The Null Device


There's a new documentary which looks at how Italian president and media mogul Silvio Berlusconi has, over the past three decades, changed his country's culture, society and politics. Videocracy, by Swedish-based Italian filmmaker Erik Gandini, starts 30 years ago, when Berlusconi's channels started introducing gratuitous female nudity to mainstream programming, ramping up the amount of vacuous, vaguely pornographic titilliation, and culminating with their owner becoming president, twice. The film interviews a number of characters symbolic of the system, including a hapless, fame-hungry talent-show contestant, a fascist-sympathising media fixer, and a paparazzo and convicted extortionist turned celebrity. There are more details here, and (with a trailer) here.

Beginning with a young Berlusconi’s arrival on the commercial Italian TV scene three decades ago, the film opens with archive footage of a stripping housewife quiz show – proving that this Italian TV gem is not the urban legend some assume it to be – and segues into a montage of busty variety show starlets (one of whom is now minster for gender equality in Berlusconi’s government). Videocracy then introduces us to the three main characters whoare used as benchmarks for the moral madness that the director sees as being induced by the dumbed down world of Italian commerical TV.
Videocracy is screening at the Venice and Toronto film festivals. Perhaps unsurprisingly, though, both Berlusconi's private TV channels and the Italian state broadcaster RAI have refused to run advertisements for it.

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Geekier-than-thou technology blog Ars Technica have posted a detailed technical review of Snow Leopard, the latest revision of MacOS X, which delivers few new features but instead comprehensively overhauls the inner workings of the system. And there are a lot of interesting things there, from transparent compression of files to the shift to 64-bit and the replacement of the legacy QuickTime system with a new, Objective C-based one, not to mention a judicious sprinkling of user-interface improvements and technologies brought over from the iPhone programme. (Core Animation, it seems, is everywhere, and there's a CoreLocation service which can determine where a machine is.)

One of the most intriguing improvements (to me, as a programmer, anyway) is one at the lowest level: Apple have quietly extended the C language, adding anonymous/lambda functions and closures, which they call "blocks". So now you can create and pass back blocks of code (more or less) as if you were in Lisp, Python or JavaScript, like so:

typedef void (^work_t)(void);
void repeat(int n, work_t block) { 
  for (int i = 0; i < n; ++i) 
repeat(5, ^{ printf("Hello world\n") });
Which, of course, opens the door to functional-style algorithms like map/filter/reduce, passing predicates as function arguments, and other nifty tricks which people in the functional-programming world have been doing without a second thought for decades.

The code in bold is a block. It's not the prettiest syntax in the world, though it is consistent with C, and gets lexical scope. There are more technical details on blocks here (fun fact: a block is an Objective C runtime object, though can be used from vanilla C), and Apple's own documentation here. Apple have made the blocks extention open source, contributing it back to both GCC and the LLVM compiler they're moving to, and submitting it to the C standards working group (as in this paper), so there's a decent chance that they'll filter through to other platforms. (How quickly they're adopted elsewhere is, of course, another matter.)

Blocks in themselves are nifty for the functional-programming enthusiasts, though understandably may seem esoteric to everybody else. Apple, however, are making thorough practical use of them in a new subsystem named Grand Central Dispatch, which allows programmers to rewrite processor-intensive processes in terms of fine-grained units of work, pass them to queues, and have them automatically spread across however many processors the machine has free at the time; which, in theory at least, should greatly increase efficiency without requiring much more effort on the programmer's part.

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The BBC News Magazine has a piece on how the Beatles acquired a devoted illicit following in the Soviet Union, arguably helping to undermine the legitimacy of the Communist system:

Collarless Beatles jackets, known as "Bitlovka", were assembled from cast-offs; clumsy army boots were refashioned in Beatles style. And with much of the Western media blocked out, bizarre Beatles myths blossomed.
Yuri Pelyushonok recalls hearing at school how "the English Queen gave John Lennon a Gold Car; but the Beatles had to play in cages to avoid their fans".
The most persistent myth was that the Beatles had played a secret concert at a Soviet airbase on their way to Japan. Everywhere, fans claimed it happened close to them.

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