Friday, November 30. 2012
So the Levenson Inquiry was published yesterday and contains approximately no surprises. It's stayed short of what I'd like to see with strong definitions of privacy and the like but it has made abundantly clear that the press is incapable of regulating itself and requires a statutory, independent body to make sure it behaves properly.
The press are bleating about this as a restriction on their freedom and a sure route to establishing a tyrannical, oppressive government. While I understand that they don't want to be regulated more - very few people and organisation do after all - it is clear to everyone except them, and apparently "Dave" that the will of the people - surely the definition of democracy - is for a clearer, more effective, properly applied set of protections against overly intrusive, and often illegal under existing legislation, journalism. Pointing out that phone hacking is illegal (it is) didn't stop the journalists at NOTW, and probably other newspapers - there are cases in court, doing it. The list of other insults and bending or breaking of the law continues but has mostly only emerged through the Levenson Inquiry.
Added to which, although the press are bleating about how any regulation leads instantly to the destruction of democracy it is worth pointing out that all of the UK television stations have an independently established license to do their job that, amongst other things, requires impartiality and high standards of journalism. It is clear that BBC News, ITN News, Sky News and the like are patsies of the government and never do investigative journalism, hold politicians to account. It's also pretty clear that although they do screw up, the process of correcting the mistakes is fast and relatively painless and cheap, certainly compared to Levenson. I'm sure licensing the media and the like can be abused but that doesn't mean it will be. Appointing a regulatory body with no journalists and no politicians - or using the existing one OfCom - makes it harder for the politicians to abuse the system. The judiciary have managed to remain independent for centuries after all.
The will of the people does matter. The press can't serve democracy in any meaningful way if they operate without the support and trust of the people. To strain a metaphor, we didn't have a situation where a bad apple ruined the barrel, we had a situation where at least one barrel with many bad apples is making the warehouse manager sit up and take note. Is this unfair on the good apples and the unspoiled barrels? Actually no. If the regulatory body ensures those that break the law or are suspected of breaking the law or otherwise transgressing good standards of work are bought to book, the good journalists have no problems. And bear in mind that although I usually side with the civil liberties side on these sorts of "if you're not doing anything wrong, you've got nothing to fear" debates, journalists are given many privileges and powers in our society and they are producing publicly accessed materials, indeed materials completely designed for the public. We expect the Police, who also serve the public, to be well regulated. Why should the press be any different?
Saturday, November 17. 2012
For the first time I can remember I haven't voted in a major election. (I think I skipped voting in a few student union elections over the years but councils, MPs, MEPs, the STV referendum, voted in the lot. Not necessarily wisely, almost never for the winning candidate, but I exercised my democratic right - one I regard as a responsibility.) Yesterday my county, along with almost all the rest of England and Wales, elected a Police Commissioner (voting was on Thursday of course, but only Wiltshire counted overnight so the results came out yesterday). I didn't even know who won until I went to check (it was a Tory I've never heard of, as opposed to a Labour candidate I've never heard of either) and although I can't find the turn-out figures it's a good bet they were less than 20%, the overall turnout was only 14.7% which is about 8% worse than the previous worst ever and 40-50% worse than typical for local or national elections. One polling station in Newport infamously had no voters show up and in one city turnout only just broke 10%!
This was a headline policy for the Conservatives at the last election and something that the LibDems supported clearly enough that the coalition went for it. The idea was to take the unelected Police Authority and replace them with an accountable, elected officer. Phrased that way it sounds not unreasonable. But... the person that has just been elected holds office for 4 years. They will hopefully be fairly competent. In a strike for "hoped for competence" when an independent candidate who was a former senior policeman or senior member of the outgoing police authority stood, they were elected. A notable strike for people that know the systems they're meant to be working with over the politicians. However, they might be a complete disaster. We know in advance they won't have any sort of criminal record - in fact even very minor brushes with the law were enough to disbar some potential candidates. As I understand it, unless they break the law in future or are shown to be grossly negligent, we're stuck with them until then even if they're bad at the job. This is supposedly accountable. With the old system, if they did a bad job, there were processes to sack them and get new ones in. They were undoubtedly arcane processes (aren't they always) but they were present and certainly faster than four years! Plus, of course, the old authority was a committee. Committees can certainly prevent people with a clear, good vision making improvements but they also tend to stop incompetents making things a lot worse. That check, by inertia and multiple brains looking at the thing, has just been removed.
There's also the little issue of what difference they will make. I'm not claiming that policing in the UK is perfect. The recent news about Hillsborough and the failure to investigate Jimmy Saville properly and catch him while he was alive are pretty clear examples of that. The riots from a couple of summers ago too. But it's not clear how the new system will prevent similar - thankfully rare - things like any of those happening in future. Most cops aren't crooked enough to try and change the outcome of an inquiry as they did at Hillsborough. There will always be a few bad apples and this new system... won't magically cure that. The impact of Jimmy Saville will be some inquiries and changes in the law, probably to make police forces talk to each other more about what's going on. How will the new commissioners affect that process? Not at all is my guess, the law will be changed, the chief constables will organise the change is procedures. Someone different will make sure it's been done. So what?
Then there's the issue of what real choice is there. No one stood on the slate of "I'm going to dismantle policing, massively reduce the numbers of coppers we employ, save you all a fortune that way." I wonder why? So we have a choice between "I'm going to try and make us solve more crimes, reduce anti-social behaviour and maintain the numbers of police officers" and... the same on a different coloured leaflet. This is a slightly different slant on "what difference will they make?" It's not clear to me that these people can sensibly address serious issues where the police force messes up except in a small subset of situations but it's also not clear to me, save their allegiance to a particular ideology, what the difference between most of the candidates is. At least those with prior experience of the police or the police authority have some experience to back up doing... well pretty much the same as everyone else.
Finally there's the process. I'm a voter and, in case you haven't noticed, an aficionado and heavy user of those crazy interwebs. Finding out anything about the candidates in my area - even their names, let alone what they stood for - was tricky. There was no funding for leaflets to the door. OK, that's not a disaster for me but it influenced my parents not to vote in their equivalent election. The Home Office site that was meant to contain the details went live about a month ago. And didn't work properly for most of that month. THAT'S a disaster for me personally and for everyone in fact given it's the main route to find out about the candidates. There was coverage on the TV and radio but nothing like an election broadcast, or at least not that I ever heard of. If you're going to claim a democratic process, part of that process has to be engaging with the people so you can hear their voice. I was going to say informed voice but I don't really believe politicians want that, sorry if that's too cynical for you. Information online is becoming increasingly important - as long as you do it right. But even for me this was hard to find. And perhaps what is needed is less a website you can go to, more an email spam campaign. When someone fills in their voting form they should also give an email address. Push the ePamphlets and/or links to the websites. Not expensive, not technically challenging - just ask the spammers! Bet you get much higher engagement, even through spam filters, if you push the message into a virtual mailbox in the same way for other elections they shove bits of dead trees through physical ones.
Getting people like me who are both used to voting and think they should vote to not vote and that are used to finding information online to be unable to do so - that's a major cock-up. I might actually still not have voted - there are philosophical reasons I'm not sure it's a good idea too, as I've outlined. But roll them altogether and congratulations, you've just won the record for the lowest turnout ever!
Saturday, November 10. 2012
Skyfall is a rather long addition to the Bond oeuvre, and it's probably fair to say in many ways the most filmic of them, rather than the most "Bond movie" of them. There are gadgets, cars, beautiful women (although a rather surprising 12A certificate so the veil is drawn even more discretely than usual), chases, explosions, some exotic locations and all so it clearly is a Bond movie, but there's other stuff in there too. High on the exoticism list: the delights of Glen Coe in winter. But for all that, there are elements that, if you have somehow become used to the cinema without seeing a Bond movie, will let you into the world you are watching in a way that the others never really had.
In the opening scene (and well covered in the trailer so not a spoiler) MI6 surprises the world by producing a female agent who is pretty much Bond's equal in the field. Including in one-liners. Yes!
Throughout the film, particularly the first half of the film, there are a string of jokes about dinosaurs and the way the world has changed. It's a rather different humour to the normal Bond witticisms but it's nicely handled and comes over as British co-workers and their sense of humour.
There's a plot that works nicely for today's world without some of the more extreme megalomaniacs of previous outings. That's not to say Javier Bardem's baddie is within touching distance of sane but he is believable and he has a plan that is mad but achievable. And more than that gets too close to spoilers - you knew there was going to be a baddie with a plan. He and Bond fight. Boxes ticked. But the nature of the plan has to be seen so I'll spare you the spoilers. And speaking of spoilers, from a going-forward point of view I understand the way they handled the female agent. But a bigger part of me wishes they'd made a different choice, that we would get a capable British female alongside Bond in the field over several stories. Ah well.
But, unlike most Bond films, we get those modern filmic elements. Rather specifically, we find out things that establish the characters outside of MI6, particularly M and Bond himself. It seems odd to introduce these elements in Judi Dench's sixth outing as M and Bond's twenty-something outing. Even if you think of Bond as an inherited title for spies (and it's clear that the film doesn't support that view) this is Daniel Craig's third outing, we'd expect to know a bit more by now wouldn't we? In some ways this is rather like the way Bond movies treat a villain - we've always found out just enough to try and understand how they've got to be villains, even when they're KGB assassins and the like and you would have thought not much backstory was needed! Being the 50th anniversary of the first Bond film, there are also some throwbacks - the original DB5 for example - mixed in. To my mind that adds to the filmic quality. How many modern films are there in a series without that tongue in cheek reference to previous things? Something to keep the true fans happy without being essential to the story. The DB5 fits that role (there are other things too).
I rarely see Bond films at the cinema. I can't remember the name of the last one I did, but I do remember there was a Silk Cut advert before it. It was that long ago! It was fun though. And, to my mind, made better by all those extra elements that Sam Mendes brought to the table.
Thursday, November 8. 2012
We are often told that journalists perform an essential role in a democracy, keeping the politicians in check, informing us - the electorate - and exposing the truth. There are, in all fairness, some notable examples of this - if you live in the UK, the MP's expenses scandal is a great, fairly recent, example of it.
However, the news organisations seem to have forgotten that what they should be doing is reporting on the facts as best they can. I'm not saying there isn't a role for opinion pieces - there certainly is and they can be valuable - but if you are in the business of reporting the news you shouldn't be confusing the two.
I want to take two examples.
One is rather UK-centric. Jimmy Saville, it has emerged, was a serial paedophile. It is possible that there are over 300 survivors of his abuse. There is evidence his abuse happened at the BBC, Stoke Mandeville Hospital and Leeds General Infirmary. I suspect other places too. If you take in most of the news you would struggle to find any reporting of it happening anywhere except the BBC. Why? I don't know for sure - I don't read the mind of the editors - but a lot of the newspapers in the UK are being hauled over the coals by the Levinson Inquiry into poor journalistic standards and breaking the law to get the news. Phone hacking and so on. The BBC has been largely or completely blameless in this. Suddenly the papers have something with which to beat the BBC and they are enjoying it. At the expense of reporting the news. For example: no semblance of wondering why the police didn't take any action - it's almost impossible to believe that you can abuse over 300 people and have none of them report it to the police with some form of evidence; little reporting of how two hospitals let him abuse their patients over the years.
One thing is has done is reopened the stories about a ring of abusers based around care homes in North Wales. That, perhaps, is good news. I wasn't abused in any meaningful way as a child (I have argued and believe I had emotionally unavailable parents and was somewhat neglected by them but I'm not crying out about emotional abuse, my life being endangered or even particularly scarred beyond a terrible relationship with my parents). Despite not being abused, I think I can understand for some of the people that were abused, having closure, having their abuser named (can't do more in the Saville case) and jailed - generally held to account - is a cathartic, helpful thing. Getting these things out there, possibly others in the wake of them, ought to help. I am sure it will leave at least some reputations in tatters - more than Saville's. And you know what - good. Abusing children shouldn't be something you can get away with.
Before I move on, I really want to know why the police and social services aren't getting more of the blame here. I know that, under the current - most rigorous - rules the role of the person to whom the child discloses is to report it via their internal structures to the police and social services. I don't know what the law said in the 1970's and 80's but child abuse was still illegal and I'm pretty sure that the general rule of if you discover illegal activity you report it to the police still stood. The institutions that didn't spot the abuse have to be examined closely. Why didn't they spot and catch the abuse? Was it ever reported to them, and if so what did they do about it? These things can't change the past but might give indications of how systems should be changed to prevent it happening again. But the newspapers... really need to report the news.
The other is rather international. In the race between Obama and Romney, just about all the media told us it was a horse race, too close to call. The actual results - bollocks was it too close to call. The popular vote was pretty close - but in the US the popular vote doesn't matter for electing president. Indeed George W. Bush was elected with a minority of the popular vote. Pollsters polled the nation and reported on a close result in the popular vote as if it mattered. Various other experts looked at the system and analysed it that way. What matters for the outcome is how each state will vote, individually. This is where the swing states come from - many states have a pattern of voting that has stood for decades or longer. Although there can be changes in these places, they are rare. But about 10 states are typically close - this year it was 9 - and these states have enough votes to swing the outcome one way or another. Looking at the outcomes, state-by-state, enabled several groups of statisticians to predict the likely outcome in each state with a surprisingly high degree of precision - including that Florida is a "coin toss" and here we are, 36+ hours after voting closed and Florida has still not declared (although it doesn't matter any more). The high degree of precision simply reflects the range and intensity of the polling - the more people you poll the more accurate your predictions will be unless there's a confounding factor. (John Major's election success where, in hindsight, people were ashamed to say they'd vote tory but when push came to shove they did being a well known one over here.) And as soon as you do that, you can simply add up the numbers and get a good prediction for the size of the votes in the electoral college. Two groups doing this, independently, gave Obama an 80%+ chance of victory. That's nothing like a horse race. Incidentally, both groups called every state accurately. Because of the need for a result, they called Florida in different directions for their overall map while noting it was a coin toss. One got heads, the other tails, and we're still not sure which one was right in the final tally, but both are right it's a coin toss.
Apparently, and from YouTube clips, it's obvious that Fox news - staunchly Republican - was calling Romney clearly ahead, in both the popular and the college votes. Wilfully ignoring the facts to support their world view. How politician-like of them.
Come on, news organisations. Report the news. That's fact based. Get good facts - it was clearly possibly to get good predictions - and whilst, for sure, give us opinions sometimes, leave the weighing and the interpretation to the historians.
Friday, October 26. 2012
Frankenweenie, so the story goes, is an old short of Tim Burton's (from 28 years ago) now made into a full-length (although slightly shorter than typical) film. Although it would be fair to say that I felt it showed, that gives the wrong impression. The film is essentially a character study of Viktor and his relationship with his dog, Sparky. Sparky gets run over and the young Frankenstein (inspired by his science teacher) brings him back to life. Various other children find out, try to duplicate the experiment to win the science fair and chaos ensues. Viktor has to save the day! On that level it's an uncomplicated but entertaining story, good for the kids. The animation style is idiosyncratic and possibly naive but charming and worked well to my mind.
The thing that will ensure this film becomes at least a cult hit is the thing that makes this a film for adults, or possibly very precocious kids. This film is packed, possibly over-packed, with clever little references to other films, books, myths and the like. Some are obvious, some are played on multiple levels - Shelley, the reanimated pet tortoise for example - but the times when I went five minutes without catching a reference made me wonder if I was just being ignorant. If you wan to play a drinking game per reference, I'd recommend fingers of beer rather than anything stronger if you ever want to walk again.
The other thing I really enjoyed about this film is Tim Burton's rant about how poor America's attitude to science and scientists is. It made a strong section although I'm sure it will be missed by those who would gain most from being made to think.
For that reason alone I think this just edges Paranorman for me but I would suggest if you like one of these you'll like the other and if you don't you won't, even if you lean slightly more towards one or the other.
Wednesday, October 24. 2012
In the Scientific American blog recently there was a rather poor article about the science supporting different stances on homosexuality. In fairness, it starts with two quite popular questions: Is being gay a choice? and Is being gay determined by our genes? At this point the article turns poor because it suggests that the scientific answer to both of these questions is yes and that this is a quandary. The correct answer is "These questions are both too imprecise, especially as a pair, to answer scientifically."
If we rephrase them to remove that imprecise word "gay" we get some different answers. Gay, in this sort of context, has at least two meanings. One is "Are you predisposed to be sexually attracted to members of the same sex?" The other, rather more imprecise still is roughly "Are you actively interested in or involved in a sexual relationship with a member of the same sex?"
So lets try using those wordings. We get four questions:
And now some answers:
There is no quandary. There are badly worded, imprecise questions used to confuse people unwilling to actually think.
Another blog I read (tagged as NSFW although this article is SFW) recently complained about the confusion regarding love and fascination or rather their lack of precision. I found I disagreed with both of the examples given (although the conclusion regarding having a healthy, safe space for your fantasies is good). We very rarely use ambiguous words alone. Love! doesn't really make sense. Stop! does though. But we'd struggle to find a dozen shades of meaning for stop - or even three meanings. As soon as we have other words in the mix, in the sentence or in the paragraph we have a context. And that context gives us, if well written, at least some of the rest of the meaning. Having those ambiguous words lets us play word games, make puns and jokes - even bad ones like "Which do you love more, Daddy or chips?" - and use language in interesting ways. The story linked to in which the woman loves the Eiffel Tower - in a romantic, amorous sense - only works because love is ambiguous. If we saw "Woman has amorous, romantic interest in the Eiffel Tower" we might think she's a bit odd, but the story is suddenly less interesting to read than "Woman loves Eiffel Tower... and wants to marry it!" despite being the same story. The change is because the story about the amorous, romantic interest is plainly reporting an oddity. Leading with "Woman love Eiffel Tower" plays with our expectations and most of us like this sort of word game. Ambiguities like this can be fun, make communicating more interesting and engaging - which is surely good.
Sure, these ambiguities can be misused, as in the "Is being gay a choice? Is being gay determined by our genes?" example - but if we're daft enough not to be able to work out there's something wrong then, rather than a job blogging for Scientific American, I've got a bridge in London you might like to buy...
Wednesday, October 24. 2012
Presumably not coincidentally following the success of Sherlock on the BBC and BBC America, one of the American stations decided to do a series about Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson. They also decided to keep the contemporary setting. After that, possibly with advice with their lawyers, they took a number of decisions to make it a distinctly different take on the characters. And casting Lucy Liu as Dr. Joan Watson, a surgeon who quit after accidentally killing a patient, is not their biggest 'new take' - in fact, a few episodes in and they've done next to nothing to make her clearly female that I saw. She has an ex-boyfriend, but that could just as easily be an ex-girlfriend, and parents that worry about her - that's perhaps the biggest one, although they worry in a way that makes me think they'd worry about a son that way. None of the "when are you going to settle down with a nice boy" that just about all my Chinese female friends talk about, instead it's "They're worried because you quit your nice job as a doctor and look at what you're doing now!" Not making her clearly female, of course, is not necessarily that bad - we've been spared some of the tired stereotypes of professional women, except that little sneak of the ex-boyfriend might hint at a touch of the "professional women can't keep their men" trope that gets trotted out occasionally (don't you know you're meant to be at home doing the laundry, cooking and having babies, not working dammit!). It doesn't show more than a hint of that though - in the small amount of time we get to see it.
Moving Holmes from London to New York is... predictable enough for a US TV show I guess. But, honestly, there's not a huge amount to make it feel like New York save the police shouting "NYPD!" Sherlock, on the other hand, gives a sense of Englishness and for most of its episodes a strong sense of London as well - the Hound of the Baskervilles episode can be excused for not giving a sense of London being set in Devon. So in that sense, the relocation seems to be a bit of a window-dressing and nothing more - and another wasted opportunity.
Unfortunately one big change is in the Holmes-Watson relationship. To my mind it looks like they started developing the script and someone (a producer maybe?) said "zOMG, I never knew Holmes was an addict. That's terrible, we can't support addicts on this channel!" And to avoid that embarrassment they sent Holmes to rehab, set Watson up as his (hired by Sherlock's father) 'sobriety companion' and I've come away from the first two episodes with a strong sense that I'm watching a moral crusade about how wonderful Alcoholics Anonymous is. I honestly have nothing against AA - they do a fine job with many addicted people. But if it plays such an overworked part of the show as it has so far - Elementary will move, for me at least, from 'the watch if I have time' to the 'don't bother' list. I can't decide if they're trying to develop some sexual chemistry between the two or not. If they are, I'm not seeing it between the actors which makes it fall rather flat for the characters. But there are bits of dialogue that make me think we're meant to see some chemistry there.
The stories too... ACD's works are out of copyright. I guess the lawyers might have advised original stories since Sherlock is retelling the originals so cleverly. And there are elements of smart Holmes stuff going on. There's not a lot of exposition, so not much room for "Elementary my dear Watson" but we've had a couple of "Eliminate the impossible, and whatever is left, however improbable, must be the truth" moments already. In that sense, they're suitably crafted stories. But, sadly, the improbable was presented on a platter in the shows to date. I found it distressingly easy to work out what the thing that Holmes was going to uncover was. From there, I found it far too tempting to fall into a problem solving challenge - not of the murder but of the ways to convert the seemingly impossible to the merely improbable and thus the truth. And that, sadly, is not a good place for the show to move me. Holmes is meant to be almost supernaturally smart and observant. Hard to the right on the bell curve. ACD made that work. Sherlock portrays it nicely, even when you more or less know the story because it's a riff on an old, familiar tale - there's still that sense of the unfolding and his genius. In Elementary, he seems less like a genius to me. That's not a fault of the actor, but of the writing. And that's a shame.
American network TV is often quite anodyne to my mind - can't offend the advertisers and their almighty dollar. The Holmes and Watson of Elementary are rather more anodyne than the characters in the original story and certainly more anodyne than any film/TV representation I've seen before. That might have worked a decade ago, or in another 10 years from now, but up against Sherlock which is rather edgy by today's standards while staying (more or less at least - opinions are strongly divided about the portrayal of Irene Adler as a minimum) true to the original characters this is really looking bland and unfulfilling to my mind.
Thursday, October 11. 2012
Looper is, as you must know if you're interested in seeing it, a movie about time travel. As such, particularly if you have strong views about the Grandfather paradox, you might want to approach it with caution. A variation on it is used several times within the first half an hour or so and if you think that's nonsense you'll probably be fuming for the rest of the movie and not enjoy it.
If you either don't have strong views, or you're prepared to relax and just go with it for the story, there's a reasonably fun (although occasionally quite slow) story here. There's a big chunk of exposition to start with - the film is set in 2044 and by 2074 time travel has been invented. It's also illegal and like lots of illegal things, used by criminals - in this case large gangs. It's used, specifically, to send people they don't like back in time to an appointment with a Looper armed with a blunderbuss who kills the (bound, hooded and gagged) target and disposes of the body. Payment is usually silver bars tied to the back of the victim, but to stop future Loopers getting uppity and causing problems, they're sent back with extra large gold payments attached - called closing the loop - and you're out of a job with 30 years to live until you're sent back and younger-you kills older-you! They send the bodies back this way, because levels of monitoring etc. in the future make murdering people and disposing of their bodies very hard. It's not clear why those same levels of monitoring don't detect time machines though and get them closed down. (I can make up explanations but none are offered within the film.)
For some reason lots of Loopers are having their loops closed - and therein lies the start of the story. The young protagonist has his older self come back but not bound, hooded or gagged and escape. This is a Bad Thing™ for unspecified reasons that might result in the future being changed - having a lot of low-level, young, wealthy criminals around, the brains behind the operation can always get away with saying "Oh, let's not talk about all that complicated stuff" after all. There is, without an in-depth discussion, a nice touch about how the older you remembers your current actions - with cloudy waves of probability as young-you's future remains the future, and then it clicks into place after that moment has passed.
Future-protagonist has some news about why so many loops are being closed and it gives him a mission. Current-protagonist thinks future-protagonist isn't a very nice person and tries to wreck the plan. And therein lies the other big chunk of the story that leads to the eventual resolution. Given this is basically not in the advertising I've seen I'll not go into any details for risk of spoilers. Let's just say it's a nicely enough plotted story line with a few twists and turns and a number of action set pieces built in.
The film, both 2044 and 2074 in the brief glimpses we get of that, just presents us with a future world. It looks like the US economy has really tanked and there's been an oil crisis - but that's not told, just inferred from what we see. There's a large underclass and although it can't be the case, it looks like Loopers and the girls they like are the only ones with any money. There's quite a lot of fun little details about the future of technology and the world just presented like that which I think helps the mood quite nicely.
I have seen, and previously skimmed over, a few reviews suggesting this is a mind-bending, complex story. Maybe I blinked and missed the complexity. I found, once I'd found my feet in their framework, that it was a simple, straight-forward story. It was still a nice bit of post-collapse science-fiction, with enough science-fictional elements to keep me happy and a story that moved along nicely and provided a framework for the action scenes if they were what you want to watch. There was a part where I felt they were missing a "Yippee Kai-ay Motherfuckers!" to just make it the complete Bruce Willis vehicle but even there, there were story reasons for the fight scene that made sense.
Wednesday, October 10. 2012
Shortcat is a tool for power keyboard users on the Mac. It offers keyboard shortcuts to UI elements of the active application, as long as they integrate with Apple's accessibility system - and while I'm sure not everything will, most of the things I've tried it on so far do.
You use, inevitably, a keyboard combination (Cmd+Shift+Space) to invoke a little black box on the screen with a cat's head by it. Into that you can type something that acts as a short cut to the element you want, press enter and it's like clicking on that bit of the screen. If you've got something with a LOT of UI elements or you're not sure, hitting . first will cause it to label all the UI items for you so you can learn the shortcut - these seem to be fairly stable. And, in case you're not quite sure, if you wait after pressing the shortcut keys, the selected item will light up green so you can check it's the right one.
That probably sounds confusing, so here's an example. I use Shrook to look at my RSS feeds. There's a perfectly good existing shortcut (space) to move to the next item. There are three UI elements I regularly click on though: "Show Web Page" when I want to expand the RSS headline and read the whole piece, the Back button mostly to go back to 3 column view admittedly and the "All" item at the top of the RSS sources so it displays items from all feeds in reverse chronological order. These three items don't have normal keyboard shortcuts associated with them (actually Back might, but I don't remember it). Using Shortcat I press Cmd+Shift+Space to bring up the panel. Pressing BA+Enter is the equivalent of hitting the back button, pressing WP+Enter shows the web page and slightly more obscurely A2+Enter is the "All" item - it's actually "All 259 items," hence A2 is the abbreviation for All 259 - logical enough. Given I only installed it before breakfast and I hadn't finished breakfast when first writing this piece you can see I remember these things and so I'm pretty likely to use it a lot. In Safari I use the bookmarks bar and folders to organise my more regularly used bookmarks. Invoking Shortcat and then BL+Enter gets me into my blogs folder... the arrow keys or I assume Shortcat again will then let me get to the right place and open that bookmark with my fingers never leaving the keyboard.
This might sound terrible to you - GUIs like the Mac freed us from these weird key-combinations by giving us the mouse to point and click. That's developed even further in the iOS concept where it's reach out and touch - and that's fair enough: I'm pretty sure this isn't the app for everyone and it won't completely replace my mouse. But if, like me, you find yourself learning and remembering keyboard shortcuts for a lot of things you use regularly, another tool to help me not take my fingers away from the keyboard is a good thing.
Shortcat is still in beta. To my mind its biggest problem is the time it takes - if you have a busy UI for it, it can take a few seconds to label and find UI items for you. And sometimes the automatic abbreviations aren't obvious - A2 for All 259 items works ok, and it will be quite some time before that becomes A3 for All 300 items I expect. But using it to navigate around through Mail when I1 for Inbox with 1 unread item, but I9 for inbox with 9 unread items will be a bit more of a pain to get used to.
And while this piece is mostly about Shortcat, I just want to give a thumbs up to Mountain Lion, iOS6, the iCloud and Reminders.
Reminders is a sort of hybrid between a diary/calendar, a GTD list and a clock that came with Mountain Lion and iOS6 as bundled apps. It lets me set reminders for things to do, and set an alarm for them if I wish (which I almost always do). It doesn't block out time like a calendar app does and there's no system for remind me an hour before and again 5 minutes before the event but once I'd got used to that, no problem. What it does do, seamlessly thanks to iCloud, is background sync between my Mac and iOS devices. I can enter events either at the computer or on the iPad (using Siri or my hands). Next time I check on the other one, there they are, already. Alarms ring on both, and cancelling on one cancels on both. Clicking to complete on one completes on both. The iPad version has a display badge showing how many uncompleted reminders are outstanding too. There are a couple of features to my mind - it would be nice to be able to organise a list to show in date order for example, or failing that to reorder them manually somehow (drag and drop maybe) and the iPad version has an automatic "Today" list generated that is absent on the desktop version - but both of those niggles aside I am finding Reminders is rapidly becoming the way I organise my activities. I'm sure that's helped by the fact that the vast bulk of my work is done to deadlines rather than in meetings, so I don't need to schedule so much around being double booked but for me it's much neater to be able to scan things this way, particularly on the iPad with the Today list. It uses different lists easily too - you could have one per project or client say - so you can enter information without giving away details from other places, or giving away your shopping list! There are lots of tools that do similar things to Reminders but Reminders does them all nicely and in particular that background syncing through iCloud turns it into a killer app for me.
Monday, September 24. 2012
OK, I'm still finding things out about iOS6 but a few new bits...
They've changed the app store. I haven't explored it all... but there's a different look to the landing page, with more cover-flow like presentation and less in the way of tables. The updates page has also changed - much more black and white for one. After an app has downloaded, if you're still on the updates page, it offers you a button to open the app you've just updated. This is more or less useless to me I must admit - I mostly update apps when I get a reminder not necessarily because I want to use them at once - but it's a nice touch. The cover-flow look is nice, although you get less per page with it... but it does seem more inviting. I suspect it's a move that will encourage people to shop more which won't be bad for Apple's quarterly profits. The presentation of sub-groups such as games etc. via tabs on the front page as well as in a cover flow stream of their own is also very nice. The "open" button for installed apps crops up on all pages, so if you're looking at the top free apps say, you can easily see the ones you've got and there it makes a lot more sense to me. So the App Store in iOS6 has distinctly improved I think.
They have added a few core apps too. Find my Mac, Find Friends, iTunesU and Podcasts for sure. I think if offered an iBooks option too, but I have that already. I've only really used the iTunesU and Podcast apps.
iTunesU presents an interface to find courses on the iTunesU site. The app lays out the material fairly nicely, with info, material, documentation and notes sections easily accessible. The layout and design is nice and makes it easy to use which is all good. There is, as always on iTunesU next to no quality control over the actual materials. I downloaded a couple of courses to see how they went. One I will probably work my way through although it needs to be better integrated - some is in the iTunesU app, other bits hop you out to Safari or similar, and some parts need to be downloaded and accessed on a desktop. I guess I was expecting to stay in the app for all of this. The other... at the point the lecturer told me the best way to learn the programming language she was meant to be teaching was to give myself to God, I decided I wouldn't be learning with her. She's welcome to her faith, but I'd rather not rely on it to learn how to programme thanks.
The podcasts app is... odd. There is absolutely nothing wrong with how it delivers podcasts. You can search all podcasts, you're presented with some based on your home location when you first log in (assuming you've allowed that) so I got a lot of BBC radio show podcasts offered, but the search process is easy enough and gets you podcasts from everywhere. You can configure each podcast separately - how many to keep, do you want it to download them automatically and the like. That's nice. It will play podcasts in the background well, which is also nice. The UI for the playback is... dull but functional. You have a play/pause button of course. Options to skip forward and back 30s and a scrub forward and back command. I don't know what else you could ask for and there's some element of retro tape-deck about it too, but to me it just feels flat compared to most Apple apps. You can also hook in to internet radio stations although I haven't used that option yet. One thing I did notice with a little surprise - there's no alert badge saying "you have new podcasts" on the app itself. Inside, the splash page for your podcasts shows some image for the podcast (chosen by the podcaster) and that's where the alert badges appear. Even some days after writing this, I can't work out what I'd add except a button showing total podcasts to listen to on the top level of the app, but I still feel this app is need of a little design love. Perhaps, because it's such a one-trick pony there just isn't more that's needed but Apple's bar for form is so high that fully functional doesn't seem enough.
The alarm app works fine. Whether or not it will wake me up will depend on how soundly asleep I am, but it works as advertised. I've also used Siri to set up reminders. I need to work on that... "Remind me, doctors, 3:50, next Thursday" recorded "Doctors 315" at 9am next Thursday instead. Oops. But "Lunch at noon tomorrow" got all the right bits. Albeit lunch is later than that for me... but I wanted to see when the alarm actually rings and how. It turns out it rings at exactly the time you set and there's no way to set a 20 minute offset say, so I had to edit the Doctor's Appointment to 3:20 to get a reminder but that's not too onerous. Thanks to iCloud the alarm rings at the time you set for it on both my iMac and my iPad. There's nothing particularly pretty and clever about it, but it's good and solid. If you include numbers in what you say, Siri can get confused. Don't record your reminder to buy District 9 on DVD for example or you may have trouble!
iCloud is also doing nice things with Safari. Having signed in on both the iMac and the iPad, if I hit the cloud button I get a list of the pages last open on the other machine (even if I've quit on the other machine). This lets me pull down pages quickly and easily when I change devices. It doesn't do away with Instapaper completely, although it might make me use it a bit less, but it does make for a very smooth process of working across devices. It would be nice if I could remotely close pages too but that is really asking for an extra step of integration that isn't (yet) part of the package.
I've used iMaps a bit more, including hybrid and satellite modes. It's not perfect - for me it's not bad but it's not perfect - and the smooth zooming is still nice in those modes. Routes seem accurate and are generated quickly. In map mode it works just fine and although I hadn't found it before, the arrow button pressed once takes you to your current location, pressed twice shows you the way you're looking. I don't remember that on Google Maps and it is definitely a nice touch. I'm certainly not claiming the app is perfect but after some time playing with it, I find myself how much people are moaning because it's different rather than because it's bad.
Friday, September 21. 2012
With The Three Musketeers the normal film-maker seems to go for somewhat camp comedy alongside the swashbuckling, evil machinations of Richlieu (who is too often a comedy villain) and the carousing. It would be fair to suggest that this film ticks most of those boxes - fortunately it avoids the comedy villain Richlieu, although Orlando Bloom seems to enjoy hamming it up as Buckingham, an evil Englishman and perhaps he's picked up the comedy villain part a bit (although he's more competent than that stereotype would normally suggest) which lets Richlieu remain a powerful puppet-master type without becoming a caricature villain.
In a story that concentrates on the musketeers and Richlieu it perhaps isn't too much of a surprise that it would struggle to pass the Bechdel test, but perhaps it is more surprising that it ought to pass it with flying colours if it's meant as a test to ensure the women aren't token characters. There are two, at least, who are far more than token characters Milady De Winter and Constance. That Milady (Milla Jovovitch) is kick-ass character who manipulates those around her and gets a lot of good screen time shouldn't surprise anyone. That Constance, the Queen's maid that falls for D'Artagnan, has moments of being the damsel in distress but moments of actually choosing to risk life and limb courageously and that is in no way diminished by the way it's played is a nice touch for a role that really could have been just a token part - named but about the 15th most important character. (For the record, the queen and Constance chat about her diamonds, as well as chatting about the king so it probably just passes but only just.)
The queen is portrayed as a bit of an idiot. Without Constance, Milady and the king, she could be construed as an offensively insipid and useless token woman. However, although she is insipid the other two make it a function of her particular role rather than more general and it has to be said that the king is even worse. He is at best a naive, young, fool. At worst, he's a strong advert for a good revolution. His saving grace? Although he's manipulated by just about everyone and is completely clueless about everything, he loves his wife. In fact it would be fair to say if he wasn't besotted with her, the whole story line would fall apart. I'm sure it could have been hung together differently and worked still but it does give him a redeeming feature. The queen is equally in love with him and although she has little actual power, she's astute enough to know who her allies and enemies are (something the king could really do with learning). Thus far, unless you're interested in action movies that scrape a pass on the Bechdel test or you'll watch anything with one of the lead actors in it, there's nothing to make this stand out from the other film versions.
The thing about this film that makes it stand out from the crowd is the early (about 150 years too early) steampunk vibe. Steampunk needs more steam normally, and is more usually set in the Victorian era, but it's definitely there. Repeating crossbows with spring-out prods, battles in airships, invisible wires to slice and dice the unwary and more - make it not your average musketeer movie. There is, of course, a rationale for this - the secret inventions of Leonardo Da Vinci - but honestly the rationale doesn't matter, it's an excuse for some fun gadgets and set piece action scenes that add to the romp. If after the first couple of scenes (to the end of Bloom's first appearance say) you're not engaged you never will be. If, by then, you're relaxed and enjoying the romp I expect you'll enjoy it all.
There's enough to story to establish the heroes and villains and the key relationships early and enough plot from them to push the story along and make the action scenes have a meaning. Some of the action scenes push at my boundaries between camp, farce and silliness but overall they stay just the right side of those lines. This isn't a deep, meaningful take on the story, and it's possible Dumas is spinning in his grave, but there's lots of romping good fun, lots of well worked action scenes, heroic musketeers, Richlieu's minions and soldiers are shown up repeatedly and in that sense it's a perfectly satisfying take on the tale with a little twist. How on earth did we miss that at the cinema?
Thursday, September 20. 2012
So iOS 6 was pushed out yesterday. I'm sure there are lots of things that have been added that I have yet to see but on my iPad there are two really significant changes and one that I've read a lot about so looked at. I've noticed a few little things as well.
The two significant changes? Siri has arrived for the iPad and the iPad finally has a native clock app.
I don't know how much I'll use Siri over time to be honest - a lot of what I do on the iPad is not related to events and the like, but asking mathematical questions, asking about the weather (I am British after all) and the like all give nice easy replies quickly and with a high level of accuracy. Things I might like to be able to ask such as "When is the next train to London?" default to searching my events and telling me there's no 'train to London' events. That's OK I guess although a way to access such things would be nice if I start using it a lot. Telling it to play music is good though, even if, with my hearing, it's not something I imagine I'll use a whole lot.
The native clock app needs a little while to sort through still. I've been using Yocto clock which does an OK job although if you don't remember to have it as the active app when you turn your iPad off for the night it doesn't play the alarm tunes you've selected. The native app, on the other hand, seems to not have a random tune selection feature which might be nice. However it does the world clocks, alarm, stopwatch and timer as you might be used to from the iPhone clock app and does it all nicely. I really wonder why it wasn't there from the start! One thing I would say - if I wanted a digital clock on my iPad, say by my bed, Yocto clock does that better. The native app does a good job of showing multiple clock faces though, so you can see times in different places at a glance.
The thing I made the effort to seek out? The new maps app. I have to say I didn't use Google Maps a lot. I don't imagine I'll use the new Maps app much either - although it does do some nice things. There are people who complain that the photo-map overlay is not up to scratch on the maps app. Frankly I don't care because for most things I like maps that look like maps anyway but if you like the photographic look you might well be disappointed. On the few routes I've checked the route finding is fine and fast. It seems that the maps app offer more local items on display - hotels, pubs, cafes and the like all appear as well as touristy places. Useful? Well not so much for me sitting at home, but out and about... maybe. The other nice thing? Zooming in and out is smooth and responsive. OK, Google Maps uses stepped zoom levels and several of them and is nice enough and familiar enough but having proper control over the zooming and zooming to the size you like and watching the map redraw under your fingers as you go is nice. You can set your map up on screen to show where you are and where you're going to any scale, or to show just the street you're on, or whatever - it's odd how liberating that is, that sense of control over the display that I hadn't missed until it wasn't there.
iBooks has had a tweak too. Some more fonts and things. It's hard to precisely define what's changed except the increased choice of fonts but it looks sharper too - having got used to the retina display this is not as big a change but still noticeable. Wikipanion seems to have had a similar sharpening too so I'm wondering if they've tweaked how fonts are rendered in iOS 6.
Installation was, and is, very quick and easy as you might expect. Actually that's not 100% true. There's still this step, if you hit the "update" button that says "you have things on your iPad you haven't backed up you might like to sync first" or similar. Why not offer a "sync now" button there Apple. If I'm going to do it, why do I have to click OK, then sync? But it's a minor beef that I don't hit very often. If you are going to sync, don't do it when you're updating xCode though - that needs to export a new test profile and the two wait for each other interminably, or so it seems. But despite that little hiccough, definitely one of my own making, it was fast and easy - less than 10 minutes to update xCode, sync and upgrade the iPad and install the update to Mountain Lion this morning. Barely enough time to make and drink a cuppa!
Wednesday, September 19. 2012
ParaNorman is a kiddies film about an 11-year old boy who can talk to ghosts. Unlike Sixth Sense, this isn't cool - he's bullied as a freak, his father wants him to stop it and his mother is kind of supportive but not strongly so.
It turns out Norman's uncle (the mad town tramp) can also talk to dead people and the town has an interesting history. Norman must complete a task to keep the town safe - proper heroic quest time. The story moves along nicely. There aren't a whole lot of twists or turns but there are enough challenges to keep it entertaining. The ending, as you might guess, has elements of "happy every after" but isn't completely happy and continues the humour too. That was nicely counter to expectations.
As with so many of these animated children's films there are plenty of jokes scattered through for the grown-ups. Many of them continue to make me smile but I won't share them here in case you want to see the film yourself.
Because there aren't twists and turns it's hard to write more without spoilers. There are bits to scare the kids. There are bits to make them laugh. There are bits to make you laugh. It's lightweight fun but a good way to spend a couple of hours after slaving away too hard.
Saturday, September 8. 2012
Dredd is released almost only in 3D. If you don't like 3D and want a 2D version prepare to hunt around or wait for it on DVD or similar. That, plus the effects of SloMo, the drug that the junkie-bad guys are pushing - it gives you a short burst where your brain runs at 100X speed so you see everything in extreme slow motion - gives the film a variety of quite spectacular shots. The part where Ma Ma is in the bath and lifts her arm, watching the water cascading off under the effects of SloMo is beautiful - not an adjective I anticipated using about this. I have to say that unlike some films I've seen, the 3D in this seemed somewhat understated and a lot more watchable for that. There were scenes where it was obvious but it was never intrusive for me. Whether that improved use of the tool will generalise I'm not sure but it's a good indication that it is starting to become a tool that supports film-making rather than the hook for the film.
If you're an aficionado of the comics you might wonder what's happened to Mega City One. It's a much more cyber-punk, 100 years ahead, sort of look rather than a 250 years ahead high-tech world. That didn't particularly bother me and it is a very small part of the story but it could jar. If you don't know Mega City One from the comics, they explain the situation well enough that it works and I suspect it probably looks OK as a future city if you don't have other expectations of it. I didn't find it too bad (it's been 15 years or more since I read 2000AD though) watching it, but chatting about it afterwards, there were things missing that didn't leap out at me but I wouldn't have minded seeing.
And while we're on a negative comments kick, in the posters and trailers I was somewhat concerned about the Judges' uniforms and their bikes. After about 10 seconds of the film I wasn't so bothered. Many of the same complaints survive but... and it's a fairly big but - they worked. The uniforms worked not just on Karl Urban, but on all the Judges we see. I suspect it's a difference in medium - in the comics the fascist overtones, the eagle's head and so on can be emphasised to the point of impracticality. In the film the same symbolism is there, but the uniforms are adapted to cope with a Judge having to take cover against the wall, roll and crawl under heavy fire and so on. The Lawmasters... they looked a bit ungainly and uncomfortable, very different to what I expected from the comics but still imposing, dangerous and they worked. I suspect that, a bit like the uniforms, they took the comic version, showed them to the stunt drivers and got them adapted so the people using them felt they were practical.
I was impressed with both the writing and the acting of Dredd and Anderson. Urban and Thirlby look the part, work together on screen wonderfully well. I guess the 15 year gap in their ages helps as does the 10" (25cm) height difference as well as Thirlby's hairdo. They should be capable of carrying a film but you never quite know until they try it. They succeeded and they succeeded in making the roles that they were playing that a lot of the audience already knew in various ways work. Urban in some ways had the easier task - he just has to growl pithy one-word answers for a lot of the film, but he does so in a way that works whereas others would try to make him say more and make him less Dredd. Thirlby as Anderson had to pull of the joint task of being a rookie Psi Judge on final assessment, complete with mind-bending powers, and yet being the sympathetic face of the Judges in their struggle to impose order. A tricky balancing act but one that she manages with as much aplomb as Urban.
The setting, despite some reservations about the look of the city, works. The story isn't hugely complicated but works nicely - there's a reason at every point why the characters move forward, engage the enemy and so on.
Judge Dredd is, for me at least, a sort of guilty pleasure. He is a massively fascist, authoritarian figure. Judge, jury and executioner and although he's never wrong in the laws he applies, the laws are incredibly harsh and always applied without exception or consideration. Those moments were perhaps lacking. Very early in the film there is a hostage situation. Dredd, of course, kills the kidnapper. But the Dredd of the comics would then arrest the victim for something too - not wearing a hairnets when preparing food say. The Dredd of the movie just walks away. I didn't mind at the time but now I wonder why... the fans of the comic would have appreciated it.
That aside, Dredd is a character who has nothing about him that I feel comfortable about admiring. And yet, somehow I do. Yes, he's set up as a figure to satirise the law and so forth but part of me grudgingly respects and even admires him. This film, these actors, pretty much delivered that. And I came away hoping they'll do a Dredd Two. Having done a sort of block war story, maybe one of the others, there's so many stories to pick from. With Anderson in the frame now, maybe the Dark Judges? Please?
Monday, August 27. 2012
As usual I am keeping my comments turned off. If you wish to comment on my blog, please email me, contact me via Second Life or similar and I will post the comments for you. If you can't work out how to find me from the URL of the blog and the entries, you're really not trying.
A few of my posts generate significant numbers of comments. Most don't. ALL of my posts while allowed comments generated 10-50 spam comments that I had to go through and confirm as spam. That's why I turned comments off - it's not that I don't want to hear your ideas (even if you strongly disagree as long as it's polite too) but the time I was spending filtering adverts for sex enhancements and the like just wasn't making sense.
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