Still waiting to download DVDs

According to an unattributed brief in the Times last Friday (24 March) , "film fans will be able to download DVDs to own from next month". Wow. This is said to result from a deal between Universal Pictures and an online DVD rental firm called Lovefilm.

No source was given for the story, but an internet search reveals a BBC online news story giving some more details. Does not sound great. King Kong and Pride and Prejudice are given as examples of the first tranche of movies that will be available on the AOL website ( from 10 April). According to the BBC, "Fans will pay Β£19.99 for a DVD of their chosen film plus two digital copies to keep indefinitely – one for their home computer and one for a portable device." Users won’t be able to burn their own DVD copies of the films, and they are compatible only with Windows/PCs (not Macs).

So what’s the good news? 19.99 is the price of a DVD, and one can almost always get it cheaper right away, not only via Amazon but also in the shops (12.99 is typical — Pride and Prejudice is already available for that in the shops and less on Amazon — for one copy only πŸ˜‰ — truly awful US ending in the extras).

Although there is lots of blather in the BBC article about a new revolution, start of a tranche of new services, etc, there isn’t much to get excited about for the average user like me. I am not interested in having several copies of a movie to watch in micro-form on some phone, I am interested in downloading a movie or TV programme/series (one copy) so I can watch it when I want to –I don’t particularly mind whether or not I can burn it onto my own DVD, and I sure don’t want to pay 19.99 for the privilege. I can’t be the only person who wants this.

The BBC also says: "Last month, another UK website, Wippit, started offering permanent downloads – but only independent movies are currently available. " (Sounds a bit like that Google service.) On a quick look, the Wippit site is only about music downloads, nothing about DVDs.

Fraud in science

Book of the Day: Reading Journal Entry: The Great Betrayal: Fraud in Science by Horace Freeland Judson

"Book of the Day" features a thoughtful review of Horace Freeland Judson’s latest (?) book, on fraud in science. Mapletree 7 is (rightly, I hope) sceptical about Judson’s claims that there is much unidentified fraud commited by scientists. (One of those "how can he know?" questions.)

Mapletree 7 comments on Judson’s identification of peer-review of grants and of publications as the two key areas in need of reform. She is absolutely right to say that scientists are just like everyone else, and hence no more or no less likely to cheat as everyone else; the difference lies, she says, in that scientists deal with experiments and data — the interpretation of evidence. She concludes that Judson’s book would have been better had it focused more on science and less on becoming a "general polemic" about fraud in other areas of society.

The peer-review system is not designed to detect fraud; it was designed to judge results that were obtained honestly. I think it is very hard to design a workable system that is going to detect fraud in the first place. It is less hard to design a system that reacts to fraud once it is suspected — the Hwang (Korean stem-cell) affair will add impetus to current efforts, I am sure.

Journals can act promptly when informed of suspicion of fraud, and can use the power of the internet to label retrospectively the online version of suspicious papers. Abstracting and indexing services such as Medline can do the same, so that "suspicious" science is clearly identified to any future reader. Funding bodies, whether of grants or employers of the scientists concerned, can also act promptly. Plenty of minds and committees are currently focused on this question, and plenty of electronic and real ink is being expended by journalists, who have a range of opinions about what should be done.

At the end of the day, catching anyone cheating is difficult in any profession. Proving a suspicion without a witchhunt mentality is also difficult, although as Mapletree7 implies, scientists should always keep accurate records of their research and be prepared to show them if asked.

It is interesting in this context that scientific journals are often accused of failing to appreciate the importance of innovative research. Nobel prizewinners nowadays often tell of the difficulties they had in getting their groundbreaking research published. (My own journal, Nature, famously rejected the Krebs cycle, and reduced the report of the discovery of monoclonal antibodies from an Article to a Letter.) Everyone agrees that scientific research is about innovation and discovery. But there is no simple answer to the question of how the entire system of professional science can be designed to welcome unexpected new discoveries, yet be responsible about ensuring such claims are justified.

A Palazzo said…

It’s interesting that Horace Freeland Judson came out with a new book. Judson is the author of one of my favorite books, The Eighth Day of Creation. The first part is on the origins of DNA research, the second on RNA and the genetic code, and the last on X-ray crystalography and the structure of proteins.

A must read for anyone in the biomedical sciences.

I’ll have to check out this new book.

8:35 PM

Maxine said…

Hello Alex; I really liked The Eighth Day of Creation when I read that — I preferred it to The Double Helix — partly becuase Eighth Day was a third-party account, maybe? A tad more objective? πŸ˜‰ But certainly it told a lot more of the story.

7:29 PM

Feminism at work and in the newspapers

Philobiblon: Time to boycott the anti-female Observer

Natalie Bennett at Philobiblon earlier in the week drew attention to a daft article in Prospect about females in the workplace. She has summarised the article so one does not have to read it ;-), and succinctly dispatched its main arguments. I wish everyone in the world thought as clearly as Natalie on this topic.

Since that posting, the Observer has picked up on the Prospect piece and published their own daft article on the topic, again as pointed out at Philobiblion. There is a lot of incoherent comment on the Observer’s blog about the article, but Natalie has it right on the nail.

My general opinon of Sunday papers (in the UK) is that they are a waste of time: they don’t have any news to report that can’t wait until Monday (or read online if you are a news junkie), and the Saturday papers contain supplements for everything one could possibly want to read about and plenty more that one would not. There are plenty of good blogs publishing roundups and highlights of weekend papers.

I have, as noted, long since given up on the Sunday Times, so it is good to have it confirmed that not only am I not missing anything by not reading the Observer, but I am gaining something by my abstinence.

Incidentally, in the link at the top of this posting, Philobiblon also links to a (Sunday) Times piece on online shopping. This is what I mean about not having to read the Sunday papers — with people like Natalie Bennett and Sarah Weinman around, no need πŸ˜‰ . The online shopping piece is quite readable, though did not tell a veteran like me anything I didn’t know. Useful for people considering whether to dip an electronic toe into this cyberwater, though.

Randomness as book plot

I was thinking about the use of randomness as a plot device in fiction. Thornton Wilder used it to good effect in The Bridge of San Luis Rey, in which five people die when a bridge in Peru collapses. The protagonist decides to investigate the lives of these five people to see if there was a purpose to their deaths. (I can’t remember the answer but I remember enjoying the book.)

Another book that used this device well (or so I thought at the time) was John Buchan’s The Gap in the Curtain , in which a few (5 again?) people are "trained" to see into the future. As a result they are all able to read the newspaper for a brief time on a certain date one year ahead. The story tells of what each one read (two of them read their own obituaries, I recall, another a business opportunity, but I forget the rest), and follows what happened as a result to each one over the year to the appointed date. Pretty good stuff.

Jenny D said…

And my favorite in this vein is a movie called (I think–my brothers and I watched it on TV once a long time ago and we all just sort of fell in love with it though it was fairly awful) "Crashup on Interstate 5"–it opens with the scene of the crashup (a huge accident on the interstate), then does this hilarious freeze-frame thing on each car and goes back 24 hours to tell the story of how those people came to be in that place at that time….

Great run of posts today–I like your place one–it is so true, isn’t it? I feel like a total nutjob when I try and explain the appeal of blogging to, say, non-blogging family members, and yet I have made some really, really excellent friends this way, including lots of people I may never meet in person but some who have become real-world friends as well. Good stuff….

5:33 PM

julsitos said…

yup.. wonderful story… I’m on the part of the Perichole’s story…

very simple writing but sublime in meaning.

2:41 PM

One-book authors

Creating a list of books I’ve enjoyed reading in my life (which I’ve split into those I’ve enjoyed reading and those that have left a lasting impression), made me think about authors who have just written one book. Immediate examples are Harper Lee (To Kill a Mockingbird) and Margaret Mitchell (Gone with the Wind).

Much has been written on the topic of "one-book" authors who don’t stop writing. I thought I’d try to list authors who have written one good book but in my opinion could have stopped there. They might have written other quite reasonable books, just nowhere near the class of their "magnum opus". Or they might hvae been better advised not have bothered with further books.

  • Jay McInerny — Bright Lights, Big City
  • Zadie Smith — White Teeth
  • Irvine Welsh — Trainspotting
  • Tama Janowitz — Slaves of New York
  • Donna Tartt — A Secret History
  • John Irving — The World According to Garp
  • J D Salinger — Catcher in the Rye
  • Kurt Vonnegut — Slaughterhouse 5
  • Aldhous Huxley — Brave New World
  • Philip Roth — Portnoy’s Complaint

There may be others in this category whose "main" book I have not read: Brett Easton Ellis (American Psycho) , Kasuko Ishigura (Remains of the Day), Louis de Bernieres (Captain Correlli’s Mandolin), Patrick Suskind (Perfume), Iain Banks (The Wasp Factory), Jonathan Coe (The Rotters’ Club), Jonathan Franzen (The Corrections). Also others whose "main" book I haven’t liked so could not read others — for example, Flann O’Brien (the Third Policeman, currently enjoying a renewal owing to "Lost" being allegedly based on it) and Richard Ford (Sportswriter).

Other authors, whether or not they are to one’s taste (some of the below are emphatically not to mine), write plenty of books — some may be "better" than others, but one does not stand out from the rest. Examples (of living authors) include:

  • Ian McEwan
  • Julian Barnes
  • Nick Hornby
  • Nickki Gerrard
  • Anita Shreve
  • Sebastian Faulkes
  • Anita Brookner
  • Margaret Atwood
Richard Mason said…

If Kurt Vonnegut only wrote one book, I would want it to be Cat’s Cradle, not Slaughterhouse Five.

And Iain Banks has written better things than The Wasp Factory: certainly The Crow Road, possibly The Bridge, and if you like science fiction then Player of Games and Use of Weapons.

5:30 PM

Maxine said…

Thank you, Richard — I’m ashamed to say I have never read any Iain Banks but I have read a few comments in reviews of his books that WF was his best one. Now you mention The Crow Road, I think it was dramatised on TV. I will give one of those you mention a try.

I did read Cats Cradle and one other Vonnegut, but I thought Slaughterhose 5 stood out. I suppose there is an element of randomness in book appreciation as well as in which authors actually get published!

7:59 PM

Most Wanted

Yesterday I finished the highly recommended (by afficionados of the genre) Most Wanted by Michelle Martinez — it is one of those books that can be read in a few hours. It isn’t bad: the angle is "prosecutor with straying husband and six-month baby" while dealing with violent crime, paranoia about trustworthiness of investigating team, and a hard-nosed female boss playing politics while compromised by a personal involvement. So far, so good: a mixture of enough angles, even if individually cliched, can be heady if well-combined.

However, the book ain’t that great. The identity of the bad penny in the investigation is immediately obvious, removing one big chunk of dramatic tension at the outset and meaning that the heroine has to be obtuse in some situations (where she’d guess the identity of this person if she took a particular logical step) whereas able to make brilliant deductive leaps in others. The "baby/babysitter" subplot is also unrealistic in the same way — sometimes the heroine is excessively anxious about her childcare, other times she seems to have forgotten that the baby is there. The writing just isn’t good enough to sustain reader interest (John Grisham, for example, has weak plots that just don’t hang together, but his writing carries you through) .

Yet there are some good points, and the book is left with a triangular dilemma that has scope for interesting developments in future books. It just depends on whether the writer evolves (Most Wanted seems to be her first book). I might give the second in the series, The Finishing School, a try when it is available in paperback on Amazon UK, but it won’t be highest priority on my list.

On the cover of Most Wanted are enthusiastic quotes from Iris Johansen and Tess Gerritson. Given the number of times I read blurbs from these authors, I wonder if they have taken a leaf from the excellent book of David Montgomery, who is now producing a "blurb machine" (great idea!) on his blog Crime Fiction Dossier.