In defence of necessary complexity in language

A letter to The Independent recently quoted the following sentence from an article about the Big Society as an example of obscure writing.

Public sector mutualisation and budgetary takeover by citizens of the state is a crucial initial phase in endowing ordinary citizens with the power to ensure that the services they run are operated in a way which combines public interest with economic efficiency and localised employee ownership building in all the gains that this model delivers.

I would not disagree that the final clause (“building in all the gains that this model delivers.”) is unnecessary and should have been pruned by a good editor, but a complex concept cannot be explain in simple terms.

Mutualisation refers to idea of collectives/co-operatives, for example, building societies. “Public sector mutualisation” is therefore makes people co-owners of the public sector changing the model from one where they are customers or consumers.

budgetary takeover by citizens is a (too) concise term for having spending allocations and priorities determined by citizens and not civil servants.

services they run refers to public sector services now co-owned by the ordinary citizen where said citizen has high level input into budgets and policy but implementation remains with the public sector.

combines public interest with economic efficiency—money is spent in line with public expectations with minimal administration costs. I think it interesting that “public interest” was chosen here instead of “public good”, but this is a post about language not politics so I will not examine that further.

Contemporary mediums with low character limits such as text messages and twitter encourage dense, terse and economic phrasing so I find it surprising that someone would complain about a sentence which is all of these things. However perhaps at 348 characters (requiring three tweets) it was the length that offended the letter-writer?

[Mostly typed one-handed due to a broken collar bone; enforced R&R at home has given me too much time to read and consider such things!]

A Short Survey of Music Retail

On Wednesday I went to a fantastic gig by KT Tunstall. I had already listened to (and mostly liked) her new album via Spotify but the concert confirmed that this was music worth owning (such an outmoded concept!). Here is a short survey of a consumer’s music purchasing options as of this week:

  • The cheapest price for a physical CD was £8.49 at Amazon. Spotify means I have no requirement for the instant gratification afforded by downloads and a CD also provides the highest fidelity with no worry about digital loss, but there is a lifetime storage cost of such low density physical media.
  • Amazon will also sell me the same album in 256kbps MP3 format for £7.49.
  • 7digital are a competing digital download service and the price was £7.99. I was impressed with their “digital locker” feature which allows repeat downloads of your purchases, automatically providing an offsite backup. The files were also encoded at the higher rate of 320kbps and can be downloaded as a zipfile in your web browser, unlike Amazon which requires you to use a separate application.
  • For an iTunes user the iTunes store is arguably the most convenient method of buying music, and the price matches 7digital, £7.99. Like Amazon there is no option to re-download and the bitrate is the lower-but-probably-not-noticeable, 256kbps. The store is so popular I am assuming that in the long term there should be no significance attached to the files being in the AAC format instead of MP3.

Having enjoyed KT providing some context for the songs on the new album I also looked to see if any store would provide me with electronic sleeve notes. iTunes offers a digital version of the DVD (for the same price as Amazon charges for physical media) but no store offered any non-music extras.

Conclusion? I decided 7digital offered the best combination of convenience, durability, quality and price because physical storage space is at a premium in a flat, and good off-site backup is a significant cost.

Bermondsey Street

Bermondsey Street runs south from the always busy1 “More London” riverside but (fortunately!) few tourists seem keen to venture under the imposing railway bridge to visit. Consequently it normally has a quiet village-like atmosphere, there’s even a little park half way down which might be the Village Green.

On a sunny Saturday afternoon it was bustling (for a village!) with friends and families heading to the gastro pubs and other brunch places (including a genuine greasy spoon!).

  1. even on Christmas Day! []

Reviewing 2009

While end of year retrospectives may seem like a good way for journalists to fill column inches during a period traditionally bereft of good new source material, I think it is healthy to be reminded of the recent past, to re-evaluate events within a wider context and a little bit of hindsight, and also marvel at how things which now seem so distant were actually recent (for example the day that London turned white).

Highlights for me in 2009 have undoubtedly been changing job, getting married and buying a flat—2010 is going to have a hard time living up to that! Holiday destinations in 2009 included San Francisco (including an amazing day of ski-ing in the sunshine in Tahoe), Gdansk and Sussex.

The three events mentioned in highlights did not leave me very much time to write about these trips here, or in fact write very much at all. There was also less need for me to write here to draw people’s attention to something: if I publish my photographs to Picasa Web then they are automatically pulled into Facebook and my friends are notified through in their new feed. The biggest change in web publishing in 2009 was not actually about the publication but consumption: twitter and the aforementioned Facebook news stream have provided non-techies with an interface to a facility geeks have had for years with a feed reader.

Traditionally, at this point, a review article should turn towards predictions for the new year. I do not have a prediction but a hope, that having to register individually for websites will become to be regarded as outmoded and unfashionable as blinking text. Not for important (or even semi-important) websites, but for “disposable” logins of low importance, privacy and security, I should really like to avoid having to generate a user/password combination and go through the rigamarole of “verification”. Do I ask too much?

Happy New Year.

Poor image quality with Picasa Uploader for Mac

The sheer convenience of being able to upload directly from iPhoto means that many of my photographs from 2009 have gone to Picasa web albums instead of this website. However during a recent upload I noticed that during the process the photographs were being overly sharpened which had the effect of creating ugly artefacts on buildings with intricate decoration (e.g. churches). The odd thing is that if you upload jpgs one at a time via the web interface, this did not happen.

Looking back to some photographs from earlier in the year you can see this else where. For example compare this photo of Rosie at the top of a cold and windy church tower to the Picasa version below.

Rosie at the top of the Rye Church tower.
Rosie at the top of the Rye Church tower.
Rye from the church tower (Picasa version)
Rye from the church tower (Picasa version)

Picasa was convenient but perhaps it is time to return to hosting my own photographs?

Biographer’s Material

India Knight wrote in today’s Sunday Times that she could not understand the modern penchant for recording and posting one’s life to YouTube. Tomorrow’s children, she claims, will have an all pervasive collection of images (currently still but increasingly moving à la Harry Potter) of their parents’ lives whereas she has just a single photograph of her parents together.

After reading two earlier stories based on research into archived correspondence—one on the forthcoming Official Biography of The Queen Mother which used correspondence as the main source material, and a second about how actress Vanessa Redgrave’s life almost took a very different path—it struck me that this notion of having a record of life is perhaps not so new after all, although the medium has changed from prose to digital visuals which makes for a very different kind of record. Our descendants will know much more about how things looked but how will they learn the story behind the photograph?

Fortunately letter writing has already made something of a comeback thanks to the convenience of email and combined with the ubiquity of digital cameras, a future generation of biographers should have a very rich library of material to draw upon. The weak spot is there are many threats to digital collections: corporate email retention policies which automatically expunge emails after a certain period of time, hard drive failure and theft are some of the most common, yet in many cases the (incomprehensible to those of us that value privacy) desire to publish this material can produce a useful safety net against digital loss.

Happiness at the National Theatre

The National Theatre is one of those buildings on the South Bank which was erected in the 1960’s by people who though concrete was an attractive building material. The name also suggests a rather high-brow entertainment-offering, and consequently I have never really paid much attention to it. However I have learned that this ugly building hides in fact not one but three theatres, making an enquiry about returned tickets at its box office the ideal way to end a spontaneous afternoon visit to the South Bank.

My prejudice about boring and/or expensive “high brow” content was also allayed last night when I saw a new play called Happy Now, a black but razor-sharp comedy about modern life in the vein of Ayekbourn’s Absurd Person Singular. I thoroughly recommend it.

(Incidentally, the play’s haunting title music is Michelle Branch’s, Are you happy now? [itunes link].)