Pleasantville

'What's sex?' - Betty

Pleasantville is a favourite film of mine. Powerful on many levels, it manages to captivate the attention as well as entertain and give pause for thought.

The premise is simple; David (Tobey Maguire) is given a remote control that allows him to enter the TV set and the programme of Pleasantville with his sister Jennifer (Reese Witherspoon). This mysterious start to the film is a well-trod one (Gremlins and Back to the Future being well-known previous examples), but it works without too much tedium. The world of Pleasantville that they enter is a black and white sitcom set in the 50s with bland, inoffensive content. David loves this programme, but, egged on by his sister’s behaviour in having sex with one of the town’s other teenagers (in a place where holding hands is risqué), he soon begins to encourage the townspeople to rebel and investigate their adventurous side. Apparently too much sex means poor quality basketball the next morning, but as each townsperson’s innocence is challenged, the town begins to turn from black and white to colour, piece by piece, in a most beautiful manner, as they realise their greater potential.

The film is a superb parody of conservative social values: everything the townspeople hold dear is challenged by David and the growing band of ‘coloreds’. There’s more than a nod towards the segregation in America of that period, with a separation of the coloreds from the non-coloreds as the more conservative folk (led by mayor Big Bob - played the always excellent J.T. Walsh - sadly his last film) try to resist the growing awareness of beauty and variety. There are some truly touching scenes, such as where Bill Johnson (Jeff Daniels) sees an art book for the first time - his reaction looks like Newton’s would if you showed him a 747. The film also investigates Pavlovian response, as George (William H. Macy) highlights in a humourous scene where he seems incapable of understanding why his dinner is not on the table.

Ultimately Pleasantville is not only great fun, and funny to boot, it’s also deep, meaningful, and has a happy ending. What more could you want? This is a film to be enjoyed.

Digital Sound Innovation

When I was younger, I used to spend a lot of time tinkering with digital sound: mostly MOD files, on the venerable FastTracker. The highlight was remixing a track by Jim Young - I’ve unfortunately lost my version, but here’s the original (any competent media player, such as XMMS or Winamp, should still be able to play MOD files with the right plugin). I used the sound of my CD drive opening as an ‘instrument’ (slowed down many times), and felt very silly when I came to listen it to some years later. Only later did I realise that the professionals do exactly the same thing; Gary Rydstrom, one of Hollywood’s leading sound designers, describes how he used exactly the same kind of found art - bottles, floors, etc. - to design sounds for Monsters Inc. on the DVD extras for same. Nevertheless, my efforts were still pushing unlistenable.

So I was very gratified to listen to the singing computers podcast from O’Reilly recently, wherein David Battino discussed the state-of-the-art in voice synthesis, including singing. Although I never really played with this very much (voice synthesis is still surprisingly immature, proprietary and expensive; only now are we beginning to approach synthesis indistinguisable from real speech), it was still a fascinating to listen to someone tinkering with sound in the same way as I used too - with plenty of samples of speech synthesis from different devices and systems, including the giggle-a-minute Dictionaraoke site, which mashes up speech synthesis with real songs (it features up there with listening to Chipmunked songs for something to do when you’re drunk).

The future of digital music and sound as an innovative area has never seemed less certain, as digital photography enters the mainstream (see Flickr), and digital video is probably only a few years off doing the same (as bandwidth and storage continue to expand). But digital sound hasn’t reached a peak - there are still many things that are unachieveable in that world - real and convincing speech and singing being one of them. There’s still wiggle room in the area of noise cancellation too (get a pair of noise-cancelling headphones if you value your music). It’d be a shame if sound has to take a back seat after years of innovation - 8-track, compact cassette, CDs, MP3s being but a few inventions we now struggle to see ourselves without.

Illiberal Hampshire Police

Halloween FlourFirstly we learn that owning knives in Hampshire is wrong. Or maybe it isn’t; but the police only seem interested in gathering them anyway. Then we discover that the police are targeting signs that others find offensive. I’m not convinced this is a good use of my tax money.

But accordingly, I would like to politely request that Hampshire Police remove the following signs across the county, which I find offensive:

  • ‘Please wash before exiting rest room’ (the facilities in my office)

  • ‘Baby on board’ (still seen on the occasional car)

  • ‘Defacing council property will result in the police being called’ (Job Centre, Winchester)

  • ‘We will not sell Eggs or Flour to under-18s’ (seen in Sainsbury’s, see attached photo)

I hope Hampshire police get cracking with this; there’s nothing like a muted, inoffensive society to inspire us to greater wealth and knowledge.

Anyway, enough frothing at the mouth - I’m beginning to sound like The Devil’s Kitchen, with a little less of the adult language. Time for a Valium, perhaps.

Religiously Economical or Economically Religious?

As I’ve mentioned before, I regularly listen to the Econtalk series of podcasts; along with TEDTalks, they are one of the highlights of my [vod,pod]cast week.

An Econtalk podcast on the subject of religion a few weeks ago was the first I haven’t fully enjoyed. Larry Iannacone, the guest that week, outlined a theory he has spent many years developing: the amount of religious participation in a market (e.g. a country) is correlated with the amount of religious freedom permitted. He alleged that the USA was a good example - somewhere that had constitutionally guaranteed religious freedom, and subsequently widespread religious belief. This argument has intuitive power (when people are more free to do stuff their own way, they are more likely to take part in it), and seems empirically justified too (I didn’t spend long on the ARDA website he linked to, which contains more statistics on this than one can shake a stick at).

However, Iannacone went on to say some things about average education levels of religious folk vs. non-religious folk that, as an agnostic atheist, made me rather uncomfortable. He didn’t really discuss how these education levels were measured, or how, if at all, they might be biased towards religion. Further digs at Ayn Rand (I’m not an objectivist, but I am a libertarian) seemed a bit below the belt.

This isn’t to say that Iannacone’s statistics seemed implausible; quite the opposite. If anything, they are a good illustration of how economics can sometimes clue us in on the truths we don’t really want to hear. Nevertheless, I couldn’t help but feel a little more comfortable when I saw the case for the defence (admittedly without the economic content) presented by Richard Dawkins a few days later in The Root of All Evil - which is worth seeing, even if the arguments are a little simplistic.

Is Second Life Able to Cross the Chasm?

Second Life is an idea I want to like. It’s not a game, and it’s not just for playing around either (despite the slightly frivolous avatars and other trivialities imported from actual games). Some of my colleagues from IBM in various R&D; labs around the world - such as the Emerging Technologies Lab here in Hursley - have been doing an admirable job of promoting Second Life as a genuine business tool (articles on Slashdot, the BBC), and I think it’s great that IBM is looking at using something so bright and fresh.

Nevertheless, Second Life is in a dangerous period. The early adopters are familiar with it now, and there some important challenges to be overcome if it is to break into the mainstream:

  • It needs to shake off the geeky image, as Google, Wikipedia, and others have done before. This is essential for mass sign-up. There is a huge group who will equate it with MMORPGs such as the famous World of Warcraft, and an even larger one who simply aren’t aware of its existence.

  • It needs to become more robust. The demands Second Life makes on one’s machine are significant, which currently denies a huge potential market, and the client and world in general are not particularly stable - frequent updates and glitches will not be tolerated by most folks. The only way this seems likely to happen in practice is to slow the world’s technology changes for a while so they are further behind the hardware development curve.

  • Second Life is a lot like the house that Wikipedia built; great from 30,000 feet, but rough round the edges when you zoom in. Left-overs from experiments are everywhere, and the world itself lacks coherency. I’m not convinced this is necessarily harmful by itself, but it is a problem that needs addressing to avoid frustrating impatient later adopters. Wikipedia has done a good job of starting to fix this with voluntary task forces attacking accuracy problems and polishing the edges. Second Life probably needs the same.

  • Most of all, Second Life needs to decide what it is for. This isn’t to say that Linden Lab needs to do this (although they’d do well to encourage it if they want to stay in business), but somebody sure does. I’ve seen Second Life used for meetings, lectures, classes and similar functions, but other use cases seem to have so far evaded it. I’m sure there must be some more innovative stuff to come; Second Life is, after all, a brand new interface to manipulate data with. Yes, OK, it’s not the first 3D interface by a long shot, but it is the first with such a vast user base and such a high degree of customisability.

Many folks propose that Second Life is merely a ‘taster’ - the Yahoo of virtual worlds - and that the Google is still to arrive. Others foresee a gloomier future. I hope that isn’t the case - I want to like virtual universes, I really do. But like most people, I want to use it for something constructive - a half-way house between a communication tool and a game is no fun. Please, Second Lifers, invent a value proposition.

Update 2006-12-13: Clay Shirky’s analysis of Second Life is spot on.

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