Sunday, July 14, 2024

WE’VE GOT THE RIGHT TO CHOOSE [457]


You do not have to accept the internet pushing information to you that you don’t want to see. It has taken me long enough to act on this advice, but taking a few seconds to complete small actions have, and will, make using the internet, and social media in particular, more serene.

This began only around a year ago, when I stopped clicking “Accept All” to cookies on websites. Reading the disclaimers on cookie notifications reveals scores of companies listed that use data generated by your interaction, anonymised or not, for whatever use they need, even if just for counting your having accessed the page, or how long you stayed there. 

Choosing “Reject All”, or taking the time to scroll through and deselecting options on personalised content and advertising performance, gave me peace of mind that, down the line, I might get fewer phishing scam e-mails for services I know I don’t use. The phrase “legitimate interest” comes up a lot: “Some vendors are not asking for your consent, but are using your personal data on the basis of their legitimate interest” – following that by stating said interest would be helpful, especially if some sites rely on information about advertising to help them stay in business.

Having taken care of the wider internet, social media remained problematic. Usually, the best thing to do would be to avoid the “For You” tab now prevalent on many such sites, keeping to accounts you already follow, but algorithms may still throw up a surprise that finally fits your interests, like YouTube recommending the “third episode” of “Turn-On” I spoke about recently.

The “For You” section on the other sites I use are as follows: Threads has people moaning about Elon Musk, Donald Trump and Apple computer products; Mastodon’s equivalent “Local” tab doesn’t display anything written in English; Instagram has brutalist architecture; and Twitter – I’m still not calling it “X” – is a cesspit of rage, telling people what they can and cannot believe, or be.

Twitter has always been a bit of a puzzle for me – I can choose to search for something someone said on Twitter, because the news is reporting it, and I will then be recommended similar stuff from then on. I cannot pretend to understand Twitter’s algorithm, even with its program having been posted to the technology development website GitHub, but suffice to say that, if you engage with something, you become stuck to it.

Fortunately, I have found a more straightforward workaround, although its location is a little buried. Going to “Settings and privacy”, then “Privacy and safety”, then “Content you see”, then finally “Interests”, you are presented with an almighty list of what Twitter thinks you want to see, gleaned from my fifteen years of using the site. 

Having taken the implied compliment that my interests are wide, I started wondering why it was recommending football to me, something I have never searched for. I have followed the broadcaster and music journalist Danny Baker for years because he writes entertainingly, and has stories to tell from across his career, but he also broadcasted about football for years, and writes about that as eloquently as he does about everything else. All that eyeball time has built up, along with any time any of the other people I follow talk about British politics, American politics, Dungeons & Dragons, protests both for and against transgender rights, Star Wars, and Star Trek.

Fortunately, I can start unticking some of these “interests”. Out goes the football, the politics, and “Good Morning Britain” (the current one, not the TV-am original). Why is Kanye West there, or Piers Morgan, or J.K. Rowling? I’m not American, so who is Herman Cain? Why the fixation on female news presenters like Fiona Bruce, Victoria Derbyshire and Susanna Reid?

So much of this speaks to the “Sturm und Drang” that is the background of Twitter, that my having gone past it appears to have been mistaken for my reading it. I have taken to muting some accounts to prevent some subjects appearing, usually those that provoke the most reactions in other people.

I have been unable to find similar lists for Meta’s websites like Facebook, Instagram or Threads, but the content I am being pushed on there appears to be benign enough for me not to worry about it, and only Twitter was causing concern. Now just need to make sure I keep an eye out for something that might snowballs on social media, or avoid clicking “Accept All” by accident.

Sunday, July 7, 2024

YOU BETTER NOT LOOK DOWN [456]

Sir Keir Starmer's official Prime Ministerial portrait

“Whoso pulleth out this sword from this stone and anvil is the true born King of all Britain.”

The opening spoken passage of Rick Wakeman’s “Arthur” is just about the only part the BBC have not used to introduce their General Election coverage since 1979, but with each seat having been contested contested on the premise of “may the best person win”, a place could surely be found.

I followed this election through my fingers from the moment it began. The unforced errors of Rishi Sunak’s Conservative Party campaign ranged from calling it in the pouring rain, announcing the return of National Service, leaving the D-Day commemorations in France early, through to investigations into party members’ insider knowledge for betting on when the election would take place, and the disputed “£2,094” per household that having a Labour party in government would cost. Having a working state for the cost of a Sky TV subscription, something Sunak counted not having as a deprivation in his childhood, could be a good deal.

While Sir Ed Davey seemingly went on an extreme sports holiday to bring attention to the Liberal Democrats, and Nigel Farage decided we were worth his attention over Donald Trump, all Sir Keir Starmer had to do was remain statesmanlike, talk about returning politics to service, and following through on that once elected... 

Then the election became about keeping transgender women out of women’s spaces, with Starmer saying he thought they shouldn’t be allowed, and offering to meet J.K. Rowling to discuss her concerns, as the de facto leader of the “gender critical” movement, which abjectifies an entire group of people by asserting sex over gender at all costs. Starmer wants there to be a “reset moment” for trans people, removing the toxicity from the national conversation, but I would love to find out how he will do that.

Once again, I tried to watch the election results through the night, expecting the momentum prompted by the exit poll’s prediction of a Labour Party landslide to drive the TV coverage. I had seen enough polls predicting a “supermajority” of five hundred seats for Labour, but I was expecting a result like that seen in 1997, which was 418 Labour seats to the Conservatives’ 165 seats. The exit poll had 410 versus only 131, and while the thirteen forecast seats for the right-wing Reform UK were concerning, this was explained as being due to lack of sampling data, expected to be revised downwards. There was enough to talk about, but the first hour of coverage was dominated by a race to declare the first result. 

I mostly stayed with the BBC’s TV coverage, as ITV and Channel 4 had opted to include former politicians in their core teams – one verbal spar between Alistair Campbell and Nadine Dorries put me off Channel 4 for the night – and ITV had centred its coverage around one massive, visually uninteresting desk. After a full day’s work, and no longer able to keep my eyes open, I wound up retiring to bed at 12.45am, with only six results having been called. I woke up again at 4.40am to Rishi Sunak winning his seat for the Conservatives, but conceding the race – Labour’s Sir Keir Starmer had become Prime Minister, his party eventually winning 412 out of 650 seats, with a total of 33.7% of votes cast, on a 60% turnout.

What the public was voting for appeared not to be Labour, but Not-The-Tories, or Not-The-SNP in Scotland. Tactical or protest voting caused seats previously safe for one party to become more marginal this time around. People punished the Conservative government for leaving the country in a worse condition than when they assumed power in 2010. Meanwhile, some independent candidates won over parties due to specific issues like the war in Gaza. The First Past the Post system rewards the winner, but it means Labour enters Parliament with a shallow voter base.

The biggest protest vote was for Reform UK, the fourth party under which Nigel Farage has run for Parliament, which won five seats despite receiving 14.3% of votes, splitting the right-wing vote with the Conservate Party. If your party gets few seats because most of your candidates came second or third, then of course you could have done better if the rules were different. Changing to a proportional representation system would have benefitted the Liberal Party in 1974, the SDP in 1983, and Reform UK in 2024, but wanting to change the system because it would benefit you specifically is suspect, especially after a referendum in 2011 to change to an “alternate vote” system was, well, voted down.

It is imperative that, for whenever the next election take place, the Conservative Party regains its focus. British politics is usually fought from the centre ground, moving further left or right leaves people behind. Voting for Farage’s parties has been used most effectively as a blunt instrument in previous local, general and European elections, and while Farage talks of professionalising Reform UK, still currently a limited company over which he has the most voting shares, his stated aim of supplanting the Conservatives won’t happen if the Conservatives take his place first.

As for the new Prime Minister, all he needs to do is make our lives better while keeping the noise down. If he does, we might allow him to keep doing it.

Saturday, June 29, 2024

DRIVE FAST, SPEED TURNS ME ON [455]


After twenty years of waiting to see “Turn-On”, the American TV sketch show cancelled during its one and only episode, its unearthing in 2023, along with a second episode that was completed but never shown, was a “holy grail” moment for me, rewarding the anticipation.

Therefore, I was dismayed to find that a “third” episode had, completely without my knowledge, been made available to all on YouTube for the last four months.

Posted to “Clown Jewels”, a repository channel for shows produced by “Turn-On” producer George Schlatter that were not “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In”, which has its own channel, “The Lost Episode” is really an assembly of the remaining footage available for the show, as described by Schlatter: “We had more footage than we knew what to do with. Endless pieces were found in our vault. It was a challenge and a treat to create more offbeat, crazy programming for the offbeat YouTube audience.”

Watching many segments of “Laugh-In” makes clear that sketches were shot in blocks – they were not asking Sammy Davis Jr back every week to say “Here Comes the Judge”. Having many hours of footage to work with then makes assembling episodes a matter of selecting which sketches fit alongside each other, and how those are paced over one episode. This is true of all TV sketch shows, but the sheer number of sketches made for “Laugh-In” makes the process more visible.


This is why I felt the third episode of “Turn-On” didn’t work so well. Of course, two episodes is not enough for patterns to establish themselves, but I saw there were more interstitial shots of mainframe computer control rooms, and of Spirograph-like patterns, because they were there to use. The repeated presence of actor Sebastian Cabot, going uncredited here, suggests he would have been the guest star of the completed third episode, but these appear alongside pieces with Tim Conway, the first episode’s guest. The constant synthesiser beats of the first episode, replaced by punchline punctuation in episode two, is back this time around, but you cannot determine if this was the intended soundtrack, or a choice made in the editing process today.

Still, it would be better for me to accept the pieces that we now have available to view, regardless of how they have been presented: spraying deodorant on the Statue of Liberty. A speech bubble saying “Mommy!” coming from a woman’s navel. “I’m the Boston Strangler-" “Margaret, it’s for you.” Tim Conway messily eating peanut butter and jelly/jam to Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture. Someone leaving the bathroom in a towel to answer their car phone. Tim Conway trying and failing to gas himself with exhaust fumes, but his car won’t start – even the breakdown truck won’t run him over. A cartoon of a man attempting to pop a child’s balloon, so the child pops them – there are enough cartoons here to make you think you are watching an adult “Sesame Street” but may have been intended for multiple further episodes.

More recently, the “Clown Jewels” channel has started posting the revival of the “Laugh-In” format, which lasted for six episodes from 1977. The hellzapoppin’ format of the original “Laugh-In” and of “Turn-On” is evident, and holds the show together, but the knowledge of what followed made you wish they would just put the camera on then-unknown cast member Robin Williams, and leave it there.

Sunday, June 23, 2024

FLASH, BANG, WALLOP, WHAT A PICTURE [454]


I can see why you might suggest a child uses bleach to make art. Taking a surface of ink, applying drops of a solution of four parts water to one part bleach, or applying it with a brush or matchstick, applies chance, unpredictability and excitement to the making of the artwork.

Of course, this would immediately be followed by advising adult supervision, finding alternative materials, or banning it altogether. Meanwhile, a book made for children in 1970, and published by the BBC, made clear to its young readers that you must be extremely careful when handling bleach, followed by explaining how you do exactly that, putting responsibility alongside creativity.

“Bleach” was the second word in the alphabet used by “Vision On: A Book of Nonsense with Some Sense In It”, a book published in 1970 to accompany the celebrated children’s programme, which ran from 1964 to 1976. It looks and feels like a children’s annual, but is instead a “a sort of alphabet book for anyone who likes painting and drawing”. But “Bleach” is on page 36, its alphabet ordered randomly: “The book has been made this way because it’s mainly about looking at things – and because if you put things in the proper way, people sometimes stop looking at them.”


When I saw a copy of this book in an emporium, listed as “rare”, I bought it straight away. “Vision On”, a fast-moving entertainment show ostensibly made for deaf children, prominently featured art works alongside comedy sketches, mime and animation, all keeping spoken passages and captions to a minimum. It can play like a silent movie, but it will hold your attention.

As the only official “Vision On” tie-in book, “A Book of Nonsense...” takes time to explain each of its subjects, utilising elements from the show: photographs from sporting events are used to explain concepts like foreshortening and motion blurring; David Cleveland’s “Prof” character is presented in a picture story using elements of photo-montage; metal objects are pressed with ink to make pictures from shapes, then made into sculptures; British Sign Language is introduced, in an article by co-presenter Pat Keysell, to explain why it is more enjoyable to use than lip-reading; comic strip conversations are made from photographs of a girl and her tortoise, and drawings of the show’s animated character “Jonah” - David Sproxton & Peter Lord’s “Aardman” and “Morph” came later in the show’s run; concepts like texture and optical illusions are fully explained; and new artistic forms like Chinese brushes in ink, and creating pictures with oil pain on water, are introduced for when you have finished using the bleach.


The key article for this book is “Observation and Art”, from the show’s artist Tony Hart, who created the “Blue Peter” logo and shield, and continued making similar shows for children until his retirement in 2001. Explaining that they “have suggested some unusual ways of making pictures”, it is then explained that the key is not just knowing what to use, but where to use, explaining composition like arranging ornaments on a mantelpiece. Negative space is also explained, and also how chance and nature plays a part in composition: “The patterns formed by frost and ice, the way bark forms on trees. Drop a handful of nails – see the angles they make. Do it with matches, see the difference.” The article ends by confirming that, while the show looks for artistic ability in the viewer-submitted “Gallery” feature, they are not prescriptive: “The whole point being that someone, whatever their age, has been observant. They’ve used their eyes, and their imagination has done the rest.”

While I never tried emulating the artworks made by Hart on his later show “Hartbeat”, or by Neil Buchanan on “Art Attack”, it is clear now that what made great television was meant to start young minds running. Likewise, “A Book of Nonsense” is not didactic or pedagogic, but inspirational – I’ll try ink with a brush first.

Sunday, June 16, 2024

I’M COUNTING ON YOU, DEAR [453]

Apple's macOS 14 calculator

With Apple’s grafting of artificial intelligence onto the next updates of their devices’ operating systems, I found it hilarious that the addition of a calculator app to the iPad received so much anticipation. 

“Apple Intelligence” will only be available on certain devices with the necessary processors and RAM to undertake tasks inside the device - my iPhone 14 Pro, bought in late 2022, is not set up for it, but it does have a built-in calculator.

My owning many purpose-built calculators, filled with tangible, clicking buttons, has made Apple’s calculator app an afterthought for me for years, whether its face was inspired by the design philosophy of Braun and Dieter Rams or not. Turning your phone sideways to access scientific functions requires me to unlock the screen’s “portrait orientation” first, and when I do, there are no time calculation functions available. Screenshots of the replacement app appear to change the orientation issue at the very least. The calculation app I do use is Free42, recreating the advanced Hewlett-Packard HP42S, letting me use Reverse Polish Notation (RPN) as well.

Apple has a perfectly capable calculator app, available on its desktop and laptop computers, and it appears to be this which has formed the base of the new calculator for iOS and iPad OS. My reason for thinking this is recall of previous calculations, known under the skeuomorphic name of “Paper Tape” on macOS, and the addition of unit conversions, locating time functions there, and including currency conversions using data provided by Yahoo – I have never used this, as while this conversion rate may be of use to people working in finance, more useful to many more would be tourist rates, or even the rates that PayPal are currently using.

“Math Notes” is the major innovation on the new calculator app, supporting the handwriting of calculations and equations, which the app will then immediately solve, and re-solve if variables are changed – this was used by Apple as a further selling point for Apple Pencil, but using a finger will suffice. 

This feature feels like the endpoint of the various school calculator input methods like Sharp’s DAL (Direct Algebraic Logic) and Casio’s VPAM (Visually Perfect Algebraic Method) and Natural Textbook Display, all touted as innovations that help you input calculations like they are listed on the page. I have never got on with these, partly because this was not how I was taught maths at A-Level, which was to use the calculator to answer pieces of an equation, but use paper for the rest, and so I have always believed that just copying up the problem won’t help you understand it – you use these if you only need the answer, not an explanation of how you got there. At least Casio’s new scientific calculators rearranged themselves to make them more enticing to explore, something not required of Apple’s app.

Will I use the new app when my phone is updated? Probably not – while it is currently in beta mode, to be released later in 2024, I do not see the RPN option I use on Free42. With other apps having for years met the needs that Apple had not supplied with their own app, more features and customisation is required to match those offerings – either that, or add Math Notes to the desktop app, and put that on my phone.

Saturday, June 8, 2024

A DREAM THAT WOULD MAKE YOU SCREAM [452]


Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí’s Surrealist short film “Un Chien Andalou” – or “Sunshine and the Loo”, as YouTube’s voice-activated search misheard my many requests – was first premièred in Paris on 6th June 1929. Deliberately conceived to have scenes and imagery that defy rational explanation, it became a classic of the Surrealist movement officially founded five years earlier, while its images, from the famous cutting of a woman’s eye with a razor, to a man dragging two pianos and two priests, being endlessly referenced and reproduced.

However, the act of watching “Unchain on the Moon” makes you try to resolve those images into a semblance of order. That is not the fault of the film - it is simply how the mind processes what you see. Your mind demands an explanation when the images themselves were conceived with no need of one. I previously wrote about pareidolia, where the mind perceives familiar patterns in something where there is none, and where the lyrics of Sir Elton John’s deliberately nonsensical song “Solar Prestige a Gammon” still conveyed a “life carries on” meaning in its performance.

But “And She and Do” is a film, of course, and the language of “continuity editing”, as popularised by the Classical Hollywood era that was still getting underway in 1929, will have its effect on your perception, just as my perception of Dalí’s painting “The Persistence of Memory” were changed by seeing how small it is in real life. My dreams have “continuity editing”, such is the cultural consensus on how film language is read by an audience that doesn’t need to learn to “write” it. The forming of scenes and sequences, cuts and fades under agreed patterns of editing, to define the film’s mise en scène, are then expected to work in every case, so it is perhaps no wonder that the intertitles of “And on the loop” must be used to obfuscate its timeline, declaring “eight years later”, “around three in the afternoon” or “sixteen years ago”, even when the scene does not change.

Real time has perhaps not worked in favour of “Union and You”, especially as Dalí reused and commodified his imagery – ants were a symbol of decay for Dalí, but they now symbolise Dalí. The film he and Buñuel made was meant to provoke and offend, but its favourable reception on its première was itself offensive to Dalí, and I would put that down to “Ed Sheeran and blue” being rendered conventional by the collective notion of what a film is – it being colourised and cut down to a two-minute interstitial for “MTV in the Eye” in the late 1980s ensured any intended shock value was truly mislaid, despite leaving all the famous images intact, and making for one of the few times the music of Richard Wagner was played on MTV.

Saturday, June 1, 2024

AND I WANT ALL YOU’VE GOT [451]


“The Fox” is an album released by Sir Elton John in 1981 that I have overlooked for some time – I own a CD copy of it, but didn’t pay too much attention to it because there are no identifiable “hits” from it that continue to receive airplay, or remain in concert setlists.

This is a shame, because it has completely captured my attention as of late. The three songs that were released as singles all managed to be different from each other: “Chloe” is a soulful song making good use of a Fender electric piano; “Nobody Wins”, originally a French-language song by Jean-Paul Dreau titled “J'Veux de la Tendresse”, is the most synthesised Elton John song I have heard, even down to a busy drum pattern programmed by Roger Linn, presumably on his own Linn LM-1 drum machine; and “Just Like Belgium” is a nostalgic, poppy track not unlike the later “Club at the End of the Street”, down to the blistering saxophone solo. 

These many changes in tone, including the more classical “Carla/Etude – Fanfare” sequence, arranged and co-composed by James Newton Howard, and the unrequited love ballad “Elton’s Song”, evoke earlier double-albums like “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” and “Blue Moves”, make attempting to capture an artist’s entire range in only eleven songs and forty-six minutes an experience that requires maximum attention, with some breaks.

But what I discovered were two further songs that, while they remained album tracks, are exactly the sort of gospel-tinged barnstormers that have firmly lodged themselves in my mind from the moment I heard them: “Heels of the Wind” and “Breaking Down Barriers”. The latter of these is on its way to becoming one of my favourite Elton John songs, having a drive not unlike “The Bitch is Back” or “Bite Your Lip (Get Up and Dance!)”,and having the classic Elton John Band line-up of drummer Nigel Olsson and bassist Dee Murray, while still featuring John singing in his higher register, with falsetto as the song fades out. “Breaking Down Barriers” has lyrics by Gary Osborne, instead of John’s soul-mate collaborator Bernie Taupin, but they are perfect: “you have shown me a better way, and now I’m learning fast”,  and “I’m taking down barriers, and loving what I find”. 


“The Fox” was the first Elton John release under a US contract with Geffen Records – when John asked David Geffen about calling the album “The Fox”, he asked that a song be written for it with that title. This fact comes from a “telepress conference” for the album in 1981, which was presented as a daytime chat show presented by John himself, taking every opportunity to perform to the camera, while also keeping the show together as host, his “guests” being producers and marketing managers for Geffen Records. The tableau of desk, TV and stuffed fox that make the album cover were recreated for the occasion, the fox making its way to John’s desk. 

Intended for internal use and distributed on video tape to regional offices of Warner Bros. Records, distributors of the album, a copy of the conference has made its way to the repository of YouTube to give a valuable insight into how important this album was for the entire chain of command from artist to commercial staff.

What has also made its way to YouTube on 22nd May 2024 were the videos for every song on “The Fox”. Separate videos for “Nobody Wins” and “Elton’s Song” had been available for a while, but they formed part of a whole work titled “Visions”, released on VHS cassette, laserdisc and CED video disc in 1982. There is an apparently a wraparound element to the videos where someone is watching them, but the songs are presented on video individually. “Visions” was not re-released after 1982, so to see these videos essentially for the first time, and in high quality, is like filling in a gap in the history of music videos. You do see some elements, like backdrops, being re-used across the different videos, but they are all different from each other, and not simply a recording of a performance. They are directed by Russell Mulcahy, whose video for The Buggles’ “Video Killed the Radio Star” ushered in MTV, and continued directing for Elton John, and Duran Duran, through the decade. 

What I was most surprised about by “Visions” was, like the conference video, John’s performances to camera – in the comedic video for “Heels of the Wind”, I kept thinking I was watching Rick Moranis. However, you can’t help but compare these with John’s later avoidance from appearing in videos altogether.