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RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch 2007

I did the annual RSPB garden birdwatch yesterday. This was my third time and by far my worst list yet. Not because of any catastrophic decline in birds, but just because I had a rather dud hour. It didn’t help that I did it at midday, which is never the best time for birds.

Despite the fact that it’s just a statistical exercise, and not a competition, there was a terrible temptation to cheat and try to make the list a better reflection of the species I see regularly. But I manfully resisted. Here’s the list (for comparison: 2005, 2006). Numbers refer to the maximum number seen at once.

Woodpigeon – 1
Feral Pigeon – 2

Dunnock – 2

(Eurasian) Robin – 2
Blackbird – 1

Blue Tit – 3
Great Tit – 3
Coal Tit – 1
Long-tailed Tit – 2

Chaffinch – 2

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Talking bollocks about technology

Simon Jenkins has an article in the Guardian that is so wrong-headed that it’s a little hard to grapple with. The first couple of paras give a good idea of the flavour:

I rise each morning, shave with soap and razor, don clothes of cotton and wool, read a paper, drink a coffee heated by gas or electricity and go to work with the aid of petrol and an internal combustion engine. At a centrally heated office I type on a Qwerty keyboard; I might later visit a pub or theatre. Most people I know do likewise.

Not one of these activities has altered qualitatively over the past century, while in the previous hundred years they altered beyond recognition. We do not live in the age of technological revolution. We live in the age of technological stasis, but do not realise it. We watch the future and have stopped watching the present.

I’ll leave it as an exercise for the reader to pick apart all the ways in which his examples are tendentious, highly selective or downright false and skip quickly on to pick a bit out.

No, the computer is not a stunning technological advance, just an extension of electronic communication as known for over a century. No, the internet has not transformed most people’s lives, just helped them do faster what they did before.

I can’t help feeling that he’s stretching the word ‘just’ beyond its reasonable limits.

As well as using it as a more sophisticated replacement for the mechanical typewriter, I regularly use my computer for design, photo-editing and as a print-shop. It’s a jukebox and photo display unit, and I can watch DVDs on it. I have a tuner plugged into it, so it acts as a TV, radio and video recorder as well. If I was so inclined, I could also use it to write and record music, edit sound and video, create animation, do 3D modelling, and process complicated mathematical functions. I can play games on it: an entirely new pastime and a new creative medium. I suppose you might argue that many of these things are possible without computers — I could have a print shop, darkroom, recording equipment and film editing suite in my house, after all — but I think that having all of them in one box qualifies the computer as a ‘stunning technological advance’.

And if I attach the computer to the internet, there’s a whole load of extra things it can do that I haven’t even mentioned yet. It becomes an alternative to mail, a news service, a library, an encyclopedia and a picture library. I can download music and video. If I had a camera attached to it it would be a videophone. There’s this site, which is read every day from places around the world. The numbers involved are fairly modest — I’m no Boing Boing — but even so, it would hardly be practical to distribute the same content though the post.

As for “the internet has not transformed most people’s lives, just helped them do faster what they did before”; even if that were true, it’s like saying that aeroplanes are no different to ocean liners. They both move you from one place to another, after all. Sometimes, ‘faster’ is the whole point.

I’ve seen versions of this argument in the media a few times and I just find it baffling. Jenkins has thought about this enough to have a bee in his bonnet about it; how did come to the conclusion that this is “the age of technological stasis”? I suspect a lot of it comes down to the Clarkson effect: there seem to be lots of people who are fascinated by machinery and engineering as long as it has gears and pistons but completely turn off when faced with a piece of electronics. There’s a weird cultural disconnect between the nostalgic image of the ‘boffin’ — otherwordly but admirable model of technical ingenuity — and the ‘geek’ — pasty, socially inept, caffeine-fuelled toiler in the code mines. And somewhere along the line, people seem to have lost any sense of how incredibly sophisticated these machines are. The very sophistication of them means that most people use them with very little idea of how they work: you can’t open up a computer and find out how it works by taking it apart and putting it back together.

And that’s only going to get worse. I don’t aspire to übergeek status myself; in fact I’m hardly even an untergeek despite a few geekly leanings. But at least having grown up with the first generation of home computers, I have some sense of what a very simple computer is like and how you get from there to here. If your first computer has Vista on it, and you play your first games on an XBox 360, they might as well just be magic boxes for all the insight you’re going to get about how they work.

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Steinbeck on lice

Rob posting Burns’s To a Louse reminded me of this passage. It’s from a John Steinbeck letter, but I encountered it in John Carey’s brilliant anthology, The Faber Book of Science.

The Morgan Library has a very fine 11th-century Launcelot in perfect condition. I was going over it one day and turned to the rubric of the first owner dated 1221, the rubric a squiggle of very thick ink. I put a glass on it and there imbedded deep in the ink was the finest crab louse, pfithira pulus, I ever saw. He was perfectly preserved even to his little claws. I knew I would find him sooner or later because the people of that period were deeply troubled with lice and other little beasties — hence the plagues. I called the curator over and showed him my find and he let out a cry of sorrow. ‘I’ve looked at that rubric a thousand times,’ he said. ‘Why couldn’t I have found him?’

I notice, btw, that the book now has a rather gaudy cover that makes it look like a textbook, whereas my copy has a fabulous photo of ‘Mabel and Alexander Graham Bell kissing inside the frame of a tetrahedral kite’.

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Site Redesign

As should be obvious, unless you’re reading this via the RSS feed, I’ve redesigned the site again. I was just a bit bored with the old look, basically. As usual, I haven’t tested it in Internet Explorer for Windows, so if anything looks obviously wrong, let me know.

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  • ‘At the foot of this post there can be seen the name of Victory as it would appear in the capitals from Bowles’s Roman and italic print alphabets of 1775, and in the one that follows, capitals from an alphabet in Bickham’s Universal penman of 1733, et
  • ‘The Nymph and the Grot’ was the title of an article that I wrote in the journal Typographica. It explored the background to the appearance of geometrical, monoline sanserif lettering in Britain towards the end of the 18th century[…]
  • ‘The project documents every instance of the phrase “is the new” encountered from various sources in 2005. It is intended to map the iterations of a peculiarly common marketing and literary device.’ via Design Observer

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upgrade trauma

I just upgraded my version of WordPress, and it seems to have screwed everything up.

Hopefully I’ll have it sorted out sooner rather than later, but bear with me.

EDIT: well, it’s getting a bit better, but after a sequence of painless upgrades, this one is doing my head in.

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Food with a face

BBC News has the story of a hunter who shot a duck, and took it home and put in the fridge thinking it was dead. According to the BBC:

The plucky duck was taken first to a local animal hospital, and then to an animal sanctuary for more specialised treatment. A veterinarian at the sanctuary said he thinks the duck will live, but will probably never be well enough to be released into the wild.

There’s something odd about taking a duck to the animal hospital when you yourself were the one who went out and intentionally shot it. Presumably the hunter knows how to wring a bird’s neck? Why not just put the poor maimed bird out of its misery and then eat it?

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the coming of 3D video games

Technological change is extraordinarily rapid, yet somehow it seems to creep up on us. The internet went from being an obscure curiosity for the geeky to part of people’s everyday lives without most of us ever having a eureka moment when the change was brought home to us.

I have had a few such moments, though. I still remember the moment I saw my first proper 3D game, Virtua Fighter — in a Vegas casino, of all places — as incredibly exciting. I would quite seriously compare it to what it must have been like for the audiences when they first saw The Jazz Singer. It was jaw-dropping to see these graphics which were simply unlike anything I’d ever seen before.

It helped that it was completely unexpected. I didn’t read the gaming press, videogames barely made the mainstream media unless there was a moral panic going on, and the internet barely existed – I’d certainly never used it. So I had no prior knowledge; I just stumbled on the cabinet among all the other games and was blown away by it. What struck me most wasn’t the greater realism of the characters, exactly: even in the moment of first seeing it, the blockiness of the characters looked pretty primitive. But the way the characters moved in three dimensions really did make it feel more like you were controlling a ‘person’ rather than just an animation. And more than anything, it was the swooping camera, that moved around the action and zoomed in and out as you played, which brought home this shift from a flat game world to one with depth.

I’ve already compared it the shift from silent movies to talkies; a more exact comparison would be the invention of perspective in Renaissance painting. I don’t want to use hindsight to claim that I saw Virtua Fighter and immediately had a sense of all the ways 3D would have an impact on gaming, but it didn’t take any particular brilliance to see it and know that you were present at the start of something. Perhaps in C15th Italy there were people feeling the same way.

I still like the look of the original Virtua Fighter. I know that the minimalist environment — a bit of texture on the ground and a few clouds — is because of technical limitations rather than aesthetic choice, but I find it appealing. If you see the later versions of the game (they’re currently up to Virtua Fighter 4, with VF5 due out this year), the backgrounds are ever more lushly-detailed graphical marvels, mainly for the sake of eye-candy but also as part of a pointless attempt to build a narrative context. The places they fight are related to the characters’ elaborate back-stories. But really, what’s the point? It’s a beat-em-up; I don’t need to know my character’s motivation. And while I was excited as anyone else by the advances in computer graphics at the time, that lush, hyper-realistic aesthetic gets cloying after a while. It’s about time for a bit of less-is-more.

Comparisons with early cinema and Renaissance painting inevitably bring up the question of games as art. That’s not what I had in mind when I made them, and I certainly wouldn’t pick Virtua Fighter as a case study, since apart from the graphics it was the simplest and most formulaic game imaginable. But even discussing a game this simple, the kinds of things I find myself mentioning — the overall visual styling, the way the 3D characters made it more immersive, the characterisation, set design, lighting, camerawork — make comparisons with various artforms almost inevitable. That’s why it seems certain that descendants of today’s games will be treated as artworks with all the importance of films, novels or paintings. Someone will find a way of bringing it all together and making it into something more.

Taboo vocabulary

Commenting on the current controversy surrounding Celebrity Big Brother and a bleeped-out word spoken by one of the contestants, the Telegraph printed this remarkable sentence:

Channel 4 was quick to clarify that Jack had referred to Shilpa as a ****, not a ‘paki’.

Channel 4 being a bit too clear for the delicate sensibilities of Telegraph readers there. Note that ‘paki’, which, by implication, is the more taboo word, is left en clair. Although to be fair, ‘Jack had referred to Shilpa as a ****, not a ****’ would be even more bizarre.

For more fun with taboo vocabulary, check out the Language Log, where they’ve conveniently compiled a list of posts on the subject. You might want to start with this one.

Oh, and if you were wondering: ‘cunt’.

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Worst product design EVER!

OK, not the worst ever, but the one which is currently annoying me: screw-top beer bottles. You know the ones, which look like traditional crown caps but actually screw off.

You can see why someone thought they were a good innovation; they look the same (which is important, because what kind of girlie-man drinks beer from bottles with the same type of closure as a bottle of coke?) while being more convenient: no need for a bottle-opener. But ‘looks like a crown cap’ translates as ‘authentic serrated metal edge’. They’re like little blunt circular saws. If a piece of packaging is painful to open, there’s something wrong with it. Come on people, this isn’t fucking rocket science. I’m looking at you, Fentiman’s Ginger Beer.