Et U too?

Bono-crowdThe kind of mainstream music acts who appear at the end of Apple events are always contemptible, never anybody I’d personally have in the house. The list includes Coldplay, Tony Bennett, Randy Newman, Jack Johnson and Norah Jones.

U2 have now been added to the list. This particular tax haven rock band have form when it comes to highly irritating and intrusive marketing tactics. They have no shame. Back when they took over the BBC for a weekend, there were many complaints that a public service broadcaster should not be lending itself to the commercial promotion of an album.

This latest tactic is the most intrusive yet. Some people have reacted rather sniffily to the anger which many iTunes customers expressed when an unwanted U2 album turned up in their iTunes. Peter Cohen at iMore wrote,

If you fall into that camp, let me speak very plainly: I have no sympathy for you. I have trouble thinking of a more self-indulgent, “first world problem” than saying “I hate this free new album I’ve been given.”

Dismissing such complaints as ‘first world problems’ is like your parents telling you to eat the over-boiled cabbage because ‘people in Africa are starving’. It’s an easy way to dismiss what are genuine concerns about the way a powerful corporation used its power to push unwanted content at its customers. If you know me, you know I love Apple, but this was intrusive, and an unacceptable violation. It’s no more acceptable than the NSA/GCHQ reading your emails, or some shitbird scammer infecting your hard drive with malware.

For some of us, you see, U2 is exactly as bad as fucking malware. Years ago, Sony got into hot water by having their audio CDs install a root kit on the hard drives of people who ripped purchased CDs for portable listening. The software was designed to prevent illegal copying, and was included on millions of CDs. The problem was, Sony didn’t ask, and gained access to parts of users’ systems that they had no business in.

The U2 album is software that was installed on millions of computers without permission.

As to the band themselves, they clearly resort to such tactics because they’re irrelevant and know it. If they can persuade some ignoramus at the BBC to sign off on a massive publicity beano, they’re laughing. Nobody else is going to give them the time of day. Except, oh, Apple. Apple, give or take the latest versions of iMovie, make brilliant technology and software. But they’ve got a tin ear when it comes to music. They go safe, they go mainstream.

But here’s the thing about ‘mainstream’ in 2014. Mainstream music still exists, but the people who don’t like it now have a platform to complain. And they will, as is their right, complain. It’s not a ‘first world problem’. It’s a fundamental human right to say, loud and clear, I fucking hate U2 so much that when you put them on my hard drive without asking me, it felt like a personal insult and a violation of my privacy. Also, there’s something wrong with anyone who doesn’t hate Bono.

So fuck off with that.

By the way, I do not have automatic downloads switched on for anything. It’s the only way to be sure.

The red trousers, a poem

Screen Shot 2014-09-14 at 13.08.23You see them everywhere, and yet only a fool would wear them, the red trousers.

Retired Telegraph readers with white hair, trailing their wives around the supermarket might wear them, the red trousers.

I don’t think anybody ever pays full price for them, the red trousers.

Because they always end up in the sale, don’t they, the red trousers?

 Watch watch

apple-event-0909-3-660x440Some of my guesses about what kind of wearable would make are sort of true, particularly to do with the price point. A $350  Watch fits the middle market, where there is some intense competition in the watch arena. The  Watch is also considerably more expensive than most of the Android wearables that have appeared so far, which is exactly what you expect. Apple don’t compete at the low end. They don’t want that market, they don’t want those customers, they don’t want to deal with the customer support that would inevitably result from selling a cheap piece of crap.

I was a little surprised to see that the  Watch Edition has a gold case. That’s going to cost well over $1000, pitching the device against some high end fashion accessories. Add a third party gold strap, you’re talking serious money. But although sales are low at the top end, the profits are high, so of course it makes sense.

Whether Apple will break into that top end with the  Watch as a watch on the other hand, is moot. This particular reviewer, a watch expert, details all the things that Apple got right with  Watch. The feel and finish, the references to “classic watch vocabulary” with the crown and the strap system (of course). He also points out that both sizes look good on all kinds of wrists, meaning that this is not a version for men and another for women. Those of us who prefer something smaller will buy the 38mm. But, crucially, while it looks quite nice, it’s still too chunky to fit easily underneath a shirt cuff. His conclusion is that Apple will be market leader in a category nobody asked for.

As to whether I want one. Well. I’m certainly in the pre-order stage at the moment for the iPhone 6, currently trying to decide between the standard and the plus. (Pre-ordering, by the way, is when you’re thinking about ordering; what tech companies call “pre-ordering” is ordering.)

But I’m not really in the pre-order stage for the  Watch. Obviously Sports is going to be the entry level, but if you still have to have your phone with you (for the GPS), then I probably won’t bother. Same goes for if you have to have your phone with you to listen to music. Contactless payments might be interesting, heart rate etc., but I’m not so much of a hypochondriac that I feel an urgent need.

Mainly, I’m thinking about battery life, and convenience, and version 1.0 issues. Maybe, in a year or so, there will be a new model that is thinner and that fits under a shirt cuff. I’ve never been a fan of big chunky things on your wrist, and at the moment, I think the Withings Activité, with its properly analogue face, is a better looking watch to wear as a watch. On the other hand, Apple is all about the integrated software / hardware experience, and that always sells me.

So I’m saying, probably not this time. Maybe next time. Early adoption is a mugs’ game.

What a waste: the future’s rubbish

bin.jpgEvery now and then the press gets exercised about your bins. They’re getting smaller, or they’re only being collected once a fortnight, or they’re going to be chipped, or weighed, or they won’t be emptied if you leave it in the wrong place (see image left, which comes from this story)… Nothing upsets Middle England more than being told they throw too much away and need to recycle more.

In France, over the past couple of years, I’ve seen through a little window into the future of rubbish, and I can tell you it’s not pretty.

I’m pretty much on the side of making recycling as easy as possible. All kinds of stuff: into the one bin, and it gets sorted at the recycling centre. It provides jobs and it’s removes the fuss and bother at the consumer end. I’m not keen on the kitchen rubbish bin, however. A lot of people have compost heaps, of course, and good on them, but one thing I don’t want to do is encourage anything in my garden to grow more than it does. I was listening to Gardener’s Question Time on my way to the dump with garden waste the other day, and every question seemed to be about how to get stuff to grow. My question is always, how do I get stuff to stop growing? 

Another thing I’m in favour of is abolishing the personal bin. I think there should be neighbourhood bins, the big ones, and you should have to walk a hundred metres or so to dispose of you kitchen and bathroom bin bags. I’m pretty sure most people would be averse to this, but I think it makes sense in terms of cost savings, as opposed to investing in smaller bins, or chips, or any of the other solutions. Of course, the fear is that people are likely to abuse the bigger bins and use them as skips.

In France, we do have a compost heap, or compost area, that is frankly half the size of our garden back in England. What we don’t have in France is a wheely bin. Because we’re only there for a couple of months a year and don’t pay the equivalent of council tax, we have to dispose of our own rubbish on an ad hoc basis.

So here is the future of your rubbish.

Recycling in France is a straightforward DIY affair. You have to drive to one of the many recycling areas, and you can dispose of cardboard, paper, plastic, and bottles. But not tins or aluminium, which is odd. If you want to be properly green, it’s possible to walk about half a kilometre and back to a recycling spot down the road from us.

General household waste, however is more of a problem. Because we have no wheelie bin, we have to find some other way of disposing of it. Last summer, we were able to use a big bin (the kind described above) which was outside the local fire station. There were three of these “red bins” in a row near the recycling, so we’d just drop off a black bag as and when. 

But the recent local elections saw a right wing party take over, and one of their first acts (after removing the municipal flowers and other displays) was to remove the big bins. Domage! Now we’ve got a problem. The choices were stark. We could stop in a lay-by with a rubbish bin and dump stuff in there. This single bin gets emptied once a week and fills up very quickly, so we were not the only people doing this. The other choice was to prevail upon relatives and neighbours, but while you might think throwing a bin bag in someone’s wheelie would be fairly harmless, there was a cost to pay.

In France, people pay a council tax and a bin collection fee on top of that. If your bin isn’t emptied one week, you don’t pay the fee. So people are quite canny and only put out their bins when they are full. My brother-in-law generally only has his emptied once a month. So if you throw in a couple of black bags, you’re asking someone else to pay for an extra collection.

It gets worse. If you put your bin out and the lid won’t close, the bin men refuse to empty it. They say this is because, clearly, you should have put it out the week before, and paid for the collection then. Now you’re going to have to wait an extra week.

It gets even worse. When you do put your wheelie bin out, your sneaky neighbours might sneak their own rubbish into it, in order to avoid paying for their own collection. If your neighbours throw a bag in your bin and the lid won’t then close… they refuse to empty it. So now your neighbour has fucked you up good.

In the city of Belfort, the big bins all have locks on them. So even if you just want to dispose of chewing gum responsibly or a sweet wrapper or something, it’s hard to find a bin on the street that isn’t locked.

Welcome to the future.

Ancillary Justice by Anne Leckie – review

Leckie_AncillaryJustice_TP-692x1024Winner of the 2014 Hugo award for Best Novel, The Arthur C Clark award and the British Science Fiction Association Award, Ancillary Justice is a far-future space opera about love and revenge, but it is also far more interesting than (even) that sounds. Some spoilers in what follows (of more than one book!), so don’t read on if you want to come to it cold.

If you ever thought there was nothing new to add to the space opera, this book should make you think again. Its narrator is Justice of Toren, an artificial intelligence that runs a vast military ship but also animates the stolen bodies of people not considered human by the vast Radch empire. (Some reviews put this as reanimating corpses, missing the crucial detail that the people reprogrammed with the personality of the ship aren’t dead, and are merely having their own individuality suppressed in a violent and traumatic way.) These stolen bodies are neither soldiers nor citizens: they are ancillaries, machine parts, mobile aspects of the huge and complex ship.

There are some echoes of the Roman empire in the Radch, but only to help the reader to grasp what they’re doing: absorbing and conquering other cultures, creating new citizens, adapting religions, all in service of the secret centre, which itself is ruled by a mad emperor who occupies thousands of different bodies.

What this idea allows the author to do is create a first person narrator who possesses some of the characteristics of an omniscient narrator. Justice of Toren is the ship, but is also planet side, in the temple, on the town square, in the barracks, or back on the ship, on every deck, in the cabin. This allows the narrative POV to shift around in a fluid way.

As well as multiple points of view (that are actually one point of view) the narrative takes place in three distinct time frames: a thousand years before, twenty years before, and the “now” of the story. The AI is more or less immortal. Except.

One of the narrator, Breq, is actually the sole survivor of the AI, after the ship was destroyed, and has been passing for human for twenty years, looking for what she needs to take revenge.

All of this is great, and complex and wonderful, and gripping, but even all of this is not the whole of what makes this book so great. The Radch, you see, don’t have gender-differentiated pronouns, so they don’t programme their AIs to distinguish people by gender. So Breq/One Esk/Justice of Toren calls everybody “she”.

Now, one of the great strengths of science fiction is its ability to throw you out of the familiar and force you to understand different points of view. In Karen Travis’ City of Pearl, for example, we encounter aliens who see all fauna as “people” and are appalled that human people would eat other sorts of people: canibale! In Ken MacLeod’s Learning the World, the novel is narrated by a teenage girl who relates the story of the coming of aliens to her home planet – and only towards the end do we realise that she is not, in fact, human, but the aliens who are coming are.

Ancillary Justice, throws you out of familiarity in a big way. There are strange names, strange words. You’re not sure whether Radch and the other people are human or not. The author dumps us in the middle of things without a great deal of background information. There’s a distinct lack of early exposition, so you’re forced to puzzle your way through. At first you don’t get it, but then suddenly you do. Everybody is “she”, even the anatomically male characters. And even when you learn that a character is anatomically male (from a non-Radch character who is amused that Radch struggle to tell the difference when people are clothed), the narrator continues to refer to them as “she”.

What this means is that you stop thinking of people in a gendered way. Or rather, you just read every character – soldier, citizen, farmer, doctor, emperor – as a she. The power of a simple pronoun actually stops you from putting male bodies on the characters as you read them. It’s like that Twitter joke about Dr Pepper: I bet it didn’t even occur to you that Dr Pepper might be a woman. In Ancillary Justice, everybody is a woman. Even the men. And apart from that one character, the one you’re told is male, you have no idea (and don’t care) whether people are male or female, or what. And if they’re sleeping together, you don’t know whether they’re a same-sex couple or not.

So. Far future space opera, interstellar empires, love and revenge, multiple narrative threads, multiple points of view, and a clever use of pronoun that absolutely boots you out of your gendered thinking rut. All this in a gripping story that leaves you gasping for the sequel. Brilliant.

Music of the Summer

Album of the year, right there
Album of the year, right there

I bought so many albums over the summer holiday I can barely recall all of them, but here goes.

Larkin Poe – Kin

First comes the best, in the shape of Larkin Poe’s debut album (you’ll find a couple of folky/Americana type EPs on the iTunes, but they won’t prepare you for this). The Torygraph described it as T-Rex meets Americana, which is exactly what occurred to me on my first listen (although whisper it quietly that the drums might be more reminiscent of The Glitter Band than T-Rex). The beats come straight out of the 70s (T-Rex, Sweet, whatevs), and the harmonies are about what you’d expect from two sisters who can sing. 

I first encountered Larkin Poe as part of Kristian Bush’s backing band at the Country2Country gig at the O2 in 2013. Megan, the blonde one, plays a mean lap steel guitar, and Rebecca tackles most of the lead vocals. Check out the album teaser video above and then buy the album, because it deserves to be a smash.

Brad Paisley – Moonshine in the Trunk

Something interesting happened with the marketing campaign and release of Mr Paisley’s latest. He seemed to take over promotional duties from the Sony marketing department, and took to leaking tracks on YouTube, with links via Twitter, enlisting the help of others when Sony kept taking the vids down. He has denied that it was a put-up job, and insists that he really did what he did. His argument is that he wanted to leak the tracks individually in order to talk about what inspired them and so on.

Whatever the reasoning, what’s true is that Paisley is an object lesson in how an artist can use social media to engage with fans. One thing he did was encourage aspiring guitarists to post videos of themselves attempting the solo to his song Perfect Storm (he claims it’s his favourite solo) – and they did, in numbers. Paisley posted links on his Twitter feed, and made comments, not all of them complimentary (“You need to change your strings” springs to mind). The standard industry response to such videos might be to get them taken down, to threaten to sue people with breach of copyright, but Paisley actually seems to understand his fans in a way that record company executives don’t.

As to the music, it’s another strong set. Paisley is an artist on a hot streak. The songwriting is excellent, and the guitar playing is as good as ever. Crap album cover, though.

(The solo comes in at 2:42 – and it’s not very long)

Billy Pilgrim – Billy Pilgrim

In preparation for the release of Kristian Bush’s solo album, I downloaded this earlier (1994) incarnation of him, pre-Sugarland, pre-fame, to see what it was like. It’s actually quite good, and probably criminally overlooked. But then, if it hadn’t been, we wouldn’t have Sugarland, so there’s that.

Sunshine and Whiskey – Frankie Ballard

Is Frankie Ballard the new Keith Urban? He seems to come out of the same school of good-rockin’ songs with good guitar about girls and booze.

So he’s a good looking kid, and ridiculously young, but let’s not hold that against him. He can really play, and one should never overlook that. I can’t hate anyone who does a cover of ‘Night Moves’, either! His voice has a pleasant grittiness, to it. The danger, if it’s really a danger, is that he’ll go down the Keith Urban route and cater exclusively to his young female fans. This would be a shame for the likes of me. Brad Paisley has continued to put his guitar playing front and centre, whereas Urban’s recent release was very light on the good guitar. I don’t mind a bit of pop, but I love the guitar, as you might have noticed.

Get Hurt – The Gaslight Anthem

Hmm. Confess I bought this on impulse and haven’t really listened to it more than once, so I’ll reserve judgement. Bought it for the kids really, but it sounded all right.

Small Town Heroes – Hurray for the Riff Raff

One of those albums/artists you could swap around and be none the wiser. They seem to be more of a loose collective than an actual band. Another impulse purchase, this is more Americana than country and therefore less of my thing. It’s got an olde worlde feel to it, sounds like dark songs from the mountains, though there’s also a contemporary and political feel, and some of the darkness relates to stories ripped from the headlines. I like ‘Crash on the Highway’ and ‘Blue Ridge Mountain’ and singer Alynda Lee Segarra has a voice that could come from some scratchy 1920s recording. I like the pastiche of this, but I’m not sure how long it’ll last on my iPod.

Good Road to Follow – John Oates

This intrigued me, though I didn’t download all 15 tracks (just 6 of them). I believe it was originally three different EPs, I suppose along the lines of Vince Gill’s multi-disc set These Days. iTunes now presents it as one overlong album. There’s a good mixture of soul and rock here, and Oates sounds gruff but still in good voice. The whole album runs through a variety of styles, so you’d have to pick the ones that appeal to you. Some of it was recorded in Nashville (Vince Gill is a guest on one) but that doesn’t make it country. I suppose its closest analogue is Lionel Richie’s Tuskegee, which wasn’t country either.

Bring Up the Sun – Sundy Best

I have an issue with the spelling here, but let’s try to focus on the music. Acousticy Americana that evokes that America that nobody really lives in, the one with dirt roads and hollers and pine trees. Another pastiche of nostalgia, but pleasant enough to listen to. There is something fascinating about people singing about wanting to go home. Some of us can’t think of anything worse. But wanting to go to an imaginary home you never really had is very interesting. Official single is “Until I Met You” which has a more contemporary country feel. One of them needs to get a haircut.

Provoked – Sunny Sweeney

Finally, coming a close second to Larkin Poe, is this release from Sunny Sweeney, which was produced independently following a Kickstarter campaign. There are enough good songs here to make you wonder all over again what the fuck is wrong with the record industry. Then again, out of this neglect comes an artist unafraid to provoke, nobody to suck up to, and with a good-sized chip on her shoulder. I love ‘Bad Girl Phase’, ‘You Don’t Know Your Husband’, ‘Used Cars’, ‘Backhanded Compliment’ and ‘Everybody Else Can Kiss My Ass.’ 

Buy it!


The summer’s podcasts

A while ago, I wrote about the podcasts I like to listen to whilst on holiday, or to fill what would otherwise be boring Sunday mornings in the kitchen.

Since downloading Overcast (which I recommend) to use as my listening/subscription app I’ve branched out a little and have started to listen to more non-BBC podcasts, so I thought I’d list some of them here. These have all been entertaining me for the past 6 weeks.screen322x572

  1. The Incomparable – this is a total nerd-out, a podcast dedicated to science fiction (crappy film and TV science fiction), computer games, and even comic books. I love science fiction (the printed kind) but most of what they talk about doesn’t really interest me that much. Still, it’s a good listen. Why? Because the contributors are all passionate and knowledgeable, and – whatever the subject – it’s always worth listening to people who truly know their stuff.
  2. This American Life – this has appeared on Radio 4 Extra, but its existence predates the BBC adoption. Once you get used to the US presentation style, it can be very interesting indeed. As an example, try this episode (#492), about a  doctor, who investigates the case of his coincidentally named predecessor, who murdered his father. It’s fascinating, gripping, and surprising.
  3. Accidental Tech Podcast – another nerd-out. I’m more interested in technology than I am in superhero movies and computer games, so I prefer this to The Incomparable (there is occasional crossover of guests). A bit like The Talk Show (see my previous post), this offers exhaustive levels of detail, lots of follow up, and an aftershow that is sometimes longer than the main show.
  4. Freakonomics Radio – similar to This American Life, this is another show that’s worth a listen, once you can get used to the US presentation style. Covers a variety of topics, and likes to look at data, in the same way as Radio 4’s More or Less, which I mentioned in the earlier post.
  5. No Such Thing As a Fish – the QI Elves’ podcast. Always entertaining, sometimes inaccurate, but funny and engaging.
  6. Simon Mayo’s Confessions. I’ve come to prefer this to the Wittertainment podcast. If you know Mayo’s Radio 2 show (and I confess I didn’t), you’ll know this. Listeners send in improbable stories which reflect badly on them. I suspect Radio 2 staff rewrite them for style. Mayo reads them out and his studio friends pass judgement. It’s funny.
  7. Turning This Car Around – another American show. This is three guys talking about aspects of fatherhood and family life. Moderately entertaining, although their kids are a lot younger than mine.
  8. Punt PI – Steve Punt Investigates. Good show, from the BBC, in which The Now Show’s Punt looks into a mysterious true life case from the past. Missing persons, mysterious bodies, head-scratching scams and robberies. He rarely reaches much of a conclusion, but it’s fun. A shame there aren’t more of them.
  9. Just The Tip – This is Amy Gruber (spouse of The Talk Show’s John) with friend Paul Kafasis, talking about all kinds of stuff. It’s a little like Turning This Car Around, and can be funny. Never as long as The Talk Show.
  10. Radio Today – Radio news and interviews from a radio industry perspective. Useful for Media students/teachers. Probably not very interesting for anyone else, which is the joy of podcasts.