Saturday, June 25, 2022


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


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


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)


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


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...