His Master’s Voice

Radio 4 RecordingLast night we went to see the recording of a new BBC Radio 4 comedy programme called “His Master’s Voice.” It’s the first time that I’ve ever been to the Drill Hall (on Chennies Street in London) although I’ve heard many broadcasts of “Just A Minute” that were recorded there.

The programme itself is a political satire set in the offices of “The Blue Touch Paper,” the weekly magazine for the thinking Tory. I don’t want to give too much of the story away because I want you to tune in when it airs in July!

The script was pretty good, with a good number of laugh-out-loud moments, especially in the second episode. Afterwards we were debating whether that was just because we were more familiar with the material or not. It was also interesting to see some of the production process as they had to re-record some lines at the end of each of the two episode we saw. Even we were not blameless as at the end our applause was so loud that it crashed the end credits!

As we bundled into Goodge Street tube station to escape the May rain and head home, we saw about half of the main cast ahead of us. B shouted “Good Show!” but I don’t think they heard. An unusual end to a fun evening. Thanks for getting the tickets, C!

When is a pencil and paper better than a computer?

In this article in MacUser Howard Oakley notes that a number of schools have recently banned the use of wireless networks due to the unknown effects of the radio waves used. He then connects this with the declining number of people taking science subjects at those same schools and their ability to understand the likely risks of said networks.

It’s an interesting piece, but what I find interesting is that as the general populations understanding of how the world works dwindles, so our reliance on high technology increases1.

One incredible thing is that sometimes we start moving to a highly technical solution despite there being little advantage in it. Or at least as far as I can see, the advantage is that it is digital and new.

My favourite example is that of electronic voting machines. It’s easy to point and laugh at all the problems that they’ve been causing, particularly in the recent elections in the US. But despite the problems, despite every indication that they often choose who wins an election rather than the electorate, there is still a drive to increase their use.

The main thing that I want to know about the voting machines is this. What problem are they solving? What part of the old system was so broken that it required a complicated, flawed and unreliable new system?2

Some say that the current system is inefficient or labour intensive or slow. Unfortunately, as far as I can see, that’s either untrue or by design. The system needs to be both anonymous and yet track fraud, two ends of the privacy spectrum. The model in use is similar to public key cryptography in that working out who made a particular vote is not impossible. In fact, in principle, it’s very easy. But unless you have plenty of time to manually check thousands of ballot papers it’s going to take a while. This is by design.

Similarly, the effort required to count the votes in the first place is also a benefit. It makes it more difficult for any individual to have a dramatic effect on the final outcome. This is a good thing.

And slow? It’s simple to make quicker: throw more people at it. That makes it quicker and reduces any inherent bias.

I love new technology and gadgets, I’m fascinated by how they work and the effect that some of them have on society. But in the end, you have to use the right tool for the job. And the right tool does not always have an embedded computer.

  1. As this article asks, in relation to decreasing interesting in science degrees, “do they just totally not care about where things like web search and MP3 codecs and 3D graphics and peer-to-peer protocols come from”? []
  2. It’s also worth noting that before the new electronic machines, the US had problems. Remember the “hanging chads” problem with Bush’s first election? That was a flaw in a method of automatically counting votes. []

Notes on CRAP Alert

I enjoyed writing my CRAP Alert post yesterday. Very cathartic. But there are some serious points in it and while I might be overstating the case when I spell them out here, I think it’s worth doing just to be clear.

The truth is I genuinely do support the right of people to publish this kind of information. I am against pretty much all forms of censorship and am very much in favour of giving people good information so that they can make an informed decision themselves.

In the case of CAP Alert the thing that I dislike is the absolute nature of their criticism1 and their insistence that what they are doing is in any way objective. The numerical aspect is of dubious value — are you a better person if you swear only five times rather than ten? — and the commentary is no more objective than what I?ve written here. Using a checklist does not make things absolute, just as referring to a book does not make your morals any more sound than mine.

The checklist approach also fails to distinguish between scenes that condone “bad” behaviour and those that condemn it. Similarly, films often lose points if the protagonist questions authority. But is it always wrong to question authority? Certain historical precedents say not. Nothing is black and white.

More significantly, the “objective” nature of their commentary is undermined when they completely misunderstand the plot of the film. My favourite is for their write-up of American Beauty, in which they commend a “redneck” Marine Colonel for arguing against homosexuality while simultaneously failing to note that it was he who was gay and not his son. Kind of important to the plot, yet they claim it did “nothing for the script.” I wonder if the reviewers actually see the movies in question.

Naturally violence in real life should not be encouraged and there is such a thing as too much in a movie. I am not terribly keen on the recent spate of vigilante endings of some of the more violent Hollywood movies. But I don?t necessarily think that people genuinely take it as advice to take the law into their own hands. It?s more a case of lax story telling than lax morals. On the other hand, the CAP blanket ban on nudity betrays their puritanical roots. I find it hard to believe that it is the cause of any of the ills of the world.

Ultimately, CAP is ripe for ridicule not because of what it’s trying to do — while I do not agree with their values I wholeheartedly endorse the idea of reviewing films for specific demographics — but because in an effort to push their politics on their readers they frequently miss the mark.

  1. Which is no doubt seated in their moral objectivism rather than my more relative stance. []

CRAP Alert

Ever since I found it a few years ago I have been very impressed with the CAP Alert website. The “American Culture Ministry” owns it and their plan is to review films for objectionable content. In this context, “objectionable” means anything that does not fit in with their fairly strict interpretation of the Bible. They claim that their reviews are objective1 as they use the WISDOM scale2. I absolutely support the rights of groups such as this to take all the fun out of entertainment.

However I feel an alternative is required for people who may not follow the same faith or may not take such a strict line on all elements of the WISDOM scale. I have, therefore, created a new scale designed for the people who like a good movie and don’t take them too seriously.

My methodology is based, fundamentally, on the well-understood principle that the number of exploding helicopters is generally proportional to the quality of the film. For example, “Waterworld” is rightly considered to be a dreadful film by most critics and movie-goers. And how many exploding helicopters are there in it?

Of course, ninety minute of exploding helicopters would get a little monotonous. For this reason the scale includes other elements that make movies entertaining such as gratuitous sex or nudity, humour and cruelty to animals. (Just to be clear, I don’t condone cruelty to real animals, with the possible exception of poodles.)

I like to call this scale CRAP. Originally I wanted to go for the full six pillars like the WISDOM scale, but I realized that I really wanted to enjoy the films I watch and that I couldn’t be bothered watching a film while looking for six different characteristics. Each letter stands for something and the following paragraphs explain what to look for.

Chopper. As explained above this is only about exploding helicopters. Helicopters landing at a wonky angle or with a jolt do not count. Planes do not count. Actually, I exaggerate for dramatic effect. This pillar is really all about entertaining “action” sequences.

Relations. Here we’re looking for normal, healthy relations between consenting adults. Unlike certain other profiles, we do not discriminate on sexual orientation or marital status. Extra points may be awarded for gratuitous nudity.

Amusement. Here we rate the “fun factor” of the movie. Is it funny? Entertaining?

Plot. While the WISDOM scale will happily give high marks to films that are dull but worthy, the CRAP scale rewards movies that have a plot and “go somewhere.” Exceptions may be given where no plot is necessary, for example documentaries or Charlies Angels.

I think you’ll agree that this scale intuitively makes sense. Over the next few months I shall be reviewing movies using the CRAP scale. I plan to look at both classics and new films. You may be surprised how they compare with the WISDOM scale. I encourage you to use this scale when viewing films and suggest you add your own reviews as comments below. You will be doing a service to the whole Internet community and I thank you for your help.

  1. Although the scores are “objective” the associated commentary rarely is. For example, a man being brutally executed is dismissed as only being a film while a Disney film, which has roughly the same score on the WISDOM scale, has “behavioral, moral and value implantation dangers.” The movies were The Passion of the Christ and The Incredibles. []
  2. WISDOM are the first letters of the six elements that are assessed: Wanton violence/crime; Impudence/Hate; Sexual morality; Drugs/alcohol; Offence to God; and Murder/suicide. []

Photo-Book Results: Printing-1

This is the second (and final) post about the Printing-1 photo book printing service. Last month I wrote about the ordering process, here I discuss the finished product and draw an overall conclusion comparing it with the books I saw last year1.

The time-line looks something like this: the order went out on the evening of the 17th April; the dispatch notice email arrived on the 25th April; and the finished item arrived at lunchtime on the 30th April. This, by the way, is with express (DHL) delivery. It looks like it was printed in and dispatched from Germany. I still find it slightly surprising that, of the four services I have tried so far, only one has a full operation in the UK.

The book arrived well-protected in a thin, white packet and shrink-wrap. It looks good. I really like the spiral binding. It’s great for keeping it open at a particular page without worrying that you’re going to break the binding by pressing down too hard.

The editing tool did a good job of rendering the book and, largely, what I saw on-screen is what I got in hard-copy. In fact, in the places where they differ it’s the book that gets it right. In the ordering process I noted that some pages were blurry despite the images being of a sufficient resolution. The good news that it was just a rendering problem in the Windows application.

On the other hand, the preview didn’t prepare me for the low resolution of the finished product. I made the same complaint of my iPhoto book of Vietnam, however most people looked at me like I was crazy when I mentioned it. That’s to say, the quality is fine, certainly good enough, but it’s not as sharp as a normal photographic print or the output of a decent ink-jet.

The other issue is one that I probably should have been expecting as it comes up every time I transfer images from my Mac to a Windows machine: the images were very dark. It’s true that many of the pictures were very dark anyway — such is the case of Iceland in winter — but they still had plenty of detail when viewed on my MacBook.

Overall, though, I think most people would be very happy with the results and much of what I’ve said is me being pretty fussy. The end result, the actual photo book, is very similar whichever service you use. Some offer you more bindings or colours — and Printing-1 do very well here — but the finished products generally look very similar. Delivery times are all within a week of each other so, again, there’s little to distinguish one above the others. You’re not going to get any of them as quickly as you’d get a standard 6×4 print.

So, really, the main reason you’d pick one supplier above one of the others is the ordering process. And, unfortunately, while using Macromedia Director has allowed Printing-1 to quickly make a cross-platform application it does have more idiosyncrasies than either PhotoBoxes web site or iPhoto. Maybe on Windows — where iPhoto is not available — it is more compelling, but next time I want to order a book I will probably return to Apple’s solution.

  1. The ordering process, the results from Apple, PhotoBox and MyPublisher. []

Photography, opinions and other random ramblings by Stephen Darlington