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Archive for August, 2010

Be honest. Keep a tally of how many minutes of TV you watch each day. Add it up. What’s the weekly total? And the more interesting question: Has this figure gone up or down over the last few years?

Chicken watching TV or TV watching chicken?

Everyone thought that the internet and social media would kill television, just as they thought that cinemas would become extinct with the arrival of the video recorder. But it hasn’t happened.

British viewers watched an average of three hours and 45 minutes of television a day in 2009, 3% more than in 2004, according to research published by the media regulator Ofcom. Here are some thoughts from John Plunkett:

TV continues to take centre stage in people’s evenings, boosted by the popularity of shows such as The X Factor, Britain’s Got Talent and Doctor Who.

Television’s popularity has also been boosted by digital video recorders (DVRs), now in 37% of households – and the introduction of high definition television, now in more than 5 million UK homes.

“Television still has a central role in our lives. We are watching more TV than at any time in the last five years,” said James Thickett, director of market research and market intelligence at Ofcom.

New technology offered viewers an enhanced, easy-to-use viewing experience, with 15% of all viewing time spent watching programmes recorded on to a DVR, he said.

“Unlike VHS, which was such a hassle to set up and record a programme that only a very small proportion of viewing was on video, DVRs give viewers the chance to watch the programmes they really want to watch. It is bringing people back into the living room.”

The UK’s ageing population has also pushed up the figures. Older people are likely to watch more television, with the average 65-year-old watching five hours and 14 minutes a day. And it’s to do with the increasing number of channels too:

Digital television passed the 90% threshold for the first time last year, with 92.1% of homes having digital TV by the first quarter of 2010. The average weekly reach of multichannel television exceeded that of the five main TV channels – BBC1, BBC2, ITV1, Channel 4 and Channel 5 – also for the first time in 2009.

“More people are getting access to a greater number of channels and that’s translating into greater number of viewing hours per person,” said Richard Broughton, a senior analyst at the audiovisual research company Screen Digest.

“Various people have predicted that the internet would kill off television but we have always said that TV would be here for a long time to come. It’s much harder for broadcasters and production companies to monetise content online, and there are all sorts of things that broadcast can do that online can’t, such as high definition.”

Broughton said viewers were using Facebook and Twitter while watching the television, rather than switching it off altogether. “In many cases television is complemented [by social media platforms] and not necessarily a direct competitor,” he added.

I was about to write that the beauty of cinema is that you are forced to give your attention to one image, and that you have to leave all your other digital distractions behind. But then I remembered a recent visit to the cinema when the guy in front of me was texting even after the film had begun. It breaks your heart…

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Finland, apparently, is the best country in the world to live in. This is good for Allen Hall, the seminary where I work. Last year we welcomed our first ever Finnish seminarian, from the Diocese of Helsinki. So there is some kind of reflected glory shining about the community. This has to be good for vocations…

Here are some passages from the Newsweek article by Tara A. Lewis:

With such a huge range of nations in the world, the question of whether there is a best place to live seems both simple and elusive. With that idea in mind, NEWSWEEK offers this list of best countries. Given that there are so many ways to measure achievement, we chose the five we felt were most important—health, economic dynamism (the openness of a country’s economy and the breadth of its corporate sector), education, political environment, and quality of life. And because it’s easier to improve quality of life if you’re tiny and rich like, for example, Finland, the list also accounts for income and size with rankings by subcategories. Like all lists, this one is not perfect, but it offers surprising and fascinating answers and plenty of insight into which country is healthiest, why Scandinavian nations always come out on top, and why the title of best country has more than one winner.

Despite the long winter, Finland is a pretty great place to be—the best, actually. It ranked the highest overall and also comes in as the best small country, the best high-income country, and the best country for education. Its students scored first in science and second in both reading and math in the 2006 (the most recent one for which data are available) Program for International Student Assessment, a test of 15-year-olds’ education skills by the OECD. Finland’s schoolkids enjoy a laid-back and inclusive learning environment where shoes are optional, all teachers have master’s degrees, and extra help is the norm: every year about one in three students gets individual time with a tutor.

With a relatively low unemployment rate—5.6 percent in 2009—and an economy that’s one of the healthiest even during the global recession, Australia has a lot more to offer than just beaches and Hugh Jackman. In the overall index, Australia ranks fourth. In the other categories for medium-size countries, it claims the top spot for political environment and ties Spain for best health care. With its high standard of living, safe cities, sunny climate, and outdoorsy citizens, Australia also has the best quality of life among medium-size countries.

The innovative country that brought the world sushi, Nintendo, and the Kyoto Protocol is also the one with the most healthy citizens. The average person in Japan lives to the age of 82; the average woman lives to be nearly 86. (Japanese women are the longest-living women in the world.) What explains their longevity? No one knows for sure, but it’s likely a combination of preventive medicine, diet, health education, high standard of living during old age, and universal health care. Japan also ranks first among large countries in education and fourth in quality of life.

And Albania gets an honourable mention:

Albania rarely makes headlines and seems an unlikely model for other countries, but this new democracy actually outperforms all other low-income countries. Among the nations in its category, it consistently ranks highest in education, health, and quality of life. Nearly 99 percent of Albanians are literate. Despite being a citizen of one of the poorest countries in Europe, the average Albanian can expect to live to be 78, the average Albanian woman to be 81—a pretty good statistic, considering that the average citizen of wealthy Germany will live only until age 79.

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Despite enjoying Toy Story 3, I am still not convinced by 3D cinema. In fact the reason I managed to enjoy the film so much was because the 3D was far less intrusive than with most films.

David Mitchell has a rant here about 3D films. It’s well worth watching. There are some serious points amidst the humour, e.g. that the effect of 3D is to make you more conscious of your own relationship to the medium, and less able to lose yourself and escape into the world of the narrative.

He draws a parallel with painting and sculpture: when you go to see the Mona Lisa you don’t come away disappointed by the fact that Leonardo didn’t present you with a marble carving of the subject instead. You went to see a painting, and you were happy with that.

My main gripe is about picture quality – it simply isn’t as good with 3D films. And I think this is unavoidable, it’s not to do with the present state of technology. It’s because of the double image that you are seeing. You might say that our eyes see the natural world stereoscopically, which is true. But part of the wonder of painting, of 2D cinema, and of any flat visual surface, is that it gives you a clarity that is not possible in the natural world, which has the effect of highlighting the scene before you.

Painting and 2D cinema allow a depth, or rather a super-imposition of different depths, which creates a sort of hyper-realism. They allow you to focus on what you would not, naturally, be able to focus on. 3D, by making the experience more like the real world, takes away the magic and immediacy of the artistic surface, the same magic that they discovered 20,000 years ago in the caves of Lascaux.

I dread the day when all the films at the local Cineworld will be in 3D…

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Bridges and Tangents is one year old today. 365 days, 190 posts, 1500 tags, goodness knows how many words. You can read the first post here – about ‘wonder’ in Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead. Amazing how a hesitant step into the unknown future quickly becomes a moment of nostalgia. The exhilarating adventure of ‘being-for-itself’, as Sartre would say, of reaching beyond, easily slips into the familiarity of ‘being-in-itself’ – the world that we know and depend on.

San Francisco, Bay Bridge

I am not seeking comments or accolades here, just letting you know that I intend to keep going, for now. Blogging in this way is simply part of life for me now. I enjoy the excuse to think (if one were needed) and to write; every now and then I’m delighted with a discovery and get huge satisfaction from sharing it; and the rhythm of reflection and writing isn’t too time consuming. The danger is that something once fresh will become staid; I’ll just have to watch out for that, and perhaps circumstances – or some new form of social communication – will take over before then.

Ancient clapper bridge over the East Dart River at Postbridge

The effects are still largely unknown, but it’s good to get feedback and conversation in the comments, and when I bump into people who have come across the blog. Thanks especially to those who have been reading regularly, to those who have recommended the blog to others, and to those who have taken the time to comment.

Tangent by Whatknot

To celebrate, as you can see, I’ve hunted out some beautiful images of bridges and tangents.

Tangents by Seth Anderson

Let’s see how it all develops over the next few months.

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Why is it that tourists want to see Michelangelo’s Pietá in St Peter’s Basilica and Leonardo’s Mona Lisa in the Louvre, but show little interest in searching out other staggering works by the same artists just a few minutes away? Only certain stellar works have this mysterious power to attract huge crowds.

Tourists in St Peter's Basilica, Rome

Martin Gayford thinks it’s because contemporary cultural tourism is not about our appreciation for art or the pleasure we take in visiting new places, it’s about a raw obligation we feel to pay homage to certain objects, and to tell ourselves and others that we have fulfilled this obligation. He recalls standing in front of the Pietá:

Around me there broke a ceaseless tide of humanity. Some, a minority, simply looked at it, one touching family — from, I think, South America — holding tiny children up to gaze at the distant Madonna with her dead son. Most simply took a photograph, often on their mobile phones. As I stood there, a burly American shouldered his way forward, bent on displacing a small man of East Asian appearance who was busily snapping on his iPhone, and as he did so he assertively barked out, ‘Next!’

He had, I realised, understood precisely what was going on. This mêlée in which we were jammed together had nothing to do with art appreciation. It was a queue to take a photograph. The urgency of the desire to capture the famous object on your camera makes it nearly impossible to contemplate. Every day at the height of the season, thousands of pictures are taken of this object, all largely identical and all bad — since it is impossible to get a good image of a work like this from 20 feet away through glass.

Gayford notes the suffering that the tourists have endured to get this close to the sculpture: the Roman heat, the queues, the airport-type security. It’s like Dante’s Inferno.

But in a way, modern tourists are more like pilgrims than the damned. They share the same focus on a few closely defined sights. I saw a similar torrent of humankind — indeed much greater — at the shrine of the eighth Shia Imam at Mashhad in eastern Iran, all bent on getting to the grill that surrounds his tomb. Once there — a place too sacred for unbelievers to intrude — they cling on to ironwork, which is worn away steadily by their touch so that every few decades it has to be replaced.

The contemporary tourist-pilgrim must visit Michelangelo’s Sistine Ceiling, ‘Pietà’, and ‘Moses’, just as in France they must form a crocodile round the flower beds of Monet’s garden at Giverny, or in Egypt sweat it out at the Pyramids of Giza. Enjoyment has little to do with it.

The mystery, perhaps an insoluble one, is what anyone gets out of mass cultural tourism. The appeal of other varieties of popular travel — the beach, the pool, the ski slope — is obvious enough. But what satisfaction can be found in pounding round hot and packed streets, probably following a guide with a little flag, and stopping at certain points to take a photograph of something the appearance of which is completely familiar to almost everybody alive in the first place?

The difference between modern tourists and the visitors to shrines and relics is that religious pilgrims get some spiritual benefit — at its most concrete, so many years less to spend in Purgatory, a step towards salvation. Whereas the 21st-century, postmodern tourist gets nothing but a digital photograph, perhaps to be posted on a social-networking site sometime later. As a reward for the expense, the weariness, the sunburn, the boredom, the hours spent at airports and in coaches, the sore feet, the headaches, it just doesn’t seem enough.

It’s the same for me whenever there is a new ‘five-star’ exhibition in London. Yes, a genuine excitement, but also a sense of obligation, and a fear that if I miss it this will be a failure of duty, and I will be forever relegated to the ranks of the culturally unwashed – those who were simply ‘not there’. Our language reflects this, when we talk about a ‘must see’ event.

I’m getting better at saying to myself ‘What would you actually like to see this afternoon? What would you enjoy?’ Perhaps this is just part of growing up.

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Six entries have been shortlisted this week to be the next sculpture on Trafalgar Square’s fourth plinth – ‘probably the most important single public sculpture in Europe’ (Hew Locke).

Meerkats at the Fourth Plinth by Swamibu http://bighugelabs.com/onblack.php?id=2300966128

An older meerkat proposal by Tracey Emin

You can see a photo gallery with some critical comments here at Time Out, and some extra shots of the models with their artists here at the Guardian. And you can visit the models themselves at St Martin-in-the-Fields church crypt foyer from now until 31 October.

I like the blue cockerel for visual impact and fun; the mountainous map of Britain because I love maps and mountains (and I like the way it simply doesn’t fit on the plinth). But I’m persuaded by Adrian Searle that the rocking horse child should be the clear winner:

Elmgreen & Dragset‘s golden boy on a rocking horse is by far the best. Like Fritsch’s cockerel, but unlike Locke’s work, it avoids being kitsch. The simplified detail and expression feel just right. Leaning back and with one arm raised aloft, he’s more than a toy boy. This is the child as hero of the battles of his imagination.

There’s something poignant but unsentimental about the relationship the sculpture will have with all those sombre bronze generals on the other plinths.

Golden boys don’t always grow up to be heroes. They might end up cannon fodder or unemployed, or fighting only private wars against the world. It’s a rich sculpture, playful but also serious. This is the one.

But they might grow up to be heroes, or ruthless leaders. So this isn’t just about innocence and unknowing – it’s also about the quiet genesis of war and violence, from the playroom to the battlefield.

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I’m not using Twitter much. My blog posts get tweeted automatically from my account, just as they get sent to my Facebook feed. But for those of you who are still hooked on Twitter, there is now an easy tweet button at the bottom of each of my posts, so that you can re-tweet from your account, and increase the digital cacophony.

Here are the details from WordPress:

For those of you who have been dreaming of an easier way for your readers to share your posts on Twitter, that day has come. We’re pleased to announce that we’ve added an official Tweet Button as an option for all WordPress.com blogs.

How it works: When one of your readers hits the Tweet Button, they will be shown a popup that includes a shortened link to your post. Readers can add in a quick message, and then hit “Tweet” to send the post to their Twitter feed as a tweet — all without leaving your blog.

Additionally, each time a reader tweets your post, you’ll know it: The tool keeps a live tally of tweets, so you’re never in the dark about how your blog posts are performing in the Twittersphere.

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