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w/e 19 August 2018

Hello. Another week.

Some people will always, always finish reading every book they start. Giving up is not an option. Other people will start many more books than they finish. I usually slog through difficult books in the belief this is somehow improving. Giving up is weak! But, really, I know that plodding through a book for the sake of it is probably a waste of my time. I’m getting better at being weak occasionally.

A few days ago I gave up on Iain M. Banks Use of Weapons and also my plan to read all of his Culture series of novels. I first read Consider Phlebas, which didn’t quite grab me, and The Player of Games, which I liked a bit better. I got nearly half-way through Use of Weapons but I didn’t care about anything that was happening and consequently hadn’t paid enough attention to understand the flashbacks (or forwards? I don’t know) or even who some of the characters were. It wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t for me, and there are too many other books to read in the world.

Part of the reason the series didn’t grab me is because, although I like science fiction, I’m rarely interested in SF that isn’t on, or closely related to, Earth. I find it harder to feel involved in what’s happening and so much seems arbitrary, almost closer to fantasy, which also isn’t my cup of tea. Earth-bound distant-futures or people leaving Earth are fine, but more tenuous temporal or spatial relationships to here-and-now don’t grab me.

I was interested in the Culture itself and the ideas and technologies around it, but these are the background to the novels’ plots. I really like that so much isn’t spelled out, and that you only gradually learn about the Culture… but when that’s the only aspect I’m interested in, the going is too slow.

We watched the five episodes of Mark Kermode’s Secrets of Cinema this week and enjoyed it. Some aspects felt a little forced to me: referring to “secrets” and “tricks” is over-egging it; having a single 3D-graphics view of one movie’s three-act structure each episode; the numbered themes/techniques as sections which irritated me for reasons I can’t quite put my finger on. Obviously, I’m easily irritated and overall it was good. It was like one of those YouTube series about cinema techniques only with an hour per episode to play with and having a pleasant writer/narrator rather than an over-excited American who apparently talks withouttakingasinglebreath.

Like most (all?) TV documentaries it wasn’t terribly challenging but it wasn’t dumb either. If we were to grade its complexity using its vocabulary, Kermode uses “verisimilitude” but doesn’t stretch as far as “diegetic”. My, my, don’t I sound snooty.

I’ve also enjoyed the first couple of episodes of Hang Ups which is funny and fast, with great timing. Almost all of the shots are people talking to each other over various forms of video chat and I initially thought how realistically portrayed this was, but later I realised this wasn’t the case. For example, all the phone chats are in landscape format, everyone is perfectly lit in high resolution, screen graphics are very minimal, and there’s no lag or other technical glitches (unless for comic effect). So it’s not that the video chats are realistic, it’s that they’re suggested just enough to convince. In trying to portray video chat on TV we’d once have had technical or graphical howlers as the production went over-the-top with the effects. Look! Video Chat on The Internet! But here, now, we know what it is and how it works, so we don’t need to make a fuss — suggest the process and get out of the way. Nicely done.

More people I know joined Mastodon this week and many of them, including me, are still trying to figure out quite how it works, which doesn’t bode well for its mainstream acceptance. After initially thinking its set-up was good for privacy, I’m less sure now.

At first I thought it would do away with needing both public and private accounts, which several friends have on Twitter for different uses. With Mastodon you can adjust individual messages to be public or only visible to your followers, which is more fine-grained than Twitter. But this isn’t an equivalent to two Twitter accounts. Your follower list is either approved by you (like a private Twitter account) or open to anyone (a public account). You can’t have both. While you could have a “private” Mastodon account (approved followers only) and make some messages public… who would see them? Only people who viewed their instance’s Local timeline, or the pretty pointless Federated timeline of all messages everywhere. So I think the public and private accounts model still holds.

However… given your followers-only messages will be distributed from one Mastodon server to another, each administered by different people, any of those admins could theoretically read the messages. The same goes for person-to-person direct messages. So, currently, as I understand it, privacy on Mastodon is only as private as you trust the admins of every single person who chooses to run an instance. [Add in some complications over how messages are distributed between servers here, but this has gone on long enough.]

To be fair, on Twitter your private account’s tweets are only as private as much as you trust any of your friends not to screw up fiddling about with the API, and making everything public by mistake… And you may delete all your old Tweets but that doesn’t mean everyone who ever grabbed them while playing around with the API has done the same; they won’t have.

Anyway, at least Mastodon has no adverts, no “algorithmic” feed, and no investors to please. It’s a start.

Finally, after I posted a link on Twitter to my account of buying a washing machine from the Co-op, and passing their support team my order number as requested, a nice man from Co-op Electrical called me. It was a short conversation because he seemed to expect me to have something further to say. What more is there to say? This wasn’t one of those customer service situations that requires resolving, like a broken device that no one will fix, or a dispute over an unpaid refund. We have a working washing machine, it was just a pain to get. And I didn’t expect them to say, “We had no idea our processes had all these problems, but now we’ve fixed them all, thanks Mr Gyford!” It is what it is.

That’s all. I hope you have a good week.

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