Rob Minto

Sport, data, ideas

Month: November 2010

Just don’t be yourself

It’s sometimes welcome advice: “Just be yourself.” And it’s quite often well-meant and even useful. But not really for actors, who, lest we forget, are supposed to act.

I have no idea where it started, but you can see the recent path. There was Being John Malkovich, a fantastic surreal film starring John Malkovich as himself. Then there was Curb your enthusiasm, where Seinfeld creator Larry David plays himself, and lots of celebrities also played themselves, undermining their prima-dona egos – and it was one of the best comedy series of all time.

Now the British are in on the act. There was Extras, with Ricky Gervais and friends. Kate Winslet played herself being obsessed about winning an Oscar – that kind of thing. There have been a few similar-ish comedy shows along the way, but now we have The Trip, staring Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, on a trip, talking, driving, and eating. That’s the extent of it. How much is real and how much is scripted I have no idea.

Extras was on one level acceptable. The celebrity actors were themselves, but the core team were fictional: Andy Millman and co. And it was cringingly funny, and awkward, and rather good.

But The Trip is a stage further on the journey to self-referential hell. Coogan and Brydon are themselves, and that’s it. They mock their own insecurity (or what they think the press and public perceive to be their insecurities), and hope to come across as jolly good sports for being the butt of their own jokes.

But they aren’t that funny. It rambles, goes nowhere, and feels like a tedious Sunday anecdote from a dull uncle. I’m sure they think it’s edgy, but it’s not.

In all these shows there is a point when the clever-clever self-mockery and the postmodern irony of playing yourself playing yourself on screen slips into what is basically laziness. The Trip has crossed the line.

One final thought: Who has appeared in all three of Curb, Extras and the Trip? Step forward Ben Stiller. How long before he has a sitcom where he plays a slightly neurotic actor who wants to be taken seriously called Ben Stiller?

The young centenarians – but is there still a limit on longevity?

Never has 100 years old looked so good. The two ladies (left) from Wales who are the world’s oldest living twins hardly look their age – certainly my grandmothers  were in similar nick in their 80s.

For comparison, below is a picture of my great (great) aunt Nell, at 103, holding me, age 9 weeks old, in 1975.

Nell looks extraordinarily old, which is fair enough, but the two Welsh twins look a good 20 years younger.

great aunt nell

Great Aunt Nell (103) and Rob (9 weeks)

So, if we are looking so much younger at 100, why aren’t we setting records? Why aren’t we seeing people live to 150? Our life expectancy rises inexorably. What’s going on past 100?

Here’s a list of living so-called “supercentenarians”, and the remarkable thing is that no-one on the list is over 115. Why? There’s no-one close to the oldest people ever, who were Jeanne Calment and Shigechiyo Izumi (disputed) who lived to over 120.

Scientists have been saying for a long time that medical advances could mean people living to 150. But it’s not going to happen for at least another 35 years, given the current crop. What’s gone wrong?

There are two possibilities, which is that either the diet and lifestyle of people born in around 1890 still isn’t a good enough basis for 150 years of life, or frankly, we just aren’t programmed to live that long. Are we even emotionally capable of living through that much history?

Whatever the reason, the ultimate outlier, the age of the oldest person alive, went up in the 80s and 90s, but is coming back to where it was in the 1950s. So much for progress.

Source: Wikipedia

UPDATE: The economist also looks at the rising number of centenarians in their chart blog, but fail to mention the paradox.

The X-factor flaw: the new demographics of pop

As the X-factor’s dominance of the TV (and therefore our lives) continues unabated, plenty is being written about the contestants, and the cult-like figure of Simon Cowell.

The Observer portrayed him as a bond villain on their magazine cover, but the really interesting picture was the Sgt Pepper style montage inside. Here is a section of it.

From the Observer

How many people do you actually recognise? This, in a nutshell, is the X-factor’s problem and why it will face a key dilemma very soon.

The X-factor has an in-built problem of supply and demand. Not the show itself – it is pure entertainment, coupled with bitchy drama. The demand from viewers for the show is clearly there. It is what the show is supposed to produce, which is a bona-fide popstar for us all to know and recognise.

X-factor is asking us to care about a new person each year. Steve Brookstein, Shayne Ward, Leon Jackson, Joe McElderry: all winners of the UK X-factor, all going nowhere. Leona Lewis is doing well. The jury is still out on Alexandra Burke. And then there’s all the rest.

We don’t have the capacity. We don’t buy the CDs or download enough. We don’t have the emotional room to care about every winner. And it’s not just the winners – JLS and Olly Murs are both now welcomed back to the show as “stars”. They came second. We are also supposed to care about winners of Britain’s got Talent – which produces singers too. Even people booted out before the final are reeled out as stars. Stacey Solomon is now in the jungle, being a “celebrity”.

Pop stars don’t disappear as fast as they used to. In the past they died young, or faded away. Now everyone looks at the Rolling Stones and thinks – why not us? U2 released their first albums in the 1970s – that’s over 30 years ago now. Plus there’s all the comeback tours – the Police, Madness, Take That. It never ends.

We used to need new popstars. There was a replacement rate, much as in a normal population. But like in many developed economies, life-expectancy has increased. A pop career is longer, a pop star is healthier. They will die, artistically and creatively, a lot later. The demographics are no longer stacked in favour of the young – older people are staying with their music, young people have less spending power.

If the programme makers don’t acknowledge the problem, people will get fed up with being told “X is a star” when they clearly aren’t. They have two options: admit that the “prize” is less of a guarantee of stardom, and effectively have a devaluation of the currency, or reduce the supply, and only have a show every two years.

The two-year option isn’t going to fly, as the show makes too much money. But devaluation of the prize undermines the process.

It was once said that pop will eat itself. In this case, it’s more the supply will outstrip demand, and the bubble will burst.

Multibasking

multibasking (mŭl’tē-bās’kĭng)

I came up with the term “multibasking” a few years ago. It came to me when someone I worked with seemed to take credit for every project going, whether or not they had worked on it or had any meaningful input. I quite liked the idea that calling someone a multibasker in a corporate setting would be a damning insult.

At the time I googled it, and there were no results. I then told various groups about it, to see if it would get “out there”.

Two years on, and googling it gives you 293 results – still not a huge number, but the word has landed. Sadly, it’s not along the lines of my definition – it’s been used to mean “doing several pleasurable things at once”, which is predictable and dull.

Anyway, I’ve submitted my definition to Urban Dictionary, so we’ll see what happens.

UPDATE:
They accepted it! We’re off. Now wait till you hear it at work.

Name your princess

One of the remarks I often hear when a new personality joins the celebsphere is that lots of babies will be named after them. We assume that the public are easily swayed. Happily, the stats certainly show that when it comes to children, we’re not such slavish followers.

Kate Middleton. There, I’ve said it. Young, pretty, about to marry the future king of England. Will there be a surge in the name “Kate”?

Probably not. If you look at the Office of National Statistics data on baby names in England and Wales, they annoyingly only give out historical information for years ending in a 4. But in 1984, 3 years after the marriage of Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer, there was no interest in the name Diana for the public at large. In 1984, Diana didn’t make the top 100. Nor did it make the top 100 in 1998, the year after her death, so there wasn’t a “memorial surge” either.

That’s not to say that traditional royal names lack popularity. In 1984, Victoria was 7th and Elizabeth was 25th. Last year, Elizabeth was 43rd.

But what about Kate? Weirdly for a name that crops up in celebrity circles, and is fairly classless, it doesn’t feature in the top 100 at all. Katie makes 31st in 2009, but there’s no space in the top 100 for Kate or Catherine, despite the Zeta-Jones, Winslet and Moss of fame and beauty.

It seems we are more conservative with our boys names. In 2009, there’s space in the top 10 for Harry (3rd with Henry at 37th), Charlie (7th and 58th as Charles) and William (8th). Cry “God for Harry”! He’ll probably be the best man at the wedding of the decade.

Changing the clocks – how the numbers (don’t always) stack up

At the end of October, there were the yearly “news” pieces (here, here, everywhere) arguing about the merits (or lack of) for turning back the clocks in the UK.

The arguments trotted out in the press are fairly well-rehearsed now. They boil down to four main areas:

– Lighter evenings are better for the population in general and that’s when we want to do things. This clocks thing is for farmers in Scotland.
– We shouldn’t make our children walk home from school in the dark
– It’s better to be in sync with Europe
– Changing the clocks is annoying for people

Let’s make some assumptions. Most schools have kids in from 8.30am and close at 3.30pm, and most adults get to work around 9am and finish work around 5 or 6pm.

The problem here is no-one is looking at the data. Here they are in html and in google doc (data from timeanddate.com).

Quite simply, for most of the year there isn’t a problem for school children. Leaving aside whether they are picked up in cars, and whether any child old enough to walk home can do so quite perfectly well in the dark, the fact is that they don’t. The earliest sunset time in London, according to the data, is 3.51pm – 20 minutes after school usually ends. The sunrise time is around 7.55am at that time – when most children would be leaving for school. If this really is about our precious offspring, then the clocks in winter seem to fit the school day rather well. Since when should children be any safer going to school in the dark in the morning than in the evening? By moving the clocks forward an hour in mid-winter sunset would be at just after 9am in late December and early January.

Well, what about the rest of us? Don’t we want to play sport after work and enjoy a cafe-culture lifestyle in the evenings? Perhaps. But assuming that we need sunset to be 7pm or later (so we can get out of work and do something), pushing the clocks forward an hour in winter would mean we free up 16 days in March, and 26 days in November – less than 2 months in the year. It’s not exactly life-changing, is it?

And if we did that, the winter mornings would be, well, a little depressing, wouldn’t they? For 32 days in 2010, it wouldn’t be sunrise until after 9am – when most people are in work. And it would be sunset every one of those days before 5.25pm – a whole working day in the dark for some people, especially those office-bound workers behind a desk.

The other arguments are so poorly thought out it’s a joke.

Scottish farmers don’t care, apparently. (There’s the obvious solution of Scotland adopting another timezone if it was really necessary.) So let’s ignore that.

Being in sync with Europe would push the UK another hour away from US time. Which is more important – being the same as Europe when it’s only one hour out, or six hours different to New York – and nine from LA when five and eight is bad enough? Is there any proof that we lose business by being out of sync with Europe? And what would it mean for our US business? I haven’t seen any coherent answers to this, but my instinct is that it’s not a simple win-win – there are complex knock-ons we may not have foreseen. What does reducing an hour of markets trading overlap with the US do to banking?

What about health benefits? Again, the even the most balanced pieces have so many assumptions and caveats that it’s hard to point to any one major benefit, sensible as many of the suggestions seem.

Of course changing the clocks is annoying, especially if you have around 20 devices in the home that run off a timer. But more and more of them update automatically anyway – internet radios, TV hard drives, mobile phones. The connected home takes away much of that hassle. We had to change three clocks this time around – hardly a problem.

I’d personally rather the clocks didn’t shift, and we stayed consistently an hour ahead. But if we are to make an economic argument, which is what journalists and columnists are sort-of doing when they talk about benefits to people or society, then let’s use the data to back it up. Otherwise it’s just a yearly copy-and-paste job.

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