Saturday, 11 January 2014

Seen and heard: December 2013

Posts and articles
  • Why do children believe in Santa but not Harry Potter? (from Headquarters blog). Children's understanding of the difference between pretend and real comes earlier and is more sophisticated than we usually think. 
  • Meet the Robot Telemarketer Who Denies She’s A Robot (from MindHacks blog, and on iO9, located through Memex 1.1 blog). A real-life Stepford Wives experience, when Michael Scherer, Washington Bureau Chief of TIME magazine, was phoned by what sounded like a brightly-voiced woman offering a deal on health insurance. Something made him suspicious. "When Scherer asked point blank if she was a real person, or a computer-operated robot voice, she replied enthusiastically that she was real, with a charming laugh. But then she failed several other tests. When asked “What vegetable is found in tomato soup?” she said she did not understand the question. When asked multiple times what day of the week it was yesterday, she complained repeatedly of a bad connection." The article includes audio extracts from the call. 
  • Review of Anita Elberse, So Much for the Long Tail, by Steven Poole. "In 2006, the then editor of Wired magazine, Chris Anderson, [claimed in 'The Long Tail' that] thanks to new digital distribution methods ... the blockbuster was on the way out, and most profits would henceforth come from niche products. It didn't work out that way, as Elberse now demonstrates.... A remarkable statistic: 74% of all individual MP3s purchased online in 2011 sold fewer than 10 copies each, while 0.00001% of songs made up 15% of total revenues."
  • Here's how data thieves have captured our lives on the internet, John Naughton article in The Observer 29.12.13 The historian of the internet reflects on the implications of Snowdon's revelations of the extent to which "the most liberating communications technology since printing has been captured" by the security services, with the complicity of the major technology companies.

Shows and events, books and games

The Secret Life of Mary Poppins - Culture Show documentary about P.L Travers, the creator of Mary Poppins, intelligently presented by Victoria Coren. Her point was that Hollywood films require tidy stories and happy endings - in Saving Mister Banks no less than Mary Poppins - and that one can find these films powerful and enjoyable on their own terms, even if one also simultaneously loves the darker and very different original books or appreciates the complexity of the real life story of Travers and Disney.

Last Tango in Halifax, second series - still more beautiful writing and great performances, swinging from comedy to tragedy and back again. (Fun also to compare Derek Jacobi's solid Yorkshireman here with his camp actor in Vicious.) A lovely touch to build up to the wedding on Christmas Eve - in both story time and real time. Plenty of potential remaining for a third series, I think.

A Bridge Over You - Christmas single by Lewisham and Greenwich Hospital choir, mashing up Simon and Garfunkel's "Bridge Over Troubled Water" and Coldplay's "Fix You", with a video produced by my sister. (See earlier post.) The singing is pretty good, but it's not just family pride for me to say that I think it's the video which makes this single: by linking the songs to the singers' working lives, it gives them added poignancy - no surprise that many of the online comments talk about how moving it is. The release didn't displace the X Factor winner as the official Christmas Number 1, but I'm told it did get to Number 15 in the indie charts and Number 8 in Amazon downloads, which is pretty good and some kind of vindication of compassion and good taste.

The Everlasting Flame: Zoroastrianism in History and Imagination - exhibition at SOAS, London. Beautifully curated and arranged, starting with two chambers showcasing geographically-located artefacts and extracts from key texts and finishing with a reconstructed fire temple. Good to see some prominence given to this lesser-known faith: the precursor to the great monotheistic religions and the religion of the Christmas magi.

Cunninghamfest - day-conference celebrating the career of my old friend and colleague Andrew Cunningham on the occasion of his retirement. Having left the History of Science / Medicine field in 1993, it was very pleasing to see how the marginal views for which he and I contended have now become orthodoxy, so that Jim Secord called our "Big Picture" paper a citation classic and an analytical classic. (A summary of our paper by David Gilad is here.) That wasn't what people said at the conference where we first presented it; I remember the comments being equally divided into "This is obviously untrue" and "We know this already" - which as I said to Andrew at the time is a sign of a transformation in thinking about to occur and an inevitable consequence of working at a discipline's cutting edge. His main worry was that these things would go from "obviously untrue" to "known already" without there ever having been a time at which they were said by us. The Cunninghamfest was proof that that had not happened, and that all the work which he and I put in had not gone to waste. Cheers, Andrew; they were great years.

Death Comes to Pemberley - BBC dramatisation of P.D. James' homage to Jane Austen. So many beautiful things: Matthew Rhys as Darcy, played mercurially nice and nasty like his character in The Americans; Anna Maxwell Martin as Elizabeth, a skilled manager of a large household and a true match for him; Rebecca Front as Mrs Bennett, played not melodramatically (as Alison Steadman did in the BBC Pride and Prejudice), just saying absolutely the wrong thing at the wrong time; and a cameo from (Dame) Penelope Keith as Lady Catherine de Burgh.

The Book of Pages - unusual graphic novel by David Whitehead, essentially a Buddhist meditation on technology as the story follows a monk in his journey through a modern metropolis. The book is now out of print, but the website reproduces some of its sections, my favourites of these being: Flight, Mind Dragons, Button.

ColAR - iPad app demonstrating a new level of "augmented reality" (which is presumably what "AR" stands for). You print out a line drawing, colour it in, and the app, viewing the picture through the iPad's camera, animates it in 3D, as in this video. Jaw-droppingly amazing; my six-year-old grand-daughter was quite blown away by it, and she's not easily impressed.

Toca Hair Salon Me - another great app for kids. Take a photo of yourself, or one of your friends, then cut, grow and restyle their hair using the wide range of tools available. You can even save a picture of your finished results. Great fun - an important part of which comes from the way the photo is animated in the hair salon. (See this video.)

The Beiderbecke Affair - box set of the 1984 Alan Plater series, with James Bolam and Barbara Flynn, a Christmas present from my wife (thank you, dearest). Wonderful to watch again, and amazingly topical given its theme of social misfits being under surveillance on the outside chance that some of them might one day break a law. Unfortunately today's real life spooks aren't as humorously bumbling as D.S. Hobson, any more than you and I speak wittily laconic lines of Alan Plater dialogue.

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