• via kottke, a neat video processing trick: 'The image is digitally manipulated by fragmenting it into horizontal lines and then combining lines from different frames in the display. The result is a distortion of the figures caused by their motion in time'
    ( tags: video )

Congratulations Spain

A much deserved win.

Which, incidentally, means that there are now 10 countries who have won a major international football tournament since England last did it. Germany, Italy and Brazil have won 10 between them in that period.

» Winners Spain, uploaded to Flickr by mwboeckmann and used under a CC by-nc-sa licence.


I have returned. Not that I went very far: my sister lured me to Hampshire with the promise of glow-worms. Wikipedia tells me that the glow worm we have in the UK is a species of firefly, but they don’t fly, or flash; the females are wingless, and sit in the grass glowing to attract the flying males. 

I suppose if you live somewhere where the fireflies are a bit more spectacular, the glow worm might seem a bit underwhelming, but they are what we have and I’ve never seen them before, so I was very pleased. This is Andrew Marvell, and one of my favourite poems:

The Mower to the Glow-worms

Ye living lamps, by whose dear light
The nightingale does sit so late,
And studying all the summer night,
Her matchless songs does meditate;

Ye county comets, that portend
No war nor prince’s funeral,
Shining unto no higher end
Than to presage the grass’s fall;

Ye glow-worms, whose officious flame
To wand’ring mowers shows the way,
That in the night have lost their aim,
And after foolish fires do stray;

Your courteous lights in vain you waste,
Since Juliana here is come,
For she my mind hath so displac’d
That I shall never find my home.

We also went for a couple of nice walks; lots of butterflies, lots of flowers, woodlark, stonechat, a pair of peregrines. And at Mottisfont Abbey, this moth, a Scarlet Tiger. So it was a very satisfactory trip all round.

Tiny frogs

I noticed the cat poking at something on the lawn and went to have a look — at first I thought it was a little beetle, but on closer examination it turned out to be a very tiny-weeny frog.

And once I’d seen one, I realised they were all over the place: perhaps like flying ants, there’s a specific combination of temperature, humidity and so on that triggers them to all come out of the pond and disperse.

I’ve posted more photos of tiny frogs to Flickr here. Oh, and if you’re wondering about the nail varnish: that’s not my hand.

Dispatches from the Uncanny Valley

I’ve just bought Pro Evolution Soccer 2008 for the Wii, and I’m thoroughly enjoying it, but it does take you into a weird parallel world. Not just because of the licensing restrictions that mean the English league is full of clubs called things like ‘Man Red’ and ‘Lancashire Athletic’, and Germany has players called ‘Fnich’ and ‘Harmey’, or the fact that you can play matches like England vs. Barcelona*, or even the robotic, repetitive commentary from Jon Champion and Mark Lawrenson. No, it’s the strange, shiny looking, dead-eyed players with faces that look like they’ve been painted onto blocks of wood from memory. Here’s Christiano Ronaldo, congratulating Rooney on scoring a goal for Man Red.

And yet for all the little bits of clunkiness, it feels enough like football that there’s a real joy to be had from scoring a good goal. It doesn’t feel like playing football, but it does feel like watching-football-on-telly-but-I-can-control-the-players. And even if they look a bit peculiar, I still want to use my favourite players in the game.

If Coleridge came back from the grave and encountered computer games, I wonder how it would affect his concept of the willing suspension of disbelief. He only had theatre as a subject; I wonder what he would have made of a game where you control a little Italian plumber as he jumps up scaffolding, avoiding flaming barrels thrown at him by a gorilla, in order to rescue a princess? Because at some level I think you do have to ‘believe’ in computer games, even the most primitive ones.

 *I lost 7-1: Ronaldinho had Gary Neville on toast.


  • Interesting: 'We applied automated measurement techniques to recordings of 78 hours of oral arguments from the U.S. Supreme court, in order to look at the (average) effects on pitch and time of primary word stress, secondary stress, and lack of stress.'
    ( tags: language )
  • A gently addictive flash game. Best I think with the music turned off.
    ( tags: flash games )

Happy Bloomsday

June 16th is Bloomsday, the date that Leopold Bloom spends wandering the streets of Dublin in Ulysses.

The picture above is taken from Joyce Images, a site ‘dedicated to illustrating Ulysses using period documents’. And here’s a bit of Sirens:

Bronze by gold, Miss Douce’s head by Miss Kennedy’s head, over the crossblind of the Ormond bar heard the viceregal hoofs go by, ringing steel.
— Is that her? asked Miss Kennedy.
Miss Douce said yes, sitting with his ex, pearl grey and eau de Nil.
— Exquisite contrast, Miss Kennedy said.
When all agog Miss Douce said eagerly:
— Look at the fellow in the tall silk.
— Who? Where? gold asked more eagerly.
— In the second carriage, Miss Douce’s wet lips said, laughing in the sun. He’s looking. Mind till I see.
She darted, bronze, to the backmost corner, flattening her face against the pane in a halo of hurried breath.
Her wet lips tittered:
— He’s killed looking back.
She laughed:
— O wept! Aren’t men frightful idiots?
With sadness.
Miss Kennedy sauntered sadly from bright light, twining a loose hair behind an ear. Sauntering sadly, gold no more, she twisted twined a hair. Sadly she twined in sauntering gold hair behind a curving ear.
— It’s them has the fine times, sadly then she said.

The Invention of Tradition

The Invention of Tradition, edited by Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger, is a selection of essays by different historians. To quote the blurb: 

Many of the traditions which we think of as ancient in their origins were, in fact, invented comparatively recently. This book explores examples of this process of invention […]

There’s a great quote in the section on the British monarchy. This is Lord Robert Cecil in 1860, after watching Queen Victoria open parliament:

Some nations have a gift for ceremonial. […] This aptitude is generally confined to the people of a southern climate and of a non-Teutonic parentage. In England the case is exactly the reverse. We can afford to be more splendid than most nations; but some malignant spell broods over all our most solemn ceremonials, and inserts into them some feature which makes them all ridiculous… Something always breaks down, somebody contrives to escape doing his part, or some bye-motive is suffered to interfere and ruin it all.

150 years later, the British have bigger, more pompous and more gilt-ridden ceremonies than almost anyone, and we see ourselves as especially good at pageantry: the opening of parliament, coronations, jubilees, royal weddings and funerals, and all of it presented as though it was ancient continuous tradition. And in fact much of the content, at least for the coronation, is ancient: it’s just that between the early 17th and late 19th centuries, the preparation was generally half-arsed and the results shambolic. Apart from anything else, the symbolism was awkward; Britain was a democracy of a sort, and as long as the monarch was a partisan political figure people were reluctant to surround them with all the trappings of divinely-provided power. It was only once the monarch was reduced to a figurehead that we could safely put them in the centre of these grand pantomimes.

The book also has an essay about the Scots (all that twaddle about clan tartans) and the Welsh (druids and the Eisteddfod), but those stories were broadly familiar, so in some ways the bits I found most interesting were about the British inventing traditions out in the Empire. For example, in India, where they had the problem of how best to assert Imperial authority over a ‘country’ which was in fact hundreds of small kingdoms held together by force, and how to project Queen Victoria as the focus of that authority while she was thousands of miles away. And although the British had been in India for a long time by then, this represented a new focus, since it was only in the wake of the Sepoy Mutiny/India’s First War of Independence in 1857 that control of India was taken from the East India Company and taken over by the state.

So in 1876 they held the ‘Imperial Assemblage’ to mark Victoria’s accession to her imperial title as ‘Kaiser-i-Hind’ when Indian kings/princes/maharajas gathered with their entourages at a site near Delhi to take turns to approach a pavilion decorated in British heraldic imagery, and each was presented with a banner which had a coat of arms in the European heraldic tradition, designed for the occasion by a Bengal civil servant called Robert Taylor. It sounds like an extraordinary event: apart from the basic weirdness of it, the scale was immense; ‘at least eighty four thousand people’ attended in one role or another. Sadly I haven’t managed to find a picture of the event, but below is the banner presented to Rajabahadur Raghunath Savant Bhonsle, the ruler of Savantvadi.

banner presented to the ruler of Savantvadi

Thinking about all this reminded me of my own little moment of inventing tradition. When I was at university, there a couple of people at my halls of residence who wanted to start an all-male discussion club where the members would take turns to present a little speech on some interesting topic, and then everyone would drink sherry and discuss. A couple of friends and I took great delight in coming up with a ludicrously silly constitution for the club, which laid down arcane traditions and provided bizarre titles for the various officers. For example, every meeting was supposed to start with ‘the toasting of the Pope’: a different Pope each week, working through them in chronological order from St Peter onwards. There was no Catholic connection, pro or anti; I think it was just that the phrase ‘the toasting of the Pope’ was amusing. In the event there was one meeting and then the club fizzled out. And a good thing too, frankly.

Actually, though, the whole episode was rather fitting; after all, the University of Bristol itself is an institution whose landmark building is a vast Gothic edifice built not in the middle ages, or even at the height of the Gothic Revival in the mid C19th, but in 1915. Pretending to be older than it is — pretending to be Oxbridge, really — is what Bristol does.

Anyway, the book is interesting; some of the essays are better than others — Hobsbawm’s own contribution struck me as especially weak — but I’m glad I read it. A slight typographical gripe: irritatingly, quoted passages are marked only by the left margin being indented exactly as much as the first line of each paragraph is indented, which makes it extremely unobvious which paragraphs are quoted. I’m not suggesting that’s a reason to avoid the book; I was just irritated by it.

» img364, posted to flickr by Black and white archive, shows the 1953 Coronation celebrations in Edith Road, Smethwick. The banner is from the British Library.



1000 AD survival tips

Kottke pointed out this thread, a discussion starting from this question:

I wanted to ask for survival tips in case I am unexpectedly transported to a random location in Europe (say for instance current France/Benelux/Germany) in the year 1000 AD (plus or minus 200 years). I assume that such transportation would leave me with what I am wearing, what I know, and nothing else. Any advice would help.

The discussion was picked up at and Metafilter.

All those threads are deeply fascinating for what they say about people’s attitudes to the past (and indeed their historical knowledge or lack of it). Most of the responses seem to fall into one of two types; the ludicrously over-confidant: “With my crazy future knowledge verily I will become as a God! I will invent the steam engine! And antibiotics!” and the opposite: “Aargh! By local standards I will be ignorant, stupid and freaky and so I will be burnt as a witch/raped/murdered/die of exposure/murdered again! I won’t last a week!”

I obviously have too high a faith in human nature, because it seems to me that clearly the right thing to do is find the nearest settlement (probably not very far: Europe wasn’t as densely populated then, but most places would be under cultivation), act in as non-threatening a manner as possible, look willing to help in any way possible, and do a Blanche DuBois: rely upon the kindness of strangers.

You’d be unlikely to end up as anything more successful than a serf, and if you happened to turn up at a time of famine or war you’d almost certainly be fucked, but I still think it’s your best chance of survival. The Middle Ages were pretty brutal, but that doesn’t mean that everyone then was either a bumbling idiot or a psychopath.

» The illustration is from the Lindisfarne Gospels and so about 300 years too early for the question, but hey-ho.

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The Muybridge Problem

I was wondering this morning why it is that narrative paintings always seem to fall so flat for a modern viewer (i.e. me). Not just those cheesy C19th paintings with titles like A Soldier Returns; even paintings by artists I find more sympathetic — Rembrandt, Goya, Velazquez — seem very obviously unconvincing when they try to capture a spontaneous moment. It occurred to me that the explanation might simply be what you could call the Muybridge problem.

Famously, Eadweard Muybridge started taking his high-speed photographs in an attempt to answer the question: do horses ever have all four hooves off the ground when they gallop? The answer turned out to be yes: but not quite what everyone expected. Before that, even someone as devoted to the careful study of the horse as Stubbs had painted galloping horses with all four feet off the ground when their legs were outstretched; in fact a galloping horse only has all feet off the ground when they are bent underneath it.

But if you have seen lots of photos of running horses, all those old paintings of horses flying like Superman over Epsom Downs look faintly but irretrievably ludicrous. Photography has permanently changed what we think things look like; and that doesn’t just apply to horses.

» The Stubbs is a detail from Gimcrack on Newmarket Heath, with a Trainer, a Stable-Lad, and a Jockey; the Muybridge is a detail from The Horse in Motion, both from Wikimedia Commons.

The iPhone, Top Trumps, and widescreen TV

The BBC’s tech blog has posted a piece about the new iPhone, and, inevitably, the comments are full of people whining about how the iPhone is rubbish because it lacks some feature that competing phones have, or has inferior specs, and that people only buy it because of they are stupid fashion victims. 

This comment provides a particularly classic example:

What about MMS support -sure no one really uses MMS, but it’s kind of a missing feature don’t you think?

I’m not sure that people outside the UK ever had the pleasure of playing ‘Top Trumps’. The way it worked was that you had a themed deck of cards, which might be cars or footballers or whatever. And each card was scored with various qualities:

from the Pointless Museum

You had to turn over your next card and try to win your opponent’s card by challenging him to beat a particular score. With this set, the Horror Top Trumps (which I remember playing at primary school, incidentally), the scores are out of 100, so it’s very obvious that if it’s your turn to play and you have Dracula, you should challenge on ‘Horror Rating’. The winner gets both cards and gets to play again. Naturally enough, different sets had different kinds of scores. I assume that for Prehistoric Monsters, older is better.

from the Pointless Museum

This was all good clean fun, but it wasn’t a very subtle or nuanced way of evaluating which prehistoric monster (or sports car, or footballer) was really ‘better’. And I can’t help feeling that all those BBC blog commenters are just playing technology Top Trumps.

The idea that a technology product is more than the sum of its features is not a new insight. I’m just one of the many people who have been banging on about it for years. But it’s always worth reiterating because  those who are most fascinated by technology, and are the most vociferous about it, are exactly the kind of people who don’t get it. They are, in fact, the kind of people who would probably rather enjoy playing Tech Specs Top Trumps.

I have a favourite new example of the distance between those technology enthusiasts and the bulk of the public. I watched the Champions’ League final in a pub in Wales. The football was on a nice big widescreen plasma TV, and the signal was coming from Sky, so I know it was being broadcast in widescreen — but the picture was distorted. Presumably, at some stage there had been something on TV which was in a 3:4 ratio and they had changed the TV settings so that the picture was stretched to fill the screen, and had never changed it back.

I tried to explain what was wrong and offered to fix it, but unsurprisingly the barman was reluctant to hand over the remote control to a random stranger just before the biggest match of the season started. So Wayne Rooney looked even shorter and squatter than usual, and the ball was oval.

In other words, they’ve spent many hundreds of pounds on a TV, and however much it costs to get a Sky subscription for a pub, and are using it to distort the picture and cut off the edges. Because they can’t tell the difference? Because they don’t care? Or the most worrying possibility: perhaps they think that’s what widescreen is — a normal picture, stretched a bit.

There are probably many many people, all around the country, doing the same thing: using their expensive new equipment to distort the TV they watch. And the biggest favour you could do those people is not to provide them with more features: it’s to make sure they can use the features they have. If that’s true for something as simple as a TV, it’s even more true for a sophisticated smartphone. Ease of use and good interface design are so much more important for most people than the sheer number of features.

Look, it’s a good thing that there are people who go over these kind of technical specifications with a fine tooth comb and compare products against each other. It’s a valid kind of critique and provides useful information. But brandishing these numbers as though they are irrefutably The Final Answer is like saying “obviously the woolly rhinoceros is better than the archaeopteryx, because it weighs more”.

» All the pictures are taken from The Pointless Museum.

What I want to see at WWDC

WWDC, for those of you who don’t avidly follow Apple’s annual publicity cycle [for shame!], is the Worldwide Developer’s Conference. Which is being held next week in California.

Everyone’s expecting a new iPhone with slightly better specs, but I’m not quite geeky enough to get excited about wireless data standards. Obviously faster=better, but it’s not suddenly going to persuade me that I can afford to shell out £270 for a phone. What I think is potentially much more exciting is to see new iPhone app demonstrations. That has potential to have a real ooh factor.

What I would like to see is an Apple e-reader. I have become more and more convinced that sooner or later we will be doing much more of our reading on some kind of handheld device; much as I like books as physical objects, I have too many of them already. And it would be great to be able to take six or seven books on holiday with me — or just around town — without the bulk and weight of dead trees. And to be able to read newspapers and blogs on the tube.

This device doesn’t have to be made by Apple, of course, but I’d love to see what they could achieve if they tried. The only problem is that there isn’t even the hint of a smidgen of a whiff of it on any of the Apple gossip sites. And I suspect that the nice people at Apple have had their hands full recently with Leopard and the iPhone. 

» Transgenic Apple, posted to Flickr by dujarandille. I’s not actually transgenic, I don’t think, that’s just what the photographer has called it.


Why Obama won the nomination

That post title probably ought to have a question mark at the end.

It is ridiculous to suggest that there was a single reason why Obama won it — or why Clinton lost it — but I’m going to do it anyway. I really think that a lot of it came down to timing. Politicians tend, when they first arrive on the scene, to have a honeymoon period; few people have managed to have it quite so precisely when they need it as Obama. His moment as flavour of the month, when he was at his most shiny and new and exciting, seemed to just coincide with Super Tuesday. The news media has the attention span of a three-year-old and is always attracted to ‘news’; to newness.

Clinton had great difficulty competing for the spotlight at the crucial moment because however historic her candidacy was, it wasn’t news. She has been an international figure for nearly two decades; everyone has known she was going to run for president for years; she entered the race as the candidate to beat, with a huge campaign fund and a high public profile. She was expected to do well; any other narrative was always going to be more exciting and more newsworthy.

Obama as a mosaic of US state flags; used under a CC by-nc-nd licence

That’s not to say that newness was the only thing Obama had going for him; novelty value will only get you so far. Ask Mike Huckabee. There are lots of reasons why Obama excites people: he’s an excellent public speaker, if a slightly ponderous gravitas is your thang; he’s young, he’s intelligent, he looks good; and lots of people are excited by the idea of a black candidate. I just think if he had come into the race as a more familiar figure, perhaps from a failed run for president four years ago, or from a prominent job in national government — someone the public had already had a chance to form opinions about and get used to, in fact — he would have found the campaign noticeably heavier going.

I’m not suggesting that there’s some appalling skeleton in the Obama closet which would have come out in the meantime. And I’m not trying to make some kind of accusation or complaint; I don’t suppose anyone has ever made it to be a presidential candidate without a few slices of luck along the way. I just think it’s an observation worth making.

» ‘Barack Obama made out of US flags‘ posted to flickr by tsevis and used under a by-nc-nd licence.