Sunday, February 9, 2014

Why I have such a hard time with social media

This is probably going to tread on a few toes, so let me say at the outside that this isn’t intended to be a covert sideswipe at any of my Facebook friends. My Facebook friends are people I actually know and wish to stay in touch with; and if you’re wondering why I didn’t accept your friend request, it’s because you’re not in that particular circle.

The problem is not really with my Facebook friends per se; the problem is with social media. It isn’t social any more. What it now is is a place where second-hand content is ceaselessly recycled. I rarely see anything original on Facebook any more; and what original content there is is usually of the “Had a beer with my friends, it was awesome!” type, which may be a true statement but is utterly devoid of meaning or import.

I know, I know, it’s hard to come up with witty or interesting content of your own, and I should know, given how rarely I manage to find anything worth blogging about here. But even so, you have to agree that if, in real life, you met one of your friends in the street, you wouldn’t greet them by shoving a photo in their face and saying, “Juicy steak, nom!”

I am no doubt going to be unpopular for saying this, but perhaps the most egregious Facebook user is George Takei. You might think that a veteran actor — and, to boot, one who famously doesn’t get along well with one of his former co-stars — might have a lot of stories to tell. Instead of that, he employs staff to scour the internet for other people’s content and then repost it — I don’t mean “share”, I actually mean “repost” in the sense that a copy is re-uploaded to his Facebook account — without either permission or attribution, which is not only dishonest, but actually illegal, together with a lame one-liner, usually in the form of a pretty weak pun. Somebody like George Takei really doesn’t need to use other people’s work for his own personal gain, but he does. Whenever I raise this point, a small army of people rush to his defence by saying that “that’s how the internet works”. Well, no it’s not, it’s how the internet is misused. If George Takei is too busy or too lazy to create his own content, he should use the mechanisms Facebook puts at his disposal to share third-party content legally, and in a way that automatically, without you having to do anything else, attributes it.

The following list illustrates the problem. This is a summary of the first fifty posts on my feed just before I started writing this blog. “Original” means the person who posted it actually formulated and wrote the post himself or herself; “Quote” means a photo or montage with a caption added to it; “Article” means a link to an article on an online blog or news site.

Quote (Religion)
Original (Joke)
Original (Game app high score)
Article (News)
Article (News)
Original (One week until trip)
Quote (Religion)
Quote (Politics)
Original (Request for movie recommendations)
Quote (Meme)
Quote (Other)
Article (News)
Quote (Politics)
Original (Food)
Quote (Politics)
Share (News)
Original (General observation about relationships)
Original (Single-line comment)
Share (Disguised plug)
Article (News, satire)
Article (News)
Original (TV)
Article (News)
Article (News)
Photo (Selfie)
Original (Thanks for birthday greetings)
Article (News)
Original (Watched a movie)
Photo (Family, vintage)
Article (News)
Photo (Selfie)
Quote (Politics)
Photo (Weather)
Quote (Religion)
Original (Food)
Photo (Selfie)
Share (News)
Original (Went to party)
Photo (Selfie)
Photo (Weather)
Original (Hung out with friends)
Photo (Friend was tagged)
Share (Tumblr image)
Original (Birthday greetings)
Original (Going to get a tattoo)
Photo (Selfie)
Photo (Weather)
Photo (Friend was tagged)
Photo (Food)
Photo (Bitstrip)

The “disguised plug” was a reshare of a Facebook post that looked innocuous enough, but was actually an advert for a business.

All of the posts not described as “Original” were accompanied by little or no input from the poster — perhaps a comment like, “I agree!” or “LOL”. Some of the articles are interesting enough, but I can think of only one of my Facebook friends — who happens not to feature on this list — who bothers, when sharing an article, to add his personal analysis to it. It only needs to be a sentence or two, but it shows that he has an original thought of his own about it. I may disagree with his original thought, but I respect the fact that he has an original thought. I prefer to lose a discussion with him, than to pick on a glaring hole in some article only to have my friend say, “Oh yeah, I never noticed that.” Well, if all it took for you to change your mind about an article was for me to query the integrity of the second paragraph, you obviously didn’t read it.

Shared articles are bad enough. Quotes and photos are worse.

Photos... don’t get me started on photos. I occasionally post photos of my own, but I keep them to a minimum. Yes, it’s nice to see the people I’m talking to, and their families, and the places they live. But when I was growing up, the concept of boredom was epitomised by the middle-aged couple inviting their friends round for a slide-show (“This is me on the beach... this is Mary on the beach... this is me and Mary on the beach... this is the beach without me or Mary... this is a picture of my feet, because I pressed the button by mistake...”). We don’t need slide-shows now: we’ve got Instagram instead.

At least we now have the option of just not clicking through all the pictures, but that doesn’t stop a lot of them appearing in my feed: baby’s first T-shirt, a hotel room (seriously?), a glass of beer, a cake, an underexposed photo of mostly bluish-white which, on closer inspection, represents a back yard with four inches of snow on it. Life is way too short. Unfortunately, my Facebook feed is much longer. “Don’t look at them if they irritate you so much,” I hear you cry, but of course I still have to scroll through my feed to find something I’m actually interested in.

So don’t get me started on photos. But quotes are worse. Much, much worse.

Maybe it’s just me. Maybe I am simply a magnet for people who think that engaging in political debate means parroting other people’s soundbites. I suspect, though, that the problem is considerably more widespread.

It doesn’t matter what the issue is, everyone does it. Everyone. Theists, atheists, socialists, conservatives, pro-lifers, pro-choicers, gun control activists, gun rights activists, it makes not a jot of difference. I get a photo (which is either absurdly flattering or spitefully unflattering, depending on the point being made) with a quote and perhaps an explanatory gloss. The quote is nearly always taken out of context or misrepresented in some way, but since it’s a short soundbite, this is pretty much unavoidable. It is why soundbites do not make any kind of basis for proper debate.

Sometimes the quote is actually made up. More often, though, the explanatory gloss contains factual errors. For the record, then, and to pick two random examples off the top of my head, it is not true that Swiss law requires all citizens to be armed, and Sarah Palin never claimed she could see Russia from her house.*

You see, it may well be that some eminent scientist said something about some philosophical concept, and it may even be pithy. But a pithy quote that relies on a cute piece of irony to make its point adds nothing to whatever debate it is you think you’re having by posting it. It’s a pithy soundbite, but without knowing the context I still don’t know what he actually believes. More to the point, I still don’t know where you stand on the issue, because you didn’t say. In some cases, the quote, once you get past the cute piece of irony, actually contains a logical fallacy of some kind or makes no point at all, leaving me with a nagging sense of doubt: did this eminent scientist actually say this? And if he did, did he mean what you seem to think he means? The point was made by one satirical image that resurfaces from time to time: a picture of Patrick Stewart captioned, “Use the Force, Harry — Gandalf”.

This isn’t debate. This is people hurling quotes at each other. “He who hesitates is lost!” — “Oh yeah? Well, a rolling stone gathers no moss!”

To drive the point home more fully, here’s a quote: “I have no objection to faith and belief. I have faith and belief myself. — Isaac Asimov.”

So what do we get from that? That Isaac Asimov had religious faith? That would come as a surprise to anyone who knows anything about Isaac Asimov, an atheist. That quote comes from his introduction to a book called Counting the Eons, a collection of essays he wrote for The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction in the early eighties, although the essays were actually about science fact. In this introduction, he explains that while he will concede that he himself has faith in things he cannot prove (those things being “that the universe is comprehensible within the bounds of natural law and that the human brain can discover those natural laws and comprehend the universe”) and must therefore allow other people to do the same, he is nevertheless enraged at what he calls the “Moral Majority” trying to force unscientific beliefs onto the school curriculum in the guise of science. Specifically, he is talking about “scientific creationism”, which these days is usually called “intelligent design”. Towards the end of his introduction, he says this:

If the creationists had their way, this book and many others would be burned, and we would all be compressed into the narrow, narrow bounds of their tiny and unthinking view of the universe. Well, I, for one, refuse to cower before them, refuse to truckle to them, refuse to compromise with them, and intend only to fight them — in order to preserve my simple right to think.

But don’t take my word for it. Find a copy and read it for yourself. For all you know, I could be making all this up just to make a point.

So basically, while Facebook has done me a great favour by putting me back in touch with old friends and gives me a relatively easy way to stay in contact with them, my feed is a dispiriting cocktail of dull non-information, recycled junk and generic photos. It’s not really your fault, friends, but these days it is all just a blur as I dutifully scroll through.

* If you want the facts, which you’ll have to check up on in your own time, here they are: In Switzerland, most men between the ages of 20 and 30 are conscripted into the militia, and keep their service weapon at home; however, the ammunition is kept at the armory and the weapons are to be used only when the militia is called upon to defend Switzerland against invasion. And although Sarah Palin did say, not completely inaccurately, that it is possible to see Russia from Alaska, the quote about seeing it from her home originated in Tina Fey’s parody.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Pointless debates leave me cold

Did you watch it? That debate between Ken Ham, a man who believes that humans and dinosaurs once lived together in harmony while lions munched on grass, and Bill Nye, a man who believes that humans descended from a primaeval slime (and who, on available evidence, made bow ties cool before Matt Smith was even born).

So, did you watch it? I didn’t, but it probably doesn’t matter: for the next few months, or years probably, my Facebook timeline and Twitter feed will fill up with pictures of the two men combined with soundbite quotes from The Debate, probably with an extra explanatory gloss as a caption.

So far, I have gleaned that Nye would change his mind if found evidence that science is wrong, while Ham would never change his mind even if, if his words are to be taken literally, God himself came down and said, “I had nothing to do with it, it was evolution all the way.” Not that Nye’s apparently reasonable position is much better: if taken literally, his words mean that if you simply proved, for example, that the stars are closer than they look, he would reject science and embrace creationism. The way I always understood it, if scientists were presented with this evidence, they would say, “Gosh, I am amazed — I wonder if we can find out what’s causing that?” and come up with an explanation.

So, at the end of the day, you have two completely opposing views being aired once again (having been aired countless times in countless debates, big and small, that have raged for years), and at the end of it nobody will have altered their position one iota or learned anything new; you can bet, though, that both sides are claiming victory. All it’s done is to give the internet more ammunition to hurl at itself.

My own position on this is that Genesis and evolution don’t even belong in the same debate. For the longest time, Christians in general were quite happy with the idea that we probably evolved and didn’t think that had any bearing on the philosophical arguments, allegories and parables in the Old Testament. That’s all changed, and it’s a spectacularly unedifying spectacle. You’d think people had better things to worry about, like how best to feed the starving millions. There’s something religion and science could join forces for.

But no. What’s far more important, apparently, is for people to start arguments that have little point and don’t even make sense. Those who side with science have their innate intellectual superiority to counter the imbecilic ramblings of the creationists, while those who side with religion have the certainty of the Word of God to smite the delusional blasphemies of the heathen.

There is no point to this “debate”; no point at all. It just makes life more unpleasant for those of us who just want to get on in life and try to be nice people.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Doctor W... Woah!

This isn’t going to make any sense to anyone who doesn’t follow my favourite TV show, Doctor Who, so if that’s you, you should probably stop reading now. It is, as I said, my favourite show, but I try not to obsess about it. I don’t have a TV (and in any case I’m in Germany, and by the way, the actor they got to dub Matt Smith’s voice sounds nothing like Matt Smith), but rather than move heaven and earth to see episodes as they go out or search for illegally-uploaded full episodes (which are usually not full episodes, but a screen grab and a description with a link that promises to let me watch it if I let a stranger have my credit card number), I wait until they come out on DVD. That does mean I spend half my time online trying (often unsuccessfully) to avoid spoilers, but this is one of those rare times when I’m fully caught up, so I’m in a self-indulgent mood.

There’s a lot of buzz and speculation about the upcoming 50th anniversary special, which we now know will feature Matt Smith, David Tenant... and a previously unknown incarnation played by — oh my gosh! — John Hurt.

Now it seems that, a week before the big day (and the episode cleverly called The Day of the Doctor — see what they did there?), Steven Moffat has either just let the cat out of the bag in a big way, or has given us one almighty red herring. But let’s just back up a bit, back to the RTD era and the 2005 revival.

One of the important things about the 2005 revival was that it was a revival and not a reboot; it was a continuation of the series, but didn’t pick up where it left off. The last time we saw the Doctor on screen (aside from the occasional parody and the little-known but quite wonderful animated adventure Scream of the Shalka, featuring an alternate 9th Doctor) was in the 1996 made-for-TV movie that failed to start a new series, in which he was played by Paul McGann. In 2005 we met an apparently newly-regenerated 9th Doctor played by Christopher Eccleston (in Rose, he sees himself in a mirror and complains about his ears). We never saw the regeneration, though.

But the Doctor was very different from the last time we saw him. The 8th Doctor was a romantic hero: the 9th was battle-weary, and suffering from survival guilt. We learned that he had been in a war, the Time War, which had destroyed both the Daleks and the Time Lords, and that he was one of the very few survivors. And we learned that somehow he was responsible for the double genocide.

Davies probably didn’t have a long-term plan in mind. The reason we never saw the regeneration was because it was one of the mistakes of the 1996 movie: new audiences we left cold when the character they had just got to know inexplicably changed partway through. The reason for the destruction of Gallifrey was to bring back some of the loneliness to the Doctor’s character, which had been lost as the classic series had gone all soap-opera-y. The reason for his mental battle scars was to re-introduce some danger to the character, make him more ambiguous and unpredictable, as he was way back in 1963 when he kidnapped Ian and Barbara and spent much of the next few months trying to engineer their deaths.

My theory is that Davies unwittingly gave Moffat a nice, big hole to explore in what we know of the Doctor: a regeneration and a war we didn’t see. But more than that: a lot of other unexplained things as well. In Doomsday, for example, the Doctor tells the Cult of Skaro that he survived the Time War by fighting on the front line, before taunting the Cult for having run away; later, in Journey’s End, the Doctor talks about being unable to save Davros.

These stories were penned, remember, by Davies. Moffat didn’t come up with the idea of the Doctor as a mighty warrior: he expanded on it. In A Good Man Goes to War, the Doctor’s warrior instincts resurface, but it takes a severe dressing-down by River Song for him to see it. If, like me, you were slightly uncomfortable with the way the Doctor casually blows up a load of ships just to get the Cybermen’s attention, the explanation for his actions is clearly in his as-yet-untold past.

The thing is, this grates a little. The image of the Doctor, any incarnation of the Doctor, fighting in a war and single-handedly wiping out two civilizations, is preposterous. This, remember, is the same man who, in Genesis of the Daleks, refuses, when he has the chance, to prevent the creation of the Daleks from ever happening, agonising over whether he has the right. What brought about this change?

So there was a vast, untold story, and a space within which to tell that story, and the 50th anniversary special coming up. How could Moffat have resisted?

So in The Name of the Doctor, now clearly the first installment of a trilogy (more on that later), we get a shocking reveal. There is an aspect of the Doctor we have never seen before. To refresh your memory: Clara has thrown herself into the Doctor’s timestream to undo the damage done by the Great Intelligence. Here’s the scene:

More recently, Moffat has said — in one of his infuriatingly cryptic statements — that we have been “lied to” all this time. As River Song says, rule number one is that the Doctor lies. There’s something lurking in the Doctor’s past that we haven’t been told about.

Speculation, obviously, went wild, and theories as to what part John Hurt is actually playing were rife. The 11th Doctor explains that this strange, shadowy figure looking out over the graves at Trenzalore is him, but not “the Doctor”. Yet on screen, Hurt is credited as the Doctor. Intriguing; but since the actual name of the Doctor is still shrouded in secrecy, perhaps there was no other way to describe the character to us. It turns out that the episode was called The Name of the Doctor not because we find out what his name is (although we were led to believe that’s what would happen, leaving us worried that it would turn out to be Keith), but because we find out the significance, to a Time Lord, of choosing his own moniker.

Then we got the first proper trailers for The Day of the Doctor:

This, the second trailer, begins with the 11th Doctor explaining that there is one life he has tried to forget. But what really set bloggers’ keyboards rattling was Hurt’s costume: he is clearly wearing the 9th Doctor’s leather jacket. And underneath it, something that looks like something the 8th Doctor would wear.

A favourite theory at this point was that Hurt was playing a sort of transitional Doctor, perhaps something like the Watcher (between his fourth and fifth incarnations) or the Valeyard (between his 12th and 13th incarnations). It was logical to assume, then, that if Hurt’s character was some sort of mixture of two Doctors, his clothes would reflect that. Moffat has since said he didn’t think the costume was supposed to be that, but while rule number one may not exactly be that Moffat always lies, it is certainly true that Moffat is very devious with the truth. He’s the writer, so may not have had any say in Hurt’s costume. That doesn’t mean the wardrobe didn’t read the script and come up with an appropriate costume for it.

Intriguingly, the BBC also released this short clip, which has a surprising detail:

Just behind the Doctor’s left shoulder, as we see his reaction to the unveiling of the painting, there is a woman wearing the fourth Doctor’s scarf — or something remarkably like it. Significant detail, red herring or just a nod to the series’ past? (I suspect the episode might just have little references to past Doctors and that there’s no more significance to it than simply that.)

But then the BBC released a 6-minute mini-episode on YouTube, entitled The Night of the Doctor, obviously the second part of a trilogy beginning with The Name... and concluding (I would imagine) with The Day... If you haven’t seen it yet, you may want to watch it before reading the rest of this article:

Woah! Not the Doctor we were expecting.

There’s a lot here to please fans. First of all, it features the 8th Doctor. This, after constant denials by writer and actor that McGann would be taking part in the anniversary special. Those denials were the truth and nothing but the truth, they just weren’t the whole truth: not the special itself, but its prequel. And then there’s the way the Doctor recites a list of names as he is about to drink the elixir: although he was only on screen for one story, he had a pretty good run in the semi-official Big Finish audio adventures, and those are the names of the companions he had in those adventures. Die-hard Who fans everywhere could be heard cheering as Moffat, in two seconds flat, brings the highly-regarded audio plays into the official canon.

But unless this is Moffat’s most devious piece of misdirection ever (a possibility that cannot be completely ruled out), we can probably forget any theories involving “the War Doctor” (as he is here credited) as some sort of not-quite-real version of the Doctor. It’s very clear: the 8th Doctor regenerates, not into the 9th Doctor as we had all assumed, but into a man who was the same Time Lord but, as his first words in the voice of John Hurt make clear, “Doctor no more”.

Unless I have got this very wrong, the man who normally calls himself “the Doctor” regenerates, and temporarily gives up that title and with it its attendant promise (to... never kill in cold blood?) in order to play his part in the Time War, fighting as a warrior to save the universe, but at a terrible cost. Later, when he regenerates again, he resumes the title and becomes the 9th Doctor, even though he is the 10th incarnation of that particular Time Lord. He retains the battered old leather jacket until his next regeneration, and the battered old jury-rigged TARDIS until the regeneration after that, which perhaps Moffat is interpreting as a metaphor for his slowly leaving this shameful incarnation behind, even though — as with A Good Man Goes to War — it inevitably never quite goes away again. And now he has to directly confront, and admit to, this past.

But we’re left with a new problem. Traditionally, a Time Lord can regenerate twelve times. And now we discover that the 11th Doctor is in fact the 12th incarnation of [insert unknown name here], which means that the 12th Doctor (who we now know is to be played by Peter Capaldi) ought to be the last, worrying fans everywhere. And yet Moffat, in another typically infuriating interview, has said that yes, the 12-regeneration limit stays, but that yes, Doctor Who will continue... and that we should all re-watch our DVD collections because there’s something we’ve missed.

Well, River Song did give the Doctor all her remaining regenerations, but that’s too obvious. The Master did manage to cheat, but only by stealing a body, in one of the more grisly ideas to come from the Tom Baker days. Fans were left wildly counting on their fingers: there isn’t a war on, but is it possible that we miscounted? It didn’t help that Peter Davison, on the same subject, cryptically said that Moffat had laid the groundwork, and then shut up.

Well, I’m looking forward to seeing how that’s going to work out, but it’s a few years down the line. One thing that intrigues me, though, is that in The Night of the Doctor, the Doctor actually dies, but is then brought back to life by the Sisterhood of Karn in what is not (initially) a regeneration, but a resurrection. Does this perhaps reset his regeneration count?

Friday, November 8, 2013

The inevitable march to middle-age decline

At the age of 43¾, little things continually remind me that youth is now but a fond memory and the relentless march of time is delivering me, unresisting, into the arms of old age. As youthful as my looks still are, bits of me are starting to creak, fail and wrinkle.

Right now, it’s my eyes that are giving me grief. In recent months I’ve had the increasing tendency to take my glasses off to read, and over the last week or two I’ve been straining my eyes just working at the computer. Which means that I am about to join the legions of the Varifocal Brigade, that breed of humanity that has to tip their heads back to read posters.

Still, this morning’s bus driver did his best to cheer me up by addressing me as “young man”, which didn’t cheer me up as much as he’d probably hoped because I was left with the nagging feeling that the fact he called me “young” at all was because he thought I would appreciate it: in other words, that I looked old.

Hoping for a sudden miracle which never came, I trudged my gloomy way into the optician’s, which just happens to have a special offer on varifocals at the moment. “That’s quite fortunate,” I explained to the optician. “I think I’m going to need varifocals.”

“Oh, good,” replied the optician. Not really the answer I was looking for, but at least he wasn’t rubbing his hands as he said it.

This optician was nothing if not thorough. Normally, if, when asked to read the bottom line, I start with, “Well... H, I think... A, or maybe R... Squiggle...” the optician will stop me and adjust something. This man was probably as sadistic as it’s possible for an optician to get, as he made me read to the end of the line. “Good!” he said, as I finally slumped back in a cold sweat. I felt like a schoolchild who was making small but significant breakthroughs in learning to read.

Later, with me wearing those sci-fi superspecs they use to find the right prescription, he gave me a card with texts printed at different sizes, pointed to one paragraph (“This is the standard size for the fine print on contracts...”) and asked me to read it out. Well, he’d got the prescription right, so I rattled through the first couple of sentences and thought he’d stop me. Surely it was obvious I was seeing it pin-sharp?

Nope. This is a man who loves the sound of people reading out loud, apparently. It was a long paragraph, and I actually got bored reading it.

He also gave the Dagger of Potential Mid-Life Crisis an extra gratuitous twist when, having asked me if was taking any medication for diabetes, announced: “I’m afraid I’m going to have to ask you a very personal question. How old are you?”

Here’s a tip for anyone whose job entails asking adults how old they are: the correct way is to ask normally and then, when the answer comes, to look surprised and say, “Gosh, you’re looking good on it, I would never have guessed!”

I was handed over to a nice lady from the sales team who helped me choose a frame and who, at one point, went all apologetic and said, “I’m terribly sorry, but I’m afraid I have to ask how old you are.”

She asked me if I didn’t want a really “chic” frame, which is German for “something that can be seen a mile off”. It’s not just me: one of the things foreigners often tell me they notice first about Germans is their unshakable belief that spectacles are the perfect showcase for avant-garde fashion. I politely explained that, being British, I have a slightly different idea of the aesthetics of eyeware and preferred something more discreet.

Now, as I said, this optician’s is currently having a special offer on varifocals; but I was perfectly well aware that what you get for the price written in huge digits on the posters (preceeded by the tiny word “from”) is a pair of glasses that looks ugly, fits only one person in the entire world (and it isn’t you) and is only of any use if you promise never to work at a computer. A pair that will actually help you see is going to cost so much, they have to make you sit down before telling you. And so it proved.

We did the business of me promising to come back in two weeks to take away a pair of glasses and them promising to suck vast amounts of money from my bank account, during which she needed my address and phone number. Being the clever, practical sort, I just handed over my business card.

“You teach English!” she exclaimed. “Why, that’s the perfect job for you!”

“How so?”

“Well, you being English and all.”

I am very rarely rendered speechless. But really, what was I supposed to say to that?

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Video killed the radio star (sort of)

For a few months, until recently, I was on an English-language radio show broadcast on a small community station in the Oldenburg area. I didn’t get to travel up to Oldenburg: I “phoned in” my pieces live via Skype, and it all worked pretty well.

But the imaginately-named English Show came to an end, only to rise again as a TV show. Still on the same community station, but now on TV instead of radio. The downside is that there will only be one show every two months (at least at first), but that’s okay because it means a lot of extra work for me. I’ll now be filming and editing my reports, and sending them in.

The show is going to be called L!ve from the Schlaues Haus, the “Schlaues Haus” being the name of the building where the studios are. It won’t actually be live, but it will be recorded “as live”, which is just as scary.

You don’t have to be in Oldenburg to see it, as it will also be broadcast on the internet. The dates and times of the first show are as follows:
  • Friday, 15th November, 5 pm
  • Saturday, 16th November, 5 pm
  • Sunday, 17th November, 10 pm
  • Wednesday, 20th November, 7 pm and 11 pm
  • Thursday, 21st November, 7pm and 11 pm.
All times are Central European Time.

A good idea would be to follow me on Twitter, and I’ll try to remind you of the broadcasts nearer the time, assuming I remember myself. But after all the broadcasts are over, I’ll be uploading my pieces to YouTube, but in high definition (so you can see all the mistakes in much better quality).

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Filming pets

Filming your pets can be a tricky business, because they won’t adapt to you: you have to adapt to them. They won’t always take direction, although dogs can be trained to follow orders and do tricks, as can some other animals. Other than that, they can be very unpredictable and can spend a lot of time running out of shot, refusing to stay put or doing nothing of any interest at all. And if you can predict what they’ll do in a given situation, the chances are the first time you point a camera at them, they’ll be too interested in the camera.

Our cats, Bonnie and Clyde, are now used to having cameras pointed at them, so most the time cameras get ignored. Even so, getting something interesting on film involves pointing cameras at them a lot. As it happens, there is one thing they enjoy doing with me that is intrinsically interesting: they like to accompany me on short walks.

Still, there’s a great deal more footage that wasn’t used in this video than was used. In a sense, an interesting pet video has to be a sort of “edited highlights”. This one, however, is partly an exception to this, because I chose shots that, put together in the right way, tell a story. To get enough footage to be able to do that meant filming almost the whole time. Shots that might look as if they follow on from each other might in fact have been taken a minute or two apart.

That aside, there is one very important rule when filming pets — and this also applies to children. Get the camera down to their level: their eye level, if you can. For cats, this means holding the camera a couple of inches off the ground: some of those tracking shots involved me walking like a gibbon with lumbago. No wonder it looks a bit rough in places.

One possible way to make this sort of filming slightly more comfortable might be to put the camera on a monopod, and then hold it upside-down. You could then walk normally with a straight back, and you’d only have to worry about keeping your subject in shot and not hitting any stones with your camera. You can then digitally flip the image at the editing stage. The disadvantage of this would be that you would not be able to reach your camera’s controls.

Still, here it is: me going for a walk with the cats.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

How mistranslations occur

Ever been faced with a horrible piece of gobbledegook instead of easy-to-follow instructions? A friend of mine was confronted with this prize offering, after using a translation app:

In convectomaten they dampen the pasta in a perforated container gastronomy. Then pivot in liquid butter.

The original was, of course, in German, a language that presents special difficulties to machine translators because of its unusual word order. It serves as a great example of the complexities of human language: it’s not really the fault of the people who wrote the app, it’s just that modern computers are number-crunching machines and actually have no capacity to think.

So let’s go through the whole thing and see if we can make sense of it.

convectomaten: This would appear to be the German word Konvektomaten, which is Konvektomat plus a grammatical ending. This is a convection oven, as used in the catering industry. These aren’t instructions for your average housewife. So the original German is either im Konvektomaten (“in the convection oven”) or in Konvektomaten (“in convection ovens”). Regardless of which it was, the more idiomatic English rendering would be “in a convection oven”.

they: This very clearly represents the German word Sie. This can have different meanings: it can mean “she”, but if the verb is used in its plural form, it can mean either “they”, or the polite form of “you”. If it’s the latter, it will always be spelled with a capital S. What the app doesn’t understand, of course, is that because this is a set of instructions, it’s more likely “you”. In German, instructions are issued in the polite form in this manner: Helfen Sie mir means “Help me”, for example.

dampen: The German word dämpfen can mean “dampen” — the close similarity of the words is obvious — but in the sense of “suppress”, not “moisten”. In cooking, this word actually means “steam”.

container gastronomy: The German for “container” is Behälter; straightforward enough. The German word Gastronomie refers to the catering business: cafés, restaurants, snack bars and so on are all in the Gastronomie business. Put the two words together, and you get Gastronomiebehälter, which is a catering container, or a food container. These are those standardized stainless steel containers used by caterers and self-service restaurants. The food is cooked in them, and then they are simply transferred to a bain marie to keep them warm, and the food served straight from them. I’m not sure why the app reversed the order of those two words: the original order would actually have made more sense.

pivot: Translate this word into German, and you get schwenken. This can mean other things besides: to rotate, to swivel, to turn, and so on. But in the context of cooking, we use the word “toss”. Incidentally, the word “they” doesn’t appear here: either the app has this time understood that we’re dealing with an instruction, or the original German uses the alternative form, a simple infinitive instead of the third person plural.

liquid: Clearly, this should be “molten” or “melted”.

So I would guess that the original German might have something like this:

Im Konvektomaten, dämpfen Sie die Pasta in einem perforierten Gastronomiebehälter. Danach in flüssiger Butter schwenken.

That may not be exactly what it said, but it must be close. This translates as:

In a convection oven, steam the pasta in a perforated catering container. Then toss in melted butter.

Much better. Not perfect (“toss in melted butter” is ambiguous), but it’s much clearer what it means.