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December 2004

The Merchant of Venice

In the LRB, Frank Kermode responds to Michael Radford's film of The Merchant of Venice, starring Pacino as Shylock:

This movie version of the play will just about do. It has most of the virtues and most of the faults endemic to such ventures, but it exposes the latter less grossly than some. As Shylock Pacino succeeds as any good, experienced actor should, and Jeremy Irons is appallingly sad as Antonio, just as he promises to be in the opening line of the play. He cannot understand why he is so sad but the film all too insistently offers a complete explanation. Joseph Fiennes as Bassanio shows us why the Christians in this play are, on the whole, such an unlikeable lot. Lynn Collins as Portia looks as good as she ought to, and redeems some tiresome moments in the early scenes by being startlingly good and grave in the trial scene. Since the piece is set in Venice there is a lot of photography, and some of the results are indeed beautiful. The movie runs for 131 minutes and feels longer, partly no doubt because quite often nothing strictly relevant is actually happening – and certainly not because it includes boring quantities of Shakespeare’s text. …

Shylock is despised and hated but even when most intransigent not credible as a monster, and to give Pacino his due, he plays him as a human being, increasingly vicious as his wrongs accumulate, totally lacking the sentiment of mercy, but always true to his culture and its eloquent exponent. On the other side we notice that no one, not even Jessica, thinks that he has been unfairly treated. Like a great many other Jews of the period he is forced to convert, but this is treated as a punishment, not an occasion for rejoicing, despite the prevalent belief that the Jews must be converted before there could be a second coming. This gentile callousness is as hard to condone as the inherited monstrosities of their anti-semitic mythology.

Prejudice is powerful on both sides, but the Christians are shown to have God on their side when Antonio’s venture succeeds and the ships, mysteriously saved, come in loaded, while Shylock, for seeking an illegal form of interest, is ruined. Yet he is the greater performer, his part so well written that even the cinema cannot seriously reduce or explain it. What neither the cinema nor the stage explains is why the play is so shadowed by unease and unhappiness, even though all seems to go right: the villain is punished and the dissolute boy gets the rich girl and they all meet again at Belmont – such a blissful place, especially in the movie – only to celebrate their happiness by discussing infidelity and experiencing, like the play itself, a nameless sadness under the inaudible harmonies of the stars.


Blogs and the mainstream

BBC News:

… this year the focus has been on blogs which cast a critical eye over news events, often writing about issues ignored by the big media or offering an eye-witness account of events. Most blogs may have only a small readership, but communication experts say they have provided an avenue for people to have a say in the world of politics. The most well-known examples include Iraqi Salam Pax's accounts of the US-led war, former Iranian vice-president Mohammad Ali Abtahi exclusive insight into the Islamic Republic's government, and the highs and lows of the recent US election campaign. There are already websites pulling together these first-hand reporting accounts heralded by blogs, like wikinews.com, launched last November. …

Andrew Nachison, Director of the Media Center, a US-based think-tank that studies media, technology and society, highlights the US presidential race as a possible turning point for blogs. "You could look at that as a moment when audiences exercised a new form of power, to choose among many more sources of information than they have never had before," he says. "And blogs were a key part of that transformation." …

Mr Nachison argues blogs have become independent sources for images and ideas that circumvent traditional sources of news and information such as newspapers, TV and radio. "We have to acknowledge that in all of these cases, mainstream media actually plays a role in the discussion and the distribution of these ideas," he told the BBC News website. "But they followed the story, they didn't lead it." … he agrees with other experts, like the linguist and political analyst Noam Chomsky, that mainstream media has lost the traditional role of news gatekeeper. "The one-to-many road of traditional journalism, yes, it is threatened. And professional journalists need to acclimate themselves to an environment in which there are many more contributors to the discourse," says Mr Nachison. "The notion of a gatekeeper who filters and decides what's acceptable for public consumption and what isn't, that's gone forever."

"With people now walking around with information devices in their pockets, like camera or video phones, we are going to see more instances of ordinary citizens breaking stories."


Desmond Tutu

Archbishop Desmond Tutu interviewed in Newsweek:

You said George Bush should admit that he made a mistake. Were you surprised at his re-election?

[Laughs] I still can't believe that it really could have happened. Just look at the facts on the table: He’d gone into a war having misled people—whether deliberately or not—about why he went to war. You would think that would have knocked him out [of the race.] It didn’t. Look at the number of American soldiers who have died since he claimed that the war had ended. And yet it seems this doesn't make most Americans worry too much. I was teaching in Jacksonville, Fla., [during the election campaign] and I was shocked, because I had naively believed all these many years that Americans genuinely believed in freedom of speech. [But I] discovered there that when you made an utterance that was remotely contrary to what the White House was saying, then they attacked you. For a South African the déjà vu was frightening. They behaved exactly the same way that used to happen here [during apartheid]—vilifying those who are putting forward a slightly different view.

Do you see any other parallels with white-ruled South Africa?

Look at the [detentions in] Guantanamo Bay. You say, why do you detain people without trial in the fashion that you have done? And when they give the answer security, you say no, no, no, this can't be America. This is what we used to hear in South Africa. It's unbelievable that a country that many of us have looked to as the bastion of true freedom could now have eroded so many of the liberties we believed were upheld almost religiously. [But] feeling as devastated in many ways as I am, it is wonderful to find that there are [also] Americans who have felt very strongly [about administration policies]—the people who turned out for rallies against the war. One always has to be very careful not to do what we used to do here, where you generalize very facilely, and one has to remember that there are very many Americans who are feeling deeply distressed about what has taken place in their country. We take our hats off to them.

Talking about religion, much has been said about the role it played in the White House race. What do you say to those who believe that Bush was chosen by God?

[Laughs]  I keep having to remind people that religion in and of itself is morally neutral. Religion is like a knife. When you use a knife for cutting up bread to prepare sandwiches, a knife is good. If you use the same knife to stick into somebody’s guts, a knife is bad. Religion in and of itself is not good or bad—it is what it makes you do… Frequently, fundamentalists will say this person is the anointed of God if the particular person is supporting their own positions on for instance, homosexuality, or abortion. [I] feel so deeply saddened [about it]. Do you really believe that the Jesus who was depicted in the Scriptures as being on the side of those who were vilified, those who were marginalized, that this Jesus would actually be supporting groups that clobber a group that is already persecuted? That’s a Christ I would not worship. I'm glad that I believe very fervently that Jesus would not be on the side of gay bashers. To think that people say, as they used to say, that AIDS was God’s punishment for homosexuality. Abominable. Abominable. …

So have the attacks of September 11 and the so-called war on terror given America and its allies another focal point?

Yes. There's no question at all. It appears as if we need enemies for our self identification.


Some digital photography links (posted from 43 Things)

PC Magazine has an article entitled Troubleshooting your images and this deals with blurry images, pixelated or grainy images, images too dark or light and poor colour.

Then, Bob Atkins Photography has a new piece about digital image re-sizing:

One aspect of digital images which seems to cause a lot of confusion to beginners is the matter of image size. There are three basic measures of image size:

  • Pixel count – e.g 3000×2000 pixels
  • Physical size – e.g. 4” x 6”
  • Resolution – e.g. 72 pixels per inch (ppi)

The confusion seems to arise because people aren’t sure of how these are related.

Finally, Outback Photo has an article about EXIF metadata:

Whenever you take a picture with a camera, or scan a slide, the firmware of your camera or your scanner captures not just the actual image itself, but also additional data, describing the environment in which the image was taken. This data is called metadata and its understanding and utilization can be an invaluable aid in your workflow.

All these links found via PhotographyBLOG.

(See more progress on 43 Things, "become a much, much better digital photographer"...)


Cook more … (posted from 43 Things)

Tonight, a mushroom risotto. A couple of years ago I read Pot on the Fire by John Thorne, and there (pp 68f) is the best guide to cooking a risotto I have ever come across. His recipe uses portobello mushrooms and he cites Jack Czarnecki who, in A Cook’s Book of Mushrooms, says ‘portobellos are the only (supermarket mushrooms) that possess the size and succulence of the larger wild mushrooms, such as porcini’.

It was John Thorne who taught me to let the rice cook a little before adding any stock: ‘sauté the rice until its coating of starch has turned clear and the rice itself releases a toasty aroma’.


The Asian tsunami: web-technology and the bringing of aid

On the day BBC News reports on podcasting and The Times accords Wikipedia a front rank place in the reporting of the Asian tsunami, one might think that web-based technology, applications and resources are indeed entering the mainstream at a number of different points. This is the argument my colleague, Ian, set out earlier today, with specific reference to the Asian catastrophe. Ian went on to say:

All those books that we've been reading finally begin to make sense: The Tipping Point, The Wisdom of Crowds and Small Pieces, Loosely Joined. WebLogs, Wikis, Flickr (imagery), Event Alerts, e-mail, have all been deployed to best effect. It seems the only way to handle a catastrophic event of this scale is by managing the problem from the bottom up — indeed the most noticeable thing about the whole tragedy has been the extraordinary absence of "top down" leadership.

I am struck, too, at the way our desire to donate funds has been facilitated by, for example, Google and Amazon. The Disasters Emergency Committee (UK) has its own appeal portal.

The Times report also said:

There aren't too many bloggers in the towns and villages around the Indian Ocean, but some blogs have reflected the drama these past few days, notably Fred at Extra Extra, posting reflections and pictures from Sri Lanka. In Malaysia, try the screenshots blog from Jeff Ooi. His entry Are You OK, Myanmar? points out how the government of Burma, which is right in the path of the tsunami, has been sending messages of commiseration to neighbouring countries, but has yet to admit to any serious destruction at home. In India, try sumankumar.com, run by blogger R. Sumankumar - who has also set up a blog dedicated to raising funds for Indian victims.  A contributor, Nanda Kishore, offered photos and commentary from Madras: "Some drenched till their hips, some till their chest, some all over and some of them were so drenched that they had already stopped breathing." The SEA-EAT blog was set up by a group of around 30 South Asian bloggers to help direct funds to relief agencies. They are posting a lot of updates on death tolls and relief needs. 

A lot of sites have been set up to help people find each other amid the mayhem - not just tourists in Thailand or Sri Lanka, but locals and their relatives. The International Committee of the Red Cross has been helping people get in touch during and after conflicts for decades, and its Family Links page is doing the same for victims of the tsunami … The Thai Government is to set up a website showing pictures of those found dead after the disaster, but it's not gone live yet. Phuket Hospital is posting lists of patients at various hospitals around Phuket - there are well over 100 names of British patients at the main Phuket hospital. The Sri Lankan tourist board has set up the contactsrilanka site to help people track down missing relatives. It says about 100 foreign tourists died in the country and 85 are unaccounted for. The BBC website has received thousands of messages from survivors of the disaster, and relatives of those who died. Sky News - apparently in reaction to stories that the Foreign Office helpline was creaking under the strain - offered to pass on messages to and from families back in the UK, which are repeated on its site. The Lonely Planet message boards have also been deluged with travellers' tales and requests for information.

There is a BBC News page where their reporters in Asia can blog their reports. And there is now a BBC page entitled, Web logs aid disaster recovery.


Cory on DRM

Cory Doctorow's talk to the Microsoft Research Group (17 June, 2004) on DRM has become very well-known. Earlier today I read with pleasure his piece on BitTorrent (Boing Boing), a response to Wired magazine's long piece (by Clive Thompson) on Bram Cohen, BitTorrent's author:

It's a very good piece, and Bram gets some great licks in; the only place I took issue with it is where Clive talks about Microsoft DRM being useful to "keep content out of pirate hands" -- there is not a single piece of content in the history of the universe that has been "kept out of pirate hands" (i.e. kept off the Internet, or prevented from being stamped out in pirate CD factories abroad) by DRM. It's a weird kind of Big Lie strategy by the DRM people to talk about how DRM can prevent "piracy" when there has never, ever been an example of this happening.

Wired seems to be a little soft on DRM these days; the recent Wired spin-off, Wired Test, featured page on page of reviews of music players, media PCs, and PVRs with hardly a mention of the fact that all of these devices were fundamentally crippleware, and all controlled by entertainment companies who can and do arbitrarily remove functionality from them after they have entered the marketplace, so that the device that you've bought does less today than it did when you opened the box. If you're publishing a consumer-advice magazine, it seems like this is the kind of thing you should be noting for your readers: "If you buy this, your investment will be contingent on the ongoing goodwill of some paranoid Warners exec whose astrologer has told him that your pause button will put him out of business and must be disabled."

Chris Anderson, Editor-in-Chief of Wired, responded to this response, and Cory has in turn replied:

  • There's no reason to believe that DRM makes more content available
  • There's no reason to let the studios "call the shots" -- we haven't before this
  • There's no reason to believe that DRM makes media cheaper, quite the contrary
  • The features that make your "reasonable" DRM palatable to the market today can and are rescinded tomorrow

Co-creating spaces

Elizabeth Sanders:

Significant changes are taking place today in the relationship between producers and consumers. A participatory culture is emerging on a large scale. Everyday people, not just designers, are using the new digital tools to express themselves and to communicate. People who once were satisfied with being “consumers” now are becoming “creators”. They are moving away from consumptive activities in search of a better balance between consumption and creativity.

This human-centered design revolution is causing us to rethink the design process. In order to drive the human-centered design revolution, we need to tap into the imaginations and dreams not only of designers, but also of everyday people. New design spaces are emerging in response to everyday people’s needs for creativity. Beyond the edge of practice are the Co-Creating Spaces where designers and everyday people will work collaboratively throughout the design and development process. In the future, Co-Creating Spaces will be especially important in highly complex domains and in domains where people channel their passions.