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Happy birthday Mickey Mouse – animation's greatest showman is 90

Disney Enterprises, Inc.

Manchester United manager Jose Mourinho recently criticised his players for not having the courage to take penalty kicks, declaring: “I don’t like Mickey Mouses.” His choice of words made him surely just the latest to misunderstand one of the most significant icons of our times.

The term “Mickey Mouse” is often used as a term of dismissal – for watches, academic courses dealing with the media and popular culture, and other apparently “non-serious” practices. But its continued use actually displays Mickey’s longstanding social influence.

Celebrating his 90th birthday this year, the Disney cartoon character has far outgrown his role as erstwhile straight man to funnier companions such as Goofy, Pluto and Donald Duck. His everyman persona is now linked to a range of complex values in global culture.

Nine decades ago, surely nobody would have imaged when Walt Disney invented Mickey (he was initially named Mortimer Mouse), the mischievous rustic mouse of early black-and-white cartoons such as Steamboat Willie and Plane Crazy, that he would become such a powerful brand.

Easily identified by nothing more than a white glove or those famous ears, he has come to represent the core principles of what it is to be American. He epitomises the ultimate triumph of late industrial capitalism and corporate identity.

Disney’s critical currency was almost untouchable in the 1930s and 1940s, as Mickey was embraced by both the general public and the intellectual cognoscenti. After Walt died in 1966, the “death of the author” only strengthened the long reach of his symbolic son.

Mickey the wide eyed rodent was never really seen as a mouse. The scientist Stephen Jay Gould suggested he provoked empathy in audiences simply because of his resemblance to a baby or young child. But it was Mickey’s starring role in Fantasia in 1940, as The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, which moved him beyond associations with the Great Depression, and into more progressive times.

Gone was the barnyard imp, replaced by a curious, energised figure literally containing the powerful forces of the universe. After that it was but a small step to world domination. But it was a domination which provoked a mixed response.

Cultural critic Henry Giroux worried about an end to innocence in the manipulation of the Disney ethos embodied in Mickey. Film writer Douglas Brode later argued that Disney was far more radical than we think, and actually a defining player in 20th-century consciousness.

Disney champion and film-maker Sergei Eisenstein saw Mickey’s cartoon form as a liberating force for change, loosening the straitjacket of modern American culture while ironically being one of its defining forms. (Yet Eisenstein took little note of Mickey’s already dominant presence in merchandising. As historian Gary Cross points out, by the 1930s, Mickey’s figure was already being imprinted on “blankets, watches, toothbrushes, lampshades, radios, breakfast bowls, alarm clocks, Christmas tree lights, ties and clothing of all kinds”.)

Of mice and men

The discussion – and Mickey’s cultural dominance – has been widespread. The book How to Read Donald Duck, for example, offers a Marxist perspective on Disney comics, where Mickey is on the front line of American cultural imperialism.

In the art world, Andy Warhol created the Mickey Mouse Myths series in the early 1980s, street artist Keith Haring made images of Warhol as the famous rodent. Satirical cartoonist Robert Grossman fused Mickey with Robert Reagan and designer Rick Griffin drew him as a protest singer – a sort of Disneyfied Dylan.

Digital artist John Craig “proved” Mickey’s existence through geometry, and graphic designer Seymour Chwast summed up the simplicity of his construction in How to Draw Seven Circles.

At 90 years of age, Mickey – those seven circles – now stands astride popular culture and politics, embodying all its contradictions and ambiguities, pleasures and pains, past and present. He can be hugged in theme parks, enjoyed on screens, and admired for his sheer longevity.

And while Mickey may represent multiple meanings, notions of nostalgia and utopia remain embodied in his simple form. At one time this might have seemed backward looking and naive – but it has now made him a reassuring presence, as the world seems to slide unerringly into chaos and decline.

Little wonder then, that Mickey’s whistle from Steamboat Willie in 1928 is now used as a prologue to Disney Pixar Films. As Walt always reminded everyone: “It started with a mouse.” And as yet, much to the relief of those who embrace the House of Mouse (and there are many), there is no ending in sight.

The Conversation

Paul Wells does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

Wilfred Owen 100 years on: poet gave voice to a generation of doomed youth

Wilfred Owen was killed in action on November 4, 1918. Frontispiece from Poems of Wilfred Owen (1920)

For many people, most of what they know about the futility, sacrifice and tragedy of World War I, they learned through reading the poetry of Wilfred Owen. But what they may not be aware of is how close the Armistice was when Owen was killed at the age of 25.

On November 4 1918, the 2nd Manchester Regiment received orders to cross the Sambre and Oise Canal near the village of Ors to capture German positions at the opposite side. But as the troops attempted to build a pontoon bridge, they came under heavy machine gun fire. Against the odds, they forced a crossing and routed the enemy, but in so doing they suffered more than 200 casualties.

The attack was one of multiple attempts made up and down the canal to push back the Germans, all with similar consequences. But what made the crossing at Ors different however was the death of its most celebrated officer – Lieutenant Wilfred Owen – who was hit while helping the men who were building the bridge.

The tragedy of Owen’s end, just seven days before the guns fell silent, stands out in the cultural memory ahead of the thousands of men who died – or were yet to die – during the final moments of World War I. As a poet, Owen understood the irony of heroism very well. He resisted giving concrete identities to the soldiers who populate his poems to stop their experiences from becoming mere anecdotes. One man’s suffering is not more tragic than that of another.

In a provisional preface, written for a collection of his verse he would never see published, he set down his belief in what poetry could do – or could not do – to appropriately remember the atrocity of war:

This book is not about heroes. English poetry is not yet fit to speak of them. Nor is it about deeds, or lands, nor anything about glory, honour, might, majesty, dominion, or power, except War.
Above all I am not concerned with Poetry.
My subject is War, and the pity of War.
The Poetry is in the pity.
Yet these elegies are to this generation in no sense consolatory. They may be to the next. All a poet can do today is warn.

The sentiment here echoes a shift in war poetry, away from the jingoistic tenor of Rupert Brooke’s sonnets from 1914 about “some corner of a foreign field/That is for ever England” and the men that gave their life for “immortality” to Siegfried Sassoon’s defiant denunciations of the evils of war.

The “big” words “War” and “Poetry” were ultimately not important for Owen – the more humane invocation of “pity” was poignantly written in lowercase. What the country needed, what the world needed, was empathy and regret, not hero worship – there was nothing glorious in being dead. But the time for this was not now. He disbelieved whether his own generation would ever be able to deal truthfully with the trauma. He was probably correct.

Early promise

Owen had aspired to become a poet since boyhood. His early lyric verse written before the war showed promise, but it didn’t set him apart. The effects of war, and of his reading Sassoon, would change all that. Traditional lyricism gave way to starker rhythms, direct imagery and extensive use of assonance and half rhyme, which at once created sonic cohesion within a broken, phantasmagoric world. The protagonists in Owen’s poems are often no more than a spectre of themselves, mere voices who have lost all sense of their surroundings –- “unremembering” souls “[o]n dithering feet” who have “cease[d] feeling | Even themselves or for themselves”.

Wilfred Owen’s grave at Ors Cemetery in France. Hektor via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-ND

These poetic phantoms, spectres, ghosts were not shaped by the fighting alone; more than the trenches, it was Owen’s experiences at the Craiglockhart War Hospital for Officers, near Edinburgh, that coloured his vision. The four months spent there convalescing from shell shock would prove highly significant. Not only did he meet Sassoon there, who encouraged his poetic sensibilities, it was conducive to his creativity.

As part of their treatment, patients were subjected to ergotherapy, a behavioural therapy developed by Dr Arthur Brock, who believed that through useful work and activity patients would regain healthy links with the world around them. Owen was put in charge of The Hydra, the hospital’s literary magazine, and encouraged to write poetry. But his surroundings also furnished Owen with something more valuable: a space to process the suffering he had seen and was seeing around him. This emotion, recollected in tranquillity, is crystallised in the subject matter of some of his best known poems – characterised by an evocation of the sick, the wounded and the dying.

His manuscripts reflect that state of mind. Composition for Owen was neither frenzied nor easy, but rather it involved a steady process of probing words and phrases from which he manufactured the emotional intensity in his poetry. Differences in pen and ink show how Owen revisited his drafts and touched them up at different moments in time, at Craiglockhart and also afterwards when awaiting medical clearance at Scarborough Barracks.

In May 1918, C K Scott-Moncrief, who had tried and failed to secure Owen a Home posting as cadet instructor, told the young poet he ought to send his work to the publisher Heinemann. Owen was enthused by the encouragement. He drafted his Preface and hastily drew up a table of contents.

Strange Meeting by Wilfred Owen. This item is from The First World War Poetry Digital Archive, University of Oxford (www.oucs.ox.ac.uk/ww1lit); © University of Oxford

But it is likely that getting his work in order led to more writing and rewriting. Two poems, Hospital Barge and Futility (one revised, the other new), appeared in The Nation a month later – in August he received his embarkation orders to return to France. On September 17, at 7.35am, he boarded a military train to Folkestone from where he crossed the English Channel. With the exception of just five poems published in magazines, he never prepared any of his poems for the press, leaving the bulk of his work in various stages of completion.

Reluctant posthumous hero

In 1920, his friend Sassoon published a slim volume from the surviving manuscripts with Chatto & Windus, soon followed by a reprint in 1921, which indicates reasonable sales. (A more complete edition appeared in 1931.) The critical response, however, was mixed. Writing in The Athenaeum, John Middleton Murray praised Owen for achieving “the most magnificent expression of the emotional significance of the War”.

The hidebound Basil de Selincourt, on the other hand, dismissed Owen’s “soothing bitterness” in the Times Literary Supplement. He countered that “[t]he only glory imperishably associated with war is that of the supreme sacrifice which it entails; the trumpets and the banners are poor humanity’s imperfect tribute to that sublime implication”.

Owen’s posthumous reputation, however, owes much to the way that first volume introduced his work to the public. “All that was strongest in Wilfred Owen survives in his poems”, Sassoon wrote in his introduction. Unwittingly, perhaps, that phrase – and the frontispiece of Owen in his regimental uniform – entailed an act of monumentalisation that went against Owen’s preface that his book was “not about heroes”.

Owen’s legacy is inscribed into a culture of remembrance (that persists to this day) which seems to go against his own views. By 1920 the nation was in the grip of commemoration as it began the erection of monuments to the war dead all across the country – and the language adopted was the language of glory, honour, dominion and power which Owen had found repugnant:

The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

The Conversation

Wim Van Mierlo does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

Chelsea is using our AI research for smarter football coaching

Wavebreak Media/Shutterstock

The best footballers aren’t necessarily the ones with the best physical skills. The difference between success and failure in football often lies in the ability to make the right split-second decisions on the field about where to run and when to tackle, pass or shoot. So how can clubs help players train their brains as well as their bodies?

My colleagues and I are working with Chelsea FC academy to develop a system to measure these decision-making skills using artificial intelligence (AI). We’re doing this by analysing several seasons of data that tracks players and the ball throughout each game, and developing a computer model of different playing positions. The computer model provides a benchmark to compare the performance of different players. This way we can measure the performance of individual players independent of the actions of other players.

We can then visualise what might have happened if the players had made a different decision in any case. TV commentators are always criticising player actions, saying they should have done something else without any real way of testing the theory. But our computer model can show just how realistic these suggestions might be.

If a critic says a player should have dribbled instead of passing, our system can look at the alternative outcome, taking into account factors such as how tired the player was at that point in the game. Our hope is that coaches and support staff will use the system to help players reflect on their actions after a match and, over time, improve their decision-making skills.

Modelling decision-making

Measuring these skills is extremely difficult for several reasons. First, a human can’t keep track of all the events that take place during a match. Second, it’s difficult to isolate one player’s actions from that of another. For example, if one player passes the ball and a few seconds later the team loses possession, did the player pass at the wrong time to the wrong person, or was it someone else’s fault?

To tackle this problem, we’re using a specific branch of AI known as imitation learning. This technology can learn computer models of behaviour, such as footballers’ actions on the field, by analysing massive amounts of historical data. In simple terms, the computer model learns to imitate human experts.

Most decision-making systems in AI, such as those used to play board games like Go, are based on reinforcement learning. This is where a computer learns to make decisions by repeatedly trialling moves until it receives feedback that it has done the correct thing, much like we train a dog to do something by giving it rewards. But most real-world scenarios don’t have a specific reward like victory in a board game.

The system models players’ positions, poses and tiredness. Wavebreak Media/Shutterstock

Imitation learning, on the other hand, tries to understand the underlying decision-making policy by looking at how an expert performs a task, and then tries to mimic the expert. Modelling football experts (players) is very difficult because they make decisions with advanced skills that are hard to program in to a computer, such as choosing what to pay attention to, selecting the right response and anticipating what other players are going to do.

So for the computer model to be realistic, the historical data it’s based on needs to reflect the real world as much as possible. It shouldn’t just show how players move in relation to each other and the ball, but also capture how tired they are and the game situation. For example, do players want to attack or are they trying to defend, or even if they want to win or lose. (In some tournaments, a team might want to lose a match so their position in the next round gives them an easier opponent.)

Changing post-match analysis

We’ve already built a system that can create a model of players’ movements relative to each other and the ball that can be used to study performance. We now plan to make the model more realistic by adding details of players’ body poses, heart rate (to represent tiredness) and game conditions. We will then develop the system to measure current players’ skills and hope to have a fully functional system within two years.

We expect it will be a step change in the way players and coaches analyse games, especially post-match analysis. This will aid players to be more reflective by being able to see how their actions could have made a difference. Scouts and clubs would be able to select players and identify talent using data about these vital decision-making skills.

Extending AI from controlled, board game-style environments to complex real-world applications remains a monumental challenge. But humans are very good at adapting to and making decisions in complex, changing environments. So by learning to imitate human decision-making, AI will be able to tackle all sorts of unfamiliar environments where people don’t always follow the rules.

The Conversation

Varuna De Silva does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

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