The end of cinema as we know it, and I feel fine

Following on from yesterday’s post about the precarious position of our independent cinemas and picture houses, here’s David Cronenberg’s views on the matter. He thinks cinema-going is on the decline, and he’s… not that bothered?

‘If movies disappeared overnight, I wouldn’t care’: David Cronenberg on the death of cinema
But the important distinction he wants to make is that filmmaking isn’t “dead” – it is just that cinema is no longer “the cathedral that you go to where you commune with many other people.”

Instead, you watch on your laptop, TV or handheld device. He suggests that watching a film on an iPad is closer to reading a novel than it is to the old cinema-going experience.

Pictures of the picture houses

Nice to see photos of one of our local cinemas* in the Guardian recently.

The Hyde Park Picture House in Leeds
The Hyde Park Picture House, the world’s only surviving gas-lit cinema, opened in 1914. The owners of the Grade II-listed building have now been granted planning permission for redevelopment, to improve accessibility, restore the gas lights and ornate plasterwork and incorporate a second screen in the basement.

They’ve now been given planning permission for their renovation, but the grant they got to fund it was awarded almost two years ago. Patience is a virtue, I guess.

Gas-lit Leeds cinema among sites to receive heritage lottery cash
In its earliest years Hyde Park showed morale-boosting patriotic films including An Englishman’s Home, and newsreel of the war in which 6,000 local men had enlisted. The gas lights were turned down but kept on during the screenings, to combat reports of disgraceful carryings on in the back rows of darker cinemas.

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Not all of these places are so lucky. Here are some of the saddest photos I’ve seen in a long time.

9 haunting abandoned cinemas & picture houses of England
In our modern world of multiplexes, it can be easy to forget the grand cinemas of yore. Not so long ago, ornate picture houses stretched over every corner of England. Each one offered something more than a simple screen. It offered a unique viewing experience, a perfect way to while away a rainy afternoon by settling into another world. Today, many of those old picture houses stand in ruins, their projectors shut off for the final time.

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And it’s sad to see the one I grew up with is suffering the same fate.

* What others call a movie theater, we would call a cinema. A picture house sounds very grand (as is appropriate for Hyde Park), but when I was young, we’d refer to these places as the pictures. A singular noun, as in: “Is there owt good on at the pictures, or shall we go round to John’s and play on his Atari?”

Buyer (and seller) beware

Happy Amazon Prime Day, everyone!

Make of that what you will, but there’s no getting away from the fact that shopping is not what it was. It feels far riskier — and creepier —both for customers as well as vendors.

Who makes those insanely specific t-shirts on the internet?
One site, Sunfrog, implores a user to enter a range of my data (name, city, birth month/year, hobbies, job), and then generates hundreds of customized t-shirts — “just for you!” — in seconds. Another company boasts more than 10k variations of a single t-shirt phrase, with personalized names ranging from Aylin to Zara. Its catalog includes classics like “Never Underestimate A Woman Who Loves Stephen King And Was Born In April,” and “I’m a Tattooed Hippie Girl Born With a Mouth I Can’t Control.”

But as it turns out, the key to these operations (huge volume) can also be its curse — and oftentimes, these “algorithmically-generated” products can go terribly, terribly wrong.

That’s an understatement…

As it turns out, Fowler’s algorithm had served as a sort of demented Mad Libs, generating phrases like “Keep Calm and Rape Them,” and “Keep Calm and Grope On.”

If only that was the only one.

Last year, an Amazon retailer by the name of “my-handy-design” made an unwelcome splash on the internet over its questionable iPhone accessories. A series of cases featured a seemingly random (and, consequently, NSFW) variance of images, including old men suffering from diarrhea, heroin spoons, toenail fungus, and “a three year old biracial boy in a medical stroller.”

As well as being potentially upsetting for the shoppers that might stumble across them, these not-quite-real-but-existing-nonetheless products and the algorithms behind them can have disastrous effects on the businesses involved.

The bad things that happen when algorithms run online shops
“It almost felt like somebody broke into your house or your personal life and started to take things away from you,” says Richard Burri, whose office stationery store was affected by the error. He and his wife estimate that the various computer algorithms working together would have cost the business between $100,000 and $150,000. Fortunately, the majority of the firm’s human customers who had bought one penny items agreed to return them when contacted.

Others found that buyers weren’t always so obliging. Shamir Patel sold pharmaceutical products via Amazon. He also asked customers to return one penny products, but he says about half of them refused to do so. The cost to his business, he calculates, was around £60,000. “You were a bit powerless to do anything about it,” he recalls. “You were literally just watching your money flush down the drain.”

But, of course, it’s not entirely the fault of the machines. Sometimes this is all deliberate.

The strange brands in your Instagram feed
What Ganon does is pick suppliers he’ll never know to ship products he’ll never touch. All his effort goes into creating ads to capture prospective customers, and then optimizing a digital environment that encourages them to buy whatever piece of crap he’s put in front of them. And he is not alone.

What a time to be alive.

Jenny Odell’s special investigative report for the Museum of Capitalism: “There’s no such thing as a free watch”
One interesting detail about this mystery company (in its many iterations) is where it draws the line in terms of deception. While the entire business model is obviously misleading, their FAQ sections sometimes include reassurances following the question “Is this a scam?” and always take care to mention that credit card details are handled by Shopify. The sites often include icons for Norton Secure and McAfee Secure, as if to provide even greater assurance. On a Reddit thread in r/Scams, in which people complain about the watches and discuss finding $1-2 versions on Amazon and Alibaba, Soficostal butts in only once, in response to a poster speculating whether it might be a credit card scam. Soficoastal writes, “We don’t have our customers Credit Card numbers. They are safely processed through Stripe or PayPal.” The negative posts then continue – “it’s just some lookalike from China worth peanuts … they gib you on shipping,” says one user – with Soficoastal remaining silent.

At the end of the day, you get what you pay for.

The problem with buying cheap stuff online
Reviews of Wish suggest that many customers have indeed had bad experiences. The 512 customer reviews of Wish on Hiya.com are mostly negative, with one-star reviews and customers calling the company a “scam” and a “rip-off.” They tell stories of the site sending rings that turn fingers green, products paid for and never received, and requests for returns and refunds ignored. “Yes, you save money, if you actually get your stuff! Never again will I ordered [sic] from Wish,” one customer, Regina Ashley, wrote.

Happy shopping!

There is such a thing as emoji research now

I still can’t bring myself to join in with this, but there you go ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Academics gathered to share emoji research, and it was 🔥
Wijeratne had been working on separate research relating to word-sense disambiguation, a field of computational linguistics that looks at how words take on multiple meanings. The use of jumped out as a brand new problem. “They were using the gas pump emoji to refer to marijuana,” says Wijeratne. “As soon as I saw this new meaning associated with the emoji, I thought, what about emoji-sense disambiguation?”

That moment caused Wijeratne to redirected his PhD research toward emoji. This week, he put together the first interdisciplinary academic conference on emoji in research.

[…]

Now, researchers are beginning to turn more seriously toward those research questions. On Monday, linguist Gretchen Mcculloch presented a theory of emoji as beat gestures—the equivalent of gesticulating to add emphasis—rather than a language in themselves. “Letters let us write words, emoji let us write gestures,” she says. Eric Goldman, a legal scholar at Santa Clara University’s School of Law, discussed a forthcoming paper on emoji and the law, which highlights the potential for emoji to create misunderstanding in legal contexts—including high profile cases, like the Silk Road case.

Bon voyage

I live quite close to an airport, but not close enough to get photos as good as these, unfortunately.

“Landing Lights Park” by photographer David Rothenberg
In addition to local residents, the area is home to a steady flow of inbound jetliners heading for LaGuardia Airport. Descending at set intervals (some as short as 90 seconds) and at heights as low as 150 feet, Rothenberg’s work brilliantly taps into the absurd and surreal nature of such a living situation:

“The massive scale of a low-flying 757 in relation to small-scale eclectic style homes, amid nests of above-ground telephone wires, is a disorienting sight. My photographs explore this extraordinary intrusion within a landscape of the ordinary.”

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What’s in a name? #2

It looks strange now, but this Waldseemüller map from 1507 was cutting-edge in its day, incorporating the very latest reports from voyages of discovery that were taking place at the time. Not everyone agreed with the reports from a certain Amerigo Vespucci, however.

The epic story of the map that gave America its name
Contrarily, according to a letter dated 1504 from Vespucci to Duke Renè that was reprinted in Introduction to Cosmography and describes his four voyages from 1497 to 1504, he reached the mainland a year earlier than Columbus. Historians have called the authenticity of this letter into doubt, but Waldseemüller and Ringmann took Vespucci’s letter at face value, basing their naming of the new continent on its contents.

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You could say that every country has at least two names — an exonym and an endonym; what outsiders call a place, and what the people that actually live there call their place. They were arguing about the former without bothering to ask about the latter.

It’s a gorgeous map, though, regardless of its accuracy and arrogance. Here’s another remarkable map of America, this time of just one of its rivers.

This 11-Foot ‘ribbon map’ puts the whole Mississippi River in your pocket
It wasn’t just a marketing gimmick, though. By choosing this particular form, Coloney and Fairchild leaned into a particular depiction of the Mississippi that took shape during the Civil War. “There was this idea that because the river went from north to south, it was a great unifier for the country,” Luarca-Shoaf says—that it tied the divided North and South together like, well, a ribbon. At the same time, they took pains to include important battle sites, like Vicksburg. That these sites made it onto the map just a year after the war ended “shows that the war had marked the landscape in more than physical ways,” she says. “It had become part of the history of the place.”

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Sad ending

Like many others, I’m sure, I raced through The Third Policeman in the sixth form. I’ve read it a few times since, and recently found the nerve to tackle At Swim-Two-Birds, fearful of its reputation. I shouldn’t have waited so long. Very funny-haha as well as very funny-peculiar, though I’ll have to re-read it again before I could tell you what it was all about.

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I know very little about Flann O’Brien, though. Maybe that’s for the best. According to this collection of his letters and correspondence, drink turned him into quite an unpleasant and angry man in his later years.

Yours severely: the collected letters of Flann O’Brien
In a book full of crackpottery, one of the strangest moments comes in 1965, when O’Brien suggests that the French edition of At Swim-Two-Birds be translated back into English by a serving French Foreign Legionnaire and used to replace O’Brien’s original text, which he had come to detest. In its daft way, the suggestion is a perfect example of O’Brien’s estranged relationship with language – language in general but also the language of his artistic prime, as surveyed from the wreckage of his final years.

[…]

Might a non-drinking O’Brien have been a happier and more savoury human being? Almost certainly. Might a happier and better-adjusted O’Brien have ever written anything? Impossible to say. As it is, our reaction to the unhappy soul captured in these letters will probably be, in the words of a 1965 letter, ‘halfway between a guffaw and a puke’.

By the way, At Swim-Two-Birds was very nearly a film, if you can imagine that.

Brendan Gleeson secures funds for Flann O’Brien film
Actor Brendan Gleeson has secured funding to make a film of Irish writer Flann O’Brien’s masterpiece At Swim Two Birds. Gabriel Byrne, Colin Farrell and Cillian Murphy have all been linked to the new film.

Though that now seems doubtful.

Gleeson’s doubts over Two Birds
Domhnall Gleeson has revealed his doubts over the At Swim Two Birds film. His father Brendan Gleeson is planning to make his directorial debut with the big-screen adaptation of Flann O’Brien’s novel, which Colin Farrell, Gabriel Byrne and Cillian Murphy have been attached to. It was originally set for release in 2010, with 14 drafts of the script already written by the actor, but has yet to start shooting.

 I think I will re-read the book, though, just in case.

Facebook gets away with it

Facebook fined for data breaches in Cambridge Analytica scandal
Facebook is to be fined £500,000, the maximum amount possible, for its part in the Cambridge Analytica scandal, the information commissioner has announced.

But talk about good timing.

In the first quarter of 2018, Facebook took £500,000 in revenue every five and a half minutes. Because of the timing of the breaches, the ICO said it was unable to levy the penalties introduced by the European General Data Protection (GDPR), which caps fines at the higher level of €20m (£17m) or 4% of global turnover – in Facebook’s case, $1.9bn (£1.4bn). The £500,000 cap was set by the Data Protection Act 1998.

Elizabeth Denham, the information commissioner, explains her real goal with this fine is to “effect change and restore trust and confidence in our democratic system.”

“Most of us have some understanding of the behavioural targeting that commercial entities have used for quite some time,” Denham said, “to sell us holidays, to sell us trainers, to be able to target us and follow us around the web.”

“But very few people have an awareness of how they can be micro-targeted, persuaded or nudged in a democratic campaign, in an election or a referendum.

“This is a time when people are sitting up and saying ‘we need a pause here, and we need to be sure we are comfortable with the way personal data is used in our democratic process’.”

I think we’re still some way off that; people just seem not to be bothered.

Facebook’s rise in profits, users shows resilience after scandals
Facebook Inc (FB.O) shares rose on Wednesday after the social network reported a surprisingly strong 63 percent rise in profit and an increase in users, with no sign that business was hurt by a scandal over the mishandling of personal data.

But maybe I shouldn’t be so pessimistic.

The digital privacy wins keep coming
Progress can be difficult to measure; it often comes in drips and drops, or not at all for long stretches of time. But in recent weeks, privacy advocates have seen torrential gains, at a rate perhaps not matched since Edward Snowden revealed how the National Security Agency spied on millions of US citizens in 2013. A confluence of factors—generational, judicial, societal—have created momentum where previously there was none. The trick now is to sustain it.

Let’s hope.

Will you still love me when I’m physiologically 64?

Is the end nigh? New blood tests can reveal your life expectancy
“We showed that even among people who have no diseases, who are presumably healthy, we can still pick up differences in life expectancy. It’s capturing something preclinical, before any diseases present themselves,” she said.

“It’s picking up how old you look physiologically. Maybe you’re 65 years old but physiologically you look more like a 70 year old, so your mortality risk is more like that of a 70 year old.”

This is either going to end up as the next must-have app which we’ll all happily throw our medical data at, or a compulsory part of arranging life insurance that we won’t have any choice over.