty good too (thanks Mike!)

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Christmas Reading

Two books stand out this holiday season. I bought the paperback of Richard Ford's latest, Canada, once I had reached Canada and was waiting in Ottawa for my connecting flight to Montreal.  I have been a Ford fan for a long time, ever since a friend in Edmonton told me to read Ford's excellent short story collection Rock Springs.  In that collection, or another one, Ford's characters live in Great Falls, as they do in this latest book.  Great Falls is a rough town in Montana, and I sometimes wonder if the people who live there are self-conscious about the fact that one of the greatest writers of our time uses their locale as both character and backdrop to his Chekovian tragedies.

The second book I have only just begun, but it is deeply satisfying and a bit decadent for me.  Rodrigo Quian Quiroga's Borges and Memory is a work of philosophy that examines an important intersection between science and art.  It revolves around a Borges story about a man (Funes) who has perfect memory.  The author examines Borges's notes made in the margins of his books to see just how much research into psychology and the science of memory he had made.  As it turned out, a great deal, and Borges anticipated current scientific findings in neuroscience a half a century before some of these recent discoveries were made.  This book is a bit like Jonathan Lehrer's Proust Was A Neuroscientist,  but the Borges book benefits from being written by an academic, a professor, working in the field about which he speaks.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

GISystems, Science, Art and Toolmaking

GIS is an art and this realization begs a couple of questions.  Does the status of GIS as art make it any less a science?  Is arty GIS aligned somehow with its tool-status, in this case for making cool patterns/maps?

I'm thinking specifically of Mei-Po Kwan's Professional Geographer article "Affecting Geospatial Technologies," in which remotely sensed images were turned into maps of emotion.

Reviewing the GISystems/Science debate again in preparation for the upcoming GG3090 Critical GIS and the geoweb course at Royal Holloway has got me thinking about how the debate is still fresh.

A popular image of GIS or GIS-mappy things in movies or games would probably objectify the technology as a tool for making parts of movies or games work.

The map is often a sort of deus-ex-machina that comes in at the right moment to save the day.  Think of the cool maps the mop-haired tech-geek in the latest Bond movie Skyfall uses to leave a trail of ever-so-subtle-and-not-too-obvious breadcrumbs (or mapcrumbs) to lure the bad guy into Scotland where his fate will be sealed.

Cinematic maps obviously have to be flashy and nowadays usually animated to make the cut for cameo appearances in such high stakes movies as those in the Bond or Bourne series.  I've always fallen more for Bourne because the sense in those movies is that you never get off the geospatial platform, that you are always in the map as it zooms in and out of various locales across the globe.

So perhaps in the end GIS as art falls in the realm of that under-discussed area of the debate, that of toolmaking.  GIS provides a means for making tools artists and cinematographers and feminists can use to represent aspects of life that no other toolmaking technology can represent in quite the same way.

This has always been the case with maps.  Maps are both a science and an art.  Think of the crucial guiding role of the map in Hitchcock's 39 Steps.  Obviously there was no GIS when that movie was made, but the map serves to guide a viewer's emotions around the various landscapes in which the action of the movie takes place.  Conley has written about this map, which made me go watch it partly because I was interested but also partly because I didn't have an internet connection in my flat yet, and it was the only thing on my computer I hadn't watched.

So I would hazard a guess, that GIS is art, science and tool, and that toolmaking drives both the art and the science sides of the equation.

Thursday, December 20, 2012


We are decorating the 'arctic fir' fake Christmas tree that was put up in our front room here in Brossard Quebec on the south shore of the St. Lawrence River, across from downtown Montreal.  The fake fir tree looks a lot bushier on the box.

Montreal's snow is a lot fluffier in my memory.  Right now the only snow we're getting is borderline snow but is more like rain that instead of puddling and pooling outward (it does that too), also goes upward into rain piles that dam the liquid parts into huge pools.

Two days ago I did the dance of the rain piles in my Dr Marten shoes, carefully picking a pathway far enough away from the car splash zone to remain dry, and far enough from any corner to try to avoid the dammed slush lakes.

I made it through a whole day dry.  Had I been wearing my Clark's shoes I would've been drenched through.  It was not until after dark, around 4:30 that I made my fatal error, stepping into what I thought was a shallow puddle only to find myself ankle deep.  One third of one foot got drenched.

Still I got home and felt dry.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Critical GIS and the Geoweb (GG3090)

I'm getting pretty excited about the upcoming Critical GIS and the Geoweb course starting next term in the Department of Geography at Royal Holloway.  We will touch upon how GIS rides an alleged physical/human divide in geography, how this technology offers a unique way of analysing and criticising origins and reasons for constructing that divide.

There will be two streams students can follow.  The first will focus upon BRITICE and the visualisation of geomorphic landscapes of northern England.  The second will be a critique of statistical constructions of more urban areas around London, starting from the choropleth map in the classic industry standard GIS package view, moving from there through ethnographic investigations of the same places with eventual qualitative data to be posted and saved in Google Earth's kml format.

Virginia Water Totem Pole

I found this authentic Haida totem pole on my first ride from my new home in Egham.

It was about a 40 minute ride along Christchurch road I think, and quite a nice ride at that.

Then I made it to the big royal park where you are allowed to ride on some of the paths.

Seeing the totem pole on the map I rode to it and found it in about 5 minutes.

The totem pole memorialises the inclusion of British Columbia within the British Colonies.

Haida carvers were brought in some time after its installation to re-touch the paint.

Some German tourists were also there looking at the pole, a whole family discussing and tilting their heads back to take in its height.

The day was fine and cold, perfect for riding.

I stopped on the way back at a small grocery store in Virginia Water and filled up my pannier bags with groceries.

The man in that store was very friendly and Norwegian I think.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Picadilly Circus

I have developed the habit of going to Picadilly Circus for fun.  I really like the London Library and its air of exclusiveness and most of all, its quiet.

The clothing shops are out of my price range but I still love to look.

It's easy to walk back a few stops and get on at Hyde Park or even farther west, saving a bit of time on the underground.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012


It's been a while since I posted to this blog.  I've relocated to Egham since the last post and a lot has happened in between.  The new flat was unfurnished so on Saturday I waited for my washing machine to arrive (late) and when it got here the delivery men called me 'boss' at least three times each.  Today, when my new (cheap) refrigerator arrived one of the delivery men had a multicolored 'rasta' hat stuffed with what I can only assume to be dreadlocks.  They were all very friendly and helpful.  In the new year sofa/couch, dresser and ironing board will be added to my suite of new household items, as will curtains.  Everything is a bit makeshift, but I'm very comfortable, and I even have my own private garden, where I know my two cats, Oscar and Charlotte, will be very happy.