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Colin Johnson’s blog

Archive for August, 2010

Shoddy Video

Tuesday, August 31st, 2010

A thought—one of the positive effects of YouTube and similar services is that they have accustomed the general public to low production quality video. This is a good thing because it means that video can be more widely used across the web et cetera.

Ages ago amateur video used to be just that – very amateurish by comparison with even the low end of professional video. Contrast, say, local TV news with the productions of a student TV station, even one that is trying hard. The contrast is vast in terms of production quality – camera work, lighting, editing, …

Consider an organisation that wants to use video for publicity or training. A number of years ago most organisations would have shied away from this—either it could be done on a shoestring, causing negative associations by contrast with professional video work, or it could be done at great expense resulting in lumbering productions that were used for many years afterwards to justify their production costs (a good example of the sunk costs fallacy).

Now video has been democratised—not just in the usual sense that the means of production of video is available to many more people and organisations, but that the expectations of audiences concerning video have been calibrated appropriately to the day-to-day use of video by low-budget and low-skill organisations and individuals. This means that finally the power of video as a communication medium can be used more fully.

Review: Kronos Quartet, Usher Hall, August 2010

Saturday, August 28th, 2010

The Kronos Quartet are one of the longest-established contemporary music groups, having been active for 38 years with very few changes of players. This concert contained three pieces, representing the different aspects of the quartet’s repertoire: a relatively new piece, an established repertoire piece and an important earlier piece from the contemporary quartet literature.

The newer piece was …hold me neighbor, in this storm…, by Aleksandra Vrebalov. This piece took its inspiration from Balkan folk music, and incorporated two Balkan instruments, the string instrument known as the Gusle and the bass drum known as the Tapan, which were played by members of the quartet. Furthermore, various recorded sounds were played at moments in the piece: bells, chants et cetera.

The piece fell into a number of well-defined sections, each with a different kind of material. Many of these were broadly folk music inspired, though without resorting (except perhaps in one section) to “cheap imitation” of folk styles. The piece opened with a solo on the Gusle, which was not used elsewhere in the piece; this was followed by a number of sections that explored different materials, ranging from rhythmically-driven sections with foot-stamping and the drum playing an important role, to more delicate harmonically-driven sections.

Whilst the individual sections were well written, the abrupt change from section-to-section, with little cross-reference between different sections, meant that the overall impact of the piece was less powerful than the individual sections. The piece felt the need for some “connective tissue” to join the various sections.

Furthermore, the use of the folk instruments was in the end rather clumsy—they played an important role earlier in the piece but gradually seemed to be forgotten. Perhaps it would have been better had they either been distilled out entirely, and used just for inspiration, or else integrated more thoroughly throughout the piece. Nonetheless, at its strongest points the piece was very emotionally powerful and was well received by the audience.

The second piece was Different Trains by Steve Reich, a piece that has been associated with the Kronos Quartet since its premiere in 1988. This piece is based on recordings of speech, both people talking about American trains and, contrastingly, people talking about their experience of being transported to concentration camps by train during World War II. These recordings are played back, combined with recordings of train sounds and both live and prerecorded quartet with the musical material drawn from melodies from the speech. Overall this combination of elements comes together to form an emotionally powerful work.

The piece was very well performed. One particular challenge for pieces such as this is integrating the sound of the pre-recorded quartet sounds with the live quartet, a challenge that was met in this performance.

The final piece in the concert was Black Angels, a 1970 work by George Crumb. This is a complex piece, involving the quartet playing both their instruments and using a wide variety of other material—gongs. maracas and a selection of wine glasses tuned to various notes by the addition of various amounts of water. By contrast with the first piece, this integration of different elements worked much more coherently. This was down largely to the careful theatricality with which the quartet structured the piece, with the players grouping together in sub-groups to play certain sections, and hanging instruments from strings whilst attending to the various percussion instruments. This was particularly powerful in the section where three of the players played on the wine glasses, which were revealed from underneath a cloth and illuminated from underneath to great effect.

The piece is broken down into a large number of sections, however these flow together to make a coherent whole. Whilst the piece takes its inspiration from various “new age” concepts, it has a depth and thoughtfulness that is rarely found in music that it rooted in these ideas.

The encore piece was an excerpt from the music for the film The Fountain, written by Clint Mansell, best known as one of the key members of the band Pop Will Eat Itself, and now a well-established film composer. This was rather disappointing, being a rather unabashed kitschy piece, reminiscent of the “orchestral rock” albums that were around in the 1980s. Perhaps in a different context it might have worked well, but it felt rather slight at the end of a substantial concert.

Overall, an excellent concert that was well received by a packed audience.

Bookshop Payola

Saturday, August 28th, 2010

It is commonly believed that the books on promotion in bookshops (for example those on the 3-for-2 deals at the front of bookshops) are not chosen by the bookshops themselves, but are the result of payments from publishers to the shops. I can imagine that this is realistic. This is commonly seen as being a problem.

Is it a problem of significance? I would argue that it isn’t, because there is no motivation for the publishers to put out anything other than their best books. Why spend money on this form of advertising for something that you consider mediocre, when that money could be spent just as well on something that is better?

There are a number of caveats here, some with merit, some with less:

  • The system becomes conservative, because publishers will put this kind of support behind established authors, or only established publishers will have the money to put this kind of investment up front. This criticism has some merit.
  • Publishers are using this to promote material that isn’t selling very well. Whilst this is fine in theory, in practice, the dominance of the 3-for-2 section by newly published books provides some evidence against this.
  • A more sophisticated version of the previous argument is that this acts as a kind of triage process. Good books that would sell well anyway don’t end up going on the 3-for-2; by contrast, at the other end special interest books and books that have been struggling don’t get this kind of promotion. As a result the 3-for-2 ends up being the mediocre middle that need this support to sell in a decent quantity.

Radical Robes

Friday, August 27th, 2010

Thinking about the notion of academic robes at graduation ceremony. From time-to-time the idea of academical dress gets attacked for being irrelevant and outdated. I’d like to argue instead that there is an important radical signficance behind the idea of dressing in academic robes for graduation.

Over the last fifty years there has been a pressure in society towards the idea that the only acceptable form of formal dress is that associated with the business community. Increasingly the distinctive formal dress-codes associated with various professions and things of value in society have been rubbished as irrelevant in “the modern world”; distinctive modes of dress associated with learning, scholarship, teaching, the law, religion, et cetera have been put under pressure. We might want superficially to hurrah this as a victory for egalitarianism; why should practitioners of such things get the chance to lord it over “the rest of us” by distinctive forms of dress.

This might be acceptable if the alternative was a class- and profession- neutral mode of formal dress. However this is not what has happened. What would people wear to an occasion such as graduation if academic dress were to be deprecated? I imagine that the vast majority would wear some tedious grey suit redolent of years of tedium in the accountancy profession. The mode of dress chosen would no longer represent learning, nor would it represent personal success; it would have the subtle smell of the idea that the only success worth having is that represented by business, and that we celebrate success by shrouding ourselves in the dress associated with that activity. “We are all businessmen/women now”.

The situation is rapidly becoming similar to that of mediaeval europe, where membership of the church was a prerequisite for any other profession, and therefore priestly robes became the standard formal dress later diversifying into academic robes, barristers’ gowns, et cetera. It was incomprehensible that someone could become a professional in some other field without being a priest first. We are in a similar situation today with regard to business; it is becoming increasingly difficult to assert an identity as a lawyer or academic or whatever without the implication that one is “really” a business person, just “trading” in the “law business” or “university business” or whatever. This is subtly supported by the modes of dress which are deemed “acceptable” in society. The use of academic robes in graduation ceremonies is a healthy cock-a-snoop at this bland uniformity.

Social Mobility

Friday, August 27th, 2010

The so-called “university admissions crisis” this summer has led to a decent amount of discussion in the media about the notion of social mobility. This is a complex concept with a number of possible interpretations, see for example the recent article by Stefan Collini in the Guardian, which presents three different models for social mobility.

One model for social mobility is the notion the idea of “raising aspirations”—the idea that people, regardless of background, should aspire to whatever job (or similar) that they are capable of doing. This is often simplified to the notion that working class students should aspire towards middle class jobs.

There is an important tacet notion here, which is that children from working class backgrounds have a concept of the middle classes. I would argue that this is not an obvious assumption at all. I would argue that this isn’t really true—for many working class children, the class structure consists of “normal people” and “posh people”. The gulf between these two groups seems vast. Interestingly, a similar notion applies the other way, with upper class aristocrats seeing anyone who works for a living as part of a general “working class”.

This massive perceived gulf makes aspirations towards social mobility harder than they ought to be. Working class children might well neither see it either as realistic or desirable to aspire towards being “posh” but don’t really have any notion of there being anything intermediate that could be a reasonable aspiration.

We* Blog

Friday, August 20th, 2010

Just saw the word “weblog” for the first time in ages—the abbreviation “blog” has basically taken over completely. Interestingly, I read it as “we blog”. This is quite a neat pun, which I am struggling to get my head around: “weblog” gets abbreviated to “blog” which then means that “weblog” looks like “we blog” which is itself an abbreviation of “we weblog” and so on…

btw The * symbol is the Kleene Star.

We’re All Middle Class Now (1)

Wednesday, August 18th, 2010

Overheard in Tesco this evening, from someone dressed like the canonical chav to one of the shop assistants:

“Oi, you! ‘got any tzatziki, mate?”

Games by the Ton

Monday, August 16th, 2010

Rather bizarre error on Amazon, where things that are in no way bought by weight are listed by weight:

Image from Amazon of board game with "£.43/oz" next to it

Risps, Cisps, Crips, Crisp, Criss

Monday, August 16th, 2010

Rather surprised to see the branding on this packet of crisps:

Photo of Crips Crisps

Crips Crisps

Rather reassuring in a way that the offensive term “crip” (as in, short for cripple) is so obscure now that a branding like this could go all the way through an organization without coming up as a problem. I presume that they started with a concept like “like crisps but not quite” and this is where they ended up.

Oh, and the crisps were very nice too, and supposedly very healthy compared to canonical crisps. Also rather liked the weird image on the packet.

A Question about Java Generics

Monday, August 9th, 2010

Generics are a useful feature of the Java programming language, allowing the programmer to create a data structure that is parameterised by a data type. I have a specific question about generics to which I can’t find the answer. Here is the setup: let me know if you have a solution to this.

We can create a class, call it Example, which we plan to use with a number of different types, call these T1, T2 etc. Which of these types gets used depends on a user-specified parameter, call this int p.

Here is a fragment of pseudo-Java showing what I want to do (I have added line numbers for later discussion).

1. Example X; //note I haven't parameterised the generic yet
2. switch (p){
3. case 1:
4.   <T1>X = new Example(blah blah blah);
5. break;
6. case 2:
7.   <T2>X = new Example(blah blah blah);
8. break;
9. }
10. X.printAll();
11. X.anotherGeneralMethod();

The difficulty here is that I cannot get how to code the idea suggested by lines 4 and 7. I need to find a way of declaring an unparameterised generic, and then parameterising it later. Is there such a way? The only way I have found to do this so far is to duplicate (or similar) the code in lines 9 and 10 to within each case in the switch statement.

I have read about the notion of wildcards, perhaps this is what I need—but I can’t see how to do the later concretization. Similar arguments apply with using Object at declaration.

Hic Sunt Dracones (1)

Monday, August 2nd, 2010

Interesting comment by Deborah Meaden on a recent episode of Dragons Den (UK S8:E2 I think). The invention was a more compact variant on the megaphone, consisting of a small microphone/amp section and a separate speaker section, with the idea that the speaker could be held up above the crowd. The comment was that, whilst effective in the core function (projecting the voice), the megaphone also has an important visual function—the person directing a crowd can readily be identified because they are holding a megaphone-shaped object, not just because they are speaking. Makes an interesting comment on the notions of form and function.