Sunday, July 31, 2022


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


“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


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


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


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.”