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Spy in the Wild

Last year, when I took part in the Dagstuhl workshop on Vocal Interactivity in-and-between Humans, Animals and Robots, we had a brainstorming session, fantasising about how advanced robots might help us with animal behaviour research. "Spy" animals, if you will. Imagine a robot bird or a robot chimp, living as part of an ecosystem, but giving us the ability to modify its behaviour and study what happens. If you could send a spy to live among a group of animals, sharing food, communicating, collaborating, imagine how much you could learn about those animals!

So it particularly makes me smile to see the BBC nature doc Spy in the Wild, in which they've... gone there and done it already.

--- Well, not quite. It's a great documentary, some really astounding footage that makes you think again about what animals' inner lives are like. They use animatronic "spy" animals with film cameras in, which let them get up very close, to film from the middle of an animal's social group. These aren't autonomous robots though, they're remotely operated, and they're not capable of the full range of an animal's behaviours. They're pretty capable though: in order both to blend in and to interact, the spies can do things such as adopt submissive body language - crouching, ear movements, mouth movements, etc. And...

...some of them vocalise too. Yes there's some vocal interaction between animals and (human-piloted) robots. The vocal interaction is at a pretty simple level, it seems some of the robots have one or two pre-recorded calls built in and triggered by the operator, but it's interesting to see some occasional vocal back-and-forth between the animals and their electrical counterparts.

There are obviously some limitations. The spies generally can't move fast or dramatically. The spy birds can't fly. But - maybe soon?

In the mean time, watch the programme, it has loads of great moments caught on film.

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BBC charter review - consultation responses

OK, I'm getting stuck into the BBC Charter Review this evening. (Here's why.)

Here are some of my answers...

  • Q1: How can the BBC’s public purposes be improved so there is more clarity about what the BBC should achieve?

    The charter period is ten years, which is too long a period to carve into stone what the BBC "should" achieve. The media landscape will have changed dramatically in two years, never mind ten. No-one I know has ever said the BBC needs to pin down its aims better.

  • Q4: Is the expansion of the BBC’s services justified in the context of increased choice for audiences? Is the BBC crowding out commercial competition and, if so, is this justified?

    The increased number of radio and TV channels obviously makes heavy use of lots of BBC archive and repeat material - that's clear to anyone who watches/listens. The increased number of channels isn't a sign of the BBC getting too big - it's just a sign of digital TV and radio having room for more channels than in the past. If we chopped off some of the less-used channels, it wouldn't save much money.

  • Q5: Where does the evidence suggest the BBC has a positive or negative wider impact on the market?

    The BBC played a massive role in promoting digital radio and TV through the simple act of jumping in and providing new channels because it could. This didn't crowd people out of the market - it stimulated the market.

  • Q8: Does the BBC have the right genre mix across its services?

    It could benefit from putting more critical and investigative journalism - something that many commercial providers don't want to dedicate budget towards. BBC journalism has been a little un-critical in recent years. Twenty-four hour news is not as important as deep thorough journalism.

  • Q11: How should we pay for the BBC and how should the licence fee be modernised?

    The "universal household levy" discussed in the consultation document would be good - it would be just, progressive, and would maintain the pooled British nature of the BBC. (It's not very different from being a hypothecated general tax - and therefore good - see below.)

    I have no no objections to the licence fee, but it might be better simply funded from general taxation. The subscription model that people have been talking about is very unhelpful, because (a) it leeches away the pooled "by Britain, for Britain" feel of the BBC, and (b) it puts it on much shakier financial foundations because subscriptions could collapse at any point (e.g. due to competition from global rivals like Sky deliberately undercutting it).

    The consultation document says general taxation "is not appropriate because it would risk lessening the BBC’s independence from Government" but this is a false argument, as the Government has recently delivered financial shocks to the BBC (in relation to the World Service, and the cost of licence fees for older people) of exactly the kind that would be risked under general taxation. A mechanism for stable hypothecation could easily allay those concerns.

  • Q12: Should the level of funding for certain services or programmes be protected? Should some funding be made available to other providers to deliver public service content?

    No need to make some of the BBC's funding "contestable" by others. The document mentions BBC having a "near monopoly" on children's broadcasting but that's because it's expensive to produce and commercial operators have chosen to focus on lower-cost genres.

  • Q13: Has the BBC been doing enough to deliver value for money? How could it go further?

    Yes it has been doing enough. Recent government moves such as making the BBC pay for World Service and then for old peoples' TV licences have added financial shocks to the system, not helping with delivering true value for money.

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Fact check: is it true that 1/3 of GP surgeries fails health standards?

There was an inspection of GP surgeries that came out last week, widely reported/headlined as "one third of GP surgeries" failing basic health standards. So is it true that one third of GP surgeries fails basic standards? No, and for a very simple reason.

The Care Quality Commission surveyed 910 GP surgeries (out of 8000 total) and found failings in one-third of them. But how did they pick the surgeries to inspect? Did they do it at random? No.

"80% were targeted because of known concerns. The remainder were chosen at random."

In other words, this survey was not a survey of all our surgeries, but of the ones that people were already suspicious about. In a sense, it was a survey of the worst of the bunch. When you pick your targets like this, it makes no sense to generalise the result to the rest of the GP surgeries.

What's the true number? Well we don't know. If we make the assume that all the dodgy surgeries were included in the batch of 910, the percentage would be 3.8%. It would be good luck to capture all the dodgy surgeries, though, so probably a bit higher than that. Still something to be concerned about, of course - but no crisis. The UK is still internationally leading in quality and cost effective healthcare so there's no need to panic...

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Ration Book Britain

Just been watching another episode of Ration Book Britain, on the TV channel with the confusing name ("Yesterday"). Ration Book Britain is a great series of programmes, combining World War II history with recollections from old folks, plus a great non-patronising approach to reconstructions such as how wartime cooking was done.

This episode was about fashion and it involved a really good kind of joint project: model Jodie Kidd (presenting the programme) introduced some old ladies to a class of university fashion students, plus some of the wartime rationing instructions (not allowed more than one pocket! no turn-ups! no double-breasting!), and they created some new clothes designs. So it was a mixture of modern fashion ideas with the make-do-and-mend approach, and the interaction and the outcome came across really well. Especially the reaction of the ladies when Jodie modelled a summer evening-dress made from bed-sheets.

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on the wikileaks video

I've seen the video released by Wikileaks. (In case you don't know: it's military footage from a US helicopter of about a 20-minute period during which the helicopter kills some people in an Iraq street, apparently including at least one Reuters journalist.) It's a horrifying video but frankly the way Wikileaks portrays it is odd - I had assumed, without much thought, that Wikileaks was some kind of impartial information-wants-to-be-free organisation, but it seems like they are deliberately slanting this in a particular way, so it seems they're more political than I thought.

It is a horrifying video, but worth watching to get an impression of the kind of situation that a helicopter pilot faces in a war situation. They can see some people. Do some of them have weapons? It's really hard to tell, visually, but the pilots say they've seen weapons including AK47s and an RPG. I certainly couldn't see any weapons - someone was carrying something on their shoulder which could be a camera, an RPG or any number of other things - but the video is presumably not as good quality as the original. The pilots certainly can't know for sure... but then when could you ever? It's really hard to tell what the people down there are doing. But the pilots are pretty gung-ho about it all - it's perfectly normal for soldiers in a war to talk in a way that would sicken civilians, but yes it sickens me the way they go about it.

The video is just a video, it doesn't give you any moral guidance, it doesn't make it clear whether what happened was wrong or right. They ask for permission to shoot, and they get it. They kill some people. They congratulate themselves about it. A wounded person is seen trying to move away. One pilot wishes out loud the wounded man would pick up a weapon, so he can shoot him again.

I can't possibly know whether the incident was normal or abnormal, legal or illegal (wrt Iraqi law, rules of engagement, etc). But you see really clearly the bizarre mix of bloodlust and bureaucracy in the pilots' decisionmaking, and the huge psychological gulf between the pilots and the people on the ground.

Wikileaks presents the video quite clearly with a spin on it - obvious from the start really, when they've put it on a website named "collateral murder". But the text that they use to surround and precede the video makes claims which are not evident from the video, and some claims which are counter to what the pilots seem to think is going on. In the video they label one single journalist quite repeatedly, but don't seem to label any of the other victims, presumably to highlight the campaign about the journalist? The use of the word "murder" is of course emotive and a moral judgment too. Wikileaks also calls it "indiscriminate slaying" which sounds extremely strong, and conflicts with the weird bureaucratic precision of the slaying actually depicted in the video.

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Children should not be allowed to read The Metro

I can understand why commuters with dead hearts and tired brains would read that hollow newspaper-shaped thing called The Metro. But children and teenagers? Can't we postpone the emptying of their souls just a little bit longer?

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Article on Radiohead, Saul Williams, and digital downloads

I wanted to blog some opinions about the move towards DRM-free digital downloads, made famous recently by Radiohead (but of course loads of others have done it). But a much better writer than me has already done it. This article about MP3 downloads is v good.

(Update: following some links …

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The Secret Life of the Manic Depressive

Sometimes there are TV programmes which are so good that you want to keep them, and it feels completely unfair that they aren't like books you can put on your bookshelf. Stephen Fry's documentary about manic depression was one of those - full of great insight into the condition.

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Two marketing strategies: Sainsburys and Pizza Hut

Pizza Hut has been sponsoring The Simpsons (when it appears on Channel 4, at least) for years, but just recently they've changed their strategy. A few years ago the sponsor's notice was something composed by an advertising executive on autopilot: a laugh-track, a picture of a pizza, and a reassuring …

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