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The Pequod
Dr Alistair Brown | Associate lecturer in English Literature; researching video games and literature

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New Essay

Through exploring the psychopathology of Capgras syndrome, in which a patient mistakes a loved one for an imposter, The Echo Maker offers a sustained meditation on the ways in which we project our own problems onto other people. As a reflection on the mysteries of consciousness, the novel offers some interesting if not especially new insights into the fuzzy boundaries between scientific and literary interpretations of the mind. Read more

How the Faiz Siddiqui case reveals the limitations of the TEF

Tuesday, December 06, 2016

The case of Faiz Siddiqui, who is suing Oxford University over his failure to achieve a First due to perceived poor teaching, is being met with a combination of incredulity and alarm in the popular and academic media. Many see this both as evidence that the rise of the student consumer is complete, and as a foretaste of things to come when the market model of education is further entrenched by the looming Teaching Excellence Framework. One other thing I think it offers, though, almost incidentally, is a sense of the limitations of the TEF as a way of improving teaching quality across the board.

What may seem remarkable to outside observers is that Siddiqui seems, objectively, like a success story. He attained a 2.1 from one of the world's top universities. He went on to train as a solicitor. On the key teaching metrics of TEF - retention, degree classification, employability - he ticks the boxes. And yet these generic measures of teaching quality are not representative of his experience. As he argues in his claim for £1 million lost earnings, that few marks between his 2.1 and a First mattered in defeating his dream of becoming a commercial barrister.

Whether Siddiqui has a valid case against his tutors and institution, and whether his teaching genuinely was poor, is a matter for the court to decide. However, it's also a provocation to reflect on teaching in general and the extent to which we support those who occupy a middle ground between absolute success (epitomised by the First-class Oxford candidate) and failure. I certainly do not buy into Jo Johnson's narrative that HE teaching is 'lamentable' (see Liz Morrish for an exellent critique of this, and other myths). However, if I am honest with myself, when I reflect on my practice with own students from various institutions with intakes at both the top and bottom of the student cohort, I tend to expend most energy on students at the extremes, which are picked up in TEF metrics: the obvious high fliers and those who are at risk of dropping out.

That brilliant student who emails me at two in the morning with some challenging question about Foucault's view of the literary author - he or she has got my ear.

That student who is scraping by or even failing - I will work hard with him or her and call on additional support to push, cajole, nudge or drag him or her over the line (this is something we do repeatedly, and on the whole very well, at the Open University).

It's students like Siddiqui who are most at risk of falling from my radar, given my humanly limited time and enthusiasm. The students who are all to easily missed are those who are, to borrow an economic metaphor, the just about managing.

While it may not always seem like in when labouring under the weight of groaning inboxes, a large proportion of the student body do get by without substantially 'bothering' their teachers with 'problems' or without overt appeals for motivational support. Sometimes students coast on their inherent intellect. Sometimes students fudge through with all nighters. Most often they work genuinely hard and independently and pull themselves along through sheer abundance of effort. These are the students I think less about, the ones who never (for various reasons) explicitly reach out for help. Maybe this is because at the time we think of them as successful relative to the rest. It's only with hindsight, the sort that Siddiqui is bringing to bear in his court case 16 years after his graduation, that we might reflect on their failure relative to their own potential.

The just-about-managings are those who we could do even more for if we had resources to do so (something the TEF certainly won't correct). They are the mid 2.1 student who might, with a bit of pushing and proactive engagement, push to a First. Or the student who is comfortably passing with ever quite excelling, even though there may be latent talent waiting to be unlocked. Despite the best of wills, these students are all too easily missed. Speaking to colleagues, I know I'm not alone in feeling this.

On its current basis, TEF will do nothing to incentivise universities to address this middle ground where really meaningful teaching can happen. VCs at the lower end will be very focused on boosting retention, progression and pass rates. At the OU for instance, with a very atypical student intake, our degree completion statistics look pretty poor - but they don't tell the whole story, as many students finish early because after a couple of years we've given them the confidence or skills to step back into mainstream education, or to boost their career. The OU and similar providers may need to offer more named exit points before degree level, to boost TEF metrics. However, this framework will also give more opportunities for the middling students to quit before their race is run, to let them go early with some success rather than pushing them as far as their talents will take them.

For Russell Group VCs, a different pressure applies. With so many students graduating with good (2.1 or higher) degrees, employability and their differentiation in the marketplace come from the additional extra-curricular opportunities. Sports, drama, volunteering are all vital parts of the student experience. But these are also opportunities for students who are not at risk of failure to divert into other things rather than pressing to excel academically. Despite their split attention spans, or indeed because of them, they are heralded as successful multitaskers ideally equipped for the work hard, play hard city of London.

The TEF is not a solution for the students who comprise the silent majority in the sector. Nor indeed is it meant to be. Its interest is in the bottom and top: forcing some institutions out of the market altogether, while bolstering the ability of elite universities to attract high paying international students. It's an economic not pedagogic tool. If we want to see genuine pedagogic gains, we need to look and think about what we do not at the marginal successes or failures, but those who, having attained the baseline standard, could be pushed to make incremental gains. The TEF will make it harder, not easier, to concentrate our attention on these.

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Videogames and Literature: Achieving Interdisciplinarity (Seminar on 15th November)

Wednesday, November 02, 2016

If you happen to be in Durham on 15th November, I'm giving a seminar on video games and literary studies, as part of the new Digital Humanities Durham series. This is going to be quite a polemical discussion, outlining where (as I see it) literary scholars have got things wrong about video games - and how we can start to put things right. It may be of interest to anyone looking at histories of literary theory, video games, and theorising the difficulties of interdisciplinary or intermedial studies more generally. Abstract is below; more details here.


On the face of it, the ways video games and literature tell stories may seem to be very different: video games are multimedia and interactive works, whereas literature is largely text based and plotted in a way that is predefined by an author. Nevertheless, in the 1990s literary scholars were among the first to incorporate game studies within the university context, colonising games on behalf of the discipline of English. Like all colonisations, though, the trading partnership was one-sided; early English scholars were keen to show what they could do for games, but less interested in what games could do for literary scholarship. While the digital humanities in general have seen digital practices radically reshape the methods employed by the humanities, an archaeological study of literature and game studies will uncover few attempts to consider how the study of video games might teach us to think differently about traditional literature itself. This talk will illustrate how literary scholars can modify their practices and methodologies, treating interdisciplinarity and intermediality as a two-way exchange of knowledge and ideas between video games and literature. In particular, it will show how game theory can be applied back to literature, and will demonstrate how the development of game adaptations of literary texts could provide a means of literary critique.

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Evidence that Facebook can read the contents of your private emails

Thursday, September 01, 2016

Users of Facebook will be well aware that Facebook somehow 'knows' the contents of your web browsing history and serves up adverts accordingly. If you've ever had that peculiar experience of researching an exotic summer holiday to the Caribbean (I dream) and then discovered your Facebook timeline full of promotions about pristine beaches and exotic hotels you'll know what I'm talking about. To be fair this isn't necessarily Facebook snooping on your searches directly, but remarketing companies passing your data onto Facebook. Still, it's unsettling.

But what if Facebook could read the contents of your private emails and serve content that responds to those? That would be downright intrusive, right?

Yesterday I received an email - to my Gmail account, which I opened in Outlook 2016 - from a friend who has just returned from a cycling holiday in the Netherlands. He reported on various "amazing child carrying bicycle options in Netherlands" such as "a giant wooden box on the front of a bike where you just pile up the kids / shopping / dog." Imagine my surprise when later that evening I logged onto my Android Facebook app and saw the following in my timeline as a recommended video:

Uncanny, huh? I can assure you that the number of times I have searched for Dutch bicycle baskets and cycling behaviour is pretty minimal. Zero in fact. There's nothing related in my browsing history. And as I don't ever post to Facebook, just read it passively, I haven't added any photos or other content that might relate to this. Neither have I watched videos like this before. The only 'content' on my devices that could inspire Facebook to serve up this as a video I may like is that single, private email.

While Facebook requests extensive and invasive permissions when installing the Android app, none of these should allow it to read the contents of private emails. We know Google reads the contents of emails for its own advertising purposes. But Facebook and Google are two separate entities, and there's no way Facebook should be able to access emails stored on the latter's servers.

If it can have access, that is deeply concerning. In this case, the content is very innocuous, but it's easy to imagine other examples that would be less so. For instance, imagine an email from a daughter to her mother announcing her pregnancy, which she wants to keep private for now, only to find her Facebook feed populated with adverts for pink fluffy bunnies and Pampers.

So does Facebook 'know' about the contents of private email? If so how? Any thoughts welcome.

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Can you crop an image under a Creative Commons Non Derivative licence?

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

When I first started in web development a decade ago, with slow dial-up connections prevalent, the web was a text-heavy place. Today, browsing the web is less like reading a book, and more like to wandering through a gallery. Text floats and wraps elegantly around pictures to tell stories in a magazine format. Images fluidly adapt and scale to whatever device a viewer is reading on. Web editors will rarely plonk an image they have found straight into their site, but instead stretch, shape and tweak it to reflect their design framework.

(NB Yes I know this site looks dreadful at the moment, as I haven't had time to redesign for the last couple of years.)

But as publishers tweak the colour balance, adjust the file format and above all crop images to scale beautifully, how many publishers stop to consider the ND – or “No Derivatives” – element of a Creative Commons licence, under which many images used by responsible publishers are licenced?

In this post I want to lay out the issues in relation to a question that seems to pop up in several places (see here, here and here), without ever having been satisfactorily answered: can you crop an image under a non-derivative Creative Commons licence?

Before proceeding further, two caveats apply.

Firstly, I am not an expert in this area, and as is evident below I don't think there is actually a clear answer to be had. Nevertheless, I hope laying out some of the issues will help contribute to the debate. If anyone with more expertise wants to wade in below the line or via twitter, please do.

Secondly, this is a problem only in an abstract sense. On the ground, publishers almost invariably will be manipulating images in order to fit the aspect ratios required for their sites. Additionally, as I explore at the end of this post, site content syndicated to social media platforms is automatically modified beyond the control of the publisher. As so often in the field of copyright – witness the historical illegality of digitising one's CD collection – legislative or licencing issues are out of sync with the way things are being used in practice.

Nevertheless, when working over at READ towers, I am as fastidious as I can be about not breaching copyright or licences, so for what it’s worth here’s the problem as I see it.

Derivation and adaptation in the Creative Commons licences

Here’s the human-readable version of the ND component in a Creative Commons BY-ND 4.0 licence:
No Derivatives — If you remix, transform, or build upon the material, you may not distribute the modified material.
This comes with the caveat that:
Merely changing the format never creates a derivative.
So it's fine to migrate an image to a different format (for instance, to save a large TIFF as a smaller JPEG). However, on face value of the above, even a minor crop is a transformation of sorts and presumably cannot be permitted. Nevertheless, this is a bit confusing, because the Attribution part of this same licence specifies that:
In 4.0, you must indicate if you modified the material and retain an indication of previous modifications. In 3.0 and earlier license versions, the indication of changes is only required if you create a derivative.
So we must indicate changes if we create a derivative, but apparently we're not allowed to create derivatives in the first place anyway. However, when we look at the ND element in its expanded, legal code, we seem to have a little more room to manoeuvre, to iron out this inconsistency:
Adapted Material means material subject to Copyright and Similar Rights that is derived from or based upon the Licensed Material and in which the Licensed Material is translated, altered, arranged, transformed, or otherwise modified in a manner requiring permission under the Copyright and Similar Rights held by the Licensor. For purposes of this Public License, where the Licensed Material is a musical work, performance, or sound recording, Adapted Material is always produced where the Licensed Material is synched in timed relation with a moving image.
As ever the language is quite slippery. While the idea of adaptation seems qualitative, involving substantial and creative manipulation, as soon as the term “altered” is thrown into the mix our options seem to be narrowed, since an alteration is a more quantifiable measure. Hence the Creative Commons FAQ falls back on national laws:
What is an adaptation?

An adaptation is a work based on one or more pre-existing works. What constitutes an adaptation depends on applicable law, however translating a work from one language to another or creating a film version of a novel are generally considered adaptations.

In order for an adaptation to be protected by copyright, most national laws require the creator of the adaptation to add original expression to the pre-existing work. However, there is no international standard for originality, and the definition differs depending on the jurisdiction. Civil law jurisdictions (such as Germany and France) tend to require that the work contain an imprint of the adapter's personality. Common law jurisdictions (such as the U.S. or Canada), on the other hand, tend to have a lower threshold for originality, requiring only a minimal level of creativity and “independent conception.” Some countries approach originality completely differently. For example, Brazil's copyright code protects all works of the mind that do not fall within the list of works that are expressly defined in the statue as “unprotected works.” Consult your jurisdiction's copyright law for more information.
We don’t have the space to go into the different conceptions of adaptation in different jurisdictions, and where the benchmark for adding “original expression” is placed. However, since the U.S. has a low threshold for originality, let's use Title 17 Section 101 of the Copyright Act as one example. This defines a derivative work thus:
A “derivative work” is a work based upon one or more preexisting works, such as a translation, musical arrangement, dramatization, fictionalization, motion picture version, sound recording, art reproduction, abridgment, condensation, or any other form in which a work may be recast, transformed, or adapted. A work consisting of editorial revisions, annotations, elaborations, or other modifications which, as a whole, represent an original work of authorship, is a “derivative work”.
A crop certainly constitutes an “abridgment” or “condensation” in the literal sense. Nevertheless, these may not "as a whole" represent "an original work of authorship." So far, then, we seem to have got no definitive answer as to whether a crop constitutes an alteration, and whether an alteration of this kind breaks the no derivative clause.

The problem seems, though, to be mainly one of extent. If we take US copyright as our baseline, what degree of manipulation or modification may "as a whole, represent an original work of authorship"?

When does a crop constitute original authorship?

Let’s take a look at this image, Raphael's rather lovely An Allegory ("Vision of a Knight"). This is made available by the National Gallery under a CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 licence. Interestingly, the National Gallery states that its terms prohibit "derivatives or edits of images"; the word "edits" would seem to be a somewhat stricter term than that of "adaptation" implied by Creative Commons:

An Allegory ('Vision of a Knight') about 1504, Raphael. (C) National Portrait Gallery. Reproduced under CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 licence.
Now let’s crop the image to get rid of that tree at the top and to "zoom in" on the figures:

It's still recognisable as the original; it's an "abridgement" under the Creative Commons definition, but hardly constitutes "original authorship" under the US one. But what if we crop to to form a banner at 16:9 ratio, the scale used by Facebook or many Wordpress headers, for instance:

Now our Vision of a Knight becomes Vision of Not Very Much at All. We can also turn this image into Castle Landscape:

This seems more like a new work in its own right. There’s a long tradition in art history of categorising (and canonising) works on the basis of its contents. As I write this some of my students are working on Felebien’s hierarchy of genres, and would know that a portrait stands (or stood) in higher regard than a landscape or nature painting. Our crop constitutes an adaptation that re-represents the original in a way different to that intended by the original creator.

This is an extreme case, admittedly, and with a canonical work like this many viewers would pick up on the fact that the original lies behind the scenes. However, it’s not hard to think of how less well-known works might be mistreated through cropping.

Consider the case of Flickr. Many amateur photographers who licence their work do so under a SA-NC-ND licence. This brief discussion on the Flickr community is adamant that cropping constitutes a derivative. It’s not hard to appreciate why they might be defensive.

The size of the Flickr archive is so vast that the chance of someone searching for Creative Commons images stumbling upon any individual photo is small. So if that photo then gets picked up by a major media organisation, is cropped for size, and then “shared alike,” it is the cropped version which would become circulated on social media and appear more prominently under Google Images. The derivative work would become the canonical one by virtue of the power of the republisher.

While we might like to think that a gentle crop would not be viewed as a problem by most authors licencing their work under Creative Commons, and indeed many would no doubt be proud to see their work republished elsewhere in any form, we cannot get around the fact that some in the Flickr community would and do see this as a breach of the licence. They may be unlikely to take us to court and test the extent of adaptation under local laws, which is the arbiter according to the Creative Commons FAQ, but for publishers like READ we ignore these concerns at our peril: we are hoping to engage with the public, not alienate them. 

Syndication and Responsive Images

Let’s now throw another problem into the mix. When publishing on the web, most publishers will syndicate their work elsewhere via social media. Wordpress’s publicise feature, for instance, automatically republishes a snippet of a post to the likes of Twitter, Facebook, Linked In etc. In the process, the images attached to a post may be “transformed,” sometimes quite significantly.

On Facebook, for instance, the image will be cropped as per my first modification above, to 16:9. The original image can still be found by following the link back to the blog, but the original is not there on Facebook's servers.

Here it is on Twitter:

Again cropped, although unlike in Facebook it is still possible to view the original directly by clicking on the link, so the original itself has not been altered, only masked in some way (perhaps the analogy here is a viewer in a gallery walking around looking at images through an envelope sized slot).

Although not easily implemented at present, we can also imagine a future where blogs are syndicated to Instagram, run through automated filters, so the above scenarios could become even more radical. And we are on the cusp of virtual and augmented reality desktops, where the presentation of "our" content falls decreasingly under our control.

A further thing to consider is the use of responsive images in efficient web design. In simple terms, this means that your website serves up the type of image appropriate to the device it is being viewed on. So to a visitor using a widescreen retina display on a broadband-connected Mac, your site might serve up a beautiful high-resolution landscape image. To a visitor browsing on a mobile with a 3G connection, your site might serve up a portrait image cropped to the salient elements.
This might be done by providing two separate images, and coding so that the rendering agent decides which image is most appropriate to load. In this case, a human designer will presumably have looked at and edited the images, and been able to take into consideration derivative rights. However, an automated approach can be provided by adaptive image programming which could have different and unexpected implications for the representation of the original image. 


I think it’s highly unlikely that an image author or rights owner would challenge these cases since they are within the spirit, if not necessarily the letter, of the licence. Nevertheless, it is important for the integrity of Creative Commons that these nuances continue to be debated. Coming back to Molly Kleinman’s much referenced page, it is notable that someone has asked exactly the question about cropping, yet nobody has responded. 

Hopefully this offers some way of thinking through the issues, even if I have not the expertise to arrive at a firm conclusion. If you have any thoughts, please share below or via twitter.

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