The story I am about to tell is one which I have kept locked in the inmost recess of my secret heart, until persuaded otherwise by friends, therapists, and one particularly lenient magistrate.
So opens For One Horrible Moment, Peter Bradshaw’s grim and gothic coming-of-age story set in 1970s Fenland. It was first broadcast on Radio 4 14 years ago; nothing as funny has been broadcast since (though I give honourable mentions to The Sunday Format and Cabin Pressure).
My father, I remember, was an eccentric man, whose idiosyncrasies alienated many people. He suffered from what psychologists now refer to as a narcissistic schizophrenic guilt complex. He would spend many tortured hours pointing at his reflection in the mirror and shouting, ‘That’s the man, officer.’
I hope you are now on the way to being hooked. The glorious bathetic silliness of the thing, allied to Bradshaw’s stilted, deadpan delivery, create a singularly amusing comedy. There’s nothing like it.
OCR, those three arsey initials. They menace us in different ways.
Historically, the OCR is the Organically modified and Cooled Reactor, an early nuclear reactor, one of which operated in Canada (also home of the Ottawa Central Railway) between 1965 and 1985. The inherent advantage of the OCR’s high negative temperature coefficient is offset by the fact that it also increases reactor control difficulty. For example, since the coolant and moderator are one and the same, the entry of relatively cold, dense coolant into the core will increase moderation, slowing down more neutrons, and cause reactivity to increase. The resulting power increase would rapidly be quelled by the effect of the negative temperature coefficient but may cause the reactor to shut down prematurely. It doesn’t take a genius to see why it never caught on, even in Ohio.
During my adolescence, OCR betokened the newly formed Oxford, Cambridge and RSA examination board, which tested me periodically to see if I had accidentally absorbed anything of value the teachers might have said. When the school system finally spat me out, I hoped for a letter of congratulation, or at least of apology. Nothing.
And now we come to the greatest bugbear of them all: Optical Character Recognition. You’ve probably encountered OCR somewhere online. Here’s the principle: a page of text is scanned as an image file, and a program identifies the characters and converts the image into searchable, manipulable text. It’s ingenious, when it works.
I first encountered OCR about twelve years ago, when the Music department at my school obtained a scanner for use with the music notation program Sibelius. The thought was that you could scan in a page of music and it would be magically transformed into a MIDI sequence. In reality, I suspect what generally happened was that music that should have sounded like this:
ended up sounding like this:
Other OCR failures I have known: Gramophone magazine’s website used to contain a phenomenally useful (if not flawless) searchable database of reviews called Gramofile, than which no greater online resource for reviews of classical music recordings has ever existed. A few years ago, it was abandoned in favour of the Gramophone Archive, a complete online archive of the magazine. A laudable project, but to date not an unmitigatedly successful one. The outcry against Gramofile’s obliteration continues. The new archive appears to be improving, but one still encounters statements like
In terra pox was commissioned by the Swiss Radio to mark the end of the Second World War
The Library of America has very high production values, so it is a surprise to find in an otherwise exemplary edition of Saul Bellow’s Novels, 1956-1964, a description of
the frazzle-faced Mr Penis
This is in fact Mr Perls, a minor character from Bellow’s Seize the Day. His name is rendered correctly in all other instances, and presumably the error has arisen from inaccurate OCR, given the visual similarity of ‘rl’ and ‘ni’. Curious that nobody should have picked up on it before publication, though, and perhaps it has been corrected in later printings. Of course, it’s just the kind of thing that would happen to Bellow’s hapless protagonist, Tommy Wilhelm. He sweats out a book, finally gets it published, and there turns out to be a genital typo on page 34.
The reason I’m writing about OCR at all is that last month I encountered an academic article about OCR that had itself been poorly converted. It is ‘Optical formula recognition based on structural features’ by Xue-dong Tian of Hebei University in Baoding, China, and if you happen to be a member of a subscribing institution you may peruse it here.
Viewed as text, the scanned article’s abstract suffers badly. The OCR clearly can’t cope with Times New Roman Bold. It begins:
Automatic wognition of Pormnlas is one of the key parts in an OCR system.
An unusual opening gambit. I’m having trouble wognising a couple of the words.
It cvuld be really useful to be able to re-use knowledge in SeientEc boob which are not adable in electronic form.
Still lost, but I’m intrigued by the SeientEc boob. Let’s give it one more chance.
First seplrh and process COM& components to gain the symbol components, and then recognize the symbol. Atkr that, analym the structure of formula on the ba$is of the refognition result and the geometry features.
By novv my interect has gonc entire1y. That’s tje probkm witj 0CR. It gets on jour nervos.
The New Year is the signal for a bit of meme time around here. I like the meme – it’s a socially sanctioned excuse for theft. I stole this idea from a post on Becca’s Blog a year ago. So, what was my 2011 like, in various things?
Top 3 books
It was a pretty decent reading year. One book stands out among all the others, and that is Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks, which I began reading on holiday, sitting in Cologne Cathedral while I waited for an organ recital by Martin Baker to begin, and finished back in the UK. An utterly engrossing, lovable book. Perhaps I should investigate the family saga further in 2012. John Cheever’s Falconer was another highlight – a short novel about a university professor coping with life in prison. Like nothing I’ve read before, and Cheever is a writer with a magnificent eye for detail. On an arguably less exalted level – but no less wonderful – are Alexander McCall Smith’s 44 Scotland Street books, all seven of which I devoured in the space of a few months in the middle of the year. His humanity and tolerance are infectious.
Top 3 CDs
Of the year’s new releases, I listened to The Prince Consort’s recording of Brahms’ Liebeslieder-Walzer and Stephen Hough’s Other Love Songs a lot. I was fortunate to be at the premiere of the Hough in the summer, and it is a work I have grown to love. Simon Standage’s Mozart violin concerti with the Academy of Ancient Music and Christopher Hogwood have reminded me of the beauty of this music. I also found Christian Bruhn’s Timm Thaler soundtrack tremendous fun.
Top 3 films
I watched a titanic number of films last year (not Titanic; I am not mad). I rarely feel in the mood for watching Bergman, but I found it was his films that impressed me most of all. A genius. The Seventh Seal, Through a Glass Darkly, The Silence, but most of all Winter Light. I’ve been watching Fanny and Alexander over the New Year, for the first time in about ten years, and am enjoying being dazzled by it anew. Powell and Pressburger’s The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp struck me as a great masterpiece, Roger Livesey and Anton Walbrook both quite irresistible, and I’m delighted to hear that there is a new print being released in cinemas in a few months’ time. And I might name any of several others as my third film, but for the sake of variety let’s say Before Sunrise, which is a lovely film if you’re of a romantic disposition. (I saw a handful of brilliant new films at the cinema too, so for an alternative three try The King’s Speech, The Guard and Tomboy.)
Top 3 live music
It was a thrill seeing Nikolaus Lehnhoff’s production of Parsifal at ENO in February. It’s only recently that I’ve started going to see Wagner live, and Parsifal is perhaps my favourite opera. John Tomlinson was a superb Gurnemanz, and I marvelled at the economy of the scoring. It exposes as misguided the popular conception of Wagner as sprawling and overblown. Love Stephen Hough at the Wigmore though I did, I think Marc-André Hamelin provided my piano recital of the year at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, playing Haydn, Schumann, Wolpe, Debussy and, as his barnstorming finale, Liszt’s Reminiscences de Norma in the composer’s bicentenary year. And last of all, Pulp at Wireless. Jarvis has still got it.
Top 3 theatre
I’m including musicals and comedy, so there’s only one echt play, and even that’s not particularly echt – namely Richard Bean’s One Man, Two Guvnors, which I saw just before Christmas. A breathtaking thing to behold, and quite the most I’ve enjoyed myself in any theatre, perhaps anywhere ever. A rollercoaster, and wrong to single out individual performances in a production so delicious in every aspect (not least its superb music), but I must say I thought Oliver Chris particularly wonderful, funnier than I’ve ever known him before, not to mention James Corden, Tom Edden, Trevor Laird, Daniel Rigby, etc. etc. etc. ad infinitum. My trip to Chichester to see the new production of Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd was a great treat, the cast superb (in spite of some doubts about Michael Ball), and I will make a point of revisiting it in London this year. And thirdly, Jonny Sweet’s lovely solo show, Let’s All Just Have Some Fun (and Learn Something, for Once), which I saw at the Soho Theatre in January. He stands at the front giving the audience bear hugs as they come in; one cannot but love the man.
Lastly, I must add another happy discovery, which has been on the periphery of my consciousness for a while but which I only began to pay attention to this year, John Finnemore’s radio sitcom Cabin Pressure. I think its central cast of four – Finnemore, Benedict Cumberbatch, Roger Allam and Stephanie Cole – must be just about the strongest and most likeable since Rising Damp. A fourth series has just been commissioned. There is no end to Finnemore’s talents, apparently. He also wrote an excellent sketch show for Radio 4, and drew a picture a day on his blog, Forget What Did, as a sort of Advent calendar last month. You owe it to yourself to have a look.
Here’s hoping 2012 is similarly happy, for me and for all of you!
You probably haven’t encountered Margaret and Paul. They are two residents of a local nursing home, and occasionally I can overhear their conversations through my window. Here they discuss current affairs.
(I call this ‘branching out’, but I freely concede that others will consider it the twisted brainwrong of a one-off man-mental.)