Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Urban living (no cows in the city)

There's been a bit going on lately that has resulted on all being quiet on the blogging front. It's not that I've nothing to say, but I've been a bit worried about confidentiality and that sort of thing. Relating to the company I work for. I just want to make sure that they're not very easily identifiable based on what I've written here.

That said, I think there is very little chance of that happening in regard to this post.

When I was in high school, A friend and I used to toy with the idea of writing children's books. specifically a children's book entitled something along the lines of, "Stories for Bad Children" or something like that. It would be a collection of short tales and rhymes in the theme of Paul Jennings, Edward Scarey, and others I can't be bothered to remember. We wrote two poems, both of which I recite when drunk, so some may have heard them before.

Here is the first.
'Moo,' went Daisy, as she chewed on the grass
Thinking of the abattoir and horrors not yet past
She thought for a while of old Jimmity Parkett
Whose guts has been sold at the evil Cow Market
She though of her brother and the fate he became
What a horrible Christmas! But still, all the same...
For the field it was green, and the grass it was yummy
'What a sensation!' She thought, as it swirled in her tummy

Too much thought for a cow of her age
She was unaware of the man on the range
With his gun fully loaded and a bottle of gin
He laughed and he cackled as he did Daisy in.

Daisy was special now she is gone
Her parting was short
Our grieving was long
O how we will miss you,
Your coat soft as silk
For only you could produce
The best chocolate milk.

And here is the second.

At Christmas when the children cheer
The turkey drowns his angst in beer
In trying to avoid that which is fated
He's become self-marinated

Oh, yeah.

So I'm waiting for a bus to take me to the shops and it's not turning up, so with homicide not being a viable option, my thoughts return to children's stories. In particular those best suited to an urban environment, which is where "Where's my Bus?" comes in. That's right, it is essentially exactly the same as "Where's my Cow?", the story that appears in Terry Pratchett's "Thud!" So with apologies to Sir Terry, here are a few ideas:

Page 1.

I am waiting for a bus but it hasn't come yet.
Where's my bus?

Page 2.

Is that my bus?
It goes, "Get outta the way!"
It's a van.
That's not my bus!
Where's my bus?

Page 3.

Is that my bus?
It goes, "If you kids don't shut up, you can get out and walk!"
It's someone's overworked mum.
That's not my bus!
Where's my bus?

Page 4.

Is that my bus?
It goes, "No, I'm not going in that direction."
It's a taxi.
That's not my bus!
Where's my bus?

Page 5.

Is that my bus?
It goes, "One toke? You poor fool! Wait till you see those goddamn bats."
It's Hunter S. Thompson.
That's not my bus!
Where's my bus?

And so on and so forth.

After a while I got bored and went to the other bus stop from where I would watch the dogs running about. It could have been worse; I could have been waiting for a train. Of course, like so many things, the bus is a metaphor. But for what I will leave you to figure out yourself.

Monday, February 28, 2011

Amateur hour

I've been a bit depressed lately, so when my brain suddenly kicked into gear last night with a burst of creativity, I had to let it run its course. The result was some sections of rhyme that I would personally hesitate to call poetry on account of the fact that I would feel very silly if I did.

Here they are.
1. The Italian (a limerick)
The story of old Berlusconi
Regards a man who screwed young women only
With his lad in his hand
Barely able to stand
And supported each side by a croney

2. The Cockroach (to the tune of Twinkle Tinkle Little Star)

Little creature scurrying
How I find you annoying
Down around the skirting boards
With your offspring, endless hoards
Little creature scurrying
Hope you find the bait tempting

3. The Hipster
You think it's 'cause I hate you
That I'm cynical and snide
You think I don't respect you
When your interests I deride
Psychologically I'm different
More intellectually fit
This band I've found
Is underground
I doubt you've heard of it.

4. Headlights
Near Derry far
Away a car
With prisoner inside
Swerves to miss
The sheep with which
It'd otherwise collide
The blurring scree
And suddenly
Mere seconds left to think
A cold dark night
Don't fear the light
See car in river sink.

Friday, February 18, 2011

We're all friends here, right?

Newsreaders on TV are encouraged to appear all friendly-like. They engage in a bit of witty banter here and there just to keep the flow of the show running smoothly, especially if it's a morning edition. But it's a fine line between being happy colleagues and, well, deeply inappropriate.

Ouch! I actually went looking for the 'Full Frontal' sketch show's National Nightly Network News clips on YouTube to try and find something to compare with the level of sledgehammer to the face nastiness of that and was left wanting.

C'est la vie. I found this instead.

In other news it only took pages of search results on YouTube for "slip of the tongue, news" to turn up a 9/11 conspiracy video. I am disappoint, world.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Access programming (temporary) fail

In relation to a previous post on the Australian flood and cyclone coverage in Queensland, the ABC's MediaWatch programme also noticed how amazing those Auslan signers were. However, they and their viewers also noticed something else.

Here is the link to the MW video. It's a couple of minutes long.

Basically, in order to get a more dramatic close-up shot of Premier Anna Bligh speaking at the pressers, the cameras of no less than three networks zoomed in on her face and excluded the signer altogether from the picture seen on tellies across the nation. This head and shoulders image of Bligh was then used on a graphic next to exciting but already seen images of flooding set on a loop as she was speaking.

It was a case of the Magic Disappearing Signer. Thankfully, they got wise to this shitty move soon after and started thinking about the needs of their audience over their own desire for a shiny-loooking end product. Access-friendly coverage resumed.

Monday, February 7, 2011

The voice recognition software we use was created by IBM, which in this case stands for “It Broke Me.” Or at least, that’s what it feels like after 40 minutes of comprehensively training in age/edge/urge, ages/edges/urges, aged/edged/urged, aging/edging/urging, and urgently. I think I have been successful, but we shall have to wait and see.

The Muslim Brotherhood is in the news quite a lot recently. They’re a “band opposition group” (worst Guitar Hero spin-off ever), according to some captions I have seen. I’m having trouble with their name as well – it keeps coming out as “Muslim brother what,” or “was the lover would.” These go straight into my house style. A small and irrational part of my brain maintains that making a macro would be like giving up.

The computer is cynical when it comes to Egyptian politics. This is partly my fault for respeaking verbatim with misrecognisable words. “He has given 60 years of his life to the country he laughs” is either a misrecognition or possibly requires a comma after “country.” An orderly transition needs to “risibly take place.” Is that supposed to be “visibly,” or are you having a laugh, Mr Foreign Minister? Oh well. Into the house style with you.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Disaster strikes!

The big news out of Australia is Tropical Cyclone Yasi, a nasty piece of work weighing in at category 5 - the highest level of measurement for a tropical cyclone. This made landfall a few days ago in northern Queensland, the same Australian state to be recently hit with the biggest floods in the country's history. With Australians still reeling from that catastrophic event, it seemed like this was going to be a double whammy of extremely dramatic proportions. But remarkably, despite the widespread structural damage and the secondary problems associated with that, the initial toll has been minimal. As of tonight, there is one person confirmed dead - from carbon monoxide poisoning due to using a petrol generator in an unventilated room. But although that total may rise as rescue workers and emergency crews cut into isolated communities, and although the damage and the trauma that was incurred will stay with the communities involved for many years to come, this was not the Hurricane Katrina-esque event we had all been dreading. Yay!

But the almost-apocalypse doesn't just happen every day and the cameras were rolling. Journalists documented dramatic rescues, emotional breakdowns and provided essential advice to those of their viewers that still had power - for example, Do not go outside and walk around your neighbourhood like the nice man on TV is doing because it isn't safe. Not all the messages were mixed, though, and that's where we came in.

Thankfully the rolling coverage of Tropical Cyclone Yasi didn't seem to have any glaring errors that could have led to distress, danger or confusion - unless people were going to be upset that their "crocs" had been destroyed. "Atherton tablelands" did come out once or twice as "Atherton table LANs," but I think people got the message all in all.

But while there were journos trying to be both informative and helpful, there were some that seemed to be a bit out of their depth. Maybe it was because they were dealing with rural northern Queenslanders, but listening to a clean-shaven, expensively attired young man in a studio dig deep into the barrel of true blue Aussie mateship blokey bloke-bloke-bloke cobber, me ole mate familiarity was a bit... uncomfortable at times. They did try their best, though. This was one of my favourite exchanges:
Q: It must be heart-wrenching for everyone this morning. 
A: Yes. It is unbelievable. 
Q: How many homes do you think have been affected? 
A: I would say 40% of the homes. 
Q: Out of how many? 
A: 40% of the number of what is here.
It's hard to get that magic number for your headlines when you are dealing with an extremely honest person. 

That was in Australia. Elsewhere in the world, there was this:

Oh, CNN. I am disappoint. (courtesy of @jasonbelcher.)

In every disaster coverage, there is the emotional/inspirational montage. It's a clever balancing act between destruction and hope and it has to capture the 'true spirit' of the people the disaster has affected. Themes of resilience, camaraderie and strength in adversity mixed with grief, shock and individual fragility accompanied by emotive strings or a gentle piano melody. Sadly, one network decided to go with Standard Epic Battle Theme Music Track 47. That was... unfortunate.

For me, the highlight of the cyclone coverage was the inclusion by the QLD disasters emergency committee of an AUSLAN signer at every press conference. Is this woman not awesome?

She and her colleagues were also included in the QLD flood pressers.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Something not involving captions

Today is Australia Day. I'm actually quite secure in my own identity, so I don't really see the need to wear a flag like a cape or get drunk and berate 'foreigners.' I'm no fan of bogans and tend to hide away during this time of year.

This is a sociology essay I wrote in 2006 (I think) while at university. As I'm not pulling an all-nighter for a rapidly approaching due date, I had the luxury of tidying it up a bit and fleshing out the conclusion. It still sort of makes sense, which is nice.

It is totally tl;dr, by the way.

Here goes:

On December 11, 2005, up to 5,000 people (Sydney Morning Herald, 11/12/05a) converged on Cronulla Beach in what ended up as Sydney’s now infamous Cronulla riots, during which the white, Anglo-Celtic gathering of people “chanted racist slogans and attacked people of Middle Eastern appearance in retaliation for the bashing of two lifeguards, which locals blamed on Lebanese gangs” (The Age, 13/12/05a). The exact details of how many people were involved, charged with offences or injured vary according to source, however it can be said that on the day of 11th December, between six (ABC News, 11/12/05) and thirty-one (Daily Telegraph, 12/12/05a) people were injured, including five police officers and two paramedics (Sydney Morning Herald, 11/12/05b). The number of arrests made on the day was reported as between seven (SMH, 11/12/05a) and fourteen people (Daily Telegraph, 12/12/05a). The incident made headlines both nationally and around the world, and was followed by two nights of reprisal attacks on the 11th and 12th of December, during which cars and shops were vandalised in “smash-and-bash attacks” in Cronulla, Maroubra and Brighton-le-Sands (, 14/12/05). Once again, the number of participants, arrests and vehicles damaged vary according to source, with some putting the figure at fifty men involved, over one hundred cars damaged and six arrests (The Age, 13/12/05), and others reporting up to fifty “carloads of youths” and forty cars damaged (Sydney Morning Herald, 11/12/05b). In addition, one person was stabbed. Each incident involved text messages and took place against a backdrop of intense media coverage.

While the usage of new communication technologies, particularly mobile phones, is in itself an interesting study, I shall not be examining it in this essay. Rather, I shall be focusing primarily on the coverage of the issue of ‘ethnic gangs’ in the media, and how this interacted with the social imaginary of Australia and Australian identity, and the power struggle between competing social fields for legitimacy within the broader national field to create the space for this particular manifestation of violence.

Smith (1996) defines Australian identity as a “general concept...grounded in common-sense thinking and everyday life...a broad set of shared understandings within (Australia) about its people and values...common languages, symbols and practices which help to constitute” an individual as Australian (Smith, 1996, cited in Phillips, 1998: 282). To be in possession of an Australian identity is not only to feel Australian, but also to be perceived as Australian by others who are also Australian. In the field of this symbolic community there are various prescriptive and proscriptive norms (Mizruchi & Perucci, 1968: 154) – do’s and don’ts – attitudes, values and beliefs, as well as roles and expectations the adherence to which enable the individual to gain social, cultural, symbolic and material capital. Such norms and so on generally include speaking English, associating with people already established in the field, and supporting the endeavours of the field. Individuals who wish to ‘achieve’ an Australian identity are in this fashion required to ‘play the game’ of the field in order to be recognised as a valid field member. Through continual interaction with and investment in the field as well as previous socialisation and acculturation, the individual develops a field-specific habitus. This is the internalisation of the requirements and values of the field. According to Bourdieu, this can all be traced to the fundamental drive of humans to be recognised by other humans deemed to be in a position to recognise them with authority; for if the self is seen through the eyes of the projected other, then the positive recognition by that other as regards the value and worth of the self is vitally important to the continuation of the self in its stable, relational form (Bourdieu, 1997: 166); a mirror is required to see the existence of what exists.

And yet where there are norms, there is by definition, deviance. Individuals within a specific field, who have by virtue of their symbolic, social, cultural and economic capital the symbolic power and authority to shape the doxa of the field “are able to impose their conceptions of deviance and normality onto others” (Roach-Anleu, 2003: 313). While one can rise to ascension and recognition within a specific field through the accumulation of symbolic capital, this capital only has meanings so long as the other field members accept its value. This means that the individual who strives to dominate in the field is in fact reliant on the field and its members to maintain the codes of meaning about the very gained resources through which the actor intends to dominate (Bourdieu, 1997: 166). As a result, the doxa - which shields individuals from realising the socially constructed nature of their accomplishments (potential or otherwise) and identity - must be maintained by a continual process of self-identification against the external, non-field ‘other’. It is through deviance that this can take place, as the moral outrage and repulsion to behaviour deviant to the specific field in which one is operating serve to cement the virtue and legitimacy of those who identify themselves in opposition to those same actions and othered 'dispositions'. It is in this way that we can return to the cultural field of the ethnically Australian and see it in terms of the dichotomous either/or relationship that it has with its polar opposite: the ‘unAustralian’.

‘UnAustralian’ as a word, while used in the past in reference to non-whites, communists, and foreigners, has enjoyed something of a renaissance in contemporary Australian discourse since the 1990s (Phillips & Smith, 2001: 326). UnAustralian characteristics, according to Phillips and Smith, “seem to acquire their meaning through their opposition to such orthodox ‘Australian’ attributes as mateship, anti-authoritarianism, not thinking you’re better than anyone else, cutting down ‘tall poppies’ and believing in the importance of everyone pulling together for the good of Australia” (2001: 329). It is a kind of anti-nationalism, a nationalistic deviance, which does not respect the sacred sites and values of what is perceived within the Australian cultural field to be the ‘traditional Australian way of life’. These sites and values are determined integral to the definition of Australia by historical discourse, generally dominated by cultural elites – those deemed to be in possession of symbolic capital (Bourdieu) – and shared historical experience (both actual and perceived) within the members of the field. Truly iconic amongst these significations is the beach and the tradition of surf-lifesaving:

“Going to the beach on a summer’s day is a tradition in this country – as Australian as a slouch hat, the Melbourne Cup, a sprig of wattle, the scent of eucalyptus smoke in the air. And there’s an aspect of this tradition we have all been taught to respect – that’s the role of the volunteer army of surf lifesavers who stand guard while we enjoy ourselves. That in this country we have bred a strain of selflessness so ennobling and so constant is something that every decent Australian regards as a stamp of quality on our national character. And every day at the beach – if we are smart – we breathe a silent prayer of thanks for the lifesavers’ work. …in attacking our lifesavers, they attack us all.”
(Daily Telegraph, 6/12/05a – emphasis mine)

The Australian and the UnAustralian are part of the social imaginary of this country, which while not uniformly ascribed to across the board, still holds true to a large number of social actors within this country. In the same way as the doxa of Bourdieu’s theories, Castoriadis’ conceptualisation of the social imaginary is about the bringing into being of “a world in which society inscribes itself and gives itself a place” (Castoriadis, 1997: 84). As the doxa renders ‘rational’ involvement in the field, the social imaginary with its socialisation, language, norms and values serves to hide the socially constructed nature of the power dynamics and inequalities of society. It is a story, a myth and a narrative that binds the community together in solidarity through “the internalisation, by socially fabricated individuals, of the significations instituted by the society” (Castoriadis, 1997: 85). Through this internalisation, the individual is tied to the social imaginary in the same way as he or she is tied to the field: it gives them meaning, purpose and ontological security.

However, what is not mentioned in the above editorial piece is that the living, breathing symbols of Australian nationhood – the surf lifesavers – were not in uniform when attacked on December 4th, 2005. As Liz Jackson of the ABC’s Four Corners reports: “Three volunteer lifesavers were leaving the beach, having finished their patrol. They were not in uniform. There was a verbal altercation with a group of what the locals call Lebs, with provocative insults on both sides” (Four Corners, ABC, 13/3/06 – emphasis mine). This information did not make the initial news releases, giving the impression that the three lifesavers had been ‘in the line of duty’ at the time, and that this was therefore a conscious attack on Australia and Australian identity from a deviant, UnAustralian and therefore ‘anti-national’ group of individuals. That is to say, a direct challenge to everything that the Daily Telegraph editorial cited above lauds to be the heart and soul of the nation.

Looking back to my previous discussion of social fields, symbolic power and the social imaginary, it can be clearly seen how this would enrage dedicated field members of both the broader national field and, more specifically, those members who are intimately involved with the very significations that prop up that specific doxa of Australian identity - the beach and beach culture.

The ethnicisation of appropriate and inappropriate conduct in the Australian/UnAustralian dichotomy - for such is often the implication - can be further seen in the ethnicisation of crime, especially gangs. While ‘youth’ is often coupled with ‘crime’ in media reports, Collins et al (2000) argue that a further link with ethnicity is made to the extent that youth crime becomes racialised, “equating gangs and crime with non-English speaking background (particularly Vietnamese and Lebanese) and Aboriginal youth, implying that therein lies the explanation of the event” (2000: 32). Media representations certainly have a large impact on the way a group of individuals is seen by the general public. The European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia commented on this in 1999, stating that “the race for the fastest headline only leaves time for unverifiable content, simplifications and clich├ęs – all of which are fertile breeding grounds for racial prejudice ... the media encourage a quest for simplistic answers and polarising presentations” (cited in Collins et al, 2000: 33). Brubaker (2002) points to the trouble in classifying people and their acts according to their ethnicity or nationality in that what tends to happen is the reification of entire groups “as if they were internally homogenous, externally bounded groups, even unitary collective actors with common purposes” (2002: 164). This depiction of a “monochrome ethnic...bloc” (Brubaker, 2002: 164) means that entire ethnicities are cast as unified social actors with little distinction between each individual. We can see the real consequences of this in the Four Corners report, “...For Being Lebanese” (16/9/02):

Stephen McDonell (journalist): Since 14 young Lebanese Muslim men pack-raped several girls in Sydney, the press has been full of talk about race and religion.

Man at mosque: Listen, of all the people that raped girls in the past, did you tell that they were Christians or Catholics or Jews? You say they’re Muslims, OK? We did not go and rape anybody.

Man at mosque 2: Yeah, the whole community has been targeted.
(Four Corners, ABC, 16/9/02)

McDonell goes on to say: “There’s a perception that Sydney’s young Lebanese men are now inextricably linked to gang activities. This could mean anything from a few friends hanging out and wearing tracksuits to men involved in street fights to sophisticated cocaine and car rebirthing rackets. The categories are used like they’re all the same thing.” Certainly in the case of the bashing of two Cronulla lifesavers, what started out as “a group of men” in a car-park (AAP, 5/12/05a) quickly became “a large group of men” (AAP, 5/12/05b), “a gang of youths” (AAP, 5/12/05c), and “a group of thugs” (Daily Telegraph, 6/12/05b).

Arab and Muslim communities have experienced a dramatic upsurge in racial vilification and abuse since the 9/11 attacks in New York, the Sydney gang-rape cases in which it was alleged that Lebanese youths had “specifically targeted Anglo-Australian girls” (The Age, 13/12/05b), the Tampa ‘crisis’ and the Bali bombings. According to a report by the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission launched in June, 2004, “two-thirds of Muslim and Arab Australians...say they have experienced racial vilification”, with “90% of female respondents [out of a sample of 1400 individuals] experiencing racial abuse of violence since September 11” (Sydney Morning Herald, 17/6/04). Adding to this unfortunate rise in anti-Muslim and anti-Arab sentiment is the fact that six women from Maroubra died in the 2002 Bali bombings, which, according to Federal Liberal backbencher Bruce Baird, whose Cook electorate includes Cronulla, “had fuelled anger towards Middle-Eastern Australians” (The West Australian, 13/12/05). Not only is ethnicity being lumped in with crime, but global terrorism is also ethnicised, becoming a major problem in the way Australians view others of Middle Eastern background or ‘appearance’.

In conclusion, it would appear to ‘common-sense’ perceptions of ethnicity and crime, viewed within the social imaginary of Australian norms and values versus those of its UnAustralian antithesis, that the bashing of the lifeguards at Cronulla by men of ‘Middle Eastern’ appearance was the final straw in relation to a problem long racliaised in the Australian media. The aggression of the 'protestors' on December 11th arose out of intoxication and anger at the perceived violation of the norms, values and behavioural codes that mean so much to what was interpreted - at most likely unconscious level – as integral to the continuation of a coherent and contained sense of national identity. This identity was constructed via the internalisation of these historically and socially constructed codes of meaning (often couched in racial terms) and therein the sanctification of certain places and people. Also vital in this process is a systematic othering of socially and culturally assigned deviants – UnAustralians - and their alleged instrinsic traits. It is possible to conclude that the Cronulla riots were an attempt by people heavily invested in this code of racialised national identity to draw a line in the sand delineating themselves from the 'other' and thereby cemeting their own membership in the social and cultural field of what it is to be 'Australian'.

Australian Associated Press “NSW: Drop in police leaves lifesavers open to attack: Tink” General News (5/12/05)a

Australian Associated Press “NSW: Lifesavers Bashed at Beach” General News (5/12/05)b

Australian Associated Press “NSW: Bashing of two lifesavers not an isolated incident” General News (5/12/05)c

Australian Broadcasting Corporation “Mob Mentality Shameful: Police Commissioner” (11/12/05) < > [ accessed: 1/6/06 ]

Four Corners “…For Being Lebanese” Australian Broadcasting Corporation (16/9/02)

Four Corners “Riot and Revenge” Australian Broadcasting Corporation (13/3/06)

Bourdieu, P. (1997) Pascallian Meditations Stanford University Press: Stanford

Brubaker, R. (2002) “Ethnicity without groups” in Archive of European Sociology (43): 2

Castoriadis, C. World in Fragments Stanford University Press: Stanford. 1997.

Collins, J. et al Kebabs, Kids, Cops and Crime: youth, ethnicity and crime Sydney Pluto Press: Sydney. 2000

Daily Telegraph “New text threats” (12/12/05)

Daily Telegraph “Attack on us all”, Editorial (6/12/05)a

Lawrence, K. “Fight for Cronulla: We want our beach back” Daily Telegraph (6/12/05)b

Brigid Delaney & Cynthia Banham “Muslims feel the hands of racism tighten around them” Sydney Morning Herald (17/6/04)

Ben Martin “Genesis of Cronulla’s Ugly Sunday began years ago” The West Australian (13/12/05)

Mizruchi, E. H. & Perucci, R “Perscription, Proscription and Permissiveness: Aspects of norms and deviant drinking behaviour” in M. Lefton, JK Skipper Jr & CH McCaghy (eds) Approaches to Deviance: Theories, Concepts, and Research Findings Appleton-Century-Crofts: New York 1968 “Police blanket thrown over Sydney” (14/12/05) <,10119,17567226,00.html > [ accessed: 1/6/06 ]

Phillips, T. (1998) “Popular Views about Australian Identity: research and analysis” in Journal of Sociology (34): 3 pp281-302

Phillips, T. and Smith, P (2001) “Popular understandings of ‘UnAustralian’: an investigation of the un-national” in Journal of Sociology 37(4): pp 323-339

Roach-Anleu, S. ‘Deviance and Social Control’ in R. Jueidini & M. Poole (eds.) Sociology: Australian Connections, Allen and Unwin: Sydney. 2003

The Age “Fresh Violence Rocks Sydney” (13/12/05)a

Tony Parkinson “Sons of beaches: Land girt by bigots” The Age (13/12/05)b

Sydney Morning Herald “Mob Violence Envelops Cronulla” (11/12/05)a

Sydney Morning Herald “Sydney’s Racist Mob Violence Spreads” (11/12/05)b

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

I wonder if I'll get in trouble for this?

Lately, my accuracy has been a bit of a dog's breakfast. I'm pleased to say that today was a marked improvement, but the past week has definitely been problematic for someone with a ginormous perfectionist bug up their arse about Always Being Right. Hem-hem.

So. In order to maintain a fair level of accuracy, there are so many variables to keep on top of. It's like the circus performer with the long sticks standing vertically, pointing up into the air. And on top of each stick is a spinning plate. Each stick must be somehow adjusted to keep its plate spinning. Failure to maintain equilibrium results in tumbling crockery and being told This Is Why We Can't Have Nice Things.

There are a few variables that are linked to equipment. These include the condition of the computer and whether it is prone to crashing, the quality of the cables connecting the microphone to the computer, the quality of the audio feed, and so on. But 'tis a poor workman who blames his tools, they say. Well, smug bastards say it, at any rate. And there are other variables not related to equipment that need attending to, including tone of voice, pitch, posture, preparation and a few other things I will sum up as 'etc'.

And when all else fails, you can still bugger it all up by trying to be Smart. This happened the other day, when I thought to myself, "Oho, a story involving people with bows and arrows. But I bet that if I say there are 'archers' this particular featured location, it will come out as 'arches,' and this will shit me no end. So I will say two words that are highly unlikely to be misrecognised - 'archery' and 'enthusiasts'."

It is true that editing is a great way not to shoot yourself in the foot by substituting tricky words with easy ones. But did it work? Well, yes and... no. Although not necessarily untrue, it might have been a bit of a stretch to expect the deaf and hard of hearing viewers watching at the time to accept the idea of Sherwood Forest being full of "archers and physicists."

It was at that point I gave up entirely. The moral of the story is that sometimes you don't have to state the obvious. People can see the archers on the screen perfectly well. Maybe you only need to say "fog" instead of "mist and fog." Stick to the details that are the most relevant and only go for broke respeaking verbatim if you are having a good day, otherwise it will all come out a garbled mess.

But still... Robin Hood and his merry band of scientists does sound kind of cool. Robbing the rich to maintain research funding, holding out hope that King Richard will return from the Crusades with the reward of tenure for loyal subjects, and forever battling nasty Prince John and his departmental budget cuts and ominous talk of "streamlining". Yoiks! And away!

Thursday, January 20, 2011

The parallel world of house styles

 House styles are .txt files that contain words and phrases that the viewer watching telly at home will never see. This is because every time they appear in your transcript, the computer automatically changes them to something else that you have previously specified. It is a great way to catch errors before they happen.

For example, a recurring capitalisation error like "National Union of students" can be entered into the house style as follows: National Union of students = National Union of Students. From this point onwards, it is more or less impossible for that capitalisation error to occur in that combination of words, providing that this house style is included in my transmission. We also use house styles for things that are tricky or temporary. Sometimes the networks prefer extra hyphens or mess around with the capitalisation of Arabic names beginning with 'al-', only to change their minds later.

House styles are also great for preventing misrecognition before it happens. Or, as is more likely the case, before it happens for a second time. After all, there are only so many times you can refer to tight fiscal responsibility in government as requiring a "cocksucking Budget" before people start to complain. ...I assume.

But amid the "cocksucking" budgets, the malfunctioning engines of the "crud up A380s" and the "kilo that might strike again", there are entries that hint of a strange and whimsical world of fairy dust and stories for children. It is in the magical world of house styles where the royal couple, "William and cake" are soon to be wed, and where "Mama Gaddafi" lives in some kind of totalitarian gingerbread palace and cares for photogenic and suitably grateful young orphans. It's a world where everyone speaks like they're in an Enid Blyton novel as the sports reporter merrily tells the young footballing star - "Your career is off to a gay start, wouldn't you say?"

But of all the errors that never happened outside of the world of house styles, one of my favourites would have to by the exciting glimpse into the field of cryptogeography provided by "Puppy New Guinea."

Amid the sugarplums and the candy floss, the mind boggles.

Mama Gaddafi

Mama Gaddafi

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Things the computers don't know

Growing up a young kid in the 90s, my parents let me watch all manner of action movies. There is no way to tell how much energy my brain devotes to maintaining its archive of Everything There Is To Know About Terminator 2 and how much this detracts from what would otherwise go towards maintaining higher functioning, but it is possible that the frontal lobe is overrated anyway. In any case, I subsequently developed a somewhat distorted view of the world and future of human society. One side effect is that I find Linda Hamilton catatonia-inducingly impressive. Another is that I am 90% certain the machines will one day kill us all.

But don't worry. We'll be okay.

Based on half a year of concerted voice software wrangling, I have deduced that computers are fucking incapable of understanding the following country names:
  • Samoa
  • Israel
  • Iran
  • Burma
 When the technoapocalypse comes, these are the countries in which we can safely hide and rebuild. Because as far as The Machine is concerned the last remnants of the human race will be located in 'some Allah', 'his rule,' 'Imran,' or 'bummer,' as it somewhat accurately if not awkwardly insists on calling the last place.

I am mankind's only hope for survival. Trust me on this.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Adventures in voice (mis)recognition.

Let's get one thing straight. I am not actually bad at my job. Far from it, in fact. We have a set standard of accuracy that each respeaker much achieve before going online and transmitting captions. I have gone above and beyond that, with my last accuracy check registering at a very, very high level. But the nature of the beast is that variables like the weather and the subsequent condition of my sinuses, personal mood and level of alertness, the quality and nature of the material, the myriad kinks and quirks of the voice recognition programme we use, as well as the ongoing condition of the equipment we are given all combine to form a fluctuating 3D landscape full of various paths that can lead to anything from minor inaccuracies to monumental fuck-ups. 

I repeat what your newsreaders and sports commentators are saying as they are saying it. I caption live TV. Sometimes it's irritating and sometimes it's traumatic, but very rarely is it boring.

The thing with respeaking is that you always have to sound the same. My accuracy readings fluctuated wildly until I arrived at my proper captioning voice, which I call The Sexy Dalek. Monotonous but soft with rounded vowels. But beware - speak too robotically and you will get every word that ends in a plosive consonant being followed by by and extra "or"; breathe too deeply at the beginning of a sentence and it will begin with "if," "of," "five," or "four". Your sentences may read like something out of the wrong century: "Put on your wellies, for the weather today will be wet..." Or even worse, you could entice your viewer into a state of perpetual suspense: "If there were four victims in the accident..." "If police had released a picture of the gunman..." Thankfully, with a combination of training my own voice and employing some sneaky house styles and dictation macros, that sort of thing is being gradually reduced.

Your diction must be clear. Failure to enunciate each syllable can lead to slurring and some embarrassing errors. This is where voice recognition becomes voice misrecognition.

The most recent incident occurred a few days ago, when the words "artificial flowers" transmitted as "artifical phallus." This was awkward enough, but even more so when the "phallus" in question was being left as a reflection of grief at a loved one's passing... in a cemetery. Oops.

Stay tuned for more adventures in (mis)recognition, where your weather report can really turn apocalyptic ("Met Office warnings are in place for eyes on the road. Snow in some places, brain in others.").