Brian Micklethwait's Blog

In which I continue to seek part time employment as the ruler of the world.

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Wednesday August 30 2006

Some days ago (I am too ashamed of the delay to tell you when) Antoine Clarke and I did another mp3 on democracy (or not as the case may be) around the world.  (The blogging pause has slowed me down even when the idea was that I wouldn’t pause.)

We talked, because we could not avoid not talking, about the Middle East.  And we talked about Mexico, and about Antoine’s deepest political love, despite all my efforts to steer him towards matters in places like India, China and the Gilbert and Sullivan Islands, and for that matter Mexico: the USA.

Rough timings:

START – 1 min 25 secs: Intro

1m 25s : Antoine’s difficulties with Blogger.  No categories, but that may soon change.  This is part of why postings at Antoine Clarke’s Election Watch have been thin of late, but are now thickening again.

3m 15s: Middle East.  Democracy can do little about crises where the existence of and boundaries of nation states are the point at issue.

6m: Israel.  How Ariel Sharon’s coma influenced the course of the current war.  Digression by me concerning Harry Truman, i.e. about boring little men (Olmert?) who then becoming surprisingly forceful war leaders.

8m 35s: Forget about that Two Palestines referendum.

10m 20s: Iraq invasion has quieted Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt.

12m 15s: President of Iran‘s deepening unpopularity.  Democracy does count for something there.

13m 35s: Mexico.  Obrador the sore loser, behaving like Mussolini.

17m 40s:  Comparing Mexico close result with close USA result in 2000.

19m: Chavez.  Twat.

20m 35s: USA, approaching mid-terms.  Democrat lefty bloggers do for pro Iraq war Joe Lieberman.  Is blogging hurting the Dems electorally?

25m 15s: Are right wing bloggers doing the same to the Republicans?

26m 35s: Tom DeLay’s difficulties.

28m 35s.  Tom DeLay’s difficulties have created an opportunity for the Libertarian Party guy!

29m 45s:  How US elections work.  Idiot’s guide to Congress, Senate, House of Representatives (me being the idiot).

33m 45s:  US Senators are very grand, but Presidents tend to be former state governors, so look at state governor elections to see who the next Presidents might be.

Goodbye waffle.

37m 8s: END.

Wednesday August 16 2006

I can’t remember if I had a blogging pause during the August of last year, but I certainly did during an August not so very long ago.  This year what I should have done was take the whole of August off from blogging, at least here, starting on August 1st.  So, although it’s already half way through August of this year, I am going to ease off from blogging here until at least until September 1st, and probably until about half way through September.

It’s not that I need a rest from everything, merely that I have other things I need to get seriously stuck into just now, and I do not need the distraction of a daily obligation here.  I’m not being lazy; just differently diligent.  Good phrase that.  So go ahead and link to it.  You know you want to.

This does not mean that I definitely won’t shove stuff up here from time to time, merely that, for the next week or two (or maybe four), I don’t promise that I will.

Here’s a farewell photo:

image

Click on that to get it really big.  (And not a Billion Monkey in sight.)

It’s one of the fountains in Trafalgar Square, photoed yesterday.  The trick, I think, is to have the sun behind fountains, otherwise the water is liable to look like it’s been used for the washing up.

But, why are the central jets of water blue?  You have a month to answer that question.

Tuesday August 15 2006

Busy day and evening ahead of me, so a quota photo of London (but with a difference I hope you agree), not by me but by one Chalmers Butterfield:

image

That’s Shaftesbury Avenue, looking north from Piccadilly Circus, circa 1950.  For a hi-res version and detective work about the date, go here.

I love it, and I also love that I found it via India Uncut.

Last night Patrick and I did another mp3.  The last conversation we had was about something we have some expertise concerning - or at least sustained records of doing - namely libertarianism, that one will surely prove more impressive than this one, which was about the “War on Terror”, about which we both known little more than two randomly selected intelligent people picked with a pin.  But, for whatever it may be worth, here it is.  It lasts just over 45 minutes.  We tried to say some profound things.  It’s anyone’s guess whether we succeeded, and they’ll surely be as many guesses about that as there are listeners.  Whoever they may be.

Sadly, the sound quality is not always of the best.  Patrick’s microphone worked fine, but mine didn’t.  I fluctuate between being okay, and decidedly faint, in a manner vaguely reminiscent of one of the scenes in Singing in the Rain.  Apologies.  I’ll do some tests to find out what the problem was, and, as the politicians say, make Sure That Nothing Like This Can Ever Happen Again.

Given what an unsatisfactory substitute for listening to Newsnight this latest conversation will surely be, it is perhaps worth saying now in writing what I also touched on during that first conversation with Patrick.  Broadcasting is doing a performance.  And if podcasting is done by someone like Instapundit, then that’s a performance too, complete with jingly music at the start and at the end, and a carefully prepared script.  Fine.  Kudos to Instapundit, and to all the other big time podcasters who are causing such grief to old school broadcasters and entertainers, by playing them at their own game.

But when I and my various friends have our recorded conversations, we are playing a rather different game, and in some ways a more interesting one.  For me, the most intriguing consequence of podcasting, at any rate the way I do it, is that it firms up, so to speak, the intellectual relationships that I have with those I talk with.  A conversation is a conversation.  But a recorded conversation, which both parties can listen to again, if dispute were to arise or merely if mere memory of some exchange that one wants to recall were to fade, is something else again.  It’s like a written debate, but without all the grief of writing.  (During podcasts, you can say a lot more, or at any rate to allude to far more notions.) This is what being a trial lawyer, or a legislator must be like.  Suddenly, there is a record.  We aren’t celebrities.  Yet, there is a record.  And it is one that we can easily access.

Have I already compared podcasting with digital photography?  If not I do it now, and if so I do it again.  It’s not that Billion Monkey pictures are as good as those done by Real Photographers.  And, as this latest effort makes clear (what with my voice being unclear a lot of the time), we are not as good at this recording malarkey as the real broadcasters are, in my case not nearly as good.  Podcasting is not like blogging, where we bloggers hit the ground running and where our combined - more to the point linked - efforts immediately started running rings around those grand personages who still fill the pages of the Old Media, rings we are still running, and which, after first protesting that blogging was nothing, the Old Media people now struggle to imitate.  Podcasting is pretty much like broadcasting, only there are typically far fewer people listening, and usually for good reasons.

Nevertheless, as with digital photo-ing, especially now that we can bounce our digital photos around on the internet as per podcasting, podcasting is terrific fun, and will greatly enrich our lives, in ways that I am already experiencing, and in other ways I cannot yet even imagine.

Sunday August 13 2006

Iain Dale, today:

Thanks to all those who suggested political gaffes I could include in my EDP article, which I am now in the middle of writing. Just a couple of things. Can anyone remember the detail of Tory PPC Orlando Fraser calling Devon women ‘dogs’ or what Roger Freeman said that was so insluting to secretaries? I can’t find internet references.

I love “insluting”.  I am sure it is a misprint, and that being the case, it may change by the time you get there.

It reminds me of the misprint on the cover of a LA pamphlet about prostitution, where, in the first edition and in very big letters, we (I) described the LA as the LIBERTARTIAN ALLIANCE.  Chris Tame was particularly fond of that cock-up, so to speak.  Sadly, this pamphlet, no. 2 on this list, is one of the few LA publications that is still not available on the internet.  With luck, this will be corrected any decade now.

Saturday August 12 2006

Last Monday (apologies for the delay - especially to Patrick Crozier) Patrick Crozier (of Transport Blog and CrozierVision fame) and I had a conversation about what libertarianism is and how to do it. 

Libertarian Alliance pamphleteering, blogging, specialist blogging etc.  Just under 40 minutes long.  Cut off rather abruptly by me to keep it not too long.  Click here to listen.

Or what?

image  image

These lamps illuminate one of the sets of steps down into Victoria tube station.  Photoed by me last month, during the heatwave.

Friday August 11 2006

imageI’ve not had a bridge here lately, and I like bridges.  (Note how link underlining means you can immediately tell that there are three separate bridges there.  Although actually four, because the Hungerford Footbridges are plural, being on both sides of the old railway bridge.)

So here is another bridge picture.  It’s the Millennium Footbridge snapped from the top of St Paul’s by Adriana, cropped in on by me.  Here is the original, and here is where to look at the complete set of snaps she took that day.  I found out about this, of course, via her blog.

Becoming a Billion Monkey turns you into a tourist, even in your own back yard.  I particularly like photo-ing in my back yard, because if I find a good photo, but take a bad photo of it, so to speak, I can go back and do it again.

I did not know that you can walk to the top of St Paul’s.  But now I do.  I must do that.  And I will.  I am a Billion Monkey.  I won’t just say, oh well, I can always do that, so I won’t do it today. Or tomorrow, or tomorrow, or tomorrow, or . . .  aaargh . . . dies.  A day will come, soon, when I do it today.

And when I do, I will take the cropped picture I have just shown you here, again, and show it to you here, again, better.  No offence.  I have a zoomier zoom lens than Adriana does.

More Millennium Bridge snaps by me here.

The intrusiveness of the Windows update process during the last couple of days was particularly . . . intrusive.  “Your computer will update itself in 4 mins and 52 seconds by scrubbing all your current stuff off your computer with a green rectangle attack . . . now or later?  Later, okay.” “Hi it’s me again with the green rectangles . . . make up your mind before you go to bed or I will do it for you.” “Hi.  Green rectangles again.  I’m not going away.  I’m going to win this thing.” Maybe that was deliberate?

I’m thinking of having a new category here called “But what do I know?”.  See also the previous but one posting about treacle.  Which is a technical term meaning: but what do I know?

If anyone comments, about ten per cent of it will stick.

Last night I got an email from Jon Bernstein of this blog, saying that Iain Dale quotes me in their piece about Jeffrey Archer, blogger.  Apparently I’m a “super-blogger”.  If enough people say a thing like that, it becomes true.  Deep thanks, Mr Dale.

It took me a while to find the podcast in question, but I eventually did, by going here, and then scrolling down and clicking on this.  I listened, and listened, and listened, to a lot of stuff about the Middle East, blah blah etc. etc., and finally I got to Iain Dale, and finally I got to the important bit: me.  Probably by the time you click on this same click, if you do, it will have mutated into tomorrow’s podcast.

Iain Dale is described as their “resident political blogger”, and at first I thought this meant that he does actual blogging for More4, or Channel 4, or whatever it is.  But I think all it means is that he podcasts for them, and that he’s a blogger.

Earlier today two things happened.  First, there was a huge terrorism flap.  Elderly tourists boarding holiday planes are being told they can only have a tiny clutch of stuff in a transparent plastic bag, and that on no account may they take liquids on board.  “Details of this alleged plot” . . . and so on.

And the other thing that is happening was that my internet connection became mired in electro-treacle, my bit of it anyway.  For a period around lunchtime, I couldn’t get to my own website.  This often happens at lunchtime, but you can’t help thinking that the treacle was especially deep today.

This, it seems to me, is one of the bigger barriers preventing fully functioning citizen journalism.  Maybe it just seems to me because it’s just me, and I haven’t got a good enough ISP, hoster, whatever.  But I can’t help thinking that the bigger the Big Media flap, the harder it is for the Small Media to make much of an impact, because the primary tool of the Small Media, the Internet, may not, at the crucial moment, be available to them.  This will be especially so if part of the story is interruptions to the Internet, or to the power supplies on which we all depend to avail ourselves of it.  Or is that bollocks?

Thursday August 10 2006

The final paragraph of this book:

Western civilization has given mankind the only economic system that works, a rationalist tradition that alone allows us material and technological progres, the sole political structure that ensures the freedom of the individual, a system of ethics and a religion that brings out the best in humankind – and the most lethal practice of arms conceivable.  Let us hope that we at last understand this legacy.  It is a weighty and sometimes ominous heritage that we must neither deny nor feel ashamed about – but insist that our deadly manner of war serves, rather than buries, our civilization.

Amen.

Wednesday August 09 2006

I have spent almost the entire day, when not attending to the cricket - and even while attending to the cricket - on a long and repetitious blog related task.  Eventually you will be told about this, but not yet.  This task is big and important to me, although not nearly as significant to the universe as I have perhaps just made it sound.  I have become addicted to it.  Which is good, and I don’t want to interrupt this.  E.g. By doing a meaningful posting here, about something requiring thought.  So, I haven’t.

If you want something good to read, I suggest you try this, which I got to via this.  It is quite short, and ends with the words “fuck it”.

I am also trying to reprogramme the Micklethwait Clock, which got horribly out of kilter during the recent heatwave, during which I found sleeping at night very hard, but sleeping in the morning far easier, several nights running.  I am only now recovering.

image

Last night I did some podcasting with Patrick Crozier, and that’s a photo I took of him while we had supper later, at a nearby eatery.  (Click for the Patrick Crozier aspect of the picture.) I ate chips and got a belly ache.  (I have entered the Trapped Wind Generation.) This did not help the Micklethwait Clock.

I ought to have mp3ed out chitchat by now and stuck it up on the www, but I haven’t.  See above.

I realise that two of my favourite movies feature insomnia.  The classic Into The Night has a plot entirely driven by Jeff Goldblum’s inability to sleep during the hours of darkness.  And Speechless, which I am watching now.  But I am not an insomniac.  I am merely suffering from a mild case of jet lag, but without having got involved in the jet bit.

Well that was quite a long and involved posting, wasn’t it?  Which was not the plan.  And it is still not finished, is it?  What I say is: fuck it.  I try not to swear unless extremely angry, and even then it is usually more effective not to.  But I was referring back in a literary way to that previously mentioned blog posting that I recommended you to read instead of or as well as this, in an artistic type way, so that makes it okay.

Monday August 07 2006

Oh yes.

As often, Billion Monkeying here provides facial anonymity.

[ADDITIONAL NOTE TO ALL COMMENTERS:  The phrase “Billion Monkeys” does NOT refer to Muslims, It refers to Digital Photographers.]

*

Not that there is much to see.

Need I say more?  Well, yes: note the particularly fine left-hand finger work, a typical Billion Monkey practice.  Keep those fingers right out of the shot!

image

From here, via here.

Sunday August 06 2006

As if to show that we Billion Monkeys can sometimes hit the jackpot, Ham of London Daily Photo (which I now visit pretty much daily) posts this remarkable reflection photo, of sunlight bouncing off the Gherkin:

image

Usually, Billion Monkey reflection photos are rather obvious, but that is special.  For my rehang of this snap, I have taken the liberty of cropping in on the bit that matters.

This kind of shot is more likely to be taken by a Billion Monkey than by a Real Photographer, because a Real Photographer is less likely to have his camera with him when, randomly, he spots the shot.  Billion Monkeys always have their cameras with them!  Billion Monkeys are always on the look out for weird stuff!

The most recent comment here, as I write this, is from Kristine Lowe, and it really brings alive for me the phrase “social media”, on about three levels and counting.

First, she was commenting on that rather long and unwieldy mp3 I did a week or two back, with Adriana Lukas, to the effect that she, Krstine, has herself done what I did not manage to do, namely write down some of the things Adriana said, for the benefit of those who do not have over an hour to spare to listen to Adriana and me just talking.

Identity

Blogs differ from MSM in a fundamental way: “Blogs start with identity, not with the audience. They give a blogger the ability to define identity on his or her own terms – unmediated,” says Adriana.

This resonates with something Frank Ahren says: “It should be clear by now that personality is key to building a news audience, be it via print, Web, radio or video.” So we might see an increased emphasis on personality or identity.

New media is just digitalised old media

When trying to define what kind of tools she as a social media consultant is helping companies implement in their communications strategy, Adriana says: “I divide between old and new media on the one hand and social media on the other hand. New media is just digitalised old media. Social media are tools like blogs, tagging, podcasts, wikis etc that facilitate communication. It is by its nature interactive and I especially like the social aspect of it.”

Why blog

A lot of people argue that blogging has no purpose as there are no financial rewards to be had from blogging. Adriana has a different perspective: “When I blog I get attention, it’s not monetized, but the value is there… It’s who, not how many, who reads your blog that’s important. I would rather have 1000 important readers than 100,000 random readers, if impact is why I blog.”

The one and the many

Adriana says she is fascinated by the correspondence and symbiotic relationship between the micro and macro level, how one person blogging and blogging as a big trend both have the power to change things, both can have massive impact. I’m paraphrasing her argument in this paragraph, apologies if I diverge from her exact words, but I think what she is getting at is the individualisation that characterises both the time we’re living in and the event of social media.

Ideally, all my podcasts, in fact all even semi-worthwhile podcasts of any kind, would have a written text, and a written summary, attached to them.  But writing out what it says in someone else’s podcast.  How social is that?

More on Kristine and her blog will follow, Real Soon Now.

My friend Bruce Nicoll is a Real Photographer.

Last Tuesday I interviewed him and recorded it, but first let me show you some of his photos, that he gave me in .jpg form.  Bear in mind that what you are seeing is but a diminished, computerised version of these things.  The “originals” are vastly bigger files, and the print-outs of these photos are stunning.  There are thousands more where these came from.  Makes a change from Billion Monkey snaps, doesn’t it?

Bruce especially likes doing portraits.  In the first of these you may perhaps recognise the actor Dudley Sutton, who was in Lovejoy.  The others are friends.  Click on these thumbnails and be impressed.

imageimageimageimageimageimageimageimageimageimage

Next are some shots that are what you might call portraits in a setting.  The backgrounds here are more than just backgrounds, more like stage sets.  And also as in stage sets, there is usually more than one person on stage.

imageimageimage

Bruce also likes doing outdoor shots, without people.  Here are four of those.

imageimageimageimage

And finally, here is a particularly stunning shot of the Dreaming Spires of Oxford, an opportunistic snap when the light just happened to be just so.  Bruce talked about this one in our conversation.

image

That last one is, I suspect, something of an exception in Bruce’s work, because it was an opportunity seized rather than a picture carefully composed, set-up, and shot.  Although, an immense amount of skill went into it, not least in realising that here was a photo-op, and the setting up was done, just ultra-quickly.

When I talk to Bruce I feel more strongly than ever that the difference between us Billion Monkeys and Real Photographers is that whereas we Billion Monkeys just snap away and then pick out whatever comes out looking nice, Real Photographers decide beforehand what they want, and then systematically settle down and get it.  When they get home, their surprises are less complete, and are often somewhat bad, as when they do not get exactly what they wanted and thought they’d got.

Also, Photoshop looms much larger in the lives of Real Photographers like Bruce than in those of Billion Monkeys like me.  I didn’t particularly want to talk about Photoshop in our conversation, but Bruce did.  This illustrates a general rule that I have observed about who uses computer programmes best.  Invariably, the most effective users of computer programmes are those who were already doing the thing in question by hand (as it were), before the software even existed.  I was a desktop publisher before Desktop Publishing (literally cutting and pasting stuff), and a blogger before blogging.  Bruce was a photo-manipulator before Photoshop.

So, anyway, now that I have (I hope) convinced you that Bruce Nicoll is indeed a Real Photographer, and someone whose opinions about how to do photography – and whose reflections on how he himself does photography – are worth listening to, here is the mp3.  Enjoy.  It lasts somewhat under 45 mins.

Saturday August 05 2006

Another day of test match cricket, another clutch of umpiring errors, proved by the off-field technologists to be errors within seconds of the errors having been made.

Opponents of using technology to assist with cricket umpiring decisions bang on about two things.  First, they say that technology isn’t infallible, and that often technology doesn’t settle things.  Second, they say that the authority of umpires must not be undermined.

The truth is, however, that the authority of umpires is now being undermined, to the point of absurdity.  When umpires give top order England batsmen not out (Pietersen was wrongly given not out when in single figures, and again a little later on, and went on to get a hundred), and then within a few seconds, a camera slow-motion close-up and a graph from the Snickometer prove that the umpire got it wrong, to the complete satisfaction of however many millions of crickets fans the world over were watching, well, will you please tell me how the hell you could devise a way of more completely undermining the authority of umpires than that?  At present, the umpires are being made to look like chumps.  Chumpires, you might say.  It has to stop.

What is required – and it is a matter of when rather than if – is for the umpires to have at their fingertips the very same information that the commentators and then the massed ranks of the spectators now have, and to be able to include that information in their decisions.  The technies need to be told to speed up their analysis even more, and to devise ways of feeding the info to the umpires just as fast as that can be done.

Of course this technology, “Hawk-eye”, the one that now analyses LBW (leg before wicket) decisions, is in particular not infallible.  If Hawk-eye reckons that the ball would have clipped the top of the leg stump and that therefore the batsmen should be given out LBW, but if the umpires have their doubts, then the benefit of such doubts should go to the batsman.  If the umpires, for instance, reckon that Hawk-eye’s version of the swing of the ball after it has hit the pitch is too approximate, on a day where the ball is wobbling around wildly, then fine, they can say: NOT OUT.  If we fans then saw, after the umpires had already seen it, the Hawk-eye version, in which the ball just glances a bail, we’d understand.  We’d get it.

Meanwhile, even if Hawk-eye guesses about where the ball would have gone may be suspect, Hawk-eye better-than-guesses about where it did go, and in particular where it pitched, which is all part of whether a batsman is out LBW or not, are surely much more dependable, and should now be included in umpiring decisions.

What we punters do not get is what happens now.  Now, the umpire, with no help from slow-mo replays or sound analysis, misses something while it happened at eighty five miles and hour which, seconds later, is made obvious to us all when it is slowed down and when the sound it made is analysed.  Yet the umpires first and erroneous impression (or lack of it) is the one that is now allowed to stand.  There is no way the umpire would have made that decision had he had the info that we spectators have only moments later.  Yet he is stuck with his first impression.  Crazy.

Giving the umpires the technology would give them back the authority that they are rapidly losing all shred of now.

This is not about “technology versus human judgement”.  This is about judgement informed and assisted by technology, versus the unaided human eye and ear.  And the fact is that I, with the technology, can, again and again, do better than the umpires, without it.  That’s insane.  It has to change.  And despite the pratings of the luddites, it will change.  Soon.  The only question is how soon the techies can make it happen.

If the argument is that the technology is not, yet, quite quick enough to work without endless delays, well, that’s a respectable argument.  Maybe we could now have a complicated appeal system, with the attendant delays but with penalties for frivolous appeals.  Or, maybe it would be better to wait a year or two, and then go straight to a system in which the umpires get all the info in something very like real time – which is obviously how things will have to be in a few years time.  That’s a serious argument.  But the idea that technology must never be used to help cricket umpires to make correct decisions, but only, ever to hold incorrect decisions up to ever more instant ridicule, is just ridiculous.

I now find that I have said all this before, even the umpire chumpire joke, at Samizdata.  Oh well.  I’ve said it all before, and I will say it all again, and again, and again, until they get this nonsense sorted.

Friday August 04 2006

Gadding about in London town tonight, so want to get something up here in case am incapable of further.  So, quota photo of the tower of Westminster Cathedral, bounced off a shop on the opposite side of Victoria Street:

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Opportunistic snap yesterday, with the cheap and cheerful camera. which is serving me very well and which only cost £130.

Via Adam T comes the startling news that Jeffrey Archer has a blog.  Adam does not approve, but I think it might be rather fun.  Full both of deliberate entertainment and of unconscious humour and pratfalls of various kinds.  He is a dreadful name dropper, but at least he has names to drop.  You wouldn’t want your sister to marry him, but as a blogger he might prove to be quite good.

In particular, the Archer blog may provide an inside view of what it’s like to be a Theatrical Angel, which Archer is.  Oh well, if you’ve pissed all over any chances you ever had of becoming a real angel, I guess that’s all that’s left, angel-wise. 

Have the Dead Tree Media noticed this blog yet?  According to google, not so you’d notice, although I daresay some of them are reading it on the quiet, waiting for him to write something particularly fatuous.  But perhaps they are genuinely not going to bother with Archer any more.  And perhaps this blog is Archer’s reaction to a Big Media blackout, and he hopes to use it to launch yet another Comeback.  If so, more potential fun.

This actually makes some sense.  If it’s true that Fleet Street, as it used to be called, has now decided that it’s time the Conservatives got back into office again, then that would mean the word going out that there must be minimum mentions of Archer, because he would remind everyone of Conservative ghastliness last time around.  Lefties, on the other hand, would love an Archer comeback.

I like this:

I spent Friday morning with my line editor, Mari. Her job is to go through my manuscript line by line (in this case, CAT O’NINE TALES, to be published in October), picking up any grammatical or logistical errors, from missing capital letters to pointing out that in one of the twelve short stories, I’d mentioned Lincolnshire being in East Anglia.

What a hideous job, fact checking Jeffrey Archer.  You can take nothing for granted.  And: “logistical errors”?  What would they be, I wonder?

Further blog comment here.  He says that vol 2 of Archer’s prison diaries is quite good.

As always with blogs, if you don’t want to read it, don’t.

Thursday August 03 2006

Long Tail Chris Anderson on how shooting digitally cbanges acting.

Key quote:

Actors freeze up when they know that there’s a cost to failure - a thousand-foot magazine of film costs $1,200 between film and developing. Said Bill: “That slight whirring noise of film running through the camera is the sound of money. And it gets in the way of being real.”

The bad news is that digital directors, like Billion Monkeys, can now do fifty takes instead of two or five and the actors are getting tired and have to piss in jars instead of taking a proper break.

The marginal cost of digital photography is zero.

UPDATE: I see that Jackie D picked up on this also, at Blowing Smoke.  I’m intrigued that Blowing Smoke (the blog) keeps on, well, blowing smoke.  I’m guessing Jackie and her fellow BS blogger Jim Treacher get paid a little.  Does that boost sales of the Blowing Smoke DVD?  Enough to justify the little extra effort and expense?  I’m guessing (again) that it does.  I could have asked Jackie D about this last time I talked with her face to face, which I do from time to time, but I keep forgetting.  BS is, from the commercial as well as content point of view, a most intriguing blog, I think.

Last week I went to the cinema, to see a Romanian film called The Death of Mr Lazarescu.  You can get a pretty good idea of what it is about by reading this guy on the subject, somebody called “Quintin”:

Although I was impressed by Puiu’s debut, I was not prepared for this second feature, an explosion and an exercise in grandeur. Played by Ion Fiscuteanu, often on his back, Lazarescu Dante Remus is a drunken widower who is lonely, retired, smelly, bad tempered, and surrounded by ugly cats and stupid neighbours. One day, he wakes up feeling ill, with a headache and stomach pain. He will end his journey early the next morning lying unconscious, prepared to undergo an operation that won’t save him, after entering four different hospitals in the outskirts of Bucharest and having his stubbornness matched by the most sinister bureaucrats of the Romanian medical profession.

With its endless night that takes two-hours-and-34 minutes in sordid apartments and nightmarish hospitals - most of the scenes are shot in so-called real time, all handheld - The Death of Mr. Lazarescu cannot be described as light. But the film is far from being dull or heavy-handed due to the fabulous, complex, and intriguing construction of slopes that accumulate to an overwhelming effect, even as these slopes cleverly differ. Every doctor, every nurse, every part of every hospital is different, and the multiple portrait of a monster of a thousand faces . . .

Had I been watching The Death of Mr Lazarescu on the telly, I wouldn’t have lasted more than about a minute.  The first half hour or so is excruciatingly dull and ugly.  Mr Lazarescu is ill, and throws up.  His equally ugly neighbours, after trying to stay out of it, get involved.  Mrs Neighbour (admittedly not quite as ugly as her ugly husband and Mr Lazarescu) makes moussaka, which she considers to be the solution to all problems.  The cats, who show little affection to Mr Lazarescu and just complain about the food and service, stink.  Mr Neighbour sits down in vomit.  And so on.  The fact that lots of real life is dull and ugly is no reason to deliberately seek out the dull and the ugly, and I would have switched over or off, to something livelier and prettier, in other words to just about anything, had I not been in an unswitch-off-able or -over-able cinema, with friends who would have been embarrassed had I left.  Besides, I’d paid my nine pounds fifty.

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But as the film progressed, it got prettier.  Something that the other critics I have read have not commented upon is that the medics in this movie, unlike Mr Lazarescu and his neighbours who occupy the first few scenes, are often implausibly good looking.  Several of them are clearly film actors, not medics at all.  They are only pretending.  At least two of the lady medics are angelically beautiful, and Mr Lazarescu’s faithful para-medical ambulance lady who accompanies him on all his journeys was also, clearly, very easy on the eye when younger.

But the result for me was not that my disbelief fell to the ground with a bump.  Rather did I find myself realising that this is far more than a documentary trundle around and through some mere hospitals.

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My mind filled not with plans to reform the Romanian health service by contracting it out to the private sector, but with religious parallels like Christ’s last journey with the cross.  The film mutates from documentary drabness to transcendence, and becomes a story about a thoroughly mortal man descending into a medical purgatory, but tended by angels, rather than by what you suspect actual Romanian medics of looking like.

The review that I quoted from above, for all of its egotism (it starts with lots of personal and self-promoting stuff – like he’s some kind of damn blogger), and its film school pretentiousness ("signifiers"), is well worth reading, I think.  The guy at least gets that this is not some shallow attack on bureaucracy, but rather a universal story, concerning that which we must all undergo, one way or another.

In addition to the beautiful actor thing, I also dissent from what many critics say in that I do not think that Mr Lazarescu’s medical treatment was by any means completely appalling.  By the end of the film, we know exactly what is wrong with Mr Lazarescu, and he is about to undergo a quite elaborate operation which will only prolong his life a little, which I would say constitutes quite good medical treatment, wouldn’t you?  I can imagine far, far worse medical treatment than this, both in Romania and from the British NHS, treatment in which Mr Lazarescu gets nowhere near to being saved and is just left to die, on his own, with no para-medic lady to speak for him, and no CT scan to tell either the doctors or us what the hell is the problem.

On the contrary, Mr Lazarescu’s ordeal by repeated ambulance journey is caused by the fact that he is at least getting some attention, rather than none.  Throughout the film, Mr Lazarescu is suffering from slowly worsening headache, bad at the beginning, brainsplitting by the end.  And the Romanian medical system gives him just enough attention to make his last few hours of life a living hell. 

I suspect that Mr Lazarescu himself is being presented to us as somehow the personification of present day Romania and its woes.  He has served his country well, as an engineer if I remember the relevant snatch of talk right.  Now luckier young people are not being quite as nice to him as they should, or maybe The System isn’t.  (It amounts to the same thing.) Maybe I’m reading too much into it there, but I suspect that Romanian audiences would also have received that kind message.

The idea of Mr Lazarescu as some kind of universal archetype - Man, rather than just some old bloke who drank too much, is reinforced (here I again agree with Quintin), by the constant repetition of his name, “Lazarescu, Dante Remus”, every time another form is filled in.  Lazarescu, Lazarus.  Dante’s inferno.  Remus, the junior partner in the founding of Rome, and the one who, you suspect (classical scholars may even know), did most of the work while Romulus got most of the glory by naming the place after himself.

The Death of Mr Lazarescu also reminds me of an old comedy sketch I saw, in which a northern comic plays a fireman answering the phone at a fire station.  The fireman knows that there is a fire at the other end of the phone, but he just doesn’t act quickly enough.  He loses vital bits of paper.  ("It was here.  I had it a moment ago, now where did I put it?” etc. etc.) And what gives it all an extra dimension of hilarity is the fact that in his own bumbling way, the fireman is in a hurry, and is well aware that as a result of his faffing about, the fire is getting worse.  ("It’ll be quite bad.  Your fire.  Bi’ now.")

It’s the same with these expert Romanian medics, the cream of the medical crop of Bucharest.  They are not incompetent.  Just exhausted and overloaded, but despite that they methodically work out what is wrong with Mr Lazarescu, and the world “urgent” starts to be used more and more.  Personal favours are called in by doctor A to get things moving by getting doctor B to fit Mr Lazarescu in for a scan.  “Yes”, says the guy who operates the scanning machine which finally supplies the correct diagnoses (Mr Lazarescu has at least two life threatening things wrong with him), “this is pretty bad.  He needs an operation.  Soon.” The fire will be quite bad.  By now.  The joke is the languidly academic manner in which this diagnosis is supplied, by a man who is fully aware that he is pronouncing a death sentence and that it is only a matter of time before death overtakes the man, and also a matter of time whether they can save his life, in time, or not, but who is just too busy and too tired to move any quicker than he does, or than his cumbersome scanning machine can.  (Mr Lazarescu insists, first time around, on being unstrapped so that he can go to the lavatory, which he is eventually allowed to do, at the cost of yet more delay.) Other not so accurate guesses have earlier been suggested, notably by the paramedical lady who accompanies Mr Lazarescu on his journeyings.

Thus it is that this film is not only slow; it has to be slow.  The slow, methodical manner in which the medical machine of Bucharest gradually sorts out, in among with dealing with a major coach crash, what is wrong with Mr Lazarescu, and then slowly, by trial and error, finally comes up with a hospital willing and able to do the necessary, is the point.  It all has to take an hour longer than a regular movie.  American TV medics, all rushing about in a frenzy of energetic activity, and all focussing unswervingly on only the one case, would have been no good at all for the purposes of the creator of this film.

Later Mr Lazarescu falls foul of a doctor who insists on written consent, which Mr Lazarescu’s addled brain is no longer in a fit state to give.  So, Dr Jobsworth (backed up by his angelic looking assistant) shuttles him on to another hospital.  These doctors are actually rather bad, but even their absurdity is rooted in a good idea, namely consent, just a good idea stupidly applied.  And it’s not their fault.  If they operate without Mr Lazarescu’s consent, when he was still conscious enough to give it, they’ll be in trouble.  They may be rather too concerned with their own status, and not really bothered enough with Mr Lazarescu’s circumstances, but they have been working very hard, and are entitled to be a bit lethargic and snappy, I would say.  They are rather pompous with the paramedical lady, but I expect they’ve had it up to here with idiot ambulance drivers thinking they know what’s what.

That paramedical lady, by the way, the one who looks after Mr Lazarescu for the bulk of the film (played, I’m pretty sure, by Luminita Gheorghiu), is likewise not evidence of bad medical treatment, but on the contrary of rather good medical treatment.  She only leaves Mr Lazarescu moments before his operation.  Does the NHS supply you with a devoted individual carer like that?  I hope so for when my ordeal by medicine finally gets under way, but I doubt it.

Finally, Mr Lazarescu is prepared for his operation by being shaved, in a way that looked very real to me, and to have involved the real hair of the amazingly good actor (Joan (? -Ion?) Fiscuteanu), who played him, and to have nothing to do with wigs or make-up, and then . . .

SPOILER

. . . comes one of the best deaths I have seen in the cinema.

Usually, when someone dies cinematically, you see the life drain out of their body and maybe their head fall sideways.  If the person who has died is vaguely important, you see other people working out that he has maybe died, and perhaps doing things like pressing down rhythmically on his chest or blowing air down his throat, to try to revive him, glancing anxiously at medical equipment with a horizontal green line on it, etc.

But in this film, the death scene was done quite differently.  One moment Mr Lazarescu was lying on the bed naked, his head shaved, waiting to be operated on, and then, just as we were about to learn what then happened, the projectionist had a catastrophe and the film completely stopped.

But then, music, credits, and that was that.  The projectionist’s catastrophe is deliberate.  No reactions from anxious medics.  No weeping relatives, or in Mr Lazarescu’s case rather relieved relatives.  Just The End.

There is, though, one small “reform” which the film does imply might usefully be introduced.  The doctors all have mobile phones, which they make much use of for personal purposes.  Mr Lazarescu might have been saved if the medics of Bucharest had made just that little bit more use of these phones professionally, by ringing round to see where it made sense to send Mr Lazarescu, before they sent him there.

I and my friends all used our mobile phones to make sure we met up speedily and in time, to see this film.  A tad more of that kind of communication might have made at least a temporary difference for Mr Lazarescu.

But don’t kid yourself that this is what this movie is really about.  Lazarescu, Dante Remus, is going to die eventually, no matter what any doctors may do, as are we all.  This film is not a political tract about healthcare reform.  It is a meditation upon the inevitable.

I’m glad I started to watch it, and I’m glad I had to finish watching it.

Tuesday August 01 2006

It was announced last week but I’ve only just noticed.

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That’s right.  Tate Modern is expanding:

The £165m extension that will rise from the back, or south-west, of the existing building, will take the form of a giant and fragmented glass pyramid, or ziggurat. Its design can, says architect Jacques Herzog, of Herzog and De Meuron, the Swiss practice which conjured Tate Modern from Bankside power station, “be interpreted in two ways: as the erosion of a pyramid and, in contrast, as a pyramid in the process of emerging”. Whichever, this complex tower will offer 10 new galleries, six cafes and bars, two shops, a range of teaching rooms, and a chance for the Tate to show more of everything from across every fine art discipline imaginable, as well as more of its own permanent collections. It is rather like a bigger and more subtle version of the Spiral, the radical gallery of contemporary design that the Victorian & Albert Museum talked about for many years, but never had the courage to build.

Controversially, the tower will climb up above the brick facade of the existing Tate Modern, changing the skyline of Southwark as seen from St Paul’s and the Millennium Bridge that links the Tate to the City of London. This, though, is far from just another witless, gas-guzzling B-movie City skyscraper of the future, but an addition to the London skyline every bit as fascinating in its own ultra-modern way as a baroque church tower by Hawksmoor or the stepped pyramid of Holden’s 55 Broadway at Westminster. Herzog and de Meuron’s design promises to be richly complex, and as compelling as the most hyped blockbuster.

Personally, I like witless, gas-guzzling B-movie City skyscrapers of the future, especially when they spring up in clumps.  But this erection could also be pretty good.  I’m looking forward to photo-ing it.

The stuff inside will mostly be junk (fairly harmless) or stuff for sale (often rather good).  But the building’s the thing, not the contents.  It’ll be something interesting to stare at, photo, and wander about in, when on a date or on holiday.

The emptiness of modern art, and of modern art galleries, is not a problem.  Tate Modern itself has proved that.

Urgently in need of a quota post to maintain this blog’s something every day however crap rule, I encountered this news story, from last week:

FIVE “adventurous and very intelligent” monkeys have escaped London Zoo into nearby Regent’s Park.

The pack of squirrel monkeys made their bid for freedom early this morning before the zoo opened.

“The squirrel monkeys have managed to gain access to some of the taller trees in their enclosure and from there, have leapt into the higher branches of a tree in Regents Park,” a London Zoo spokeswoman said.

They spent the morning exploring the park, but by 1.30pm all but one of the monkeys had returned to their enclosure.

Oh that I could have photoed them.  Just imagine what the heading of the blog posting would have been like!

This is apparently only the latest in a succession of bizarre things that have happened in London.

Here is my favourite previous weird thing:

A bag of icing sugar sparked a chemical scare that closed off a busy Wimbledon road during rush hour.

Police officers and four fire engines sealed off Lower Downs Road at 6pm last Monday after an unknown white substance was found in a woman’s home.

The woman raised the alarm when she began to feel unwell, with symptoms including vomiting, diarrhoea, sweating and the shakes.

Concerned that her symptoms were linked to a bag of white powder that been hurled through her window and split on landing, the woman contacted police.

And who could resist this headline?

It was the invaluable Dave Barry (whom I have been neglecting of late) who got me on this trail.  If it wasn’t for Americans, we Londoners would probably never realise how weird London can sometimes be.

And, isn’t copying and pasting great?  Think of all the bother you now don’t have to go to, when copying a word like “diarrhoea”.