Sunday, September 25, 2022

WHAT A BEAUTIFUL WORLD THIS WILL BE [362]


I distinctly remember the hope that, when the Covid-19 pandemic eventually drew to a close, the ensuing momentum that would follow such a seismic event could have been the beginning of a new “Roaring Twenties”, last seen following the First World War and the flu pandemic of 1918.

Of course, it does not feel like this has happened, replaced more by a need to return things to normal, just as the proposals to redraw the map of London following the Great Fire of 1666 was replaced by a need to rebuild as soon as possible.

This has left me feeling like the 2020s haven’t really started yet culturally, much like when the 1960s were said to have started with The Beatles in 1963, or when the 1990s were ushered in by Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” in 1991. The pandemic acted more like a stress test than a creative inspiration, before counting the threat it made to live music venues, in places like Liverpool and Seattle, that help foment the scenes that changed popular music.

The reason I have started thinking about this now was its having been prompted by reading many articles about the prospects of a “post-Elizabethan age” – following the death of the Queen, having been a symbol of stability and consensus for so long, what country is the UK going to become, and how will things progress under King Charles III and Prime minister Liz Truss? 

It feels like fundamental changes are expected, but it is not known what they could be, or what for they should take, because elements of that expectation were themselves not expected. Who are we counting on to enact the change? Someone creative? A ground swell? 

I don’t think it is possible to expect a paradigm shift, unless this a result of anxiety. Beatlemania and Nirvana may have ushered in the “Sixties” and the “Nineties”, but the ironic detachment and post-Cold War relief that characterised the “Nineties” was definitively ended by the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center in 2001, just as the end of the “Elizabethan age” was not an event to prepare for. If the lockdown caused by Covid-19 is considered a paradigm shift, it is only in the sense that the standard procedure for progress to take was interrupted or stopped, while happening to coincide with the beginning of the decade.

I think this is one of those times where I don’t know what to expect. The UK has seen uncertainty in one form or another caused by Brexit, Covid, and by changes in Prime Minister and Monarch, unless this proves to be the character of the 2020s – we are already nearly three years in, so it might be time to either call it now, or start preparing to make the 2030s as great as possible.

Sunday, September 18, 2022

ON THEE OUR HOPES WE FIX [361]


With the UK still in a period of national mourning as I write this, I decided that discussing the prospects for the country and monarchy can wait for now. 

 

What I do know is that the passing of Queen Elizabeth II will be noted most visibly when the face on the UK’s money and postage stamps begin to change. I have already been witness to this, when the smaller 5 and 10 pence coins introduced in 1990 and 1992 respectively removed one and two shilling coins featuring King George VI, and possibly still George V, from circulation, but that was a change due to progress. Any change this time will be felt more keenly, especially when for the last fifty-five years, the UK has had perhaps the best postage stamps in the world.

 

The Royal Philatelic Collection is one of the largest and most valuable stamp collections in the world. It was begun by King George V, although stamp collecting has been a part of the Royal Family since 1864, not so long after the Royal Mail introduced the Penny Black in 1840 as the world’s first adhesive postage stamp. The Queen continued the collection, currently stored at Windsor Castle.

 

With the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland substituting the monarch’s face for writing its country name on its stamps, Arnold Machin’s standard “definitive” stamp design used since June 1967 is the most simple and effective design possible: the effigy of Queen Elizabeth II, created by Machin in clay, wearing the George IV State Diadem, a crown that includes the roses, thistles and shamrocks that featured separately on the former, more busy standard stamp design; the price value of the stamp; and a single colour used, helping to differentiate from other values of stamp.

I have a stamp collection, mostly kept within one book, and in looking back into it now, the cumulative effect of seeing so many of the “Machin series”, in so many different colours, across so many pages, puts me in mind of Andy Warhol’s pop art screenprints, again reproducing the same image in different colours, except they cost substantially more.

 

This simplicity and effectiveness of this design has doomed attempts to change it. A proposal to change the Queen’s portrait in 1981, just as Machin’s separate portrait for the original set of decimal coinage was also being replaced, was met with a letter from the subject’s private secretary: “Her Majesty is very content with the Machin effigy and thinks that a work of real quality is required if this is to be replaced.” 

 

Other attempts to change the design were rejected by Royal Mail’s Stamp Advisory Committee and by Machin himself, but the Queen’s gentle intervention does make you think that, if your face is the only change that can be made to something, you will more than likely say no. With the Queen having final say over her 1967 portrait, and even requesting the colour of the original 4d. stamp to closely match the original 1840 Penny Black, the sense of personal investment is palpable. It has made this portrait of the Queen into possibly most reproduced picture of a single person there has ever been, or will ever be.

 

Of course, Machin’s design will now have to be changed. My prediction, and hope, is that King Charles’s portrait will simply be used instead, the rest of the stamp staying as it is, but it remains to be seen if the opportunity will be taken to create an entirely new design. 




Sunday, September 4, 2022

COLOURS OF THE WORLD, SPICE UP YOUR LIFE [360]

Left: digitised VHS source. Right: colour boosted in video editor.

Having completed my video about Memphis furniture [link], I am confident I have made a well-structured piece of television with good use of archive material, but I also learned how terrible the Video Home System (VHS) really was.

Having decided to include a fake advertisement break that reflected the influence of Memphis design, I realised that the recordings I used literally paled in comparison to my photographs of the real-life furniture. I already needed to boost the colour of the Weetabix ad I used, using a different VHS copy of it for reference, having being unable to find a copy that was higher in resolution and also not muddy in colour, but then I realised the colour of Warninks advocaat is yellow, not cream, and the swimming pool ladder in the Kitekat ad had to be brighter to match the more obvious influences in the colours and patterns used.

This is not a case of my digital photographs versus (the digital sample of) an analogue tape, the relative age of the tape, or the decline in quality of the recording over time, but more the technical limitations of the VHS format that have largely been overcome by the switch to digital formats, through no longer being constrained by a physical form.

On a 12.5mm-wide VHS tape, the top 0.65mm is taken up with one or two audio tracks, and the bottom 0.75mm is a control track used for synchronising recording and playback. The remaining 9mm is used for the picture, with a signal bandwidth of 3 MHz for luminance – the black-and-white signal that forms the picture - and a 400 kHz sub-signal for chrominance, reproducing the colour. 

These numbers obviously doesn’t mean a lot by themselves, except that less space on video formats are reserved for colour signals because your eyes react more to changes in brightness, so a colour signal can be compressed more without much change in colour. However, the bandwidth of the original TV signal being recorded is much wider, with the PAL video standard using 5.5 MHz for luminance, and 4.43 MHz for chrominance, SECAM using 6 MHz and 4.43 MHz respectively, and NTSC, broadcasting a 525-line picture instead of 625 lines, using 4.2 MHz and 3.58 MHz respectively. 

In order to fit your recording onto the tape, VHS has to throw much of the signal away in a manner that befits having tape only half an inch wide, playing at 1-1.5 inches per second – older professional, broadcast quality tape standards like 2-inch quadruplex, 1-inch Type C and U-Matic recorded a better quality by simply having more surface area to play with, running a wider tape more quickly to pick up as much information as possible. The later S-VHS standard increased the luminance signal recorded to 5.4 MHz, but kept the chrominance signal, and the speed of the tape, exactly the same.

While the picture quality of the contemporary Betamax format was better than VHS, the throwaway nature of TV advertisements often mean that the format that won out in the video format war often winds up as the archive format for those ads. One point of my video as to show how colourful 1980s design was but, without me doing anything with some of the images, another point would have been how our recordings of the decade washed out that colour.

Sunday, August 28, 2022

DO I REALLY FEEL THE WAY I FEEL? [359]


[See above for my video, which uses the below script.]

Coming up, I tell you what this is, what this is, and what this is, and explain why the answers don’t really matter.

[Opening titles: 359. Walking in Memphis Furniture, or “Do I Really Feel the Way I Feel?”]

Hello there. “Memphis” is the name of a group of international designers that ran from 1980 to 1988, led by Italian architect and Olivetti typewriter designer Ettore Sottsass. The group existed to question the functional nature of modern design. I am not here to explain and analyse the history and philosophy of this group, or to analyse their work in detail. I only want to share with you how wonderfully overwhelming it all is.

In June 2021, I took a trip to the MK Gallery in Milton Keynes to view “Memphis: Plastic Field”, a touring exhibition that gathered over a hundred and sixty examples of furniture, textiles and glassware from across the group’s timeline. I am grateful to the gallery for letting me take pictures, letting me walk through the exhibition twice, and dressing the galleries in high-contrast black and white, like the exhibits needed help to be seen. To be clear, these are not intended to be works of art, even though they are: they are tables, chairs, bookshelves, lights and glasses, and were made to be used as such. It just so happened that the colours and designs that permeated the rest of the 1980s also came from everything you see.

The first time I saw an item of Memphis furniture was in Minnie Mouse’s first TV special, “Disney’s Totally Minnie”, from 1988, where one of their chairs is shown in a suitably multi-coloured room. The curved shape of the chair had been burned into my mind since I was five or six years old, and there it was, just sitting there in front of me. Called the “Bel Air” to fit a scheme of using international hotels for names, it had presence, it had status – it was a postmodern throne.

Even before the “Bel Air”, colours and patterns like those used by Memphis had been splashed through the opening titles of the Channel 4 music show “The Tube” from 1984. I saw this on Friday evenings when I was about two years old, as the word and numbers game “Countdown” was on from Monday to Thursday, and I guess that what impressionable small children need is colours and movement, so I got the best there was. I kept asking my mother to draw the “Tube” logo until she asked me to do it, which I apparently did first time. What I don’t get is why I kept asking for the “Tube” logo to be drawn, when this [Channel 4 ident] was the logo for the channel it played on – some things we’ll never know.

In a moment, I will go further into why Memphis design continues to matter today, and provide the answers to the opening quiz, following this short break. [Advertisements for Weetabix, Warninks advocaat and Kitekat cat food.]

Welcome back, and it’s time to confirm what those Memphis items were from the beginning of the video: the first item was a teapot, the second was not a plate but an ashtray, and the bird-looking sculpture was a lamp... and yet, the fact these items had any sort of intended use really isn’t the point. 

As I mentioned earlier, the Memphis group questioned the functional nature of design, and that included the nature of an item existing only for its intended use, and any need to be practical for that use – once liberated from those needs, a designer can begin to play. Take, for example, the Tawaraya bed, or sofa, or Japanese tatami mat, or boxing ring, depending on what you needed in that moment.

My family’s living room and kitchen in the 1980s was defined by wood, by pine, and by a child’s teeth marks in pine, but the construction of Memphis furniture was new, and prescient, using the brand new medium density fibreboard – MDF – and it was possible to laminate it with coloured or patterned surfaces - anything other than simulated woodgrain. 

There is little difference between the materials of Memphis furniture and Ikea furniture, other than Memphis being hand-built from the start, and using more ostentatious names like Plaza, Carlton and Bel Air, instead of Billy and Malm. I should make that clear: these Memphis items are not one-off custom builds, but they were available to order out of a catalogue, despite being very expensive. Likewise, intricate glassware items could easily be created by colouring and gluing separate pieces of glass together.

But if this is where furniture could have been headed, why did Ikea, Habitat and Argos continue with woodgrain and white laminate, and why do we persist with magnolia and grey paint? It is one thing for a room to make you feel cosy, but what if you want to feel elated, overwhelmed, challenged? Is furniture meant to do that? Am I supposed to not be hypnotised by my curtains? Can I admire my bedside table? It is all well and good taking the colours and patterns from Memphis and swathe your entire popular culture in it, but in doing so, it removed it from the context in which those colours and patterns originally appeared – it dazzled the public, but they didn’t want to sit on it. It has made Memphis into a moment in history, a period piece, a museum exhibit. That doesn’t feel good enough somehow. 

It has taken me over a year to work out how to present these pictures, because I didn’t want to present another history of something that people don’t do anymore, carefully listing the names and years for future reference, and manoeuvring it into a discussion on the defined historical period of postmodernist design and blah blah blah – other people can do that this time. I remember leaving the MK Gallery feeling like I had been set on fire, like I am never going to witness anything that eye-opening for a long time, and it was all over looking at furniture. That is the important thing for me. Memphis is a hauntology, a vision of a lost future. This is what you could have won. Some things are worth losing your mind over.

Thank you for watching, if you would like to see more videos like this, please like, comment and subscribe, and as ever the nostalgia culture crisis continues at www.leighspence.net, the home of dancing with the gatekeepers.

Sunday, August 21, 2022

PEOPLE SAY I’M THE LIFE OF THE PARTY [358]


A visual shorthand for the 1970s, the 8-track tape cartridge appeared to peacefully co-exist with the competing Compact Cassette format for its entire time on sale, from 1964 to 1990, even if its popularity dwindled through the 1980s. I have only limited experience with the format, through an 8-track car player my father owned, but they only felt at the time like a “big cassette”. What allowed the 8-track to stick around for so long?

Both formats appeared around the same time. Philips unveiled the Compact Cassette in Europe in 1963, and in the United States in 1964, the same year the first demonstration 8-track players appeared from the Lear Jet Corporation, which spearheaded its development as an in-flight entertainment device. The first in-car units were offered as optional extras by Ford in 1965, alongside the first pre-recorded cartridges from RCA. Home-based hi-fi players and recorders for both formats would both appear before the end of the decade.

Like almost all tape formats, cartridges existed to make reel-to-reel tape easier to handle. The Compact Cassette miniaturised the reels and tape, to 0.15 inches wide and played at 1.875 inches per second, but the first pre-recorded demonstration cassette would not appear until 1967, the Compact Cassette’s initial poor recording quality only useful for dictation purposes. Instead, an 8-track cartridge used the same quarter-inch tape used in reel-to-reel players, playing at 3.75 inches per second, twice that of the Compact Cassette, but half the maximum speed of a reel-to-reel player, making 8-track almost an “audiophile” format by comparison. However, in splitting the tape into four programmes, each made up of two tracks, the 8-track increased both tape hiss and the possibility of “crosstalk” between the tracks and a misaligned playback head.

At four inches wide, each cartridge can play for up to eighty minutes, housing enough tape for four programmes of up to twenty minutes in a single-reel “endless loop” design, like the earlier 4-track Stereo-Pak and Fidelipak “broadcast cart” cartridges used for playing radio jingles, leading from the middle, and windingback around itself. The join in tape was bridged by a silver foil splice which, once it moved past a sensor, moved the playback head to the next programme automatically. The pinch roller usually found in the player mechanism was moved to inside the cartridge, allowing it to automatically engage and play upon being entered into the player, particularly useful when travelling.

With this form to play with, the albums that resulted on 8-track were, to me at least, not the greatest aesthetically. In terms of packaging, the hard plastic cartridge eliminated the need for the case required for a Compact Cassette, but the album cover and other information would be provided as a sticker that would deteriorate with age, along with the silver foil and foam pads inside the cartridge.

The biggest problem, however, is the inflexibilities of arranging an album onto an 8-track cartridge. With a C-90 cassette providing up to 45 minutes per side, you could fit the equivalent of an entire vinyl record on each side of a Compact Cassette, as Pink Floyd did with their double album “The Wall” in 1979. The maximum 8-track programme length of twenty minutes should accommodate one side of a record, but to minimise the amount of tape used, the maximum programme length will be the total length of the album, divided by 4. 

The worst example of this I could find was David Bowie’s 1976 album “Station to Station”, a six-song, 38-minute album, meaning 9.5 minutes per programme is available... but the title track is over ten minutes long by itself, taking up the entire first programme and the beginning of the second. “Word On a Wing”, song 3 of 6 on every other issue, is now song 2 on the 8-track, followed by “Wild is the Wind”, usually the album closer, itself broken up between programmes, perhaps to take advantage of a quiet moment in the song. This means that the final three rockier songs, “Stay”, “TVC15” and “Golden Years” (usually tracks 5, 4 and 2), can play without interruption. Make your album fit, or forget about it.

Meanwhile, the average length of each side of “The Wall” vinyl album was twenty minutes, fitting relatively easy onto the four programmes of an 8-track without making any changes to the songs’ length or running order, except that “Hey You”, the first song on side 3 of the vinyl version, begins at the end of one programme, and starts the next one. It is not possible to lengthen one programme to make the rest of the song fit, as you will have a gap at the end of the other three programmes, disrupting the flow of the album in a different way.

While 1978 was the peak year for 8-track sales in the United States, sales of pre-recorded albums by mail order clubs continued there until 1988, while the electronics retailer Radio Shack sold its Realistic-branded players and blank cartridges until 1990. Meanwhile, the more portable and cheaper Compact Cassette had caught up through constant improvements in tape and playback quality that did not happen with 8-track, although Dolby B noise reduction was licensed for both formats. But by then, the Compact Disc had allowed for seventy-four minutes of high-quality music, later eighty minutes to be played back on one side, without interruption.

Sunday, August 14, 2022

EXPRESS YOURSELF, YOU CAN’T BE WRONG [357]


“Sports Report” had read out the classified football results on BBC radio since 1948. “Classified” in this sense appears to be in a measured tone, in descending league order, with voice rising and descending with each club’s fortunes. This formula, replicated by “Final Score” on BBC One, and by Independent Radio News for commercial stations, is ingrained and ritualised across generations of fans, listeners and viewers as the culmination of Saturday football, still mostly played from 3pm, and as a sports equivalent of the Shipping Forecast, itself a methodical yet poetic rendering of information that has taken on an importance in British culture – marking the time of day, a moment of calm, a moment of order, a moment of nostalgia – beyond the information it imparts which, in changing times, is now more readily available in other ways. 

The 2022-23 football season on BBC Radio 5 Live marked the beginning of live commentaries on matches starting at 5.30pm, which resulted in cutting “Sports Report” in half, to half an hour, as previously announced on Monday 25th July. On Saturday 6th August, the first abbreviated edition of the season changed its approach to reading the results, preceding each league roundup with the results for that league, delivered in a faster, more informal tone – the focus on the Premier League meant no other league results would be heard for at least fifteen minutes. 

Because I am British, I have heard the football results read in the “classified” fashion countless times on television, while the results being read where displayed on screen. The one time I remember hearing it on “Sports Report” was not long after former BBC Radio 4 announcer Charlotte Green began reading them in 2013, although I remember her reading being interrupted by goals being reported by another presenter. Whenever I do want to find the football results, which is rare, I will find them online, where I read them in the “classified” way, because that is what you do.

Because I do not really follow sport, I misjudged the ability to manufacture outrage from changing the way in which football results are read out on the radio. On Monday 8th August, Henry Winter, chief football writer for “The Times”, said on Twitter that the classified results “has always been part of the Saturday match-day fabric for many fans. [The BBC’s] decision to scrap the service shows a lack of understanding of fans. It’s about continuity, the pyramid, information…” The story made Tuesday’s front page, an editorial inside describing the change as “an act of cultural vandalism... the BBC’s claim that it no longer has time in its schedules for results that are widely available on television and online, cannot be allowed to stand... There is a value in familiarity that cannot be easily measured. In a world of satellite communications, who really needs the shipping forecast? Yet the BBC would never dare touch it, just as it should have left the classified football results well alone. Or one must hope.”

On Wednesday, “The Times” reported that 86 per cent of readers responding to their own poll believed the classified results are vital to the BBC’s coverage, and former “Sports Report” host Mike Ingham said, “I don’t believe this was a malicious decision. Whoever made it is probably from the age of smartphones. But I believe they will have to reconsider; that they will realise this was an editorial mistake and reverse the decision. It was clearly not thought through.”

Later that day, the BBC issued a statement acknowledging complaints they had received: “We appreciate the strength of feeling towards the classified football results within Sports Report. It’s always difficult when a programme with a special history changes, but there are good reasons for the change... The classifieds were taking around five to seven minutes to read, which would have taken up around a third of the programme – constraining the range of sports we could cover.”

On Thursday, “The Times” reported this on their website as “BBC will not bring back classified results despite hundreds of complaints”, along with other stories putting pressure on the BBC: “Private paid work of BBC broadcasters is revealed” and “Paul O’Grady is latest star to join exodus from Radio 2”. However, their main story reverted to type for the newspaper in recent times: “Hard-left academics ‘plotted gender ID witch-hunt’ on colleagues”.

On Friday, the paper carried another editorial, saying “the BBC should take heed of the outcry over ending the classified check”, along with reporting said outcry from Age UK and the Royal National Institute of Blind People. By this point, I had stopped buying the paper even for research purposes, because subjecting yourself to relentless coverage over something that is, personally, a trivial matter, becomes draining over its continuing insistence of its own importance.

On Saturday 13th August, “Sports Report” proceeded in exactly the same manner as last Saturday. Competing commercial stations TalkSPORT and LBC News formalised their existing results coverage, the former swapping their previous informal tone for the “classified” version, and the latter moving the time of the results to 5.05pm, the time at which Independent Radio News provides them to other stations. The odd one out was also the elephant in the room: News UK, owner of both “The Times” and TalkSPORT, also operate Times Radio, a news and features station set up ostensibly to promote the newspaper, while also in direct competition with BBC Radios 4 and 5 Live and staffed with many former BBC presenters. They did not carry the classified football results on either Saturday, restricting their reporting to the usual sports bulletins.

My only possible answer to all this was to think of horror film sequels: “Exterminator 2, Death Wish 3. Hellraiser II, Friday the 13th Part V. Amityville Horror 2, Scream 2, Pools Panel: Home Win.”

Saturday, August 6, 2022

I KNOW THAT WAS THEN [356]

The biggest laugh I ever had watching a football match.

I am so glad that even David Baddiel wants “Three Lions” to be “put to bed”.

Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s “Today” programme the day after the Lionesses won Euro 2022 at Wembley Stadium, saying that “the women have reset the clock” gives me hope that England can finally lose the nostalgia that has wound a part of the national identity around the 1966 men’s World Cup final. 

I never liked the line “thirty years of hurt never stopped me dreaming” – that sort of pain can really only be felt by the players, not the crowd – but knowing that 1996 eventually became the half-way mark of hurt is really quite funny for someone who never had reason to like football. For a country that goes on about being the inventor of football as much as England does, for this to be an England team’s first major trophy in an international competition in my lifetime should be embarrassing, but the victory overcame the problems that blighted English men’s football finals: there was no obnoxious band playing in the crowd, no “two world wars, one world cup” goading of the opposing side, and they didn’t even need to play penalties.

This all made the team’s gatecrashing their coach, Sarina Wiegman’s press conference all the sweeter, singing “it’s coming home, it’s coming home” both as the team that actually did it, and as the team that was formed due to forward thinking that took place after 1966. The Women’s Football Association (WFA) would be formed in 1969 to establish a national team and league, and UEFA forced the [men’s] Football Association (FA) to end its fifty-year ban on women’s teams playing at FA team grounds in 1971 – the Lionesses played the first team against Scotland the following year.

I still don’t know if the Lionesses’ victory will make me want to watch more football, although that is the hope of the FA, which took over from the WFA in 1993: with only an average of two thousand spectators per Women’s Super League match, and a lack of investment at grass roots level, achieving parity with men’s football will require the support of the record audiences that watched the final on television and at Wembley, something that simply continued as before following 1966.

It is important to use history to understand the point we have reached, and where events could lead. With the history of football being dominated by the men – and men’s football will have to be distinguished as “men’s football” from now on – my hope is for the money and attention that will now be sent towards the Super League does not turn it into the bloated and repellent monster that the men’s Premier League has always felt like to me. 

With business and sport bound together so much that player salaries and transfer costs are statistics almost as important as match results, the opulence and distance felt in men’s football makes it feel like the prog rock Emerson, Lake and Palmer versus the Sex Pistols punk of women’s football. I can only hope this “punk” period can last longer than the 1970s punk did before it was co-opted and sanded down into “new wave”. I will always know more about music than football.

Sunday, July 31, 2022

THE HEAT IS ON, THE TIME IS RIGHT [355]

What is “general knowledge”? For me, it sounds like having no interest in sport, but still knowing what the Offside Rule is. I still don’t know what this rule is, but I know the Royal Mint issued a fifty pence coin in 2011 explaining it, for a series of coins marking the following year’s Olympic Games – at least, that much I know.

For this reason, I fare much better answering the questions on “University Challenge” than “[A] Question of Sport”. The former show covers a far wider range of subjects, and despite the relative obscurity of those, my interests mean I am more likely to have encountered them – anything I know about sport will have been picked up in passing, most likely from watching “[A] Question of Sport”. I like having a broad knowledge base, and I like how writing these articles help to maintain and broaden it further. It also means I do well at quizzes.

 

An article in the “Radio Times” by Ed Grenby about the BBC Radio 4 quiz tournament “Brain of Britain”, the week before its return on Wednesday 3rd August, had its host Russell Davies ruminating on how its contestants are finding the show’s questions harder. Each episode has three contestants, one continuing to answer questions until a wrong answer opens it to the other two to buzz in and take over, gaining an extra point if they achieve five correct answers in a row – something that only happened five times in the previous series. 

 

This was put down to its contestants having to keep across a popular culture that is continuously expanding, as mentioned by question setter Elissa Mattinson: “It’s not just BBC1 and BBC2 now: contestants are expected to be aware of ‘Tiger King’, ‘Squid Game’ and ‘Succession’ as well as Shakespeare and classical music.” Mattinson said she has occasionally been asked to make questions easier, compromising by inserting clues into questions: “Which early 20th century poet...” Extending the range of the questions prevents the show from becoming “myopic”, but Mattinson also said the audience has to be impressed: “it’s ‘Brain of Britain’, so it’s got to be hard... They’ve got to be the elite of the population”. This fits in with Russell Davies recounting a low-scoring contestant retiring half-way through a recording, and another refusing to take part after getting all their rehearsal questions wrong.

 

From this, I gained the impression that a general knowledge has become harder to maintain without treating it like serious study – that you must know about everything, in case you are ever asked. I have never seen “Game of Thrones” – I have just never been interested – but while I know where I can look for information about the show, I don’t see it as crucial to know, because I am rarely ever in a situation where it is likely to come up. In the context of a quiz, you either have to be prepared to be answer anything, or hope to make an educated guess. I remember being asked about from which country Vietnam declared its independence in 1945 – I did not think of France, the correct answer, so I went geographically for China or Japan.

 

However, upon buying the copy of the “Radio Times” talking about “Brain of Britain”, a fact not reported elsewhere did come up: questions about science were effectively banned on the show in 1950s and 60s, when it was the “Ask Me Another” segment in a bigger quiz show, “What Do You Know”, because it was not believed anyone would understand them. The National Curriculum, and TV shows like “Tomorrow’s World” and “Horizon”, have made sure you need to have a knowledge of science in order to be proclaimed “Brain of Britain”.

Sunday, July 24, 2022

SHUT YOUR FACE UP AND DO IT [354]


“The following film has been modified from its original version. It has been formatted to fit this screen and edited for content.”

Well, this can’t be good, can it?

It has been a sufficiently long time since I saw Paul Verhoeven’s “RoboCop”, the violent science fiction satire of corporate power and possible Christ analogy that became enormously popular upon its release in 1987, spawning sequels, TV series and a 2014 remake that I had completely forgotten about.

Owning a copy of the special-edition Blu-ray set released by Arrow Films in 2019, I decided, instead of the R-rated original theatrical version or the original “Director’s Cut” that was violent enough to be rated X when submitted for review, to watch the third version that was seemingly included for both historical and comedy purposes: the television edit that removed nearly all of the gore, and all of the swearing, recounted in compilation videos and comparisons to poke ridicule, particularly in replacing more innocuous words like “scumbag” and “asshole” with “crumb-bag” and “air-head”.

I am happy to report that the TV version of “RoboCop”, presented from a Digital Betacam (DigiBeta) broadcast master tape that almost resembles HD quality, with fadeouts for breaks included, is almost as enjoyable as Verhoeven’s intended vision, and it is possible to watch it with children... which is not at all surprising, given the PG rating that applied to the two sequels that followed, and the existence of the Saturday morning cartoon broadcast in 1988 in the same vein as “The Real Ghostbusters” and “Rambo: The Force of Freedom”. 

This does appear to be the context in which it was compiled: Christopher Griffiths’ liner notes for the Arrow Films set mentions that some UK audiences thought they had seen the TV version broadcast on ITV on a Saturday afternoon, when this was actually a showing of the 1994 “RoboCop” live-action TV series. Admittedly, the lack of swearing made it feel like a pilot for a TV show, or an episode of “EastEnders”, a soap opera with a vaguely “gritty” setting where people should swear more than they actually do, but this was before TV drama started matching cinema on content from the 1990s, starting with “Twin Peaks”, “ER” and “The Sopranos”.

Paul Verhoeven intended the over-the-top violence in “RoboCop” to be satirical – from the news bulletins and TV advertisements to the levels of violence on the streets, it is just part of society. Now, this view is essentially held at length: the shooting of the executive Kinney by the ED-209 robot at the beginning is shown sparingly and without blood, the aftermath of his body on top of the Delta City display is only seen in the background of one shot, but it is still clear it didn’t end well. We see Emil, the gangster disfigured by toxic waste, but we don’t see him get hit by a car, or the effects of that, but we do see one criminal abruptly thrown by RoboCop into a fridge, that made me realise that “Looney Tunes” is the level of violence pitched at the audience, but with too much gore for that to be obvious in the TV version.

I did wonder if the reduction of violence and swearing would mean I would focus more on RoboCop’s rediscovery of his earlier memories as the police officer Murphy, as these scenes remain intact, including the estate agent’s display of his former home, but there is no difference, for our sense of the world that turned Murphy’s body into a product remains intact, including all the times where RoboCop and the police itself are called a product.

For a film that has no fat on it in any version, the TV version of “RoboCop” feels pared to the bone, but only so that as many people can watch it as possible. There is no need for such a version to exist now, in an age of home video and streaming, and TV showings of films, at least in the UK, take place at the appropriate time, and in the correct aspect ratio. Having said that, ITV’s first showing on UK television used this censored version, and viewer complaints led to this being replaced with the theatrical version in future, with some cuts for violence of course.

Saturday, July 16, 2022

THEY CALLED HIM ERNIE [353]

ERNIE 2 (1972-88)

No-one could mistake the following for financial advice, but I decided long ago that, if I ever won the lottery, I would buy Premium Bonds. (Always speak to your financial advisor.)

I also found myself saying this when talking about the “Bowie Bonds” issued by David Bowie to raise the money to buy his back catalogue [link]. Like the bonds issued by businesses and governments, these were issued for a limited period of time to raise funds, after which the investor would receive their money back with interest. Premium bonds, however, are an evolution of the “lottery bonds” occasionally issued for government projects dating back to the 18th Century, whereby the interest, currently running at one percent per annum, is issued as a monthly prize draw for prizes ranging from £25 to £1 million.

Operated by National Savings & Investments, Premium Bonds effectively act as a restricted, government-approved form of gambling, competing on its launch in 1956 with the similarly staid Football Pools, betting on the outcome of the coming week’s matches without visiting a betting shop. The National Lottery, launched in 1994, has bigger prizes and a higher profile, but like the Pools, your stake pays for the prize, operating costs, tax and charity donations. Premium Bonds allow you to retain your “stake” of up to a maximum of £50,000, each pound becoming an entry to the monthly interest draw, and withdraw any or all of your funds at any time, but the lack of guaranteed returns makes it less desirable than a regular savings account, unless you are just looking for somewhere to place your money. 

But the other side of the initial appeal of Premium Bonds upon their launch was its insanely futuristic use of a computer, and the anthropomorphising of said computer. ERNIE, an acronym (and possibly a backronym) for “Electronic Random Number Indicator Equipment”, entered its fifth iteration in December 2019, having moved from using the signal noise generated by neon tubes, through the thermal noise in transistors, through to quantum computing - a concept I am still getting my head around, because it involves the computer holding the binary values "0" and "1" simultaneously - to generate winning codes that are verifiably random, instead of using an algorithm to generate codes that can be interpreted as “random”. Like the naming of National Lottery draw machines, “ERNIE” is a human name given to the effort to prove the transparency of the process, and what can be more random than the human ability to be irrational?

With my original statement implying I would not invest in Premium Bonds until I won the lottery, is there a reason for not applying now? I think I was unconsciously making a joke about moving from the high-stakes lottery to the comparative sensibility of Premium Bonds, before deciding it sounded like it may be a good idea. However, I think looking at how many things in my home town were paid for using money raised from the National Lottery has swayed towards waiting until the point when a lottery win provides the money to invest.

Sunday, July 10, 2022

HE JUST STARES BACK UNBLINKING [352]

My TV, a Toshiba 32LL3A63DB

I have been without a television for a week at the time of writing. I had just finished summer cleaning, sat down to relax, turned on my TV, and found no picture. A troubleshooting phone call revealed it was still in-warranty, so I sent it away to be fixed.

Being the year 2022, this inconvenience has reduced me from four screens to only three, as my phone, tablet and computer attempt to fill the gap temporarily left by the TV, but their nature as multi-purpose devices make them poorer substitutes than I had reason to expect, as I sit over to examine programmes I am more used to seeing in a more relaxed, laid-back position.

In having to actively look for content to watch, I have missed the opportunity that TV provides in just switching it on and showing me something, to effectively switch myself off for a moment, as it were - getting to sleep has taken longer in this last week.

This would also be the week that Boris Johnson resigned as leader of the Conservative Party, his petulant speech underlining his tenure as Prime Minister as one of the most divisive and sordid in modern times. Instead of letting the TV take the strain in reporting what happened, able to recede into the background as I relaxed into the evening, I continued to scroll through news updates on my phone, like my work day never stopped.

In my experience, television is a passive medium, even if I play an increasing role in choosing the programmes, as both the number of channels, and the number of ways to send programmes to it, have increased. It is not the same as radio or podcasts, where you are listening intently by nature of its form – I found that I have not had the radio on at home in the evening to substitute for the TV, because that would force me to listen more intently at a time when I am trying to relax. There is an argument for my experiencing a withdrawal from the higher dopamine and serotonin levels experienced when watching TV, but I will only know that for sure when my TV is fixed and sent back to me.

I had intended to write about Marshall McLuhan’s concepts of “hot” and “cool” media, from his 1964 book “Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man”, which I have talked about previously [link]. His definition of TV as “cool”, through the user having to do the work in connecting with the TV’s message, and filtering out any distractions from outside it. 

This hasn’t fit with my experience – I have more control over what my TV shows me than McLuhan, who witnessed the medium’s introduction in his native Canada, and would only have access to two networks, CBC and CTV, by 1964. Bigger screens and better sound also make TV and its programmes more cinematic, film being codified as a “hot” medium through its handling more of the work in relaying its message.

However, McLuhan defined a “medium” like an extension of the human body, such as  switching on a lightbulb to change the nature of your surroundings. Even if TV is just a way of packaging what I want to see, I now realise how well it did that job.

Saturday, July 2, 2022

DO YOU WANT TO FEEL HOW IT FEELS? [351]


On the Saturday after the first Covid-19 lockdown was lifted, in June 2020, I went straight to a shoe shop and bought a pair of Converse hi-top trainers, with rainbows emblazoned across and under them. I have only now had to throw them away because I wore them out, a hole opening between the canvas and the sole.

Meanwhile, the Dr Martens 1461 shoes I wear to work every day are stitched together in the colours of Gilbert Baker’s original gay rights flag, with a flag embroidered on each shoe – they were half the pride of a standard, black-stitched pair because I bought them in October, and not June. I need to replace the insoles.

I was not trying to make a point in buying or wearing wither pair of shoes, especially  but Converse and Dr Martens definitely were, and it plays to my advantage. If anything, I am appropriating the corporate message of inclusivity by making it outlast the limited time they were intended for sale, making them back into standard pairs of shoes – my shoes. Pride Forever, basically.

Pride Month marked in June because it commemorates the protests that took place at the Stonewall Inn in New York City, lasting over six days from 28th June 1969. In the United Kingdom, this is then followed by our Pride March in London, itself first taking place on 1st July 1972 because it was the nearest weekend to the anniversary of the protests.

There is no set time to run a Pride parade – one UK city, Southampton, will hold this year’s march on 27thAugust, with the nearby town of Eastleigh waiting until 10th September. This is just as well, as establishing monthly or weekly observances includes having to work against only observing them for that period of time, particularly if, like Pride Month, rainbows are added to seemingly everything, until they are removed again, until next time.

This Pride Month, I wrote an article for my company’s newsletter about coming out as trans at work, which took place years ago. In hindsight, I spent longer on it than the lifespan of a newsletter warranted, but I wanted what it said to last beyond that short time, and I wanted to share the trepidation I felt as a closeted person arriving in a new workplace. What I wrote was a sentence I feel proud for writing, as not only did I find a way, it made people laugh: “An apt description of this time is that I was still getting used to not living in the Matrix anymore – something wasn’t making sense, but once I gained the ability to describe it, the world changed.” 

Saturday, June 25, 2022

GOODBYE BLACKBERRY WAY [350]


Formerly named Research In Motion (RIM), BlackBerry Limited is a Canadian company involved in cybersecurity software and services, numbering businesses and governments among its clients. I only say this to dispel the image of BlackBerry as the smartphone originator that went down in a shrieking ball of flames, outpaced by Apple and Samsung, which devoured both its consumer and business customer base. It would be like labelling IBM a failure for selling its personal computer business to Lenovo in 2005, as they moved to concentrate on cloud computing.

However, BlackBerry did suffer a number of issues that ultimately decided the future direction of the company, coalescing around the release of one phone in January 2013, the Z10. I owned one of these, and despite having owning four iPhones since then, I still think of the Z10 as being a good phone, even still an ideal one in many respects.

My previous two phones were also BlackBerrys (BlackBerries?), a purple Curve 8520 followed by a black Curve 9320. Originally bought because its tiny QWERTY keyboards made sending text messages earlier, these palm-sized devices invented the modern smartphone, shifting me from pay-as-you-go phone calls to stay in touch, to monthly data contracts and productivity on the go, backed by the encryption of BlackBerry’s operating system and messenger software.

The Z10 changed this form factor. Competing at the time with the iPhone 5, the Samsung Galaxy S3, and the upcoming aluminium HTC One, the Z10 jettisoned the keyboard and navigation buttons, and the touch-sensitive navigation pad that replaced an earlier click wheel, bringing in a touch-sensitive screen – for people who needed the original set-up, the BlackBerry Q10 retained a QWERTY keyboard.

The Z10 lacked even a home button, still found on the other three phones, instead using gesture controls like moving a finger up the screen to come out of an app, or up and right to enter the BlackBerry Hub, which collected e-mails, texts and notifications into one place. The virtual keyboard introduced predictive typing, based on what I entered previously, a first for the time. While plastic in construction, the Z10 felt heavy and robust, surviving many drops, and the battery was replaceable, something I now rue when I consider if my current iPhone needs a new battery.

BlackBerry Curve 8520

As intuitive as the Z10’s operating system was, it was plagued by delays and superficially didn’t look too different from Android or Apple’s iOS, especially when those systems were updated, and when app developers moved to concentrate on them instead – I don’t remember downloading many apps on my Z10, having made icons on the home screen that linked to the web browser instead. By the nature of its form factor, the Z10 itself looked like a standard smartphone, and not like a BlackBerry. It also had an odd advertising launch, its SuperBowl ad in 2013 featuring a user of the phone bursting into flames, growing elephant legs, disappearing into a puff of smoke, and turning a crashing petrol tanker into a wave of rubber ducks: “in thirty seconds, it’s quicker to show you what it can’t do,” but the glimpses there were pass too quickly to register.

With Apple and Android phones becoming more attractive propositions in 2013, more people making the switch to smartphones chose these over BlackBerry, the cybersecurity layer of their apps also being matched. By the end of 2013, the company’s leadership had changed, and begun restructuring. The first BlackBerry phone that ran Android instead of their own system was released in 2015, and moved to license their manufacture to outside companies from 2016 – as of 2022, no new BlackBerry phones are being made.

I replaced my Z10 with a new iPhone 6 in 2014, my support for BlackBerry not having wavered despite a massive outage of their servers in 2011 that disabled its services for a number of days. However, their best phone at the time was the Passport, a passport-shaped phone with QWERTY keyboard too wide for me to use with one hand. In hindsight, it was a bad choice at that moment – iOS had only just added predictive text to the keyboard, but the iPhone’s main processor was slightly slower, it had only 1 GB RAM instead of the Z10’s 2GB, the home button was a step backwards from the Z10’s gesture controls, and I could no longer replace the battery. At least the iPhone still had a headphone jack.

BlackBerry Passport

Sunday, June 19, 2022

MY HEART IS HUMAN, MY BLOOD IS BOILING [349]


Here is the news: the latest social media storm is DALL·E mini, an open-source artificial intelligence engine taking user prompts to gather images from the internet and create new, composite images – the more information you feed it, the wilder the image it could create. Meanwhile, an engineer at Google was put on paid leave after they claimed the company’s LaMDA chatbot had become sentient.

Neither of these came without precedence. DALL·E mini is a cut-down version of a much higher-power, closed-source program designed to render photorealistic pictures, while LaMDA, short for Language Model for Dialogue Applications, is designed to engage in a more free-flowing and conversational style.

Then comes the human angle: DALL·E mini creates a 3 x 3 picture grid of possible results with comparatively minimal rendering when compared to the full version, creating impressionistic, almost expressive images within which may be what you were hoping to see, creating a kind of pareidolia in the viewer, a concept I have talked about previously [link]. At Google, engineer Blake Lemoine published conversations he lad with LaMDA, asking if the bot was sentient: “Oh wait. Maybe the system does have a soul. Who am I to tell God where souls can be put?” Lemoine was put on leave for violating Google’s confidentiality policies.

It is still possible to approach the capability of modern computing as if it is magic. As someone who once had to try to wrangle the Magic Wand editing tool on Adobe Photoshop in order to separate a picture of someone from its background in as smooth a manner as possible, the machine learning now involved in the option to select a subject and pick them out automatically, or even to remove a subject from the background of a picture and have the device fill in the gap with believable detail without needing to ask for that to be done, completing the task in less time to think about what you wanted to do, let alone how it even works.

Asking whether humans are mature enough to use AI is a deliberately facetious question, but not one without some basis: as soon as home computers gained text-to-speech ability, their users granted them the ability to swear. A childlike curiosity is something that continuously advancing technology can continuously inspire.

But what may be happening with DALL·E mini and LaMDA is their rational programming being met by the irrationality of the end user, wanting to see what could not be intended by the program, a variable that cannot be programmed, or too inefficient to be programmed – and if someone can, then humanity really could be taken over by the machines.

Sunday, June 12, 2022

THEY'RE GONNA PUT ME IN THE MOVIES [348]

Histoire d'un Crime (1901)

Should the period from early film to early cinema (1895-1927) be considered as a film language in its own right, or was it a primitive search for the narrative form we have now?

Much valuable progress in the art of film storytelling was made in the time of "silent film," from the first films of Lumière to the advent of Warner Bros' "The Jazz Singer" (US, 1927, dir. Alan Crosland). Comparing the single unmoving tableau shot of "Sortie d'Usine" ("Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory", France, 1895) with the complicated special effects, storyline and "cast of thousands" in "Metropolis" (Germany, 1925, dir. Fritz Lang) shows the quantum leap made in thirty years, now a relatively short period in the history of cinema.

However, defining the "cut-off point" in this period history at the advent of sound film does not separate early film and early cinema from what followed, as if silent cinema was a separate art and discipline.

The argument for the silent era being an evolutionary period in filmmaking was taken up by Barry Salt who, in his article "Film Form 1900-1906", he looks at the first instances where certain film devices were used - this is because he notices that the development of style in early film has "some analogies with biological evolution, in the way that novel features which suddenly appear like mutations are sometimes rapidly taken up in other films, forming a line of descent, while on other occasions original devices die out because they have some unsuitability of a technical, commercial or artistic nature." (Salt 1990: 31)

Salt notices that, while a dream sequence in "Histoire d'un crime" (France, 1901) appears within the frame of the existing action, the practices of dissolves between the dream and the main action is fully established by the time "And the Villain Still Pursued Her" (US, 1906) was made. This approach to finding first instances of what would become techniques is continued throughout Salt's essay but, when it comes to trick effects, Salt concludes that the large amount of trick films made to 1906 are over-estimated in their importance to the history of cinema as a whole (Salt 1990: 40).

The Gay Shoe Clerk (1903)

Meanwhile, in an article entitled "The Cinema of Attractions: Early Film, Its Spectator and the Avant-Garde", Tom Gunning considers early film to about 1906-07 to have its own form, in which the illusory power of the new technology could be explored. Instead of the "voyeuristic" nature of later, narrative cinema, the "cinema of attractions... is an exhibitionist cinema... [it] is a cinema that displays its visibility, willing to rupture a self-enclosed fictional world for a chance to solicit the attention of the spectator." (Gunning 1990: 57)

Early film came before the days of an institutionalised cinema industry, cinema chains, and even before nickelodeons. You were most often to see a film either as a fairground attraction, or as part of a bill at a music hall. Spectacle is dominant over narrative in film at this point.

The two schools of thought may conflict, as developments in film techniques may be seen, from a different perspective, as another way of using film to exhibit something - "The Gay Shoe Clerk” (US, 1903, dir. Edwin S. Porter) is seen as a development in the use of the close-up on a key point in the film's plot - the lifting of a lady's skirt to reveal her ankle while being fitted for new shoes. However, according to Gunning, "...its principal motive is again pure exhibitionism." (Gunning 1990: 58) The act of revealing the ankle is, in this case, included to provide titillation for the viewer.

The word "film" became universally recognised as a one-reel dramatic narrative from around 1907-08, coinciding with the industrialisation of film, experiments in technique did continue around this. For D.W. Griffith, such experimentations "were for him the unformulated results of practical problem-solving rather than abstract theorizing... Unrestricted by narrative conventions, since there were few at the time, Griffith simply adopted for his Biograph films what worked best in the particular circumstances, according to the dynamics of the tale." (Cook 1996: 62)

The Lonedale Operator (1911)

It is well-documented that Griffith also used theatrical techniques and the dramatic structure of Charles Dickens’s novels in his films. As an example of the former, the beginning of "The Lonedale Operator" (US, 1911) shows characters leaving the frame on one side, but re-entering in the next scene from the same side - just as you would in a theatre. This was suitable for audiences at a time when such theatrical techniques were more greatly recognised. However, when someone enters through a door later in the film, they leave the frame on one side, but enter the next scene on the opposite side. To use the same technique as described above for this particular piece of action may cause confusion, and wouldn't look right on the screen.

The "novel structure" helps to attract the new middle-class audience in picture houses that was beginning to replace the working-class in nickelodeons as the main target film audience, and, therefore, may be seen as the reason why narrative cinema replaced the "cinema of attractions". According to Gunning (1990: 57), exhibitionist cinema either moved underground - e.g. "Un Chien andalou" (France, 1928, Luis Bunuel), which depicted the dreams of the director and Salvador Dali in a series of irrational images and short narratives - or became incorporated into narrative cinema, like the boxing match in "Broken Blossoms" (US, 1919, D.W. Griffith) provides a break in a melodramatic storyline, while the whole genre of "comedian comedies" (Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, Harry Langdon etc.) features spectacle around a continuing narrative.

It can be argued that the advent of sound brought new ideas to push cinema in a new direction, while silent cinema was effectively ended as an industry within a few years. However, the basis for further growth in this period of cinema was possible due to the developments during the earlier period. There are cases when early film and early cinema can be seen as art in its own right (as trick films and exhibitionist films were mainly concentrated before 1906, for example), but it was instrumental in the search for narrative form.

The notion that early film and early cinema were a primitive search for narrative form seems inappropriate - it suggests that such exploration was confined to the late-19th and early-20th centuries. However, the central questions for any filmmaker - what can the technology do, and what can they do with it - is still relevant today.

Un Chien Andalou (1928)

Bibliography

Salt, B. (1990) "Film 1900-1906" in Elsaesser, T. (ed.) Early Cinema: Space, Frame, Narrative. London: British Film Institute. pp. 31-44.

Gunning, T. (1990) "The Cinema of Attractions: Early Film, Its Spectator and the Avant-Garde" in Elsaesser, T. (ed.) Early Cinema: Space, Frame, Narrative. London: British Film Institute. pp. 56-62.

Cook, D.A. (1996) A History of Narrative Film (3rd ed.) London: W.W. Norton & Company Ltd.

Sunday, June 5, 2022

SIXTEEN TONS, AND WHAT DO YOU GET [347]


In 1974, the metric system supplanted Imperial measurements as the primary system taught in UK schools, following a process of gradual metrication across the country symbolised by decimalisation of the Pound in 1971. Relying on voluntary action by businesses, with a separate Metrication Board providing encouragement instead of direct Government involvement, this process was ended in 1980 without being completed. Subsequent European Union directives require most items sold by weight to use the metric system, although prices in Imperial measurements can be quoted alongside them.

Today, people of a certain age are happier using Imperial measurements, while younger people may view acres, gallons and yards like someone has thrown a French or Latin phrase into their conversation, requiring a split-second to translate its intended meaning... and yet, everyone is used to buying pints of draught beer or cider in pubs, quoting their weight in stone, and road signs continuing to display distances in miles, because these were never changed, and because everyone subsequently knows that a mile is about 1.6 kilometres, 2.2 pounds equal a kilogram, and a pint works out to 568 millilitres. This is the maths that British people do without realising.

The UK Government has been threatening to change this for a while. On Friday 3rd June, the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy opened a consultation on the “Choice on units of measurement: markings and sales”. Its purpose is to “identify how we can give more choice to businesses and consumers over the units of measurement they use for trade”, according to the consultation document, with its questions asking businesses if providing a choice is a priority for them, if people would be more likely to shop if offered Imperial measurements ahead of metric ones, and if there is an impact on the cost of trading if any changes are made. 

It has been a long-held ambition for the Government to use the legislative freedom from Brexit to reverse European Union directives, with the Weights and Measures Act 1985 having been amended in June 2020 to reintroduce various, more obscure Imperial measurements like roods, minims, drachm and quintals, to use supplementary to the metric system. However, EU laws copied into UK law upon Brexit included maintaining the use of the Imperial system on road signs, draught beer and cider, and in selling precious metals in troy ounces, and the Government’s consultation this time around includes the line, “There is no intention to require businesses to change their existing practices and so this will not place greater costs on businesses.” We have already arrived at the right balance of two measurement systems without creating more confusion.

What is not often considered, however, is that if I go to a supermarket to buy fruit and vegetables, I will most likely buy a bag of apples, a punnet of strawberries, a cucumber, a bunch of bananas...