The Cinema Conspiracy

Caroline Munro was definitely bustier too

Have you noticed how quickly special effects become dated now? CGI that was revolutionary when a movie came out seems crappy even before it reaches TV. Golum, once character animation perfected, already looks fake. And when I finally saw Beowulf I couldn’t believe it ever impressed anyone, it looks like it was made in someone’s bedroom. Parts of it especially. I’m not going to bother ever seeing Avatar. At this point it’s going to be about as impressive as Bedknobs and Broomsticks.

There’s something wrong here. Look how long earlier generations of special effects lasted. As a child I was wowed by the stop motion work of Ray Harryhausen in films like The Golden Voyage of Sinbad, the original Clash of the Titans, or – well, about every film I wanted to see. But so were my parents and even grandparents when he did King Kong Mighty Joe Young¹. OK, show it to a child now and they will actually yawn between the frames, but that work lasted for generations rather than weeks.

So things are getting better faster than they used to, and by a sad but inescapable logic that means they get worse faster too. I accept that, I just don’t think it’s sufficient to explain what’s going on.

When the film is released for TV the effects sequences included will actually be reduced in quality from the versions you saw in the cinema. Same again when the DVD comes out. And it doesn’t look worse in HD because the picture is better. How the hell did they ever trick us into believing that? It looks worse because it is worse.

They do the same with old TV programmes too. When I was a kid, Thunderbirds did not have the visible strings I notice now, I’d swear to it. Or Space 1999… Oh all right. But the rest, they had to downgrade.

Why? Because CGI progress isn’t fast enough to meet public expectations. We go to the cinema expecting every new film to be an astonishing quantum leap forward, and that’s just not possible. Look at Pixar’s films. Yes they’re brilliant – but they started brilliant. So the only way to keep blowing our minds is to keep reducing our expectations.

Just like governments do with recessions.


  1. Argh, stupid mistake. Stop-motion pioneer Willis O’Brien did King Kong. Harryhausen learned under him on several films, including the less iconic giant gorilla feature.

Watching Paint Dry

Colouring pencils
None of These

Speaking of warships, I’m painting the garden wall today (bear with me) out at my mother’s place. According to the label this is supposed to be a very dark, slightly bluish grey. Slate, in other words. In fact my mother chose it to match the tiles on the roof. Which are also meant to look like slate. On the wall though, it’s coming out the dullest middle grey you ever did see.

Battleship grey. The tension is resolved. Thank you.

It said this colour was called “Merlin”. That seems to make no sense at all, but I was actually there when the name was chosen, in the chemical plant’s creative department. In my head.

“OK, grey. We need another name for another shade of grey. Brainstorm time.”







“Come on, there must be some positives. A happy memory from childhood maybe.”


“Did anyone here have a normal childhood?”

“We work in the creative department of a chemical plant.”

“Gandalf! Gandalf the Grey!”


Then the legal department finds that the licensing would cost millions and changes it to Merlin.

I’m just hoping it gets darker as it dries. Otherwise I’ve spent a lot of effort painting a cement wall to look pretty much like a cement wall.

Great Soluble Sailboats!

Looks good, but kick it and it'll crumple like a rotten tea-chest

This sexy three-hulled stealth job is one of the US Navy’s new breed of “littoral” vessels, designed to be able to move fast and hit hard even when close to shore. Amazing piece of technology. One problem: It’s dissolving out from under them.

Unlike most warships, this one has a hull made out of aluminium. Great stuff, nice and light. You can make a much faster ship from that, and it’s still torpedo-proof. Mostly. But not all military equipment is made of aluminium of course. A lot of it is steel.

So you’ve got a lot of aluminium and a lot of what is basically iron bolted onto it. Now add a saline solution like, oh, I don’t know – the sea? – and what you have isn’t so much a ship anymore, more what’s known as “a battery”.

The electrical action between the two different metals is corroding away the body of the ship. What makes this all the more stupid – according to the makers at least – is it’s the Navy’s fault because they decided not to spring for the “Cathodic Protection System” meant to prevent their ship eating itself. To save costs.

Not having a self-eating ship would, you might think, be the better long-term saving.

When a friend posted this on Facebook I wasn’t the only one to initially misread that as “Catholic Protection System”. I thought, the rhythm method? I wouldn’t rely on that. Someone else though pointed out that it might mean a St. Christopher’s medal – these are supposed to protect travellers, so perhaps they should attach a whole bunch of them.

To which someone else replied that if the medals were made of zinc, that might actually help.

Pause For Thought

So it is no more. From today forth, the editors of the Oxford University Press will no longer insist that you should put a comma before the conjunction when you’re listing things, for example: First, second, and third. We say a fond farewell to this venerable institution, a noble oddity now consigned to history’s scrapheap. Except in the US of course, where they will amused to find that the rule they use every day has been declared incorrect by some committee in England.

Alas, the story was apocryphal; the OUP has not changed its editorial rule. The misunderstanding arose because they have chosen not to use their own ‘Oxford comma’ in press releases. These conform instead to the usual rule in the UK, which is to use no comma there. They’ll keep using it in their books.

So no panic. Not that there should have been one anyway, but bad teaching can leave people stressed and anxious when they’re not sure if they’re being ‘correct’ or not.

What is correct? It’s simple. Use a comma when it feels right.

Yes that is a clear, disciplined rule. Note that I say “feels right”, not “at random”. Punctuation is used to convey the pacing of speech, the delivery, the emphasis. Punctuate just as you would pause in spoken language – to express feeling and to clarify meaning. Put in a comma when it helps avoid confusion. There is a notable difference between “I’d like you to meet my wife, my lover and my best friend” and “I’d like you to meet my wife, my lover, and my best friend”.

It must be admitted that the ‘Oxford’ comma is a tricky case – simply because some readers expect one there while others don’t. In Ireland, the UK, Australia, Canada, or just about anywhere else they speak English, putting one in seems like pausing before the last item for emphasis. Readers in America however expect it so its presence conveys nothing special and leaving it out just makes the list read oddly. So bear your audience in mind – as always.

With online media of course you have no idea where your audience is, so you might as well relax. If you really want a loose general rule, using a comma here is probably confusing less often than not using one. But whatever you do, don’t follow any rule to the point where it becomes madness – like this example which, I am assured, is actually from the Canadian Press Stylebook:

“Put commas between elements of a series but not before the final and, or or nor unless that avoids confusion.”

Seriously, someone did that for a bet.

What Comes After Facebook?

Facebook is great. Apart from the countless things I don’t like about it. I don’t completely trust them with my data. I worry the small convenience I get from using their service is outweighed by the value of the information I give them. I suspect I’m being exploited in ways I don’t even understand yet. I’m concerned that a single commercial organisation has such a crucial, influential role.

You see where I’m going here. Facebook is the new Google. So when, with their new “Google+“, Google try to be the new Facebook, it’s basically Google being the new new Google. Which makes me dizzy.

But I wish them luck. It’s great to see some competition here, and I strongly suspect that I’m going to prefer Google+ to Facebook. It has one clear advantage anyway: You can separate your interaction into separate areas, or ‘Circles’ as they call them, like family, work and friends.

Which was also exactly the idea behind Diaspora… This start-up have (had?) a potentially Facebook-beating idea, but they took too long to become a thing you could actually use. Now someone else has stolen the mantle of Facebook challenger?

Well, yes and no. Google might be better than Facebook, but they can’t stop being Google. There is a prize – a prize almost beyond measure – to be won here, but I’m not sure if either can reach it.

Facebook, mostly by accident I think, created a wholly new thing. Thanks mainly to its ubiquity it has become an online extension of ordinary life, and one’s Facebook footprint a projection of the self onto the Web. And that in turn has the potential to solve another problem, if problem it be: That of authentication.

Google’s answer to this is a fully authenticated Web with no room for anonymity. A friendlier place for commerce and policing for sure, but obviously an unsafe one for the sort of political organisation we’ve seen in the Middle East recently. You may have noticed how it gets harder all the time to open a Google account. Last time I created one, I had to give them a mobile phone number. How long before it’s an iris scan?

Facebook presents a less foreboding form of authentication – not as rigorous as biometrics perhaps, but as good as we have in most of real life: Authentication by social relationship. To paraphrase an old saying, you can tell a lot about a person from their friends. And of course, most people simply wouldn’t go to the trouble of creating and maintaining a fake Facebook identity. So it is becoming almost a universal authentication system. You see  “Login using Facebook” all over the place now, saving you the trouble of creating a new user account – with a new password – on all sorts of sites.

Which must come as quite a shock to Google, who probably thought they had that market in the bag.

It’s not a straight fight between these two approaches though. The system that will win is the one that can fuse the depth and usefulness of this casual social authentication with the rigour of a biometric one. An unfakeable Facebook(-like) profile would become virtually part of a person, indistinguishable almost from their identity. It could easily become the main way in which we interact with one another, both socially and commercially. And that would be some golden ring.

But if I’m going to (be forced to) use some sort of authentication, I want to do it through an organisation or system I don’t feel is exploiting or policing my thoughts and actions. I don’t think the social network with the complex and constantly changing privacy settings is the outfit for the job. Nor do I think it’s the corporation that seems actively hostile to the concept of privacy. If some system is going to be given the role of presenting me as trustworthy to others, it needs to be one that I trust too.

So it’s too early to give up on Diaspora or other “Facebook killers”. There is a vast amount of money to be made. All you have to do is be nice.