Thursday, May 27, 2010

, != &

Today's New Zealand Herald carries, as the subheading on its lead story, "Prison tower looming over motorway and schools offends mayor, community".

I've always hated the hideous American journalistic habit of using a comma to mean "and". In this case it's not even necessary to save space - the line, as printed, is about three characters shy. But I've always been able to comfort myself that it's only an Americanism, and civilised newspapers don't do it.

So much for comfort. Next thing I know they'll be talking about what "we reported May 27th". And the day I see the word "ouster", that's the day I stop buying this crappy paper.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Failures of imagination

I just noticed a poster for the new Robin Hood movie.

No, we're not quite that far behind the times. The poster has been there for, ooh, must be over a month already. But sometimes I'm a slow reader.

From all I've heard, I have no interest in seeing the current movie. I've often complained about the prolonged rape of British culture by America - the process by which our stories are taken without so much as an acknowledgment to a thousand years of tradition (or, in some cases, to real live heroes) - then recast in dysfunctional Hollywood molds to suit some featherbrained modern philosophy and sold back to us - and it's going to take a more appealing offering than this to sell me on such a product again. I think one per year is a reasonable limit.

But what struck me today was the tagline: "The untold story behind the legend".

Of course, every generation retells myths in its own image. That's what myths are for. What I'm wondering now is, what does it say about our generation that this version is being marketed as some kind of "true story"? (The same thing happened to King Arthur in 2004.)

Throughout the history of cinema, Robin Hood has been a fruitful vehicle for stories. You can watch virtually any version and deduce what decade it was made in by the political values it espouses. Our hero has been cast as a Saxon liberation fighter (in the 1930s), a selfless patriot (in the 1950s), an economic pragmatist (1990s), and today, from what I read, he's become a rationalist republican, chafing against taxation in general. Maid Marian's role has been steadily upgraded over the decades, from passive damsel in varying degrees of distress, to (in some cases) full-fledged bandit leader and the real brains behind the whole operation. In the 1990s it became de rigueur to include a token "Saracen" in the Merry Men. I gather the latest version was initially supposed to cast the Sheriff of Nottingham as the hero, and Robin as a sort of proto-terrorist; but then Obama's election showed a public falling out-of-love with the police state, and the Rebel-figure suddenly became glamourous again. (A shame - I might well have gone to see Nottingham.)

At the same time, films have striven for "authenticity" in sets and costumes - from Errol Flynn's tights, via Sean Connery's chainmail, to Patrick Bergin's mud. This is a fashion thing - Hollywood has long taught us to despise "stagey" settings, costumes and acting. But there's a big difference between "authenticity" and "truth". Showing something that approximates, in at least some dimensions, to the reality of medieval life, is not the same as pretending that the story you're telling is a bona-fide recreation of actual events.

Maybe it's the CSI syndrome applied to folklore: we've grown accustomed to see people using magical computers to recreate past events based on the thinnest of evidence, so why shouldn't we demand the same of historians? - that they should "know" things that no-one will ever know, short of the invention of time travel. Maybe it's the way Hollywood has infantilised its audience, to the point where we can no longer accept historical tales for what they are - an imaginative retelling of an old story.

Or maybe it's just a marketing department with a total failure of imagination, trying to make a completely redundant film seem, for a few weeks at least, like a significant contribution to our culture.

Personal faults

Last I saw, niq was trying to make this a new meme, so here's my contribution:
  1. I'm lazy. I have a chronic aversion to work (defined as "doing what I'm paid for"). In my defence, this wasn't the case when I had a job that interested me; but then, I haven't really gone out of my way to find such a job (my research suggests they are very few and far between). My present employer sees laziness as a positive character trait: "Lazy people are efficient, they're good at identifying what really needs to be done", he says.
  2. I'm arrogant. I think I earn "about enough", and I'm impatient of those who want to earn vastly more - more than about three times what I make. I think most of the economic misery in the world today can be laid at the door of ambitious people.
Phew. That was hard to do. If anyone connects my real name to this blog, this entry will probably disappear...

Friday, May 21, 2010

Interred with their servers

Usenet meant a lot to me, at one time. Specifically, the time between 1997 and approximately 2001. I spent most of my spare time there; I made a reputation, I made friends, some of whom graduated to real-life friends; I met my wife there. If that doesn't qualify me to feel nostalgic for it, I don't know what would.

So it's with some sorrow that I read about the death of Usenet. While this death has been reported many times before, this time it probably means something.

For my less-technical readers: Usenet is (I'll use the present tense for now) a worldwide network of computers, called servers, that exchange messages. The messages are written by people - ordinary people, like me for instance - who "post" them to their local server (in much the same way as one might write and "post" an e-mail), addressed to one or more "newsgroups". Once posted, a message is promptly copied ("propagated") between hundreds or thousands of other Usenet servers in the world - this process normally takes a few tens of seconds - and subsequently read by other people, anywhere, who "subscribe" to the newsgroup you addressed it to. Anyone who reads it then has the option to reply, in the same medium.

Discussions - sequences of replies stemming from an original post - commonly go on for several days, often running to scores of posts from a dozen or more participants. A long post might spin off half a dozen tangents, and people will commonly pick on just one detail to reply to; so you frequently find yourself conducting many different, distantly-related discussions with different people. And (and I think this is the aspect that appealed most to me) all of them can read what you're saying to all the others; so you have to be either consistent or clever, or at least witty. You could take as long as you liked to compose a reply, and there was always the option of not replying at all; but if and when you did reply, it had better be consistent with what you'd written before.

It's a medium that encourages both thought and honesty. So maybe it's not surprising that it's dying.

It has its problems, of course. Spam is one - although it's not nearly so intractable on Usenet as it is in e-mail, thanks to a mechanism called "cancelling". Anonymity and anarchy can be problems: it's a perfect forum for bullies, and for loons with too much time on their hands. Usenet gave us the concepts of "flame wars" - the exchange of written insults as a form of competitive performance art - and "trolling" - the art of provoking thoughtless responses from people who haven't been around long enough to know better.

Worst of all, it popularised the form of debate that has since become known as "fisking" - line-by-line dissection of an opponent's argument - which, I think, has done a lot to shape the over-cautious, content-free journalism of our time. Journalists soon realised that no well-written article can withstand fisking (it's named after Robert Fisk - possibly the greatest journalist of his generation - because he was the most popular target for the (American) right-wing political bloggers who coined the term). The only effective defence is, simply, to avoid saying anything that it's possible to disagree with.

So why am I sad that all this is gone? Is it just nostalgia?

Well, it's interesting to note that all the bad effects are still with us. Spam, cyber-bullying, trolling and flaming and fisking - all these have outlived the medium that gave birth to them. But the good effects - that open, free discussion - that's gone.

On the web, discussion is relentlessly compartmentalised and, increasingly, professionalised. If you want to make friends on the web, you find a 'social networking' site, give them your personal details, agree to their rules, submit to their censorship, and generally put yourself at their mercy. What should be a free exchange between peers has been replaced by a commercial relationship, between users (who are, at best, a commodity), and site owners (who are gods).

If you wanted to make friends on Usenet, you just joined a group that interested you and started posting; you revealed precisely as much or as little about yourself as you wanted. You could present yourself as serious or frivolous, serenely wise, icily logical, tempestuously romantic or tortuously dadaist - all in the same day, if you could manage it. You could enter a discussion about the ageing of a fictional character between books in a series, armed with nothing more than a nodding acquaintance with literary criticism, and emerge with a wife. All of it without paying a cent.

"The evil that men do lives after them." The same, it seems, is true of technologies.

Monday, May 17, 2010

The whole tooth

We call it the Medical Mile: a stretch of Remuera Road where every building is a high-powered clinic. If you can buy a medical treatment in New Zealand, this is where you come to pick it up. Just down the road is where my sister-in-law got her eyes lasered. Along this road you can buy any treatment from a glorified pedicure to hair restoration surgery. It is not a locale for the faint-of-wallet.

It's my teeth that have brought me here. I want a deep filling replaced; my high-street dentist has spent the best part of three hours excavating it with everything short of heavy mining equipment, before declaring that she's never seen such a devious and twisted root and how would I feel about going to a specialist? It's a shame, she says, because my teeth are mostly in excellent shape - I only have the one filling, but it is, as we say up north, a doozy.

Reassuringly, the consultants' surgery is not quite on the Medical Mile itself. Presumably going twenty metres down a side road makes the rents cheaper. But inside all is light and modern and airy, a far cry from the rather dingy high-street offices of my regular dentist. You can see what these guys do with their $1000 an hour.

There are four women behind the reception desk, all of them carrying the air of full-time employees, all working. Only one of them is dealing with a visitor; according to the sign in front of her desk, she's the one I need to check in with. Of course. Her visitor is telling her all about her daughter's pregnancy.

I approve of this. Making the clients feel relaxed is an important part of the job; if that means chatting aimlessly, then chat they should. Quite right. I just wish one of the other three could deal with me in the meantime. All they have to do is hand me one of those stupid forms asking about my medical conditions. But they're far too busy to look up from their respective spreadsheets.

Eventually I get my form ("Do you have leprosy?", and suchlike penetrating questions - I wonder if the purpose is to check that you've come to the right clinic) and take a seat. There are half a dozen people in the waiting room, mostly older than me. There are two ways to look at this: either I'm successful enough to afford The Best treatment earlier in my life than others, or I'm mug enough to be paying top dollar while my hipper contemporaries all know better options. I decide to look on the bright side.

I don't have to wait long.

Dr Peter shakes me warmly by the wallet and welcomes me into his surgery. Here, again, the evidences of Upmarket are not hard to see. The mounted binocular microscopes for peering into one's cavities; the X-ray viewer displaying on screen, rather than (as at my high-street dentist) on tiny sheets of film; the video monitor on the ceiling - I'm not stuck with staring into a lamp while he rummages. On my first visit, I got to watch Belinda Carlisle - not that I was really in the mood to appreciate it, but I was looking forward to some more eye candy to relieve the next hour and a half. But instead I'm treated to BBC coverage of the aftermath of Britain's election. I'm not sure I wouldn't be better off with the lamp.

Dr P exclaims in admiration at the quality of my teeth, even while he sets to work on the miscreant molar. There are drills, buzzsaws, sanders - it looks like Black & Decker's entire catalogue in 1/36 scale - and pretty soon I can sense the gaping hole where my temporary filling used to be. Then he attacks the remaining filling material with a collection of solvents, the least of which is chloroform. I'm wondering whatever happened to general anaesthetics.

The session lasted a little longer than the budgeted 90 minutes, so I consider myself lucky to be charged a mere $1000 for the experience. And now I have a nice even filling that looks and feels vaguely like a tooth. Bargain. The downside is that I have to go back in June for him to take out the temporary inner filling and replace it with a permanent one.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Yo ho ho

The good ol' Business Software Alliance has released its annual study of software piracy rates worldwide. And this time - after some people whinged about the lack of clarity over their methodology - they've also released a video explaining how they compile the figures.

I can't comment on the video, because whenever I try to view it my browser crashes. This is a classic obfuscation tactic: put part of the documentation in a form that we can't read, then, when we ask questions, they can just ask "Did you watch the video?" Nice work, but I'd have to deduct marks for lack of originality.

So instead let's look at the methodology section of the published report itself:
The basic method for coming up with rates and commercial value of unlicensed software in a country is as follows:
1. Determine how much PC software was deployed in 2009.
2. Determine how much PC software was paid for/legally acquired in 2009.
3. Subtract one from the other to get the amount of unlicensed software.
Which raises two rather obvious questions: how do you go about step 1? and how do you go about step 2?

The next page explains helpfully: "Total software units installed = # PCs getting SW × Units per PC"

By now I'm getting déjà vu. This is like sixth-form economics, when I learned the infamous monetarist equation "Money supply × Velocity of circulation = Price level × Number of transactions". It's true, but it tells us nothing about how to measure all these things.
To get the total number of software units installed [...] IDC determines how many computers there are in a country and how many received software in 2009. IDC tracks this information quarterly in 105 countries, either in products called ‘PC Trackers’ or as part of custom assignments.
A swift Google search suggests that the only "products" commonly called "PC trackers" are a form of software used to play music. Unless the survey is using its own variant of the language here, in which case it might (more plausibly) mean some form of spyware. Again, kudos on the obfuscation - using words to mean something other than what the rest of the world means by them, that's another good tactic to ensure that no-one can tell what the hell you're up to.

If it means "music software", then your survey will be weighted towards people who care about playing music on their PCs. If it means "spyware", then - apart from dubious legality in several countries - that means your survey will be weighted towards people who don't take their digital hygiene very seriously. If it means something else entirely, then I wish you'd say so. Whichever, it will produce results that are weighted one way or another; how do you compensate for this weighting?

It gets worse.
For countries that are not surveyed, IDC uses a methodology that relies on a correlation between the number of software units per PC and an emerging market measure published by the International Telecommunications Union, called the Information Development Index (IDI). IDC also considers other correlations such as gross domestic product
(GDP) per capita, PC penetration and various measures of institutional strength
(It's "International Telecommunication Union", by the way. Don't worry, everyone gets that wrong.) More importantly, this means that you're basing your "survey" - which you are asking governments and the like to accept as primary evidence - on secondary sources. (Arguably, tertiary sources even.) You're using "various measures of institutional strength" to estimate rates of software piracy, then using those estimates to argue for stronger institutions. Do you really see nothing wrong with this process?

There's more, but by now my readers can be divided into (a) those who agree with me already and (b) those who've stopped reading. Plus, if I'm really lucky, (c) some junior BSA analyst or press officer who's been briefed to look for blog posts on the subject.

The tone of the report seems to have changed from past years. This is welcome. There's no scaremongering here about connections between pirates, pornographers, traffickers and terrorists; instead, we have a few plausible tales about the dangers of doing business with people without some sort of enforceable contractual relationship. There's also some cajolery about the benefits of paying for your software. What bothers me here is that the best they can come up with is "support and updates". I know what that means: "support" means that if you get an address to send e-mail to (although there's absolutely no reason to believe that any kind of help will come back), and "updates" means that every time you go online your bandwidth gets crushed by a honking great patch to deal with some bug that would never have been allowed out of the door under any kind of competent QA regime.

I find it kinda sad that, after 30 years of shrinkwrapped software, the industry still can't come up with any better incentives to buy its product than these.

Friday, May 7, 2010


Well, I've been avidly following the BBC coverage of the UK elections all night. It was either that or work. And, by way of experiment, I've recorded my impressions at intervals in bites of 140 characters or less. This is how the night has looked, from down here:

God, Jeremy Paxman hasn't half aged. I wonder if he's stopped dying his hair. Or started. Perhaps grey is the new black.

Is that the Dimbleby? At least his hair looks natural. Which is more than I can say for the studio, looks like a Quantel dream gone berserk.

"Voters angry at being turned away from polling stations." What, a 15 hour day isn't long enough to get your arse down to a polling station?

"2230 California gov Arnold Schwarzenegger phones David Cameron to congratulate him." What does the Governator know that we don't?

Pix of queues outside polling booths. Good grief. But turnout is no more than usual. Cock-up, conspiracy, or both?

Maybe ID requirements have been tightened up, to demonstrate how ID cards are Absolutely Necessary In Today's Dangerous World.

What is the BBC playing at? Cosy panel of insomniac pundits is replaced by frantic bustling room of 30-plus. Trying to impress Americans?

Good luck with that. It's hard enough to get a US television audience to watch their own elections.

"BREAKING NEWS: Next result - Sunderland Central - Labour win". Surely "Lab hold"? This is the kind of thing I'd expect from Sky News.

"2303: Another former Lib Dem leader Neil Kinnock also says the figure for the Lib Dems is "almost certainly wrong"." It's not alone.

"2346 The BNP saved their deposit in Washington and Sunderland West." Oh dear. Maybe inevitable after Gordo's little Episode.

"The prime minister will try to form a coalition government in the event of a hung parliament." NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO

National result after 17 seats: 4.2% swing to Con. Not nearly enough. Good grief, how much must Cameron suck that he can't even beat GB?

"0135 Gordon Brown increases his majority." Seriously, how was "date with density" wrong?

"0150 Lib Dems fail to win Guildford, Tory majority increased." Nothing like a Lib Dem threat to galvanise the Tory vote.

More license money being well spent. Have you seen what they're playing with right now?

"0236 Speaking on the BBC election boat,..." - "Election boat"? Seriously - WTF?

Very disappointing night for the Lib Dems. That's the downside of being taken seriously - people start to look at *all* your policies.

Cameron clearly thinks he's won. His constituency victory speech is all about what he'll do as PM.

Bet he's still hoping for a razor-thin majority. He knows the next five years will be a mess, he'll want to be able to share the blame.

0308: Alex Salmond concedes defeat to Labour. Damn shame. There was one party I'd love to see come out a big winner.

0313: BBC says UKIP and BNP have gained, but Greens have lost ground. So, not just a "protest" defection to minor parties then.

0321: Stories of problems for overseas voters: ballots not delivered. What with the home voters being turned away - bit of a balls-up, then.

0416: "BBC's freelancer at Stevenage reports expected declaration time at 0330am." Even *with* all those people, BBC still can't keep up.

0618: Tories now on 268 out of 550, Labour 213, LD 42. So 27 "others". If "others" split or abstain (Sinn Fein), that's a Tory majority.

0622: Bugger this for a game of soldiers, I'm going home. No doubt I'll hear the result on the News Quiz.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Soul music

(Note: this post talks a lot about popular music. I'm not including links to each song; you can search YouTube as well as I can.)

While my mother was, on the whole, charmed beyond reason with our fair country, there was one aspect of our colonial lifestyle that drove her completely up the wall. This was the inescapability of background music.

Just to be clear what we're talking about here: in New Zealand, practically every shop, mall, cafe, restaurant, food hall, arcade, bar and supermarket you can walk into has its own canned music playing - usually low, but very audible. It's everywhere. Even on the street you can often hear it. It is so ubiquitous that, when I find a rare case of a shop that doesn't have it, I will pause and wonder for a few moments before I figure out what's missing - then I'll enjoy the peace.

Contrast: in 1992 I visited Budapest - my first trip behind what used to be called the Iron Curtain - and there, too, I found music everywhere; but that was live music, played by real musicians. Good musicians. It seemed that dozens of concert-quality violinists, cellists, clarinetists, trios, quartets, and even (on at least one occasion) an entire symphony orchestra, were trying to supplement their livings by busking in the streets and public spaces. The result was noisy, but not unpleasant.

The music here is not like that. It's recorded, trawled from chart hits and popular oldies (occasionally dating back to the primordial days of the 70s or 80s), and played endlessly at a background level. In short, it's music at its worst. Some places have a more upmarket selection - mellow jazz, piano arrangements, whatever - but these are rare.

In my workplace, music is played over speakers all day long. This irks me on several levels. First, there's the choice of music - in an office of 20-plus people, most of them young, you can imagine how hard it is to reach a consensus on what should be included in the playlist. Then there's the volume; some people want it loud, some want it soft, I want it switched off entirely. There's the chorus of jeers and outbreaks of banter and lively discussion when certain music or artists pop up in the rotation, which varies - depending on what, if anything, I'm trying to concentrate on - from mildly entertaining to knuckle-chompingly distracting.

"Why don't we just each listen to our own music on our own headphones?", I've asked more than once. It's not as if everyone in the office didn't have an MP3 player of some description, to say nothing of their own computers. That's what we used to do back in good ol' Bristol, and the result was a happy and hardworking office with background noise kept sternly under control.

But that was in England, where personal space is a serious matter. More importantly, I think, it was among mature professionals, not the 20-somethings that dominate this workplace. Rejecting the music here is seen as rejecting your colleagues' tastes and values.

And somehow, I think, there's more to it than 'tastes and values'. Music is no longer just a matter of preferences. Increasingly, with the ubiquity of pop music, it's become a part of our very souls.

When I hear a song I've heard before, there's a part of my mind that is irresistibly drawn back to the previous times I've heard it. In most cases that's a weak or meaningless memory, but with a few songs, it's deeply embedded in my mind. If I hear Spiller's 'Groovejet', for instance, I am instantly dragged back to the late summer of 2000 - the time I quit my job and spent eight months eking out a freelancer's pittance. It was uncomfortable, but very liberating. Anything by the Cardigans recalls the mid 90s, which to me means security, boredom, loneliness and opportunity. Tears for Fears - my sixth form - a combination of naïve optimism, creative romanticism and teenage desperation. And I can't hear Shakira's 'Whenever, wherever' without being taken back to a chalet at Center Parcs, with a bunch of my oldest friends from university. ("Is that Britney?", asked Penny. "No way," I thought. "That woman has more talent in her hair clippings than Britney will ever muster." But I didn't say it out loud, just in case I was wrong.)

I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that these songs are a part of my soul. Because of the way pop songs are promoted - played widely and frequently for a short time, then discarded - they will always be associated with particular phases and periods of my life. They will always evoke some kind of feelings in me - feelings that are nothing to do with the singer or the song, but are mine, arising from my life and my personal history.

And I'm pretty sure I'm not alone in feeling this way. That's why there are so many 'oldies' radio stations out there, each aiming at its own particular demographic.

This realisation comes with some uncomfortable corrollaries. First is that my emotions can be readily, though clumsily, manipulated by someone who knows what songs to play. Really I'm not worried about that, because these associations are far too personal for any stranger to guess precisely what effect any given song will have on me in any given situation.

Then there's the thought that a part of me is made up of the horribly commercialised products of an industry that is justly renowned for destroying human beings, in pursuit of fame and wealth. And that the music industry itself, increasingly, tries to manipulate my associations with their 'product' by placing it in TV shows, movies, games and elsewhere; these people are trying to write directly to my soul.

And this may be a clue to why my current colleagues can't imagine their world without constant music. It has been written to their souls. They hear the soundtrack to a movie, and their memory is of whatever excitement and pleasure they felt in watching the movie. They hear a song that was used in a TV ad when they were ten, and they remember life as a ten-year-old. It's not quite that simple, of course; but it's a lot easier to predict their responses than those of us who've reached middle age, with our wider variety of background and experience.

Finally, in the uncomfortable-reflections column: this is the music that, the industry insists, doesn't belong to me. If I want to play it, to evoke those memories - my memories, remember - I have to pay them to do it.

This, I think, is another important clue to my colleagues' attitudes. Because not one of them would dream of paying for any of this music - they simply rip it from somewhere online. The music played in our office is not paid for. And even though I don't generally condone piracy or commit it on my own behalf, and even though I hate the music, I find myself wholeheartedly approving of this attitude. The notion that you can implant something into someone else, and then claim to own it - that is just Evil. So, I think - good on my colleagues, for their subtle but ongoing 'Screw you' to the industry.