Watching the Debate

Last night was the first of the US Presidential debates, which after initial suggestions by John McCain that it should be postponed, went ahead with the participation of both major candidates.

Since of course it took place in the middle of the night UK time, various of the UK channels have been rerunning either the whole debate, or highlights. You can watch the full debate on the BBC News site. Of course in the UK we don’t have a say, but thanks to the close relationship our governments have recently had with each other, it does have an effect on those of us in the UK.

I’ll leave any discussion of the finer points of policy, but what was interesting was comparing it to what happens over here. Certainly we’ve never had face to face debates like this, what we most commonly have is a series of programmes where each of the individual leaders of the political parties face an audience of voters. Perhaps the main example of a programme where we have opposing parties together is something like Question Time. The interesting difference between both formats and this presidential debate is the silence from the audience. In the UK there is usually an instant response from the audience to statements by the politicians, and on a number of occasions politicians have been heckled by members of the audience. The other difference was, I guess in part due to the rigid time-boxing applied to the debate, there wasn’t that much confrontation. There were a number of points where it was pretty obvious that Obama thought he was being misrepresented, tried to cut in, McCain kept ploughing on with his point, and Obama just capitulated and indicated to the chairman that he didn’t wish to respond.

Commentators seem split over who came out best. Both campaigns are not surprisingly claiming victory for their candidate, but it wasn’t really clear to me who won. In terms of policies I’m always going to be much more towards Obama, but then in a world driven by soundbites, things like McCains KGB line over Russia, however corny it may seem, probably go over a lot better than trying to explain the massive complexity of the political situation in the former Soviet Union. You can make your own mind up by watching the full debate.

20080926_Oxford_MS_FirstDebate0377 originally uploaded by Barack Obama.

The Unwritten Rule

There is an almost unwritten rule with the phone vote on Strictly Come Dancing that if the judges mark someone overly harshly, or seem to be being unfair, the general public will pick up the phones and vote. It’s pretty obvious really, you’ve seen your favourite celebrity trying their hardest and really not getting credit for the effort, and you want to support them, and moans from the judges criticising the public just makes them do it all the more. Looking back there are regularly characters who get a lot further than could be expected because of this effect – people like Fiona Phillips and Kate Garraway – both of whom were regularly at the bottom of the scoring, but saved from being booted out – and much better dancers lost out because of it.

So last night we had the first outing of the new series, and it happened again.

In the past, the source of the harsh marks has always been the double act of judges Craig Revel Horwood and Arlene Phillips. Last year on It Takes Two the unwritten rule was spelled out pretty clearly, especially on a couple of occasions when hot favourites had a bad week, and the judges were left with an impossible choice. From the marking this week, it certainly seems that Arlene Phillips had taken it on board – people were getting positive comments, and the scores were less harsh. Unfortunately no such luck with Craig Revel Horwood. Chef Gary Rhodes came out with a performance that was a bit of a mess, nowhere near as bad as some first week performances I’ve seen – but Craig handed down a score of 1, and in doing so handed him a passport to the next round. This left the couples placed in sixth and seventh places above him facing the drop, resulting in actor Phil Daniels being shown the door. Needless to say I’m sure we’ll get Craig Revel Horwood moaning about it on It Takes Two, but he’s only got himself to blame. I mean, Gary wasn’t great – but he wasn’t as bad as a 1 either. Arlene Phillips seems to have finally understood, how many shock exits is it going to take for Craig Revel Horwood to understand how it works and stop handing out loony marks.

Enough of the grumbling, what of the rest of the show? Surprise of the night has to be political commentator John Sergeant who produced a great performance. I’m pretty certain he’ll struggle with the latin, but then I was pretty sure he’d be the one bottom of the pile before the show started.

What was also really great was to see Erin get a good partner with a lot of potential in the form of rugby player Austin Healey, certainly it would be great to see her with a good run again this year.

It’s not going to be for a couple of weeks, once men and women are dancing against each other before we can see how things are going to go, but certainly it looks like a slightly more even field than maybe it was at the beginning last year. On first impressions though, amongst the boys Austin Healey and Tom Chambers seem like good bets, and amongst the girls Rachel Stevens and Lisa Snowdon seem like good bets. Having said that, the professional partners can make a big difference – for example I wouldn’t be surprised to see Darren Bennett going a long way with Jessie Wallace – and it’s also foolish to totally rule out any of the sportsmen, so people like Andrew Castle and Mark Foster could certainly be in there for a while.

Whoever wins though, we’re certainly back for another autumn of armchair ballroom dance criticism.

I’m a PC

Microsoft are in a strange position. Despite still producing the operating system that holds the dominant position in the market, still producing the office platform that holds the dominant position in the market, and still producing the dominant web browser, they are seen as being under threat. The reason? Their share of the market held by their products is not as high as it used to be, as the competition is making gains. More than that being the dominant platform they are the prime target for a variety of viruses and malware, and if they aren’t being criticised for the security issues in their software, it is their business practices that got them to the dominant position in the first place.

Being pragmatic you could argue that with the position they held about the only way their share could go is down, putting aside the interventions of the EU and the US government, even in a market that they dominate quite as much, competing companies can still come out with innovative products and change the balance. For example Google came out of nowhere and Microsoft were left scrabbling to compete. However you could also argue that Microsoft themselves have caused some of their problems. Vista was very poorly recieved by many people, both in terms of performance where it was visibly slower than XP, and from simple usability where the security features were downright obstructive. So many professionals ended up sticking with or rolling back to XP. I can also show you a number of end users who are continually frustrated with their Vista machines who wished they could have XP instead. The latest Office wasn’t quite so bad but the ribbon bar didn’t go down well, nor did the new file format – for example one member of the church regularly has to send round documents twice because he is using Office 2007 and his documents are incompatible with the older versions in use by other people.

Probably the most high profile perceived competition to their core product is the ever resurgent Apple. While it is certainly not making much of an impact in the corporate world, Apple is certainly making inroads into the home PC market. Whether it is thanks to their advertising, the much vaunted halo effect from the iPod, the distinctive design of the products, or a combination of all three, Apple computers are selling in larger numbers than they ever have.

Looking at the Apple advertising campaigns that directly targeted the PC market, first off we had the switcher campaign. This consisted of a series of real, sometimes celebrity users talking about their experiences and why they switched to the Mac. The Microsoft response was frankly an embarrassment, with them being caught faking a Mac to PC switcher.

Since then we’ve had the Get a Mac campaign. All the adverts follow the same general structure, opening with a relaxed looking casually dressed man introducing himself as a Mac, and a more straight laced man in a suit introducing himself as a PC. The advert then compares some aspect of the PC with the Mac, including crashing PC’s, changes in Vista, and numerous other perceived issues with the PC platform compared to the Mac.

Interestingly, Microsoft haven’t repeated the direct attack on the adverts as they did with the old switcher campaigns. We’ve had a bit of a mix, including most recently the criticised Mojave Experiment. Even with their latest campaign, it didn’t seem they were going to do that, as they started off with two adverts featuring Bill Gates and Jerry Seinfeld that were frankly bizarre, before moving on to phase two.

Phase two for the first time seems to directly attack the Get a Mac campaign, opening with someone who has obviously been cast to look just like the PC in the original adverts (although certain people seem to think he looks a lot worse) and then follow that up with a large variety of other people, including celebrities again, who also say they are PC’s.

Interesting things to note are that there are Microsoft employees in there, whose e-mail addresses are posted on the screen during the advert, but also note that Vista isn’t mentioned at all, and also that aside from addressing the stereotype in the Apple advert, it doesn’t address anything else in those adverts – the message of the advert is basically that lots of different people use a PC.

It has to be said, that after the fallout from the Mojave Experiment, and the bemused responses to the Jerry Seinfeld adverts, the response to this advert has been pretty good, and I’m pretty sure that given that the Get a Mac campaign has been going for two years it will bring a new campaign from Apple in response. But then is the new Microsoft campaign saying anything other than lots of people use PC’s?

Update: A little post-script to this story – a revelation that has caused much merriment amongst the Mac faithful – the advert may show lots of people who use PC’s, but the people who made the advert aren’t one of them, as the advert was put together on a Mac.

Wokingham Heritage Weekend

This weekend was the annual Heritage Open Days weekend when historic buildings across the country, sometimes buildings that rarely allow public access, open their doors to the public. Locally this was organised under the banner of the Wokingham Heritage Weekend, and as our contribution we opened the church to visitors and as we do in July, allowed people to climb the tower.

It has to be said that during the week, the weather wasn’t looking particularly promising, and whilst it didn’t rain yesterday, it was overcast for a lot of the day, however this afternoon was fantastic, not too hot, but a nice clear day, so people got great views from the top.

We were open between two o’clock and five o’clock and had a steady stream of people from opening, with it being busiest between three o’clock and four o’clock. Like all the events in the weekend we weren’t making any charge, however that didn’t mean that we didn’t have a prominent big sign asking for a donation to the conservation fund, and the majority of the visitors were happy to contribute, many gift aiding their contribution as well. We also laid on cream teas, which were also very popular – one husband who had hoped for a piece of the cake baked by his wife was sadly disappointed as by the end of the afternoon there was no food left at all! Hopefully we will have made a few hundred more towards the half a million pounds needed for our conservation work.

I took a few pictures of the afternoon, which can be seen in our photo galleries. The different time of year giving a lower sun allowed me to take some nice shots playing with sunlight – this shot of the inside of the building and this silhouette of the parapet being ones I thought came out well.