Monday, 30 June 2008

The Tyrannical Rule of The Mobile

Mobile phones are great. The technology we carry round in our pockets is astonishing, and I am by no means averse to the possibilities of communication that are now open to us. However I have a gripe: I resent the way that we are ruled by our mobiles, how they demand our devotion lest we should be shunned by our peers.

Let me explain a little better. As far as I can tell there are two categories of verbal communication for which we use our phones. The first is a walkie-talkie type instant communication device. For example calling someone at home to check what they want from the super market, or phoning a friend when lost driving around an unfamiliar town, or confirming a meeting location. You get the idea. I have no problem with my phone buzzing at me and demanding my attention for these quick-fix snippets of verbal communication that have some sense of urgency about them. And I'm loathe to turn off my phone in many situations where receiving long calls is inappropriate, because I'm fine with these delta-conversations grabbing me for a moment as long as they release me back into reality pretty quickly.

The other category is the long conversational phone calls, that aren't urgent (in the minute by minute sense). Maybe catching up with a friend, maybe discussing a strategy for a meeting, or organising something that's happening two weeks away. These are also great, and mobile phones make this form of communication much easier, but what I often long for is a way of differentiating between the two, so that I can fit the second category in when I'm in the right state of mind and/or location, but not miss anything of the first category.

While I was complaining about this (at a friend who puts up with a lot of my rambling complaints, and to whom I am very grateful) I hit upon an idea, which I'm sure is completely logistically impossible, but it filled me with a sense of hope, so I thought I would share it here.

I shall try and explain through a scenario. I'm in a meeting, or around town shopping, when it occurs to me that I really need to talk to so and so about such and such at some point in the next day or two. It's not very practical for me to call them right now, and it's probably not all that great a moment for them either. So I simply tell my phone of the intention to talk to so and so. Later when I'm at home, or the office, or just somewhere I don't mind being interrupted for non-urgent conversations, I tell my phone, and if so and so is also listed as available for such chats, it notifies us both and maybe even makes the call.

In this way, whenever both parties of any discussion are listed as available, your phone lets you know. If you're not available, people can still ring you, but etiquette would be such that this is only for literally urgent, and short conversations.

Now obviously, for a lot of people this isn't an issue, for me, it would be amazing! I'm self employed and as such have to deal with clients and bookings quite a lot, and also I'm in a lot of situations where having longer conversations is very tricky because I'm generally paid by the hour. I don't want the black and white on-off call filtering that is currently available, and since our phones are so intelligent, this seems like another job they should probably be able to do. I'm just intrigued to know if anyone else thinks this is a vaguely good idea? Essentially, mobiles are great, but giving someone my number shouldn't permit them to summon my attention instantly from whatever task I'm currently performing to deal with something (even something important but not desperately urgent) that would be much better dealt with at another point in time.

On the other hand, maybe I need a PA instead of a PDA!

Sunday, 29 June 2008

Dinner Party

Tom Harris linked to his answers to a political questionnaire on Total Politics. His answers (and those of the other politicians interviewed) are vaguely interesting, but one of the questions was also one I wanted to ask on here:

Imagine you are planning a dinner party, pick six people (living or dead) to invite.

I can remember being asked this question a number of times (though usually with one rather than six people to invite). I think before university I generally said Alan Shearer, in first year maybe Stephen Fry, then later Derren Brown, and now probably Charlie Brooker. I'm rather restricting myself to modern, living, English men, there, but they're just my historical choices.

I'm not sure which six I'd pick, though I suppose it'd have to take into consideration people who would enjoy each other's company, rather than just six people who would entertain me. Would Abraham Lincoln and Jeremy Clarkson get on? Would Maralyn Monroe and Dave Gorman have anything to talk about? It's a difficult business, this dinner party organisation...

I'll have a think and put my six in the comments when I decide. Who would you pick?

Friday, 27 June 2008

Linkables 27/6/8

A fair few links this time, so hopefully something of interest for everyone:

First, some cool photos; From The Big Picture, a set of photos from Mars, focusing on Martian weather. The animated dust devils in particular give amazing life to a world that we generally only see in still-image form. And from Cool Things, unbelievable dirty-car art, and amazing clouds (the roll clouds in particular are a little too close to obscenely tall tidal waves for me to be entirely comfortable with them...)

So, you have a hobby? No? How about collecting these?

The New Yorker cartoon caption contest
is interesting - every week they present a comic panel with no caption, and invite contributions. Looking through the archives, it's really amazing how well the captions fit the pictures - you have to keep reminding yourself that the picture was not drawn with the particular caption in mind. And here's a piece by a contest winner explaining how to do it.

This twisting tower looks amazingly cool, but seems all too susceptible to awful mechanical difficulties.

An interesting article on how harnessing the mass of data available via the internet can render scientific modelling obsolete.

And, speaking of obsolescence, have you had your obsolete word of the day, yet?

And, speaking of words, check out this great archive of word trivia, found via Fritinancy.

Via the f-word, an article on a really strange gender-crossing tradition in rural Albania.

And finally, Stephen Fry may not blog regularly, but when he does, he really goes for it. A transcript of his speech about the future of the BBC. Funny, irreverent, but also convincing and respectful, every bit Stephen Fry. It takes a while to get through, but I'd say it's well worth a look.

Thursday, 26 June 2008


A couple of quick exercises for a Thursday evening:

1) Looking at the standard London Underground map, what is the maximum number of stations you can pass through without leaving the underground system or repeating any station? Start anywhere you like. Feel free to use the DLR but not London Overground.

2) Looking at the standard London Underground map again, what is the minimum number of stations you must pass through in order to have traveled at least one stop on every line (including DLR, excluding London Overground)?

I've not tried the first one properly yet, but on the second, I reckon I can do can do all 13 lines in 15 stations (start and end included). Can you do any better?

The Underground map is a rich source of these kind of route-finding games, so feel free to pose additional questions in the comments.

The Great Storm

How were you affected?

By the great storm, I mean, of course, the loss of TV coverage for Germany - Turkey last night due to storms in Vienna.

For me, it was fairly un-eventful, the BBC switching to 5-live who have far better commentators anyway. The main amusement was that when their commentry was coupled with pictures, you realised they were actually a few seconds ahead with their commentry. We actually heard Turkey's second goal scored before we saw it.

However, for fans around the game it must have been infuriating and presumably also coupled with them being very wet.

Also, the story of the Honk Kong reporter who resorted to borrowing a phone off of a fan to relay his commentry (from inside a deafening stadium) is just wonderful, imo.

Spore of the devil.

Anyone who is not excited about Spore is dead inside:

That video is three years old, and still inspires anticipation with every frame. And now with the release of the creature creator (which everyone is talking about), the scope of what has been developed in the last three years is becoming obvious. Sandbox games tend to be addictive, but sometimes lacking in creativity, substituting storyline for repetitive grind. Addictiveness, I have no doubt about - from the creator of The Sims, we have come to expect no less - but will it be fun?

And that's the one potential worry about the game - will, after the initial burst of excitement, there still be a challenging game to play underneath? Or will it just be a case of doing whatever you like, however you like? The problem with the latter is that total freedom isn't fun, because there's no sense of achievement to anything. I'm reasonably confident, though - with amazing scope and a great looking presentation and concept, it'd take a gameplay flaw of massive proportions to sink it.

Despite mentally pigeonholing myself as a 'gamer' I generally only buy a couple of games a year (time restrictions more than anything else), and this is a dead cert for my Autumn purchase at this point. Short of GTA4 or HL:e3, Spore is the most exciting thing I can imagine having in my hands.

Wednesday, 25 June 2008

Happiness? You don't know the meaning of the word.

A pretty reasonable post from Labour MP Tom Harris' on his blog caused a certain kerfuffle (less than a ruckus, greater than a to-do) last week, when it was picked up by the media. Keen to perpetuate the worst stereotypes of their profession, they twisted his words out of context and tried to turn them into something more than simple observation. The discussion that followed was interesting, in particular, Tom Harris' various responses to being suddenly thrust into the spotlight, and the follow-ups from the less sensationalist portions of the media.

A few things occurred to me reading through these over the last week or so. The first is that the idea of MPs running blogs is a good one. Tom Harris' may be an exception, but from what I've seen since I started following him, his posts are thoughtful and accessible. Having an outlet like this would be an excellent way for MPs to connect with the public without having to go through the media, lessening the risk of their words being twisted to manufacture headlines. Rather than being a waste of time, it could be an invaluable resource for public scrutiny (though no doubt if it becomes a more widely accepted practice, there may be some level of party censorship).

The only way that this can happen, of course, is if the MPs know that they are not going to be dragged onto the front of the Mail every time they say anything interesting. As Harris himself asks: "Am I being too optimistic in expecting a grown-up debate about this?". Unfortunately, I fear that hoping for grown up debate is indeed too optimistic.

People look to newspapers to filter news for them, and to provide legitimate comment. They do this because they don't have time themselves to read the sources, talk to those involved, and sift through the data. If we lose trust in the papers to deliver the truth, we'll go somewhere else (unless we don't want the truth, but that's a whole 'nother argument), but most of us haven't lost that trust yet. Papers still have an enormous power to deliver information to the masses, and if it is anticipated that they will abuse that power, we will see less passion and independence from our politicians, and more blandness and party rhetoric.

On the point of our generation being less "happy" than our parents' or grandparents', I'd say it's almost an impossible thing to measure. The explosion of communication technology makes us more aware of the potential highs and lows around us, and puts us into a situation almost unimaginable to earlier generations. A child today grows up surrounded daily by media images of total excess and total deprivation. Flicking channels between Big Brother and pictures of dying children in Somalia, between Wayne Rooney's wedding and the Chinese earthquake, between glossy, airbrushed, models and suicide bombers. To try to compare that kind of graphic exposure to extremes with the local communities and 'make-do-and-mend' attitude of earlier generations in terms of "happiness" is not only impossible, but also incorrect. I'm not a psychologist, but it seems like such simple terms are not useful to describe or analyse things that are different in so many ways.

That was a bit rambling, but I think I covered everything I wanted to.

Review: "The Lives of Others"

I watched this for the first time on DVD last night, somehow having not made the time until now despite all the great things I'd heard about it.

Generally I was very impressed. I thought the film's portrayal of a fearful society living under the Stasi and the look of East Germany was very good. Whilst there was definite fear, it was kept to a realistically limited level and the drab, practicality of everything in the East, from buildings to canteens, was fitting. The story itself was generally believable, although the change in the central character occurred a bit too fast on screen (although in reality it presumably took longer). The characters especially were all very real, and the actions they took spoke of real people instead of cinematic heroes. And for that they seem all the more heroic. The acting and directing was generally very good and the film managed to be ponderous over its plot whilst not getting lost. The ending was excellent, really hitting home how much people were under surveillance and the fear and mistrust this instills.

Anyway, again, trying not to give away any of the plot for Telf's sake, this is a film that is well worth seeing for its realism and general, across the board, quality.

Tuesday, 24 June 2008

RSS: Simply Sublime.

I can remember a time, way back in the mists of 2007, when I used to have an HTML page on my computer listing the sites I was interested in, and whenever I had a few minutes free, I'd click through a few of the link and read back through the latest updates. Before that, I used bookmarks, and before that I just remembered a rough list of sites I wanted to check every so-often. All these methods, however drifted into that part of memories reserved for the lunacy of youth when I finally started to use RSS feeds last year sometime.

Initially I only had a few sites on there - the blogs of some friends and family, a couple of webcomics, and (i think) the BBC news feed. But the paucity of links didn't matter at all, as the advantages were immediately obvious - I was transformed from a searcher to a hub. Rather than crawling through an increasing list of sites, hoping to find updates, the updates now came to me. I could read and respond to an item of interest as soon as it appeared, and I was never concerned that I had missed a potentially interesting development.

As well as being an enormous time saver, it helped to expand my web horizons too. Back before I used a feed reader, I rarely read the blogs of people I did not know personally, and part of the reason for this was, I think, that I never felt connected enough to their story. It's difficult to motivate yourself to keep going back to a new blog, hoping for new bits and pieces to read, unless you have a vested interest in the subject matter. With the new posts delivered to you, however, there's no requirement on your part for explicit commitment or frustration. Instead you're alerted to new information as and when it becomes available, and it feels more like you're following a blogger's train of thought, making the whole thing much more rewarding. And this advantage is reflected in the ease of adding a new blog to your reader - with often only one or two clicks, you've got a new stream of information coming in.
In addition, there is no need to give up on old inactive feeds - even after 6 months of silence or so, long after you'd have stopped checking manually, an update can pop up, surprising you and either heralding a new chapter of writing, or just providing an update of the time missed. In either case, it's giving you the opportunity to (without any effort on your part) stay up to date with even the least consistent of bloggers.

While inactive feeds are allowed to remain, not all feeds remain indefinitely. Feeds that update too frequently without having a great enough density of posts I'm interested in will get the boot, along with any new feed that doesn't particularly impress me within five or ten posts. The only feed that escapes the former rule is Ask Metafilter, who's 50 updates a day or so are just short and potentially-interesting enough to warrant it being kept. Boing Boing, w00t and the BBC news feed have all perished through being too active and not relevant enough. In general, though, I've kept the vast majority of the feeds I've started reading.

Since I moved to RSS, I've gone from following six or seven sites to more like seventy. Not all of them are updated particularly often, and I don't read everything on the ones that are, but I never miss anything of interest to me (how many things in life can you say that about?), and I see things I might not otherwise have read, opening the possibility of picking up new interests/knowledge.

One thing I have found, however, is that a number of my friends that I might have anticipated would use them don't, and this surprises me, given how incredibly useful I find them. So, am I preaching to the converted, do you all use rss feed readers already, and if not is there any particular reason why you don't?

Monday, 23 June 2008

Review: Gone Baby Gone

I went to see "Gone Baby Gone" at the weekend. This was the film that was delayed from release here due to the similarities to the Madeline McCann Case. And the similarities are pretty clear; the kidnapped girl is a particularly striking resemblance.

Anyway the film itself is impressive in the performances, the script and the direction, but particularly in the ambiguity of the choices made by the central character. You are left unsure whether his actions were the right ones, only sure that he took them and that this was the outcome.

Anyway, that's all I'm going to write now to avoid giving anything away. In conclusion it's definitely worth seeing.

Saturday, 21 June 2008

Review: Little Miss Sunshine

This reminded me a lot of Wes Anderson's films: The focus on character dynamics rather than overarching events, the dysfunctional group interacting in bizarre and unexplained ways, and the sense that we were simply seeing a small slice of a much bigger story. As a "comedy" as well, it inspires the inner smile that Anderson so often provokes rather than an external laughter that more mainstream comedies aim for. And in general, it suceeds in provoking this inner smile - the performances are subtle enough to keep the quirky characters from becoming stereotypes, and there's enough of a dark edge to the proceedings to keep things from becoming too bubbly.

The large central family cast works well together, and it's very difficult to pick out any one performance as particularly impressive. In the same way, there are no weak links, and everyone handles their moments on centre stage very well. Abigail Breslin is excellent as the young girl at the centre of the story, definately one to keep an eye on in the future, and Alan Arkin also very much impressed me as the foul mouthed grandfather.

If there was one drawback to the size of the cast, it's that it means that the time spent on each character has to be restricted, and so some of the stories feel slightly half-constructed. Not, I hasten to add, as though they were insubstantial stories, since all of the characters feel like they have solid backgrounds, but it also feels like the whole film could have been devoted to any of the relationships between the various family members, and still had plenty of material. In this sense, then, it's slightly disappointing that we can't spend more time with them, but at the same time it solidifies the impression that this is a snapshot of a much larger story that we can only guess at.

It's interesting that the central focus of much of the journey, the Little Miss Sunshine beauty pageant, is mentioned relatively little. It's introduced tangentially, and the issues associated with pageants themselves are never discussed. Instead, the film simply allows us to observe without providing commentary itself, which puts the emphasis on the audience to make a judgement. It's an interesting judgemnt to make, since there's the contrast between the obvious joy it gives Olive to perform in front of people, and the way it builds her confidence to have something she is able to excel at, and the strange robotic appearance of the experienced pageant girls (played by real pageant contestants), who are so focussed on perfection that they become creepy life-size dolls, tarted up almost identically and with fixed smiles seeming to lack any passion or enjoyment.

As a look into the bizarre world of child beauty pageants, then, it's a partial success, since the tangential way the subject is dealt with robs it of some of the impact it could have made. What it loses in the impact of this one area, though it more than makes up for in engaging characters and a nicely paced dramatic storyline not without its twists.

Abigail Breslin: Never feels like she's just there because she's the right age - does brilliantly on her own as well as when paired with the rest of the family.

Greg Kinnear and Toni Collette: Do well to give as much of an insight into their relationship as they can in limited screentime.

Paul Dano and Steve Carell: Provide the darker side of the storyline as well as a regenerative message. Both are brilliant, and their relationship is one that it would have been great to see expanded.

Alan Arkin: Manages to play an outrageous character without delving into one-dimensional stereotype. Great contrast in his dealings with Olive versus the rest of the family.

Cinematography: Fine. Makes good use of the rolling vistas that a travel movie has access to, and the internal scenes feel dynamic and interesting.

Script: Fine. Didn't notice any problems.

Good because: The characters are engaging and leave you wanting more. The story holds a nice line somewhere above mawkish and silly, and it never degenerates into feelgood nonsense.

Bad because: It never leaves you laughing out loud, and leaves you wanting more. Minor quibbles, though.

If this film were a drink, it would be a fine wine. Not something that you can swig back on a moments notice, but drunk properly, it has multiple layers to enjoy.


Aphex Twin goodness and Andy's blog update

Come to Daddy

Rubber Johnny

Donkey Rhubarb

Bloggery Update

Friday, 20 June 2008


Ok, so this is going to be a terrible post. For a start it's only one link, and even then, it's one I stole from Bambi.

But I noticed that this would be the 300th post on this blog, and I was like 300 posts? What is this madness?


And if you haven't seen 300, or don't appreciate the true weirdness of internet memery, probably just best to give this one a miss.

Anyway, happy 300 post mark, normal service will resume shortly. :D

Thursday, 19 June 2008

Linkables 19/6/8

A good run down of useful websites, from Time.

Technological pranks to pull if just unplugging someone's mouse isn't sophisticated enough for you.

Beautifully understated alternative cards, for when Hallmark just doesn't cover it.


As you may have noticed I've been a bit quiet of late on the old bloggamajig, which I think is largely down to settling into London (and not having my computer for a week), but also my general lack of doing anything, however things have changed a little. Firstly I have something worth blogging about (and bragging) and secondly I'll be trying to cram as much fun things into my life as possible now that I have less time to do things in. Anyway this is all due to the fact I have just managed to secure myself some gainful employment as a web developer in a company called Cantos that does video streaming etc. for companies within the ftse 100 and 250 and such niceties. So I now have an income (and what I think is quite a good one) which I shall be getting (no doubt a month later) from wednesday onwards. So all good fun and tasty treats.

Why Maths Still Counts

Based on this story and blog in the guardian:

So, yesterday, the Guardian ran an piece where one of their writers attempted some, pretty basic, maths tests. The tests were aimed at kids from I guess 9 up to 16. And basically she failed, and from what I read, she failed largely because her brain though "Maths, ahhhh, scary" and didn't actually think of what the question was asking. For example

If the nth term in a sequence is n - 9, what are the first 4 terms?

Anyway, the statement being thrown around a lot at the moment is that when adults say "Oh yeah, I was never any good at maths", it should be thought of more along the lines of saying "Oh yeah, I always found grammar and spelling hard, and struggle to read long words". Basically it should cause the speaker more embarasment.

Anywho, in my opinion a lot of early maths dificulty is in breaking down a question into the information it gives you and the answer it wants.

So what are your guys' opinions on the fall of maths?

Wednesday, 18 June 2008

Review: The Happening

I find myself often trying to write long reviews for the sake of writing long reviews, which then makes the task of actually writing the review that much more onerous. So instead, I'm going to try and break down my opinions into a bit more of a compact form, and hopefully only say stuff I feel strongly about. Not sure how I really want to structure it yet, so some of this may change from review to review:

There's a really quite interesting and creepy premise to this film, but once it becomes obvious what's happening, the film has nowhere to go. It's an interesting choice to throw us into the story with no background, but it means that we need to click with them straight away, and this really doesn't happen. The relationship between Wahlberg and Deschanel feels forced and flat, and Ashlyn Sanchez has so little to do it's almost embarrassing. The genuinely creepy moments are presented very well, and have real effect, but between them are great swathes of expositional diologue and flat, tension-free group scenes.

It's a real pity, because I think there's a good film in there wanting to be made, but it needs someone other than Shyamalan to write it. I like M. Night Shyamalan as a film-maker (I haven't seen Lady in the Water, but I enjoyed Sixth Sense, Unbreakable and The Village), and I don't think that someone can make those three excellent films by accident. However, there's none of the coherence of these previous films in The Happening. It felt like it should have been a combination of War of the Worlds and Day of the Triffids, but it had none of the dynamic panic scenes of the former, and none of the slow griding tension of the latter.

In fact, once the first half hour has gone past, the pace slows so much that the only tension comes from the introduction of new characters. The continued threat from the large-scale events is often ignored in favour of shock-tactics and gore. Finally the ending itself is meaningless fluff that means nothing because we don't feel any attraction to the characters.

If the feeling given by the few bits of intense creepiness had been more pervasive throughout the film, if the characters had been more interesting, and if the ending had felt in any way satisfying, this could have been an interesting piece of film making. Instead we have something that feels like Shyamalan thought of an idea and a structure, but didn't have enough skill to fill out the rest with any sort of effectiveness. Instead of suspense, fear and shock, the only thing this film leaves audiences feeling is disappointment.

Mark Wahlberg: I couldn't work out whether his character was meant to be slightly simple, or whether he was just doing a really bad job. Not a horrible performance, but the script gives him nothing to work with.

Zooey Deschanel: Stands next to Wahlberg and looks pretty. Which is pretty much all she's asked to do.

John Leguizamo: Struggles to provide an interesting character, but he's not onscreen enough to be anything more than one dimensional.

Ashlyn Sanchez: So underused it's painful.

Cinematography: Good. A number of really striking images, and deals well with limited options in the second two thirds of the film.

Script: The weakest part of the film, when it runs out of plot exposition to put in diologue, it doesn't know where to go.

Good because: It's genuinely creepy at times.

Bad because: It doesn't know where it's going or how to keep you interested until it gets there. It never gives anyone anything interesting to say.

If this film were a fruit, it would be a delicious looking satsuma, that turns out upon peeling to be watery and full of pips. The disappointment is all the worse because it could have been so very delicious.


Monday, 16 June 2008

Han not surprised. Han feel vindicated.

After reading this, I'm glad we didn't go and see The Incredible Hulk on Saturday...

Linkables 16/6/8

Fancy driving a BMW made of cloth? How about an inflatable car? Or just a bog-standard hydrogen-powered Honda?

Jury duty is boring at times, but surely the importance of the job you're doing should prevent you from showing your lack of interest quite so obviously. Not that it's the first time this kind of thing has happened.

An interesting article from New Scientist about the link between sexual orientation and the structure of the brain.

And, finally, journalism at its most responsible.

Sunday, 15 June 2008


No post yesterday, partly because I was caught up with the first ever pulpfact meet-up extravaganza. This prestigious event was sadly missed by a few of our number, but myself, Hannah, James, and the as-yet-silent Martin were present, along with non writer (but equally welcome) Katie.
The event itself was pretty low key and very enjoyable - a nice grill dinner followed by a trip back to Martin's to watch Little Miss Sunshine. The most surprising aspect of the whole business was probably the discovery that Hannah and Katie had attended the same school (one year apart). While being an exciting development on its own (and one which helped lessen any slight awkwardness that might have been present at a first-time meet-up), it got me thinking about some of the other coincidences I can remember from my own life.

Coincidences, of course, are an expected part of any system as complex as human life, but nevertheless, they are surprising when the happen, and, whether you read anything into them or not, make, I think, interesting anecdotes. And if you disagree, then I apologise for wasting your time with some brief yarnery:

  • The various times (such as yesterday) that separate friends have turned out to know each other (or to know a third party). This has happened at least three times now since I left uni.
  • Being placed in room 219 in first year at university, given that the number 219 appeared in both my phone number and my debit card number at the time.
  • Finding, after I'd been arbitrarily picked to share a room with Joe in first year at Warwick, that we'd both applied to do maths at the same Cambridge college, and had probably been in the same room as each other when eating lunch on the interview day there.
  • Finding a wallet lying on the ground on campus, and finding upon handing it in that it belonged to the daughter of my A Level Maths teacher, someone I didn't even know was at the same university as me.
  • Buying an Adam and Joe DVD and a Shaun of the Dead DVD at the same time, only to discover that Joe Cornish (of Adam and Joe fame) happens to present one of the special features on the Shaun of the Dead DVD.
  • While listening to the entirety of Joe's music collection on random, a saxophone recording comes on. Joe explains that it's a friend of his from home playing, and that he hasn't spoken to him in ages. Before the track changes, the friend in question calls him.
Can anyone else remember any weird coincidences they've experienced?

Friday, 13 June 2008


Recently, I've noticed just how many people seem to put the recording of an experience above the experiencing of it. I've always been like that - taking hundreds of photos at parties to hide my nervousness of the social situation - but it's only recently that I've picked up on how common it seems to be. People at an event or occasion often seem to be filming or taking pictures rather than watching or experiencing the event. Last weekend I went to see Stephen Lynch, and was struck by this phenomenon both during the performance (when there were a sea of LCD screens visible in front, throughout the show), and afterwards, when we were lucky enough to meet him outside the stage door. A lot of the people there were looking for a photo and autograph (records that they were there) rather than looking to chat with or congratulate the performer. I was certainly guilty of this (but then I'm never good at thinking of things to say in high pressure situations), but never appreciated perhaps how widespread it might be.

In any case, I don't want to go too deep into this particular piece of behaviour - just to bring it up and see what people's reactions are to it in themselves and others. Do you find yourself recording experiences rather than experiencing them?

I used to be very resistant to the idea of having a camera on my phone. I used to think that it was silly to combine two devices in a way that reduced the essential functionality of both of them. I thought I'd much rather simply carry one of each around with me. In a sense I still feel like that, though the fact that my current phone has a camera on it has led me to come a little more round to the view that such things are worthwhile.

If I'm going somewhere special or new, I know I'd rather have my proper camera with me, to make sure I pick up all the detail I can (clearly I'll need that detail so that later I can look back and see what I would have seen if I hadn't been taking pictures). But for the momentary things that happen day to day, it's useful to have a way of taking quick covert photos, and so I thought I'd present a quick gallery of some I've taken in the last month or so. A few of them are incredibly tiny, mainly because my phone appears to decide what size photo to store based on some kind of arcane dice roll.

Builders/decorators taking an extended lunch break on the roof opposite - it doesn't look it, but it was very sunny on this day, and we were jealous on their excellent choice of lunch location:

Busker on the tube, along with members of the public, at least one of whom seems suspicious that I'm taking a photo. The busker later went on to serenade a very embarrassed looking bloke in a baseball cap who was standing opposite me:

Graffiti is always hilarious, that's why everyone loves it so much:
That tall bloke is Stephen Merchant. I didn't want to intrude by getting out my normal camera, but it came at the cost of getting only a blurry, basically unrecognisable snap:
A slightly odd juxtaposition of adverts. For ages I thought they were a single poster and was trying to work out what it meant:

I'd hate to be stuck behind a carnivorous van:
Catching sight of this box on a shelf in someone's house was the greatest way to lose the game ever. (Incidentally, I just lost the game):

Me trying to be all artistic, but in reality just taking random photos of people on escalators:

In complete contrast to the grainy bullshit above, I'll take this opportunity to plug the 'The Big Picture' photo-blog again. It's really a great, topical and often jaw-dropping selection of images, updated pretty regularly. Of particular note (of the ones that have appeared since I started reading, at least) is this gallery of weather photos taken from orbit.

I also found an image to add to my poker post from a while back.

Ooh, and because I haven't plugged for a while, the next generation of photographs will be moving ones (JK Rowling was way ahead of the game on that one...). Scroll down to the "long photographs" if you don't want to read the whole thing.

Thursday, 12 June 2008

The answer to life, the universe and everything?

That is all.

Interesting Fact

Buying a cadbury's flake, forgetting about it, and having it crumble up in you pocket for a few days (thankfully not escaping its packaging) will leave it tasting strangely of turkish delight.

Either that or it's combining in some way with the coffee I'm drinking.

Anyway, neither that interesting, nor necessarily that factual, but, as can be seen by Wayne Rooney's wedding topping the news billing there is bugger all happening in the world.

Monday, 9 June 2008

Won't SoMeBoDy Plz th!nk of tEh chldr3n?

The title of this blog post is my attempt to capture some of the confused, nay schizophrenic, thinking about children in our society that seems to be pervading both the media and political climates right now.

The genesis of this post came while I was listening to PM on Radio 4 while making dinner this evening. A slightly different version of this story followed by a potted version of this broadcast got me thinking.

Rowan Williams has articulated something I very much agree with. Proposed changes in how the police deal with young people found with knives and new advisory guidelines suggesting children shouldn't drink alcohol in their parents' homes until 12 (an attempt to deal with binge drinking) are part of a raft of measures that increasingly narrow the perceptions of young people. I think the Archbishop is right here, we are methodically, even if not consciously, demonising younger people.

I've written before here and here about particular aspects of this problem and don't want to repeat myself as that's not the point of the post.

The point is that, on the one hand, we are increasingly terrified of our "young people" and on the other, increasingly terrified for them. The murder of an ex police-officer suspected of being a paedophile appalls and sickens me. Yes, he may have been guilty of gruesome offences, but that's for the courts to decide, not a vigilante loner. This man was subjected to abuse and forced to move house, he was being hounded at his mother's house, where he was eventually killed. Convicted paedophiles deserve help, not abuse, and this man wasn't even a convicted offender. Whatever happened to innocent until proven guilty?

As a society, we are keen to absolve ourselves of individual responsibilities and expect the police to do everything, including parenting. This is a dangerous mindset as it means we are willing to give up our freedoms piece by piece. A local police sergeant told me the other day the government were introducing legislation that would make it a criminal offence for "young people" to return to certain areas within in a certain time, having been moved on by police. He said it would be an arrestable offence. I said: "So you mean you'll be able to arrest people for standing on particular areas of pavement?" His response was along the lines that such legislation would largely be irrelevant in Shropshire as "young people" round here are rather well-behaved when compared to places like London or Manchester. This did not re-assure me.

The thing is, the police shouldn't need to be responsible for young people on the street at night. Parents need to accept that they have a responsibility to society to discipline their own children. A sensible parent would do their best to make sure their child wasn't roaming the streets getting drunk or pulling knives on people. Likewise, a sensible parent would keep close tabs on their children if there was a suspected paedophile in their neighbourhood. But they wouldn't kill this person.

I can't currently think of a resolution that will marry these two attitudes towards children into some cohesive whole. Except that our society's perception of children/young people/youngsters and the dangers from them and that they face is severely flawed and needs rethinking fast.

(Cross-posted to an immedia reaction)

No Power

You may have heard in the news that there was a fire at a power station over the weekend that left large parts of South London without power. Well, I was living in one of those parts and our power didn't come back until about 10pm or so. Fortunately we managed to avoid quite a lot of it through not being at home (we went out to a pub quiz, but more on that later). Now I had thought that living without the internet at home was pretty annoying, but living without electricity, that is really boring. My brother had come to visit and our initial response was 'We have nothing to do'. We managed to stave off boredom before the quiz through a mixture of poker (he won) and Arimaa (I won). Other than the obvious TV, PC, music systems, that didn't work, there was also the subtler gas boiler; the gas worked, but the ignition switch didn't, and similar for the hobs (though we had matches for them).

Anyway, back to the quiz. We had managed the usual score of knowing enough to not humiliate ourselves, but not enough to actually win anything. However the main prize in the quiz is a jackpot of accumulated entrance fees that had reached over £600 through not being won for a while. To win you have to have your ticket number picked and then succeed in 6 cards of higher-lower. Aces high. Well we got picked . . .

Consola went up to play.

1st card is a 7. Now Katie and I have an annoyance with the quizmaster in that he always claims 7 is in the middle, when, with Aces high, 8 is actually in the middle. So we told Consola to go higher.

An 8. Consola turned to us again. With one lower card gone, the choice had to be higher though it was almost 50-50.

An Ace. In your face quizmaster and your 'you should go lower than an 8' crap. At this point Consola actually said higher as her next choice, but was fortunately given a chance to change her mind.

A two. Going well after initial tricky cards. Consola again turns to us for advice and we assure her that higher is the right choice.

A King. I'm now mentally spending my share of the winnings. Consola turns again and we motion lower back to her.

An Ace.

No. Fuckin'. Way

The whole pub cheers and jeers and we return to our seats humbled. The next attempt doesn't win either so next week it'll probably reach around £800 plus, so, as they say, maybe next time.

Saturday, 7 June 2008

I can see the music

I like music videos. They have more in common with short films than anything else, but they stand alone as a medium. They often do some very interesting and entertaining things. Here's a collection of some that I've enjoyed.

Bat For Lashes - "What's A Girl To Do"

Nice song, amazing video. Explains nothing, works brilliantly. Hurray for oddness.

Weezer - "Buddy Holly"
Embedding disabled unfortunately, but click here to see it
Another good song, and a very clever video. If you're a Happy Days fan then there's the added nostalgia element, but I just think it's incredibly clever and remember being blown away the first time I saw it.

The Avalanches - "Frontier Psychiatrist"

Another one that's pretty insane, but all the elements are put together so well. The kitschy feel of the whole thing is just superb and fits the track perfectly.

Daft Punk - "Around The World"

A triumph of choreography, with each set of dancers representing a different element of the song. The whole thing reminds me of a record going round on a turntable, which I have to believe is intentional. Possibly my favourite music video.

Gnarls Barkley - "Smiley Faces"

One that just makes me smile. Simple, effective and definitely a product of the time it has been created in. One I'm sure I'll love looking back on in ten years time.

Beastie Boys - "Ch-Check It Out"

A perfect example of how much fun you can have with a music video. Most of the elements don't fit together, and yet there's a definite narrative in there somewhere. The Beastie Boys have a great back catalogue of music videos that I urge you to have a look at.

Aphex Twin - "Windowlicker"

Confusing, scary, odd. Also a lot of swearing, so if you want to avoid that skip to about 3:45 (it's a pretty long music video, but it's worth it). Stay with it for as long as you can before it starts making you feel uncomfortable.

Vitalic - "Poney"

Dogs. Flying through the air. In slow motion. Why not?

OK Go - "Here It Goes Again"

Such a simple idea worked to perfection.

Kasabian - "Shoot The Runner"
Another with embedding disabled.
A pretty simplistic use of graphics, but I just love the feel of this one. It works so well with the type of music Kasabian make.

Royksopp - "Eple"

Another simple idea, but I like the journey it takes you on. Also, I wouldn't be surprised if the "uh-oh" sequences from Sealab 2021 were based on this video (unfortunately I can't find a clip of Sealab for comparison at the moment, but I'll keep looking).

The Prodigy - "Smack My Bitch Up"

Another video where the journey you're taken on works very well. Make sure you watch until the very end...

Basement Jaxx - "U Don't Know Me"

Great fun, with nice attention to detail to keep authenticity. Another one that shows how much fun you can have with music videos.

Fatboy Slim - "Weapon Of Choice"
Embedding not allowed...
Just brilliant. Another contender for my all-time favourite.

The Prodigy - "Voodoo People [Pendulum Remix]"

Another one that blew me away when I first saw it. A pretty unique yet simple concept.

Pendulum - "Propane Nightmares"

Well made, and an intriguing narrative told through just a few minutes of film.

I'll leave it at that for the moment, but I'm hoping to put up some more music videos here as I come across them, hopefully with a bit more in-depth commentary than the handful of sentences each one got in this entry. I'd like to know what anyone else thinks about any of these, and if there are any others you'd like to bring to my attention please reply with links.

Friday, 6 June 2008

Re: views

The recent shenanigans with the now-on-hiatus DYM made me think about how I approach film reviews. Not in the sense of writing them, which I do poorly and infrequently, but in the sense of reading them. I was talking to a friend about it, and he said that he can't be bothered to read reviews of films he's already seen, and looks instead for reviews of films he hasn't. I have completely the opposite approach - I really don't like reading reviews of films I haven't seen yet.

Part of it is that I'm deathly afraid of spoilers. Not that I think people would intentionally put them into a review, but there's always the chance that they'll let some revelation slip, something that'll combine with something someone else says and something I see in an interview, and will end up lessening the impact of something in the film itself. Even if it's not a spoiler that gives away a plot twist, I don't like being told 'X gives a great performance', or 'there is an amazing FX shot' or even 'the score is great'. These are all things I care about (except the music - no one cares about the music), but they are things that I want to decide for myself.

When I was watching There Will Be Blood earlier this year, all I could think was "Wow, all those reviewers were right, Daniel Day Lewis is great", because I'd read a couple of reviews that said this. As such, it felt far less genuine an opinion than one I construct myself. I'm worried that because I was told it was a good performance, I was biased towards it while watching, and wanting to be someone who could appreciate good acting I subconsciously picked out the bits I felt were good in order to align my view with those of the critics. Now, I'm not saying that that's what happened - I genuinely felt Lewis gave a fantastic performance - but it's always a slight worry when I'm trying to judge something slightly less outstanding.

Some of my best memories are seeing films I knew nothing about beforehand - seeing The Matrix in the cinema on a friend's 15th birthday, watching Fight Club at a friend's house, watching Primer on my computer late at night, watching Once Upon a Time in Mexico or Equilibrium in the student cinema at uni - all amazing experiences because there was no build up and no expectation. These films now rank amongst my favourites of all time, and though I don't know how much of that is down to the memories of the first time I saw them, it certainly didn't hurt. With every single one of those films I can remember coming away feeling excited and as though I'd "discovered" an amazing unknown masterpiece. That's not the case of course, but the memory of the unexpected adreniline rush is very clear in my head.

I guess part of the difference in approach is based on what you want to get out of reviews. I can see that using reviews as a filtering system to ensure that you see the best movies you can when they come out could be useful, but I think I really tend to use them as a benchmark for my own opinions. I love reading reviews once I've seen a film, because I can match up what the reviewer says to my own experience, and prepare a response, even only internally. Without having seen the film, I think a lot of the review would be lost on me, since all I'm really looking for is a thumbs up or down as to whether I should pay money to see it.

So how about you guys? How do you like your reviews?

Linkables 6/6/8

This guy has a pretty incredible face all round, but the tongue is the icing on the cake.

I haven't really had a chance to look around it, but Librivox looks like an awesome resource for downloading free, volunteer-read audio books.

The full text of Obama's victory speech after the primaries on Tuesday. This was before Clinton had officially conceded, and for talking about someone he's still technically competing against, he's hugely complimentary. And, sticking with American politics, a great flash presentation of the way different groups voted in the primaries, sorted by state.

Description of a very cool experiment looking at natural selection and evolution in bacteria.

I've been hanging around on Ask Metafilter for a couple of months now, but this is the first time I've encountered Metafilter Projects, a branch of the Metafilter site designed to allow people to advertise their own projects (web-based or otherwise) to the Metafilter community. It looks like a great place to pick up on new sites and ideas before they've become popular, and even just as a repository of links for new stuff that people want to get out there, it's well worth a look. Plus it's updated way less often than Ask Metafilter (which gets around 500 posts a week), so having it on your reader is less of a burden. And on the flip side, if you have a project you want to get people's opinions on, it's a great way to alert a huge community to it.

Anyway, it was via Metafilter Projects, that I found this interesting take on the tower-defense flash game genre, and this cool topical photo blog.

Thursday, 5 June 2008

Hay Fever


My whole head is a big ball of ugh at the moment. Why? Because the sun came out and that made all the grass randy. My body then found this highly offensive and decided an appropriate response would be to fill my head with snot. To be alergic to nice spring / summer weather is pretty damned annoying.

In other news I stand corrected on my belief that you should use an apostrophe after an acronym, e.g. DVD's. My reasoning for this was twofold:
a) I'd heard it somewhere (this is my reasoning for many things, though I like to think trivial things)
b) It meant you wouldn't think the 's' was part of the acronym, e.g. Digital Versatile Disc in Stereo, that had simply been left un-capitalised.
Anyway, you do indeed learn something every day.

In other things I've learnt, apparently in the days of the ancient greeks, young men were quite sought after by older men. Particularly (and this is what I learnt) sought after were young men who were just starting to grow a beard and who's beard was thus soft and downy in nature.

Having recently shaved and grown stubbly, I've realised I'm beyond that stage now, ah well.

Wednesday, 4 June 2008

Ctrl + C

The BBC did a report yesterday on the percieved lax reaction of universities to plagiarism. While I can't necessarily comment on the study in question, it did remind me of my own brush with the ever watchful university plagiarism checks:

Back in the middle of the first term of first year, I was in the midst of one of the least useful modules I have ever had to do. 'Maths By Computer' was meant to teach me how to use the power of a computer (and, more specifically, the power of MatLab) to solve complex mathematical problems simply and efficiently. In reality, it was a compulsory module in the first term of university, being taught once a week to a room of 300 students at 9am on a Wednesday morning. It was difficult to be interested in a subject that essentially consisted of a technical instruction manual for a product most of us would never use again. We were students, and tired from all the other productive, substantive activities we were doing (activities which, for the moment, escape my memory). Sleep was a precious commodity, and 9am on a Wednesday seemed like a perfect time to cash in.

In any case, the course was assessed on four or five assignments, which generally involved solving a problem on MatLab and handing in a printout of the calculations. The first point to note is that the correct solution to an assignment would be essentially identical between students. This isn't English or History, where putting your own style or spin on the assignment is necessary, this is maths, and there is a right and a wrong answer.

The second point to note is that this is first year, and so students are living in large groups. They are also, naturally, associating, travelling and working in large groups, defined, to a greater or lesser extent, by their choice of subject. Hence, you have a group of mathematicians, say four, working on the same assignment. Are these students meant to work independently, cut off from one another? Eschewing collaboration toward a common goal for personal struggle and achievement? To do so would be to go against a core ideal of mathematics. And that's not just me being facetious. All maths is built on previous work, and maths is only rendered valid by the checking and re-checking of work by peers. So the second point I'm trying to make is that expecting us to work separately was not reasonable, and in the long run, counterproductive.

So, take our "imaginary" group of four mathematicians. They work together and produce a correct solution to the problem. What now? Should they artificially try to alter the solution in a way that changes its appearance but not its content, simply in order to disguise the fact that they helped each other with it? Of course not, that would be a ludicrous thing to have to do. So they hand their work in, and get on with the next assignment. A couple of days later two of them (roommates, as it happens) get emails telling them that their work was unacceptably similar, and that they need to meet with someone to discuss it.

Ultimately, of course, our argument that we were room mates (oh, me and Joe were the two mathematicians, was that not clear?) and couldn't be expected to work on the same assignment totally independently was upheld. It took two missed meetings with a supervisor (we turned up, he didn't) and one angry email to the head of maths before our point of view prevailed, but prevail it did.

So, in terms of the BBC article, I suppose my experience of plagiarism could be one of those 9,000 or so cases that didn't get the full punishment. I believed at the time, and still believe, that any punishment would have been grossly unfair in our situation, and that a lot of the "inconsistencies" in punishment will be down to the particular situation of the offence. It's a hugely difficult area to police, and given that a harsh punishment can cost the student a huge amount of money and time, erring on the side of caution seems like a good idea in general.

In the end we got zero for the assignment in question and were advised to submit all future pieces of work with the names of all those who helped on them.

Not that we did. Who ever got better marks doing that kind of thing?

Tuesday, 3 June 2008

Film Review: "Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull"

Release Date: 22nd May 2008
Certificate: 12A
Director: Steven Spielberg
Stars: Harrison Ford, Shia LaBoeuf, Cate Blanchett, Ray Winstone

I saw this film around a week ago and had intended to review it sooner so that everything about it would be fresh in my mind. My review may therefore be "quicker" than usual, but the one thing I definitely recall is my overall reaction to the film, and that is what I'll focus on. As a fan of the Indiana Jones franchise, with fond memories of Saturday early evenings as a child in front of the TV with one of the original three entertaining me for two hours or so, I was very much looking forward to the fourth installment of the good doctor's adventures coming out. As I had had with Die Hard 4.0, there was a slight anxiety - what if they totally ruin it? Thankfully, whereas John McClane had definitely been watered down in the fourth of his franchise, Indy remained the same as he ever was, if not even grittier.

A plot synopsis is almost unnecessary, as if I simply say "It's an Indiana Jones film" that should be enough for any fan to work out the plot. It's nineteen years since The Last Crusade with an aging Dr. Henry "Indiana" Jones (Ford) still lecturing on ancient history and getting into trouble. With World War Two having been and gone and the Cold War in full swing, we now find Indy grappling with the communists from Soviet Russia rather than German Nazis. Indy is soon approached by greaser Mutt Williams (LaBeouf) and informed of the dissappearance of Harold "Ox" Oxley (John Hurt), an old colleague, after finding a crystal skull in Peru. This sets in motion the latest of Indy's great adventures, and the action barely lets up from there on in.

Harrison Ford not once puts a foot wrong, as excellent as he ever was as Indiana Jones. If anything, the character has improved with age, and Ford's portrayal makes every stunt the older Jones performs believeable enough. Shia LaBeouf is an actor of whom I'm not a fan, but his performance stays far enough away from irritating, and whilst he is never outstanding LaBeouf takes nothing away from the film. Cate Blanchett is fantastic as Irina Spalko, leader of the Soviet agents, putting in a performance that ranges marvellously from comic book villain to power-hungry bitch. Support from Ray Winstone, John Hurt and Karen Allen is also satisfactorily strong. The script is well-written, with witty, pithy dialogue and generally well fleshed-out characters. The action scenes and effects are excellent and feel well-placed.

The main criticism I've heard about this fourth film is that the main premise of the story (which I won't reveal to avoid spoiling the film) is too hard to buy into. I simply cannot see this. If you watch an Indiana Jones film, you go in expecting an action adventure film. There will be fantastical elements and outrageous stunts - that's what the film wants to give you. If you go in with an open mind ready for some great fun then I fail to see how anyone who is a fan of the first three can be disappointed.

Verdict: Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull is a great success and a worthy addition to the Indy franchise. For pure entertainment value it is difficult to find a film this year that delivers so well. Add to that the sterling performance from Harrison Ford and a solid backup from the supporting cast along with the masterful skills of Steven Spielberg controlling things behind the camera and you've got yourself a brilliant action adventure film. Just great.


Service improvement program

There was a BBC report at the weekend about the decision of four police services to drop the government targets on crime and to use their own 'common sense' approach to prioritising. Government targets and the problems associated with them are a regular feature of the older posts on coppersblog, along with almost any blog dealing with people working in public services, as well as numerous documentaries, reports and so on.

Essentially the complaint is that by recording and judging services (and departments, and people, and everything) on particular formulaic and numerical criteria, and using the results to produce a ranking from 'best' to 'worst', the targets encourage cheating. Not because the people cheating are trying to disrupt the statistics, or because they are incompetent, or because they are evil, but simply because it makes sense.

Hospitals who are judged on the proportion of patients who have beds and who sleep in wards need to find ways to increase the numbers of beds and wards. The intention of the targets is to prompt hospitals to spend their money doing the best for the patients by paying for these new facilities, but what actually happens is that the permanently-strapped-for-cash hospital reclassifies gurneys as beds and corridors as wards. Hey Presto! More beds, more wards, and everyone's numbers go up. The patients don't "lose out" as such, because they were sleeping on gurneys in corridors anyway, and the money can be spent on other (equally vital) areas.

Similarly, police forces that are judged on the number of 'detections' they make, are being encouraged by the targets to find detections everywhere. Why commit 4 officers to a murder investigation that may take weeks and never get solved, when you could have those officers "solving" domestic disputes, that take far less time and so can provide a far better crime-prevention rate. A kid kicks a ball through a window? Criminal damage. The parents get into a fight about it? Two counts of assault. One incident, one morning's work, three detections, and everyone's numbers look better.

The police officers and hospital staff are not being intentionally divisive in this regard, but they are simply doing what they're told. Their bosses know that if their service comes near the bottom of the 'rankings' they are going to be in trouble, so they need to get their numbers up however they can. This pressure feeds down through the organisation, and everyone is encouraged to concentrate on the numbers rather than on the 'common sense' approach to the tasks. The price, of course, of not following this pattern, is that your numbers don't look so good, you are reprimanded by a watchdog, and heads roll at the top. Everyone pats themselves on the back - once again, the numbers spotted a low-performing service, and action was taken to improve it.

Clearly this is a hugely sub-par way to run public services, and it is a problem caused entirely by the implementation of the government targets. So what are the options to improve this? Well, firstly, there is the option most often spouted by exasperated commentators: to remove the targets system entirely, reduce the amount of paperwork dramatically, "get the police back out on the streets" and go back, presumably to some sort of inspection system. I disagree with this approach because I think the 'targets' system has some advantages that it would be a pity to lose. I agree that the police, for example, need to have far less paperwork (as I mention previously here), but I think that that is a separate problem from that of the targets. I think that the collection of process data is hugely useful, and if it can be done with an efficiency that allows officers to effectively carry out their jobs at the same time, then it is something that should be continued.

The problem seems instead to be with the way that the data is collected. Rather than asking for detection rates, and ranking organisations on their relative performance, something that breeds a subservience to the formula that calculates rank, I think it'd be much more effective to have the formula itself be hidden. Data collected from the services would be analysed in conjunction with the organisation themselves to look for areas of improvement using a number of different criteria that might change over time. The most important aspect of it, though, would be that the organisations were not aiming for a simple measurable factor. Rather than being able to attempt to maximise 'detections', they would be reporting all their raw data, and the analysis would be ongoing. If it was reported that people were attempting to skew the results in a particular way, the analysis could be altered to take it into account.

In addition, the results of the analysis could be presented as a series of recommendations, rather than a score or ranking. Recommendations that would be tailored to an organisation's particular situation. The main argument against this, would, I suppose, be that the organisations would have less motivation to provide good services without the public shaming of a low ranking. However this could be combated through the additional recognition of particular improvement or decline in service quality. Again, it would be related to the local situation, so a police service in rural Wales would be judged on different criteria than the Met.

Finally, the involvement of the organisations in the process would be an indication of the point of the analysis, not to name and shame "failing" organisations or people, but to provide an indication of performance and pointers for improvement. In particular this is important for public services, since the point is not to increase profit margins, but to provide a good service to the public. In this regard, then, the government and the organisation have the same aim, and should be able to work together. With the involvement of the organisations, local targets could be ensured to be appropriate and achievable.

After the system had run for a few years, it might be possible to make national comparisons, or to provide more general analysis of multiple organisations, but only if it can be done without losing the focus on improving services.

Not only am I now rambling, but in talking about "improving services" I'm starting to sound like a government press release. In any case, I think that things can be done to improve the system of government targets without scrapping the whole thing, and it's something that niggles me whenever people talk about the target system as though it was an absolute evil. I'm not an expert (or even an amateur) in the area, and, for all I know, what I've written is complete bollocks. What do you think?

Film Review: "Bosque De Sombras" ("The Backwoods")

Release date: 19th May 2008 (DVD)
Certificate: 18
Director: Koldo Serra
Stars: Paddy Considine, Aitana Sánchez-Gijón, Virginie Ledoyen, Gary Oldman
Language: English/Spanish

Bosque De Sombras - released as The Backwoods in the UK - is a film I picked up on the strength of the two male leads coupled with an intriguing concept. Gary Oldman is an actor who has never failed to impress me, and I was so overwhelmed by Paddy Considine's performance in Dead Man's Shoes that I immediately wanted to see more of his work. I am a firm believer in only regretting the things you don't do, and so whilst I don't regret picking up The Backwoods, it has ended up making me slightly more cautious of whim-driven film purchases.

The film tells the story of Norman (Considine) and Lucy (Ledoyen), a couple going through a difficult patch, who in 1978 go out to a remote area of Spain for a holiday with Norman's work friend Paul (Oldman) and his partner Isabel (Sánchez-Gijón). Paul has purchased an abandoned house that used to belong to his grandmother and has been renovating it, which is where the four stay. The couples try to relax, with mixed results. However, after Norman and Paul make a strange discovery in the woods whilst out hunting one morning, an entirely new series of events is set in motion.

The film does well on many counts. Oldman gives an unsurprisingly excellent performance, and Considine too does well, especially as his character Norman begins to come into his own in the latter part of the film. The scenery of the woods is genuinely moody and gives a definite feeling of remoteness (the Spanish title translates literally as "Forest Of Shadows", which is definitely what we get). There are also some excellent shots from director Koldo Serra, who shows on several occasions that he knows what he's doing behind the camera.

However, the film is flawed. Ledoyen and
Sánchez-Gijón often feel wooden, coming across regularly as amateurish against Oldman and Considine. As mentioned before, the two male leads are solid, but even they struggle with the disjointed and at times undeniably flat script. They do their best all the time, but even that isn't enough to breathe life into certain scenes. The story often feels like it doesn't really know where it's going, instead merely bumbling along waiting for something to happen.

I'm all for films not spoon-feeding their audiences and avoiding death by exposition. That said, there are too many parts of the story that simply feel unfinished. We know that Norman and Lucy are having trouble, and there are hints as to why that is, but essentially this left an unsatisfied feeling in me. Paul and Isabel also have moments of tension which again are under-explained. The treatment of the "locals" of the Spanish village often feels somewhat trite, and although they aren't cardboard cutout halfwits, occasionally you get the feeling that they need further development. However, when there is suggestion of further development, such as with the quasi-leader of the villagers Paco, ably played by
Lluis Homar, you are again left dissatisfied. Paco tells Paul more than once that they "need to talk" about the discovery in the woods, but the climax of their relationship will leave you deflated if you were hoping for some revelations.

Ultimately, the film leaves far too much underdeveloped, from the plot to the characters. At just under a hundred minutes the film is surprisingly lacking in pace, and this slow moving style essentially means that not enough happens for you to truly buy into the people you are being shown and the events that they are taking part in. The ending, whilst pleasing in some ways, is an undeniable anticlimax preceded by a series of false finales.

Verdict: I definitely enjoyed The Backwoods. Considering the problems it has in many areas, I'm actually surprised that I enjoyed it quite as much as I did. It's not a classic by any stretch of the imagination, but it's worth seeing if only to form your own opinion. The script tells an above-average story in an average way; essentially,
Oldman and Considine hold this one together, with support from Homar.


Drunk My Milkshake

This is a brief entry to say that I will no longer be using Drink Your Milkshake to publish reviews. The reasons are simple:

1. It turns out that a blog, or at least one on, is far from ideal for collating and cataloguing reviews. Essentially it is too restrictive to make anything really worthwhile, which is something I'd like to end up creating. I have no delusions of making it big as a reviewer, but I like to do things well if I do them at all, and a blog just isn't cutting it.

2. I'm pleased with both Andy's and my own review style, but largely after talking with Telf I'm now of the opinion that there's no point in having a review site that just simply says your opinion on a film, an album or whatever. That's fine for you and your friends, but why should anybody else care? What can you offer that'll make people come back to read more of what you have to say? Reviews need a hook to make them different to every other person reviewing on the internet (see the Flixter Facebook application to see how many of them there are for films alone), and whilst I've figured out a hook I'd like to try out, I don't want to do it in a half-hearted way, which I feel is the only way I would be able to start doing it for the foreseeable future. Plus all the reasons I laid out in the first point - I don't see the point in starting to do it on a blog when I'm not happy with the format.

So yeah. A review site is still something I'd like to get going sometime, but now is just not the right time, and a blog is not the right place. Many thanks to Andy for his excellent reviews. I'm going to move my reviews from DYM onto here, and I urge him to do the same as they are great reviews. I guess the third reason for ending DYM is that I'd rather put my efforts into this blog seeing as it's continually going from strength to strength. I'll put any future reviews on here. Kinda like the one I'm just about to write...

The House of Bishops

While my Christian credentials may be somewhat dubious, I am nothing if not a feminist, in the truest sense of the word. To me, feminism means simply this: that you believe in equality between men and women. Not subjugation of men by women, not compulsory castration of men by women, but a world of equal rights, equal pay and equal freedoms. Where women don't ever have to be afraid of men and women's behaviour is not limited by male expectation or prejudice.

That's not an all-encompassing definition and could probably use a little work, but it's the best I can come up with on the fly.

In the light of my feminist convictions, and my mother's professional vocation as a chaplain, I would like to bring this to your attention. In a large part because of what she has achieved and had to put up with in her professional life, there is no one I have a higher regard for than my mum.

It's a petition for lay members of the Church of England to be submitted to the House of Bishops asking that they appoint senior female clergy to bishoprics. In my view, the idea of women bishops was effectively sanctioned when they allowed the first women to be ordained. If you're going to let them in at the lowest rung of the ladder and apply a meritocracy, it's inevitable that some will eventually become suitably qualified for such positions.

I'm not saying you have to sign it and for some of you, it might not accord with your own religious beliefs, or lack of. But I thought I'd throw it out there and see what happened...

(cross-posted to An immedia reaction)

A Little Less Conversation

As you may have noticed my posting has been somewhat lacking of late and I shall tell you why. I moved from Salford to Raynes Park on Thursday and haven't really had much of a chance to realise what's happened yet.

The title comes courtesy of 100 best selling songs of the 21st century, which I watched with Joe, Patrick, Russ and Kate on errr... some day... it's all quite confusing. But needless to say I won the bet! which was at what number would we find a song we all liked. I said 0 (knowing that I mostly dispise pop music) and this was indeed the case. I did admit to liking a few tracks, so I wasn't either lying or just being dismissive.

Anyway quick rundown of things:

I arrived at 2130 on thursday and was almost immediately wisked away to a pub where we failed to order food in time.

I then stayed up till stupid oclock with joes where he promptly fell asleep after I came back from the toilet made some comment, to which he replied "yeah" then I noted that when I have my own room we'd atleast get some sleep, I laughed, he utterly ignored me in the manor a sleeping person would.

Saturday I forget, I think we went to croyden, which was fun.

Sunday was church, then pub then someother things

Yesterday was mostly me signing up to monster, buying some stuff and then not bothering to go into wimbledon to go to the job agencies.

Today I woke at 6 (I'm annoyed by this) and will probably proceed to do as little as possible, because the weathers crap.

I don't have anything other than clothing with me, so I stole joes laptop and the first season of the west wing so I don't feel completely lost, yet I still miss my PC and 360 dearly.

well that's all the boringness I can muster for the time being.

Monday, 2 June 2008

In the Brown Stuff

Andrew Rawnsley has a great post on the current situation facing Gordon Brown and Labour. I think I pretty much agree with everything he says in the article, and have very little else to add to it. Not that I won't just regurgitate his argument as though it were my own:

While the polls suggest that a conservative victory in the next General Election is pretty much a certainty, there are still two years to go and Labour have two choices: It's unlikely that Gordon can turn things round enough to give Labour victory, but if he concentrates on fixing and improving one or two key areas to a noticable degree, it may be enough to prevent a Tory landslide. Alternatively, he can step down (or be pushed down) and let someone else in. The problem with this second option is that it makes the party look indecisive (three leaders in two years), while also potentially causing huge internal rifts during a long leadership contest. In addition, the eventual winner would still be unlikely to take victory in two years. However, it would allow any improvements that were made in the tenure of the new PM to be free from the taint that Gordon currently has associated with him.

I don't really mind who's "in charge", personally, since I think that it's general policy rather than personality that is causing the problem. Back when the Tories were self destructing every ten minutes there was less scrutiny on Labour, but with a coherent opposition it's much more difficult to paper over mistakes, and every slip up gets dragged out and exploited for all it's worth. This is no time for risky and unpopular policies - perhaps With a landslide victory just won, but not when you're trailing more than 20 points in the polls, and with just two years to go in a worsening economy. Ideas like the terror-detention-limit extension and ID card introduction are both bad ideas, and ideas that need time to get right if implemented. Trying to rush them through quickly now is only going to provide more fodder to the opposition.

The best thing that could happen in the next month would be for Gordon to drop the ludicrous terror-limit extension, pick up two or three areas that have improved under Labour and consolidate them. Bad press will never go away completely, but if he can offer some antidote to it (and something more than statistics), there is time left for Gordon (or anyone) to salvage something from this government's time in power. What it needs, as Rawnsley makes clear, is for Gordon to stop trying to please everyone and to concentrate on doing what he believes is best for Britain. People may still say he's wrong, but it's more difficult to question the character of someone who sticks to their principles.

On a less up-my-own-arse note, I've managed to find and download an episode of the oddly named 'To Catch a Predator' (which seems to be missing the worrying clause 'Set a Predator...' from the beginning of it). I tried to find a clip of Charlie Brooker talking about it from his series (which, if you have not seen, you must see), but YouTube has sadly failed me. Instead you'll have to deal with boring old text from his Guardian blog.

The program itself is exactly as distressing as it sounds, and is rife with the most irritating kind of American TV editing (30% of the programme is flashing back or forward to clips from the same episode, with a 'previously' or 'coming up' tagged on). If you can bear that, though there's the chance to see people's lives falling apart in a few brief moments on camera.

The episode I watched was from the 9th installment, and the most incredible thing about it was the number of those men (and they are all men) involved who had seen the show previously, and even commented on it in the chatroom conversations. They mention the risks of the whole thing being a sting, talk about previous episodes of the programme, and still turn up at the kid's house.

Adding this level of "it couldn't possibly happen to me" thinking to the idiocy of getting themselves into the situation in the first place give the whole thing a slightly dream-like feeling (if one verging on the nightmarish). When the presenter emerges, the reaction of the men is (from the single episode I saw) remarkably calm. They don't scream and shout or act violently, but mostly remain totally civilized, as though a middle aged man walking in on their solicitation was the most normal thing in the world. They're frozen in the bizarre non-threatening suburban setting, unable to escape their obvious guilt, but desperately trying to appear normal in case there is the slightest chance they can talk themselves out of it.

They chat calmly for a while, sometimes apologising, promising they'll never do it again, hoping against hope that the show is not associated with the police, and that they'll get away without legal action. When the host confirms that he's with the TV company, and is not an officer of the law, some turn and leave immediately, imagining perhaps that their mere presence is not incriminating enough, only to run straight into the arms of the police outside.

Some of the men try to claim that they were only there to wait for the child's parents to return, or that they were there to warn the child of the dangers of what they were doing; claims that are rendered somewhat less believable by the discovery of condoms, lubricant and sex toys on their person and in their cars.

Some simply sit and mumble - saying they don't know what they were thinking or why they are there. Without knowing how much they can admit to and how much trouble they're already in, their vague answers make them sound like they've just woken from a bad dream to find they've been sleep-walking, sleep-typing and sleep-soliciting.

Finally, some of the participants react more like people who've been caught by a clever hidden-camera game show than people facing between two and ten years in jail for trying to have sex with a child. "I knew it!" one shouts, "I knew it was a set up!".

I don't know what their reactions say about modern society, but I'm sure it's nothing good.