Sunday, June 01, 2008
Excellent news for Who
What splendid news. Steven Moffat is to take over from Russell T Davies as Dr Who exec.
Halfway through series four of the revived Dr Who (though some of us oldies think it should be called 'Series 30' - give or take), we can look back at The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances, The Girl in the Fireplace and the utterly wonderful Blink as the highpoints of the revival. Now we have Silence in the Library (and next week's Forest of the Dead). Just listing these episodes gives you the best moments of Dr Who, new style. All other episodes fall into a ragged joint-second place - in my very humble opinion. Why?
For two reasons, one which is just appreciation and another which is a regretful criticism.
The better reason is that Moffat writes Science Fiction. Not 'SciFi', that bastard child of comics and TV that includes Buck Rogers and Space 1999. Not 'SF', the yellow-covered arcana where dodgy grammar and shallow characters matter less than the idea and that only the characters from the Big Bang Theory could really like. Moffat writes in that way that satisfies everyone who cares. He's the Stephen Baxter of the screen.
Looking at his record (Coupling, Murder Most Horrid, Jekyll, Press Gang and the new Spielberg Tintin) you'd never have guessed he'd actually have the essential talent for Science Fiction. That essential talent is so clear in Blink. Science Fiction that uses the methods of science to produce fiction: imagination, speculation, hypothesis, exploration and disproof.
The other reason for my enthusiasm about Mr Moffat is my mixed feelings about the undeniably generally great Russell T Davies. RTD writes the best scripts. His writing, his characters, his plotting and, probably most important of all for this revival, his sense of TV - they are all exemplary. But... his enthuisiasm has driven him to destroy the Who-verse. London in Who has been decimated by the Slitheen, the Daleks and the Cybermen, etc, etc and ripped apart by Torchwood's experiments. Cardiff has been split by the rift and its inhabitants have been menaced, controlled or transformed by all and sundry.
So? Well, we know this isn't true. So, it's fiction. But fiction draws its impact from its relation to reality. If aliens crash into Big Ben again, it won't be impressive. We know Londoners will just shrug and say: Bloody aliens, we just rebuilt that!
We also know that any future stories in London or Cardiff will be set in a completely transformed world, one of rifts and monsters and completely punch-drunk natives.
Basically, RTD has wasted our world as a setting for science fiction. It's done. Nothing in RTD's Earth is remarkable because it's all been done.
One of the basic skills of science fiction is to isolate and insulate your strangeness so it can be contrasted and embedded in recognisable reality. Devastate a village, colonise an island or just trouble one individual. If you end the world, it's ended. Fine in an apocalyptic novel or even a disaster movie (just watched I am Legend - excellent - except for the usual namby-pamby American ending) but not in a TV series where, for budget reasons at least and artistic referential reasons at best, you return to the same territory, history line and characters.
In RTD's Who-verse, the landscape is desolate. Nothing works anymore.
But in the Moffat stories, we have a forgotten mystery of a hospital in war-torn London, a strange and inexplicable incident with some clockwork (brilliant!) dolls in 18th century France, one troubled girl in a derelict house in London and a bit of infestation in a 51st century library. Big, big stories but they leave the world intact for tomorrow.
Monday, May 26, 2008
Loreo stereo lens
If anybody wants to take up stereo photography, the place to go first is Loreo.
Loreo is a Hong Kong firm who make the most acceptable modern stereophotographic gadgets.
I first met their stuff while on holiday in San Francisco. I'd been collecting antique stereo gear for years but hadn't, to date, tried any of the recent (and generally abortive) commercial 3d cameras around. In a tourist shop - I recall it being one of those very fake reconstructed shops you only find in the States, possibly on Pier 39, if that's what it's called - I found a Loreo camera. They apparently now call it the '3d Photokit' in its 'Mk II' version. I think the price was something like $150.
The great thing about it was that it took standard 35mm film and placed the two images side by side in a standard frame. You just sent your films along to your usual developers. Occasionally, some efficient technician would observe that your pictures were a little unusual and sometimes they would come back with a note about the apparent 'fault' in the camera. Once our local supermarket in Switzerland, Migros, returned a whole stack of prints, each one crossed out with a felt pencil (which was, thank you, easily rubbed off), a note pointing out the regrettable camera fault and all for no charge. It didn't happen every time.
I used mine for years and years...
Take a careful note of its detachable 'nose'. It would appear that MkI suffered from not having a nose to keep light out of the opposing eye (you see, that's what your nose is for!). The nose was stuck on to the central plate by six 'suckers': you can see the marks. It was always falling off and getting lost.
As you can see, the MkI was a very straight snaps camera with practically no adjustments. It had flash though.
Other Loreo camera owners on the web generally bemoaned its poor quality which was something I didn't get at all. My take is that there was some variation in the quality of the lens arrangement in the early models. I was very lucky. My photos were generally sharp and the camera operated for six years without ever disappointing. I have hundreds of prints with which to bore everybody rigid.
The results were, of course, prints. Loreo also sold (and you generally bought) a viewer:
This had two wacking great prism lenses in a chunky plastic frame. Well-made and reliable. My conclusion was 'money well spent'.
Then I went digital and stopped using film completely. That was six years after I bought the Loreo. My guess is it would still be working to this day if I'd continued using it. My first digital camera was an Olympus snaps camera which would not take replacement lenses and so stereo was suspended.
Then after too many years I bought a digital SLR and ordered Loreo's contribution to digital stereophotography, the '3d Lens in a Cap', a very odd name for what is essentially the lens part of the old MkI.
Not wanting to spend too much I chose Nikon's modest but effective D40. This is a basic digital SLR, very popular because it has all the advantages of its type - interchangeable lenses, very wide operating range, excellent handling, etc - but comes at a very reasonable price (I think mine was about £280 last year). It's a fine camera.
Now I will attempt to earn my keep as a blogger and justify any Googling that finds my blog by telling the world: yes, you can use the Loreo lens on a digital SLR. Breathe a sigh: you didn't waste your cash. Boy, I wish I'd found this page a few months back.
It must be said that at first I thought I had wasted my money. I even consulted a friend who I knew had brought one long ago - and who admitted that he never got it to work. Oh great.
The story starts when, having got the Nikon D40, I ordered the Loreo lens in its Nikon version. Very encouraged to see a version for my camera. It cost about £50, ordered from Hong Kong: it arrived very quickly and Loreo's email support is caring and polite. They like to hear how quickly it arrived and in what condition. Nice.
I am, frankly, an 'auto' man when it comes to taking pictures. I might tinker with some subsidiary modes but I left the aperture- and exposure-twiddling days long ago. So I just twisted off the Nikon lens and very gingerly twisted the Loreo one on. It fitted! It fitted apparently without destroying the mount.
The camera however, sensing that this humble piece of plastic is nowhere near as sophisticated as the thing I had just removed, declared that there was no lens attached and refused to play at all. Oh great. And it insisted that there was no lens attached whatever I did... until I turned the dial right round to the big M for the dreaded 'manual'. The camera then stops bleating on about having no lens attached.
But then I could get nothing out of it - until I used the thumbwheel to crank the exposure right out to 1/80sec ('80' on the info screen'). It took a bit of courage, because knowing, as I did, that digital cameras are very sensitive, I thought that would blow the thing away.
Now that's all I remember: attach the lens, rotate to 'M', put up the 'info' screen and crank the thumbwheel to about '80'. Sorry. I do recall that my photographer brother-in-law did advise me that once I got it right, a standard SLR would remember the settings. He was right: it so remembers how to do it that I get the setup right every time I swap lenses just by switching from 'auto' to 'M'. There might have been some more fiddling but once you get it working, it stays working. Great.
1/80sec is quite a long time if you're used to the speed of digital. In pale sunlight, you might have to go down to 1/50sec which is a bit of a bore. Bright sunlight, 1/120sec - which is much more practical. So, you'll have to use the old elbows-in, steady, steady, squeeze-don't-jab technique that we used to use.
And of course forget about auto-focus. The camera may know about that but the lens doesn't. There are three focus settings on the plastic case of the lens: mountains (good for almost everything), people (good for everything else) and flowers (good for flowers but you go cross-eyed trying to view them). There are two aperture settings: 22 (good for everything) and 11 (good, I guess, when it gets a bit dark - but sharpness of focus and depth of field are important; so I don't use it much). This is Instamatic territory.
You can use flash. It works. But you can't use anything other than manual. The big drag is that you have to go into the menus and find the dialogue to switch off TTL flash monitoring. That's a handful of button-pushes away from snapping and I find that a bit of a drag. So I don't generally take interiors unless they've quite light and very static. Then I'll try a half-second exposure.
If you want to see what I've managed to take, have a look at my stereo site. My apologies if it refuses to work for you, Internet Explorer user. I wrote the code myself and I can't be bothered, just now, to make a version just for Windows. I will. I will.
Anyway, my duty is done to the community: if you've got an SLR and are thinking of buying a Loreo lens, go ahead. It's not a waste of money. Well, it wasn't for me. YMMV.
Saturday, May 17, 2008
One glance at the home page for this site would seem to show that stereophotography is a major obsession of mine.
Well, it's been an interest for a long, long time, ever since I received my first 3d viewer as a kid. I think it was a 'Vista-Screen': they always had grand names like that. Basically it was a three-part hinged affair in the sort of cream plastic that was generally used for such toys. You stuck a double photograph (a few came with the viewer) in the support and looked through the two lenses in the front part. I seem to recall that the effect was quite good.
Later I had a 'ViewMaster', the one stereophotography toy that caught on. Every kid had one. It took cardboard disks which contained about 20 little windows, each containing a very, very small transparency (I guess the format was 8mm), arranged around the perimeter. The viewer rotated these frames in line with a sort of binocular arrangement. The disks were mysteriously referred to as 'reels'. Funny what you remember.
The 3d you got from a ViewMaster was pretty good: viewer and reels were made to a high standard. The only snag was that you had to buy the reels from the ViewMaster Corporation (I seem to remember they were Canadian) and therefore you had to choose from the subjects they thought worthwhile. My memory was that their idea of their demographic did not include me. There was a lot of scenery (boring!), promotional slides for movies (generally Disney, boring!) and, worst of all, puppet re-enactments of worthy subjects such as scenes from the bible (terrible!).
You got bought these whenever a relative went on holiday or found a small stock of reels conveniently near to Christmas or a birthday. Sometimes the stock wasn't very large.
So then I grew up and much later went into 3d computer graphics and so the interest was rekindled. This time I started to buy the serious stuff. From antiques fairs and car-boot sales, I got together a modest set of antique, mainly Victorian, viewers and a staggering collection of stereo-cards.
From about the birth of photography right into the 20th century, past the 1st World War, stereophotographic cards were sold in packs to commemorate events, to document expeditions to far corners, to educate and to amuse. As with everything that was once so popular but is now a collector's hobby, the market is flooded with the indifferent - mostly interminable views of Swiss mountains.
The best are the views of long gone street scenes or engineering masterpieces.
In fact, in saying that, I'm really challenging the collection to prove it's worth. Why do stereophotography? What do the good 3d photos say about its utility?
Even as a lifelong fan, I would always resist (and advise against) saying: it's just like being there. It so falls short of that.
In fact, if you want to list and prioritise the factors which make for good, evocative 'being there' photography, then adding the 3d is often quite exactly offset by the discomfort in using a viewer or a viewing method. Straining to cross one's eyes while the two images drift in and out of register is enough to spoil anyone's experience.
Depth perception (which is all you get with these double images) is only one of a huge number of 'being there' factors. Disregarding the other senses - the smells, the sounds, the climate - being there visually is far more about parallax than binocular vision. The ability, really, to look around and round objects is much more engaging than being able to order the objects in a static view according to their distance.
That said (and since I'm not going to dismiss this hobby without some defence) as a modest trick, 3d stereophotography has a certain charm for scenes which are unavailable to you in person for reasons of distance, time or social condition.
If you really can imagine 'being there' while you look at a 2d image, then stereo doesn't add much. If the subject is one you don't know or don't have a memory of, then the extra dimension adds a little clarity to the definition. Certainly if your eye can't get the hang of an image because your mind can't relate to the subject, then simple stereo can act like a multiple image, filling in and clarifying, within the one view, those details and dimensions that don't come clear in the single shot.
The best for me are stereo views of buildings, engineering achievements and public events whose scale and importance can only be imagined. Bridges, world fairs, state happenings all benefit from this extra dimension. And, of course, there are the nudes...
So why do I put my holiday snaps on the web?
Well, first, because I can but also because I like to experiment with that small incremental visual cue that adds just a hint of scale, grandeur or definition to an otherwise pedestrian bit of amateur photography. I would be interested to hear if any site visitor feels the benefit of stereo.
Is it really like 'being there' for you. I can't tell because I was there to take the picture.
Sunday, April 20, 2008
There's been a lot of buzz recently about an experiment which purports to show, using FMRI scans, the evidence of a decision taking place in the mind some significant time before the occupant was aware of making that decision - or even of the question arising, it is said.
This comes many years after another experiment where, using some sort of electrical tracking rather than FMRI, a trace of an intention could be detected before the subject decided to flex a muscle. That is, in some electrical sense the subject's brain initiated a movement before the individual had conceived mentally of the action.
Another piece comes in the well-established idea of 'confabulation', the tendency of the brain to adopt a memory as its own, and therefore as fact, though it may have been planted recently by another, intent, perhaps, on enlisting the support of a witness. It would seem that the brain shows an inherent love for consistency in a constructed memory when contrasted with its own patchy recollections and will overwrite any gaps with any adequately well-structured fiction. This is seen in some criminal investigations with susceptible witnesses but is considered to be common in all of us with our fond and firm memories of childhood.
Then there's the thing that has always worried me. We're not made of wire. Our nervous systems and our brain work by chemical signalling not by electricity. Signals between our fingers and our brain (and back again) are conducted in a manner more like a rippling reaction in a fluid than an electromagnetic wave in a vacuum. The speeds involved, the speeds with which all information flows in our bodies and minds, are more like the speed of sound than that of light, measured in tens of metres per second rather than millions.
It is true that the brain works in a parallel fashion, millions of parallel computations happening at once but change based on the propagation of information is limited by the speed at which it arrives.
I've been a programmer now for forty years and feel in my gut the limitations of a single process working on a flow of information. A single serial process can act only as fast as change is presented to it and is propagated through it. Equally a billion processes ranged to act in parallel can still only deliver even their wonderfully complex conclusions after the arrival of a stimulus and can deliver it only as fast as that propagation can cross the medium of its computation.
Thus, to me, it seems incredible that I can be feeling, thinking and acting at the speeds I do.
Free will is the last issue in the mix. My will is imposed between my perception and my action. The complexity of my decision making is down to the vast parallelism of my brain, but the timing and the justification for it is limited by the need to integrate many, many channels of sensory input and to distribute the results of these decisions to a complex array of muscles.
It doesn't seem right. It pushes the limits of my belief.
Now what I propose is not unreasonable. It is certainly not unreason. I am not going to propose something unscientific, something born of a leap of faith. This is a proposal, a model built on my perception of the world, apparently consistent as far as I can test it. A scientific hypothesis ready to be destroyed by anyone with more knowledge. It just seems to me to be a reasonable idea.
Imagine an organic robot, programmed to respond more-or-less perfectly to its surroundings. Stimulus arrives in expected or unexpected forms. The expected, internally modelled, environment is handled by a set of long-established and nurtured programs. Rituals have been programmed into this robot through custom and learning.
Also, this robot is programmed with the capacity to respond to unexpected situations, to shocks and hurt by a set of low level reactions and to less immediate but equally challenging changes by a process of assimilation and adaptation.
This robot is a machine. It is not self-aware in any sense that we respect.
The robot, being organic, cannot respond very quickly and relies heavily on a predictable environment and cooperation from other robots. Sometimes, things happen which leave whole groups of robots short of a response and they often react relatively inappropriately while a suitable action is devised. It is not (evolution has asserted) good for this random searching to be incorporated in the robots' programming and so no explicit records of these moments are kept.
An interesting part of the programming of this robot is this adaptation mechanism. A program runs which watches and evaluates the robot's activity as to appropriateness and success or failure. This evaluation consists of constructing a set of theorisations of the big picture which the robot has neither the time, the processing speed or the omniscience to gather. This program constructs a continuous evaluatory narrative formed of the recent past.
This narrative, separated completely from reality (since it is constructed as a consistent theory of what is observed gathered and collated post hoc), is a confabulation. It is however, for the explicit purpose which it serves, entirely consistent and reliable.
So much so that this program forms a belief, a model of reality, solely from this confabulation.
You are this program. You do not control your actions. You are merely the observer riding in a warm robot, programmed to be, as far as the other robots are concerned, you.
So where is free will if you are not controlling your body?
Well, I see the reason for evolution constructing this program is entirely (and solely) to improve the robot's activating programs. You observe, you judge and you retrain the robot's programs. The next time the changed program is called for, it performs more to your latest standards. The review program sees the new behaviour and blesses it, reinforces but mainly confabulates it (for its own sanity and analytic purposes) as its own deliberate action.
I just stopped typing and scratched my nose. It's something I do. During the action, it felt like 'I' was scratching 'my' nose. That is my confabulation. I needed to model it like that in case it wasn't a useful action. I'm fairly happy to think that the robot scratched its nose because it's what it does and only now (while it's typing away on this paragraph) my control program, me, has retrospectively constructed this confabulation of the event simply to allow me to consider whether it was a good piece of programming and whether it should be suppressed or reinforced.
Long term free will is just that project of finding oneself in a body and planning to make it work as well as you can. Confabulating continuously that you are actually living and moving and interacting, just modelling the possibility that your body was even chemically capable of such immediate action, you work on the reprogramming of the robot for your long-term ends. When these come to pass, as your host body gets by, you feel that you are really doing it.
It takes some thinking about, I guess. When the separation and the isolation caused by the confabulation process hits you at its extreme, it delivers quite a philosophical punch, especially as the ultra-dual separation between the slow, slower than the world could tolerate and much slower than you think, body and the completely detached mind leaves one simply as a custodian of something which, if it is you, is not you at all.
Monday, March 24, 2008
Almost as good as the Edinburgh Festival
We've lived in Glasgow for four years now and have never made it to the Edinburgh Festival or, as indeed would be the case if we did, the Festival Fringe. That's a pity because the big thing we missed when we lived abroad and enjoy so much since we moved to Scotland is British humour.
Never Mind. Glasgow has its moments. Each year they have a Comedy Festival. Last year I think it was sponsored by Millers beer. This year it's Magner's cider. You get the point.
We chose four acts to see this year. Mitch Benn, Dara O'Briain, Russell Howard and Sean Lock. Now that selection tells me where I get my culture: BBC Radio 4 and BBC2.
Before any more analysis, let me say these are four very funny gentlemen. Four evenings of deep mirth were enjoyed by all who attended.
But it was interesting to see how the audiences were composed.
All four performances reflected, in the type of audience and the choice of venue, so much about how one makes it in the world of comedy.
Mitch Benn I only know from Radio 4's Now Show (yes, the same show that provided the Marcus Brigstocke quote from a previous entry). He does a couple of turns each week, commenting on the week's news by performing a parodic song of his own composition. This he does with very small resources and yet, such is his skill, he evokes beautifully the style of a recognisable artist and matches it well to the news. This last week it was Bruce Springsteen (Born on the NHS) and, I am of the opinion, David Bowie for a song about finding methane on extra-solar planets.
In Glasgow, alone with just a very small guitar, he drew an audience of a couple of hundred to the Tron, a small, intimate and generally experimental theatre. The audience were Radio 4 people, almost to the level of self-parody. (For foreign readers, I should describe BBC Radio 4: it is 'talk radio', the immediate descendant of the BBC Home Service - 'this is Alvar Lidell reading the news...' . It is what they call a bastion and I am a very proud and devoted listener.)
This is the modern Radio 4 though. Mr Benn is not staid. He is not Richard Stilgoe. His humour was often very non-Reithian. He was, however, one with his audience. There was much talk of this shared love of the Beeb's traditional values. We were all there because of this half-hour we share, 6:30 of a Friday evening.
The evening was all the better for this limited scope. During the interval, he composed a topical ditty to a subject shouted out by an audience member. A very common gimmick for this sort of performance. He made it plain though that, if it was any good, he'd be putting it forward as one of the three tunes he has to offer the producers of the Now Show on Thursday. Come the Friday evening, it was there in his first spot on the radio programme. 200 Glaswegians felt they owned a little bit of the radio that night.
The only reason we know Dara O'Briain and Russell Howard is through 'Mock the Week' (BBC2 and Dave). That's enough to warrant the ticket purchase but it also identifies both of them for us. Two sides of a single coin.
However, Dara played to a huge audience (probably 2000) at the Royal Concert Hall (an enormous acoustic disaster area in the centre of Glasgow where everything popular happens - apart from the very popular which use the SECC). His first half was in the Mock the Week style, a rant with lots of good stuff for the enemies of unreason and the unreasonable. The second half was much gentler, observational humour of the old school. Lots of audience involvement and altogether rather homely. The audience was incredibly mixed: ages from teenage to very old (that is, older than me). In fact an awful lot of old people. It seems Dara has another life.
Russell Howard and Sean Lock appeared at the Old Fruitmarket, a wonderful restored Victorian 'Crystal Palace' building which lends everything an air of unpretentiousness. There's a bar in the auditorium and everyone has a 'glass' in hand during the performance.
Russell Howard is a lively, amiable young man. That is his act. Lots of personal experiences from his childhood in Bristol. Lots about his mum, his dad, his brother. All we knew was his contribution to Mock the Week where he voices the reaction of the innocent, abused Englishman to the nastiness of modern life. Live he's even more of an innocent, telling of the confusion of a good soul amongst the messy and corrupt.
His audience however was not so young though not so old as Dara's. The sound they made was appreciation, humming along to the same tune. There was nothing to take offence at. However his support act, Steve Hall, did blatantly test the limits. To me (perhaps I'm old) just seeing 'how far we can go' is no fun any more. Strangely someone in the audience was taken ill after only 20 minutes and, rather than trying to restart, the performance was abandoned.
I only know Sean Lock from his being a fraction of QI. Enough of a recommendation. His part is to come up with 'angles' on the discourse. I like that approach.
The promotion for the gig listed three TV programmes that he does ('TV Heaven Telly Hell', '8 out of 10 cats' and '15 Storeys High') and made him out to be a TV giant. I've never seen any of these and, thinking of him as an itinerant 'guest' only, feared that his live act would depend too much on this unknown repertoire. I feared the worst.
Not at all. His act is unrelated to anything. It depends on nothing else - not on his QI persona, not on any expected reference to his TV successes. It was completely fresh and independent. He is described in his publicity as an 'absurdist', which means... what?
It is his function though. He just exudes daft ideas. As usual, I can't remember anything. As each clever idea appears and you pledge to remember it, its hold on your memory is loosened by the next one demanding the same.
His audience was surprisingly much younger than Howard's and his relationship with it was more direct: he just stands there and keeps eye contact, somehow with a thousand people. His demeanour is of a very, very normal bloke.
And then at the end of the show he does something so bizarre (I won't say - not while his tour has dates to run) that nobody was prepared for it and it still seems appallingly risky.
So, Sean Lock is the one I recommend. Though Mitch Benn made a small group of people, including me, feel very , very good.
Saturday, March 22, 2008
Straight to the point
Dithering for so long, at last I heard the piece I really needed to summarise my position and get this blog off to a warm restart. From the great Marcus Brigstocke, a British stand-up comedian who does a lot of radio in the UK (much on the wonderful BBC Radio 4), this is the start of a 7-minute rant he did on the Now Show (Steve Punt, Hugh Dennis, etc) on the 20th July 2007. I heard it as we set out for a quick tour of the North of England, Yorkshire and the Lake District - what one might call, ironically, God's Own Country.
Here's how Mr Brigstocke's rant starts:
'I'd like to start this week with a request and this one goes out to the followers of the three Abrahamic religions - to the Muslims, Christians and Jews - it's just a little thing but do you think that when you've finished smashing up the world and blowing each other to bits and demanding special privileges while you do it, do you think that maybe the rest of us could, sort of, have our planet back?'
I think that sums up how I feel.
For those who feel attacked but want to exempt themselves on grounds of moderation, he later goes on to appeal to 'moderate' Muslims, Christians and Jews to realise that they are, by their compliance, supporting their respective extremists.
It's funny, sharp and brave - and spot on.
Tuesday, August 26, 2003
Today there is no trace of yesterday’s rain. It’s 34° in the shade and 29° on my desk; so that’s a bit better.
Outside everything is hot, hot, hot again and my car has developed a strange noise when changing from 2nd to 3rd.
Monday, August 25, 2003
Today it rained. During the morning - for eight minutes - and then again for much longer in the afternoon and into the evening. Quite a lot of rain, actually. We start to think that life can get back to normal.
This evening I dodged the raindrops to go and turn the automatic arrosage off.
Sunday, August 24, 2003
Power to the people
The French social system is incredibly supportive of the working man and woman. Incredibly.
If you come to France to start a small company, you will find that the social charges above and beyond what you pay to the employee are huge, indeed so often crippling. Whereas in the UK and elsewhere you might figure the total cost of an employee as 150% of his or her salary, in France that would be more like 200%.
The upshot is that if you come to France, as I did this time, as an employee, you are amazingly cushioned against the natural result of this exorbitance, the demise of your employer. It balances out in the end of course, but I suppose it leaves the entrepreneur feeling victimized.
I may get some of this wrong. Don’t use it to plan your start-up in France or to negotiate with your employer. This is just how it appeared to me as an employee.
There’s unemployment in France. There’s recession or the gloomy prospect of it. There’s a need to find a deterrent against economic hardship.
To the French, this suggests outright social engineering. In other countries, you might hear of tax-breaks for start-ups, venture capital being encouraged to invest, youth training schemes and programmes to encourage returning to work for less.
Here, the government decided to limit the working week. If nobody could be made to work longer than 35 hours a week, more people would have to be employed to do the jobs. Perhaps that’s how it was thought of. Perhaps not as simple as that.
Either way, an act was passed by the French government to limit the working week to a strict 35 hours.
Then the professional classes, les cadres, protested (along with their employers) that some jobs required more dedication, more flexibility, offered more rewards for unsocial commitments. Either way, white-collar workers, they said, couldn’t be constrained by this law.
So Mk II of the law was passed allowing for professionals and executives to work 37, 39, perhaps 41 or 43 hours but… in return, their employers must give them, outright and without prejudice, extra paid holiday. Yup. That’s the deal, Mr Entrepreneur: if you want to be able to ask any of your workers to stay until six or seven in the evening to get the project on the road, you’ll just have to let them have more holiday. Permanently.
The calculation is severe. To establish the possibility that your staff might be asked to work 39 hours a week, you might have to give them another 15 or 20 days a year off. The negotiation must be entered into formally by management and workers. It is supervised and specified by approved third-parties who will represent whoever is getting the worst of this deal until the terms of the law are met squarely. The ‘accord’ must be approved by all concerned.
It’s tough. In other countries, I’d guess, the working week might be defined as 37.5 hours but many workers would quite casually work a little extra when the pressure is on. Overtime might be paid or time given in lieu. In France it is specified by law that you should not do so unless your employer has given you extra holiday, permanently in your contract, not casually in lieu or pro rata.
The whole scheme is called RTT, réduction du temps de travail, reduction of work time, and, while feeling like a blessing to the worker, is, no doubt, a blow to the employer.
It’s all part of that great socialist experiment, the French republic.
Starting up on your own
Well, I did it - twice - in England. I’d think twice about doing it in France.
Firstly, there’s the social charges.
Second, the RTT, which means for a start-up that you’re going to have to concede some difficult conditions of work and - much more frightening - some of your new employees will have come from firms where the RTT negotiations gave them what might to you seem like ridiculous contract terms.
Thirdly, there’s the bureaucracy. I can only imagine what that’s like.
And if you don’t speak perfect French (and I certainly don’t) you’ll never know what’s going on.
However, coming here as an employee is a much better prospect.
I am very pleased to say.
A consistent style
One of the problems buying property in the UK, I know, is that sometimes houses look, well, sub-standard. There are old charming cottages that everyone loves. There are modern houses that work very well, but nobody loves very much. There are Victorian houses which look good and substantial and everybody mucks them about (and then restores them). There are 1960’s houses which everybody says they don’t like but many live in. There are all sorts and all sorts of quality.
Here in the South of France, almost all houses look the same, whether they were built yesterday or a hundred years ago - possibly three hundred years ago. They all look equally charming, all equally liveable-in and all almost exactly identical.
No, to be a little more realistic, there are three distinct sorts of dwelling here. The ‘villa’ (like ours) - cream, orange or pink or any colour in between. The bâtiment - block of flats (or apartments) - generally the same colour as the villas but toned down and eye-wateringly repetitive and boring. And there’s the ‘old town’, stone and cement and tightly packed across cobbled lanes.
Nobody gets to live in the old town. Forget it. We all live in villas and apartments built in the last… well, who knows. They all look the same with no hint of a nod to fashion or technology.
When we first came here, we were due to move into a brand new house in a small lotissement (an estate really but with a nice French word). On visits here, I watched it being built and became less and less enthusiastic about our moving in.
The standard construction method these days is to pile up cement blocks (the lightweight, pebbly variety - not the diamond-surfaced ones we had in Switzerland)… loosely. Then they bash holes in them for the services.
(And in one memorable occasion down the road from us, they bash doorways in the newly set cement blocks when they appear to have misread the plans.)
They then have a few problems with project management, financing, human resources, perhaps and leave the naked blocks for a few months. They weather nicely gaining a beaten, rustic look… and more holes.
Doors and windows are cemented in place and the whole shebang is covered in a sort of plaster daub. This appears to be the source of all structural strength. When drilling into such a wall, it is clear that this outer shell is indeed much harder than the core.
This coating is allowed to dry and is painted - orange! There are variations. Within a lotissement, you’ll get cream (pale orange), rust (dark orange), even lavender (bluey orange), pink (embarrassing orange). Over the windows (which are often doors as well), they attach shutters. These are generally in a contrasting colour: blue, grey, green.
The whole landscape has a sort of toyland look which, if it were anywhere else in the world, would have the Disney Corporation suing for copyright infringement. Here it looks exactly as it should… except for the sneaky feeling that we’re not actually in Provence and we should have a vernacular architecture of our own.
Perhaps, indeed, the old town look is the true local architecture but this cartoon version has taken over and has been the norm for decades.
Anyway, we didn’t get the house. There are laws in France that allow a builder to declare a project delay if it rains. It’s something like that. Anyway, the date got put back and back and back. We found this house, finished - so I didn’t have to see its innards.
Long after we moved in, we could take a trip to the original house and watch it being beaten into the oh-so-familiar shape.
Inner walls in houses down here are slightly thicker than cardboard. Slightly.