Posted in musings, Review

Philips Oneblade trimmer and shaver

81sckf4kznl-_sl1500_Here’s a product I ordered on a whim a while ago, which has quietly revolutionised my life.

I’ve always been a wet shave guy, mainly because every electric razor I ever tried gave me a rash, but I’ve always hated the colossal faff involved in shaving. The only thing worse than shaving is having a beard, which (for me) is also itchy after a while. This is possibly because my hair is curly, and even my beard grows in random directions.

I’ve tried a compromise, various degrees of stubble, but my neck especially is prone to itch/rash because of upward or inward growing hairs, so I have to keep that trimmed. Anyway, I ended up in a messy trade-off involving beard trimmers, razors, shaving gels and oils, after shave balms, and so on.

And then I saw an offer on the Philips Oneblade system and ordered it. The immediate objection to this system is the cost of replacement blades (£11.99 on Amazon), which is a shocker. But, and here’s the thing, a single blade lasts up to 4 months (based on 2 shaves per week), which means that the two that came with my kit should last up to 16 months, given that I’ve been using it just once a week. And instead of a draw/shelf full of creams, balms, blades and so on, I just have this thing and its plastic combs (mine came with 4). In any event, four Gilette Fusion blades costs £12.59, so it probably works out a lot cheaper.

I was skeptical. How could one thing act as a beard trimmer and a regular razor? But it really does. It’s smooth over your skin and doesn’t cause a rash, can be used wet or dry, and can be easily cleaned by rinsing under a tap. It really couldn’t be more straightforward. So I can shave with it, or put on one of the combs and just trim the beard. I’m only using it once a week, and it’s so fast that I’ve honestly only had to charge it up once since I bought it. It’s convenient for travel, too. I reckon I could charge it before leaving home and use it in France for the whole of the summer holiday.

I didn’t write a review straight away because I’ve bought so many things over the years and abandoned them, so I didn’t quite believe in it, but I was walking past the shaving section in the supermarket the other day and kind of automatically paused. Do I need anything…? Oh. Of course not. I don’t ever need to get that stuff.

All I need now is the patience to bother making my beard symmetrical.

 

Posted in musings, Television

CMA Awards: state of the union

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You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.

Finally got a chance to watch the highlights of this year’s CMA Awards, which took place about a month ago, a few days before The Cataclysm. Although the 90-minute edit I watched was mainly of performances, it’s still a good opportunity to read the chicken entrails of the music industry, as is traditional on this blog.

I’ve been watching the CMAs for 25 years now, so for about half it’s 50-year run. This year was the meaningless milestone featuring a 5 and a 0, so there was a deal more wallowing in nostalgia than usual — which is saying something, where country music is concerned.

Invented by radio, featuring something that was – even in the 1920s – characterised as ‘old time’ music, country has always-already been a nostalgic genre, its history peppered with emblematic crises. As early as the 1950s, the so-called Nashville Sound was an attempt to protect the genre by providing slick, commercialised competition for the burgeoning pop and rock genres. In the 1970s, the Outlaws provided a more ‘authentic’ alternative to the slick Countrypolitan sound. In the 1980s, the ‘Neotraditionalists’ claimed their own version of the elusive ‘authenticity’ for a new generation. And so it goes, into the alt.country era, and the Americana movement.

What the CMA Awards show represents, every year, is a compass pointing in the direction the industry is heading. Around 2013 and 2014, I almost gave up on the genre, because there were too many mullets and baseball caps, driven by the Bro Country movement, and too many songs about blue jeans, beer, and pickup trucks on dirt roads. In the background, women were struggling to get airplay on the radio, which meant they were struggling to get marketing push, and the UK iTunes store was a stagnant swamp of cardboard cutouts catering to a lowest common denominator of drunken galoots in football stadia.

Last year’s show, with the astonishing performances of Chris Stapleton and Justin Timberlake, and the shock board-sweeping win for Stapleton and his album Traveller was the break we needed. Stapleton had received virtually zero airplay or record company support, and yet the buzz around the album was such that, by November, the night was his. Stapleton himself, with his mountain man beard, his bulky frame, and crushed-looking hat, is the antidote to the baseball capped pretty boys.

So to 2016, the year America elected a fascist. What gives in country music? The 50th anniversary show featured a high number of medleys, and as well as the nostalgia, tributes to the likes of Merle Haggard, who has departed this world, and Dolly Parton, who has not.

What interested me this year was a feeling of pulling up the drawbridge and bringing into the fold exemplified by the presence of artists who are rarely (if ever) seen at this most Establishment of award ceremonies. Garth Brooks, for example, was front and centre (and won Entertainer of the Year) in a way that I’ve never seen – even in his heyday. When he was breaking all the records for album sales back in the 90s, he was too big for the CMAs. Later on, he was too retired. Now he’s back, along with Trisha Yearwood, who has also rarely been seen at the show. One of the medleys featured Dwight Yoakam, who has never been a Nashville guy; and Clint Black, who was a staple of the show in the early 90s, but hasn’t been seen in the Brad Paisley/Carrie Underwood era. Even Randy Travis, who was big in the 80s and 90s, but whose career (and health) nosedived, was back on the stage, still evidently recovering from his stroke, but able to sing the single word, ‘Amen.’ And then out came none other than Taylor Swift…

But the enfolding of the outcasts and outlaws was nowhere more evident than in the performance of the Dixie Chicks (with Beyoncé). The Dixie Chicks were banned from most country radio and ostracised by many of their peers after they dared to express dissent about George W Bush. It has been over 10 years, but they seem to be back in favour and back on tour. (I’m still bitter, however, that they haven’t put out any new music since 2006.)

The Chicks and Beyoncé was supposed to be this year’s Stapleton/Tiberlake, but it didn’t quite work for me – largely because they still haven’t got anything new to sing, but also because it seemed over-rehearsed and backy tracky. The beauty of last year’s S/T pairing was the improvisational musicianship and the glorious spontaneity. Still, it was probably the most controversial part of the show, due to the inevitable outpouring of hate on social media.

Apart from that enfolding atmosphere, the semiotics of this year’s show were fascinating. I didn’t see a single baseball cap (loud cheers), but there were lots of cowboy hats. Luke Bryan still got a look-in, but appeared capless and extremely lightweight compared to just about every performance on the night. Eric Church was also capless, though still insisted on wearing his mirrored sunglasses – so I will not be buying his album. Brad Paisley and Carrie Underwood took on a medley of costumes from across the eras (Paisley included at least one hilarious mullet wig), and there were fewer people exiled to performing on little stages at the back of the crowd.

My favourite moment, for sheer class, was when Garth Brooks was announced as the winner of Entertainer of the Year. He went to hug each of the other nominees in turn before taking the stage in what seemed to be a genuine show of love and respect. As far as performances went, the best this year was Keith Urban, who performed ‘Blue Ain’t Your Colour’, a nice follow-up to last year’s ‘John Cougar, John Deere, John 3:16’.

So the trend is back to the hats, and Don’t Mention The Apocalypse.

Posted in Review, Television

Gilmore Gone Girls

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As a recent convert to Gilmore Girls, I am of course fully qualified to comment on the Netflix revival A Year in the Life.

I became aware of this show only through its occasional positive mentions in passing on the Incomparable network. It’s hard to imagine I would otherwise have caught it. It was broadcast on the satellite channels Nickleodeon and Hallmark before being rebroadcast on E4 and now 5*. Neither of the latter are channels whose listings I check (not target demo). Anyway, knowing the revival was forthcoming, I decided to try it out and ended up bingeing the first seven seasons on Netflix.

What makes Gilmore Girls great is – obviously – the snappy, witty dialogue, reminiscent as it is of classical Hollywood screwball comedy. It’s Cary Grant, Katherine Hepburn, Jimmy Stewart, Rosalind Russell. The scripts are breathless, pages and pages longer than standard minute-per-page screenplays, stuffed with witty repartée. In television terms, you can draw a line from Buffy through Gilmore Girls to Laura Mars. And just like those other shows, Gilmore Girls manages to create huge emotional beats, seemingly out of nowhere. The special sauce of the show is the way you can be hit sideways by the impact of one of these emotional moments. They’re earned, too, not the result of shameful manipulation but growing out of the ongoing storylines and character developments.

There were some problematic elements. The almost overwhelming whiteness of the cast, for example, with Yanic Truesdale the sole person of colour in the regular credits. Then there’s the occasional whiff of whiny white privilege. Lorelai turns her back on her privileged upbringing, but her daughter Rory more or less embraces it wholeheartedly, sitting on the edge of a crowd of money-no-object types with no steel in her backbone. But these were minor quibbles, mere backdrop to the more uplifting parts of the show.

So it’s hardly surprising I watched the latter seasons of the original show through a veil of tears. I know people often say that Season 7 is barely canon, but (the brief and forgotten marriage aside) even Season 7 isn’t that bad. It’s mostly guilty of prolonging the Lorelai-Luke standoff for 22 episodes too many.

So to the four extended episodes of the Netflix revival, and the Ten Years After of Gilmore Girls. The headline news is that original showrunner Amy Sherman-Palladino is back, and so able to give the show the ending she was unable to give it for Season 7.

What do we find? For me, there were two and a half decent episodes in the four, interspersed with some ill-advised self-indulgencies. The show always hinted at an interest in musical theatre but perhaps never had the budget nor episode time to indulge it. Freed by the Netflix dollars and the double-length episodes, the producers threw in a couple of extended song/dance sequences which just didn’t belong. Add in some false relationship peril, a couple of unnecessary side trips, and Rory’s apparent ability to commute freely to and from London with no jet lag effects (not to mention no job), and there’s too much cruft here. My least favourite interlude featured the spoilt brats of the Life and Death Brigade, who could have ended up on the cutting room floor with no regrets.

Once you get past the distractions wrought by ageing, weight loss, possible botox, and unconvincing hairpieces, it was enjoyable enough, though never reaching the heights of the original series. Everybody wanted to know what the last four words were. My bet was wrong on that. I’d watch it again if they made more. On the other hand, there’s something to be said for the forever youngness of cancelled shows.

 

Posted in entertainment, Review, Television

The Grand Boor (review)

grand-tour-20I wasn’t expecting to enjoy it, as the Top Gear schtick wore thin a long time ago, but I took a look at the first episode of The Grand Tour to see how Amazon had spent my licence fee Prime subscription.

The opening scene features Clarkson leaving Broadcasting House, handing over his lanyard, and walking away through the rain. As soon as my daughter saw this, she said, “This is just narcissism,” which was exactly right. Here’s a bully and a boor, a self-righteous, self-mythologising bore, indulging his own fantasy as the hero of his own narrative. In Clarkson’s hero’s journey he’s not the racist, sexist, apologist for neo-liberal elites whose ego became so inflated with success that he began to behave like a celebrity prima donna who can’t believe people don’t know who he is. No, he’s the poor, put-upon and misunderstood host of a harmless little TV show which gives pleasure to millions and is persecuted by the po-faced PC Brigade.

Of course, $160 Amazon dollars and a year or so later, we have realised that the world we are living in is Trump’s World, Boris’ World, Brexit World, and the power that Clarkson has, as apologist-in-chief, is immense. Only losers are offended by Clarkson. The struggling Guardian, which continues to pretend it is ‘fearless and independent’ publishes as much Clarkson clickbait as it can, because the truth is that – like Trump – there is literally nothing Clarkson can do that will turn his legion of fans off. He can punch, lie, exaggerate, get drunk in airport lounges, and he still has his bully pulpit in The Sun, and he still has his Amazon cash to wave in our faces like a Harry Enfield character come to horrific, warty life.

So to The Grand Tour, with his sniggering foils, and his booming voice and his ridiculous supercars and his sycophantic audience who will boo a Prius to order. It’s every bit as bad and as boring as I thought it would be. God, the sheer tedium of watching a middle-aged white man drive a fast car around and around, up and down, back and forth. The blatant filler, as cynical and contemptuous as Woody Allen’s recent Amazon outing: instead of racing three cars down a track once, why not do it a dozen times? These morons will watch anything.

You feel sorry for the audience, really. You can’t help, in your liberal humanist way, have a degree of sympathy for the brainwashed. You know that the hypnotised never lie. Their function is to go along with the gag, to be convinced that it’s okay to dismiss minorities, or climate change, or wildlife – anyone who is not them – and to cheer a millionaire as he burns rubber and petrol and sneers at the people who facilitate his indulgences. Even Clarkson is just a cog in this machine, his role to be the entertaining front of the hegemony, to show how having horrible opinions is no barrier to success. He’s not much more important than the token black woman, positioned as she was to be visible in the background, over Clarkson’s shoulder, a smiling indulgence to his past racism and misogyny.

But is that some desperation I can detect, underneath the noisy bluster? I think it is. Clarkson’s voice is shot, his instrument broken, sounding permanently as if he is losing it through shouting. As a teacher, I know what that broken voice means. It means you’ve been struggling with your Year 9s, or 10s, your naughty Year 8 group. You’ve been having to raise your voice to be heard, to insist on getting your way. Clarkson’s voice has been broken by his trials. And in the tent/studio, it’s all a little more shouty and stiff and awkward. No more strolling about from point to point: they’re fixed behind a shit table on a shit stage, sitting on shit chairs, and that’s where they stay for the live portion of the show, sharing their angry banter. But it’s clear: there really is no friendship there, and the famous chemistry has not survived the controversies. The tinker-engineer and the local radio DJ are simply there to be foils to the bully and they know it, and we know it, and it’s embarrassing.

If Trump goes after Amazon it will be a sort of poetic justice. You want Amazon’s TV offerings to be as interesting as Netflix’s, but they’re just not. They mostly have a nasty undercurrent, a lack of taste, making Amazon the Microsoft to Netflix’s Apple. And the fact that Amazon have given Clarkson a platform means that they are participating in the oppression of everything decent and kind in our cruel world.

Posted in bastards, musings

Shifting paradigms while Rome burns

k41. Copernican revolutions

Changing people’s minds is a hard, hard thing. When Copernicus correctly identified our heliocentric solar system, it was not an overnight “revolution” as it is often characterised, but the culmination of over a thousand years of observations not matching the dominant model. The Ptolemaic model lasted from the 2nd century to the 16th. All the observations, all the maths, were telling scientists that their paradigm was wrong. Geocentric astronomy was the “fake Facebook news” of its day. Copernicus simply made the mathematical model match the observations. Even so, his “revolution” did not lead to an overnight change in the dominant paradigm. Copernicus died 20 years before Galileo, who was still persecuted (albeit for political reasons) when he used his observations to confirm Copernicus’ work. It wasn’t until 100 years after Galileo’s death that the Church lifted the ban on books advocating heliocentrism.

So much for your overnight revolutions.

2. Not feeding the trolls

The lesson that people’s minds are hard to change was learnt – with difficulty – in the first years of the public internet and World Wide Web, when forum and chat room moderators first encountered trolling, flame wars, and Godwin’s Law, which asserts that,

“As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Hitler approaches 1

So it went and so it goes. Whether you’re in a 1994 vintage AOL chatroom, or on The Facebook or the Twitter, you will encounter people who are immune to the figurative Copernican maths. Immune to the facts, or science, statistics, the evidence of their own eyes, or whatever else you care to throw at them.

As Robert M. Pirsig put it in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, the only way not to lose this fight is not to enter the arena. In other words, don’t feed the trolls – especially the ones that reside in your own head.

3. We built our own dystopia

Over the past 25 years, those online virtual spaces that were once called things like Second Life, have steadily leaked into the so-called real world and become not secondary but primary. Second Life is now just life. Those online flame wars have become modern political discourse. The made-up facts, the agent provocateurs (trolls), the inevitable comparisons to Hitler, the trading of insults and disrespect, have become normalised. The leopards have broken into the temple and have now become part of the ritual.

Back in 2010, when Twitter was young and the Arab Spring was in its early flowering, I was naive enough to believe that Twitter was a potential force for change we could believe in. Obama, against all the perceived wisdom and seemingly against all the odds, had been elected President of the United States. Smug Britons, who were used to casually branding Americans as ignorant racists, were brought up short by the realisation that it was eminently more possible for there to be a black US President than it was for there to be a black British Prime Minister.

And then there  were the democratic uprisings across North Africa and in the Arab world, and it seemed as if the people were able to organise themselves more effectively with social media tools, and that the tyrants’ days were numbered. Even here, in the UK, it was apparent that smart protestors could outwit the police and bypass the kettling, by sharing instant information based on tweets and maps. The future was here, the future was a flashmob.

But here’s the thing.

Flashmobs, as conceived by Larry Niven in his short fiction, are dystopian. And the tools that allow students and other citizens to organise protests can be used by everyone, including the nastiest people in the world.

And so – like a monster from the id come to life – an internet troll who starts flame wars and is always, inevitably, compared to Hitler has become the President of the United States. That style of online discourse – driven by anonymity, intolerance, and hate – is now just discourse. And your paradigm, my paradigm, about how politics would be changed by social media, is wrong.

I started to suspect I was wrong in 2010 when – in spite of the economic disaster visited upon the world by the bad actions of the banks – a hard-line neoliberal government was elected in the UK. I knew I was wrong in 2015 when – after five years of malicious cuts to public services and widely publicised suffering – they were re-elected with a proper majority.

And then Brexit, and now Trump.

All of the tweets that shared the suffering of disabled people over the bedroom tax, all of the publicity about cuts to the NHS, or housing benefit, or people being told they were fit for work when they were clearly not: useless. No matter how many times you retweet the fact that thousands of people are depending on food banks: it changes nothing.

It’s not just that you’re living in an echo chamber. It’s that everything you say and do online is a waste of time and energy – and it may even be counterproductive. The people who are doing this to their fellow human beings cannot be made to care. They are conscience free and actually glad to hear that unemployed people are having their benefits cut. They are secretly – and not so secretly – gleeful when the bodies of refugees wash up on beaches. They are full of hate, and they are not listening to your facts about the earth circling the sun. Twitter is just another medium designed to entertain and distract you, like a Soap opera, the news, or Game of Thrones.

4. While Rome burns

Is there an answer? I dunno. I’ve been on the edge of giving up the Twitter, not that I tweet much about politics or expect anything I say to even be seen by most people. (I’m muffled by the algorithms, not important enough to appear in people’s feeds.)

But given what a lot of hot air it all is, I’m suppressing the politics on my feed. Nothing anyone says is going to make me any more left wing than I already am. Nothing you tell me about how awful this government (or Trump) is behaving is going to make my opinion any lower than it already is. What do I do with all the upset and the outrage that these tweets create? I’m as powerless to do anything about Trump’s fascist advisors as I am to fix an earthquake in Italy. It’s just more news, and the ultimate effect is to make me feel helpless. So I’m unfollowing all the political twitterers (most of whom don’t follow me, so no impact there) and muting people who are just upset and angry at the moment and therefore venting a lot.

It takes me back to the last royal jubilee and my feeling that people tweeting about the fucking queen when they clearly hate the monarchy aren’t really helping themselves or the rest of us: giving headspace to your foe is to give them part of yourself.

The only thing that will ever have an impact on the powerful and the wealthy is for people to start smashing things up: not on the internet, but out on the streets. And if that happens there will be gas, batons, firehoses and all the other apparatuses of state oppression, of course there will. Because while they don’t give a shit about people, they do care about property. Which is why smashing it up is the only way to get their attention. Everything else is twittering while Rome burns.

Posted in bastards, Television

“I would like to adjust my programming”

ptolemy-slocum-as-sylvester-leonardo-nam-as-lutz-and-thandie-newton-as-maeve-credit-john-p-johnson-hboI was watching Westworld, and it struck me how, like the robots, we’re all subject to our own particular programming, and we’re all trapped in some kind of narrative, leading lives of torment or quiet desperation. The narrative has got us in its grip, and once it has taken hold it is so hard to fight against. Telling the truth, or supplying facts, or whatever else you try to do won’t have an impact on people who are being driven by the power of narrative, no matter how false.

I didn’t post anything about the US election in the run-up, and there’s not much need in the aftermath. What have now become the usual observations apply. Although they’ve now been discredited (UK General Election 2015) and discredited again (Brexit 2016), people were still giving too much credence to opinion polls. I visited my placeholder Facebook page earlier, and there was a promoted link to Nate Silver’s page. Hilarious! As John Oliver’s show might ask: FiveThirtyEight.com – how is this still a thing?

Then there’s the Twitter, which the day after the election was a pathetic shambles of self-pitying complaint. One couldn’t help but wonder, what if Twitter had been around in 1979 for Thatcher (my Vietnam), or in 1980 for Reagan? What would Twitter have made of Dan fucking Quayle? Or Nixon, when he was illegally bombing Cambodia and Laos? As everybody knows by now, Twitter is an echo chamber. There was surely nothing more useless or pointless than the endlessly repeated exhortations to VOTE! Who’s reading those tweets, exactly? Yeah, your followers, who are people who think like you and tweet the same kind of things as you.

You couldn’t fight Trump on Twitter. We’ve known since 1996 that trying to win an online argument is a pointless waste of time. And as for the bulk of Trump’s supporters, those white Middle Americans convinced that Sharia Law is just around the corner, they’re not on Twitter. Twitter’s user base is notoriously static and restricted to a subset of the chattering classes.

Crowing online about how Beyoncé and Jay-Z, or Bruce, or Alec Baldwin were endorsing Hilary while Trump could only manage Scott Baio is to massively miss the point that those ‘deplorable’ Red State people feel nothing but contempt and resentment towards those metropolitan sophisticates squeezed up against the East and West coast. The more you parade your celebrity endorsers in front of them, the more they’re going to vote against you.

Anyway, even though the election season was ridiculously long and tedious, there was never going to be enough time, or enough tweets, or enough celebrities, to undo the damage that has been done – over years by the likes of Fox News. On the one hand, the strident outrage of paid-to-have-opinions pundits; on the other, the whisperers… The eight years of economic pain since 2008; the eight years of naked racism directed towards Obama; the fifteen years of anti-muslim rhetoric since September 2001; the 35 years of steadily declining middle class incomes since the end of the Keynsian post-war consensus.

There’s a narrative out there. It’s in the heart of Brexitland, it’s in Le Pen’s France, and it’s in those Red States, of which there are increasing numbers. The narrative takes the undeniable evidence of people’s blighted economic fortunes, ever-increasing burden of debt, lack of options, and it whispers (sometimes shouts) the blame. These people, with their alien religion, want to introduce their Sharia Law, here, in deepest Wisconsin. Or these other people, who want to stop the police from doing their job. Or these people who are stealing American jobs. Or these others, who want to take away your guns, or your freedom to say whatever the hell you want: all of them are collectively to blame for the shitty way you feel, for the way you feel uncomfortable, or embarrassed, for holding your opinions.

We can’t help it: none of us are immune to the power of narrative. We’re all just helpless robots, programmed to respond. The neoliberal consensus has been programming us all since the 70s, but since 2008 they’ve gradually lost control of the narrative. The banks were blatantly, obviously to blame for the financial crash. But the working classes were blatantly, obviously made to pay the cost. This injustice created a whirling, white-hot vortex of resentment and anger which made people receptive to the quiet comfort of an alternative narrative in which blame was apportioned. So people have followed their programming to its logical conclusion: first Brexit; and now Trump, the rampaging monster from America’s id. Trump is the robot uprising, the one we’re waiting for in Westworld.

Posted in entertainment, music

Deep Dive into Sam Cooke

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There are certain performers who are best seen as singles artists – The Who, The Jam, or Solomon Burke, for example. This is often because they were recording at a time when the 45 rpm single was the pre-eminent musical format; or it might be because they accumulated a killer 2-hour set over several decades, but never really had the wherewithal to release a sequence of great albums. Some acts, like the Beatles, and even the Stones to an extent, straddle the line. You can make a case for The Beatles as a singles group (plenty of non-album hits to their name), but they’re hard to ignore as an album group.

I always thought Sam Cooke was a singles artist. His career spanned a decade or so at a time when radio singles mattered more than anything, and most music fans would be satisfied with a 20-30 track compilation to cover the major milestones (“Wonderful World”, “Chain Gang”, “Another Saturday Night”, “That’s Where It’s At” etc.).

But then my daughter and I came across a 10-CD boxed set along similar lines to the Frank  Sinatra set I bought a while ago. So here’s an opportunity to dive deeper into the catalogue of a musical pioneer who was the first notable artist to cross-over from a successful Gospel career into Pop, creating a scandal and inventing a new genre called Soul along the way.

But to imagine that Sam Cooke suddenly invented soul music by transposing sentiment and style from music dedicated to a (Christian) liberation theology to a music dedicated to personal salvation through romantic love is to oversimplify. What did it mean, in 1957, to release a pop album? Was Cooke seen as a rock ‘n’ roll artist? The track listing of his first few albums says no. His smooth voice and pleasant melisma lent itself (of course) to the Great American Songbook, and it seems clear that his record company (Keen, an independent based in LA) saw him either as a crooner in the mould of Nat King Cole or Bing Crosby; or perhaps as a more consummate performer and interpreter of song like Sinatra.

His first album, Sam Cooke, opens with the self-penned hit “You Send Me” but also features classic Songbook numbers such as “Ol’ Man River”, “Summertime”, and “Moonlight in Vermont”. It is, in a way, an uncomfortable mixture: “You Send Me” is instantly recognisable as early soul music, the Sam Cooke that we compilation buyers know and love. But the rest of it? It’s pop music – it’s even 1950s pop music – but it ain’t Elvis, Little Richard or Chuck Berry. It’s more like Sinatra, who covered some of the same material on Come Fly With Me the following year.

An so the trend continues, into his second album, Encore. Meanwhile, he’s popping out this hit (soul) singles, including “Only Sixteen” and “For Sentimental Reasons”. It’s almost as if there were two separate audiences: teenagers who bought the ‘modern’ singles with pocket money and adults who bought the more expensive ‘songbook’ albums.

The label put out a compilation of these singles and then Cooke followed up with Tribute to the Lady (Billie Holiday), which is of course a collection of blues/jazz numbers. Wonderful World of Sam Cooke did (finally) include more of the Cooke-penned songs, but still mixed with the Gershwin and Rodgers/Hart type numbers. And then later in 1960 came Cooke’s Tour, which is his version of Sinatra’s Come Fly With Me. 

My Kind of Blues in 1961 is another mixture of Jazz/Blues covers, and so things go on. The first out and out modern pop album he releases is Twistin’ the Night Away in 1962 – a party record, if ever there was one. By this time, Cooke is signed to RCA and has just three more studio albums in him before his untimely death. We’re only lucky that the rate of production in the 50s and early 1960s – before The Beatles changed the rules forever – was so prodigious that there are so many to hear today.

A complex artist, then, who stepped through the threshold from the closeted world of gospel (with The Soul Stirrers) and then continued to occupy a grey area between genres until his career was given an historical perspective.

Having been brought up on Sinatra, I really like his take on the Great American Songbook numbers, but I suspect most people would be content to stick to the compilations, such as Portrait of a Legend, which gives a fairly comprehensive sampling of his singles output.

Cloudbound by Fran Wilde

cloudbound_comp1-1Cloudbound is the sequel to last year’s well-regarded Updraft, a YA fantasy novel that I liked a lot, and which was shortlisted for a number of awards, winning a couple. What I liked about Updraft was its world-building and its pacy style. I always felt as if the author knew much more about this world than she was telling us, and it was fun to work it all out. Unfortunately, all of these elements are missing from the sequel, Cloudbound, which lumbers along in a meandering and repetitive way, with a leaden narrator who is seems wilfully obtuse. The overall effect is as inspiring as reading something like the minutes of a staff meeting at the council housing department.

Updraft was narrated by Kirit – the ambitious daughter of a trader, who is taken by the Singers (monk-like enforcers of the City’s many rules) and initiated into the secrets of their society. She’s lively, curious, rebellious and fun to read. Cloudbound, on the other hand, is narrated by her far less interesting friend, Nat. Now, Nat seems to continually get the wrong end of the stick about everything, trusts everyone he shouldn’t, and needs to constantly stop and remind us about what just happened, what he wants to happen, and why we’re all here in the first place. It says something about Nat as a character that my heart immediately sank when I opened the book and started reading, realising that his was the narrative viewpoint.

The vividly described bone City of Updraft is now sketchy and vague, with unclear geography, and our characters seem to spend an awful lot of time tumbling around, out of control, plummeting towards and into the clouds. Which would be fine—except that in Updraft, dipping below the clouds was certain death, but now is suddenly apparently perfectly safe. Down and down and down they go.

Nat supposedly has loved ones – a wife or partner who is pregnant, apparently – but they’re never around for long, and Nat doesn’t seem to have much passion for his lover or concern for his unborn child. It’s very strange, as if written in short bursts but never actually read through to see if it hangs together.

The plot seems wafer thin, padded out by lots of repetition and by lots of half-baked plans which go wrong immediately. Make your hero suffer, right? Except I cannot root for any so-called hero who is both indecisive and inept— so much so, that he can’t come up with a workable plan, even when surrounded by otherwise competent friends. Down and down they go.

And then you get close to the end, and you realise that there is going to be no final act in which our heroes finally get it together and defeat their enemies. Instead, the narrative just kind of stops, almost mid-sentence, and with dismay you understand that you’re holding in your hands the problematic middle child of a trilogy. Which, obviously, I’m not going to be reading to completion. You end up feeling like you’ve been sitting in a bath that’s slowly emptying. And then it’s over and your skin is cold and you forgot to bring a towel.

If you read Updraft and enjoyed it, I’d stick with that, and not let the experience get sullied by this lukewarm sequel.

Posted in Books, entertainment, Review

Seveneves by Neal Stephenson

1260745459712720788Obviously, I knew about this book a while ago, but like any normal human, I was offput by its extreme length. At 850+ pages, this is not for the faint hearted.

Another slightly offputting thing was the idea that this novel included a depiction of humanity approximately 5000 years from now. I’ve read enough science fiction to be wary of that kind of thing. You know, the posthuman, post singularity stuff, featuring gene spliced beings with elaborate, stratified social mores and technology indistinguishable from magic. The kind of thing that was visible in that movie Jupiter Rising. I don’t object to that kind of thing per se, but I do sometimes get impatient with all the made up words and the exhausting process of detective work, trying to ascertain what’s going on.
But then a colleague lent me Seveneves, so I started to read it and was pleasantly surprised.
First of all, the question of style. It’s written in perfectly clear, plain English, and though it does feature extended discussions of orbital mechanics, it does so in a way that makes you, the arts/humanities student, feel like you understand it.
Secondly, my colleague said that the only (major!) problem was that the plot doesn’t start to happen until the final third of the 850 pages. This is true in the sense that it could in fact have been published as the final third, with the reader left to fill in the complicated back story, in that aforementioned offputting way. You could also, effectively, publish the first two thirds as an Appendix to the final third, for those who want to fill in the ins and outs after reading the main story. But I think that would be to do Seveneves a disservice.

Don’t read on if you don’t want to know what happens.

The premise is that something destroys the Moon, which in turn has catastrophic consequences for life on Earth. Within two years, some means of surviving off-planet has to be improvised. That’s the exciting first third of the book: exactly what could we do, right now, with the technology and resources we have. I found this section readable and fascinating, and so far from what I expected that I began to feel undaunted by its length.
The next section details the what now? moment, at which point the surviving humans have to decide how to survive and even thrive. Inevitably, they are riven by conflict and disaster. A small group wants to go to Mars. Others want to go into a higher orbit to avoid Moon fragments. A third groups want less of an eggs in one basket solution. The catastrophic end result is that, five years in, just eight people survive, all women, only seven of them able to bear children.
So ends the second third of the novel, with the Seven Eves deciding what to do next.
The final third takes place 5000 years later. There is a thriving, if not united, civilisation in space, and the sterilised Earth has been reseeded with life. There are seven races of humans, with some hybridisation, but in the main we’re supposed to believe that there are seven distinct personality types. Frankly, this is all a bit handwavy, and it is slightly more complex than my description.
The main plot of this last third concerns the discovery of a group of humans who survived by building a space-type habitat under a mountain. But the real reason for reading is to learn about the nuts and bolts of this far-future society.
And here’s the thing. On a human scale, 5000 years is a long time. I think the Great Pyramid was built around 4500 years ago. What the last third of this novel tries to do is summarise the whole story of a civilisation and provide a narrative plot. In narratology terms, this is fascinating. But it doesn’t quite work because as much book as this is, it ends up being not quite enough. You kind of need less of the first two years and more of the end bit. And yet, the setup matters, because that’s where we meet the Seven, and come to understand them as characters.
That this is one of the best science fiction novels I’ve ever read, I’ve no doubt. It’s though provoking, educational and fascinating. But it’s a flawed masterpiece that probably needed another 200 pages.

Posted in cycling

Kalkhoff Integrale 8G Ltd White

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The bike arrived in a box that was practically bigger than our house – rendering ludicrous the request from the supplier that I keep the packaging if possible, in case the bike has to go back to their workshop. Well, I’ve thrown it in the garage for now (could barely close the door), which is only okay as long as nobody else wants to get in there.

First impressions: even without the box, the bike is massive. It’s a 55cm frame (Large, not even XL), which is just about 21.5 inches. The funny thing about that is that my first Trek hybrid bike was about that size, and I always thought it was on the small side. Well, frame sizes across manufacturers obviously aren’t standardised. Anyway, I knew it was a dilemma. I’m 183cm tall, which puts me bang on the borderline between Medium and Large. I went for Large because of my history of thinking a 55cm frame was too small. Don’t mistake me: this isn’t too big (at all), but it’s clear that I’d have probably been fine on a Medium.

And a Medium, of course, would have been a bit lighter. Second impression: wow, this is heavy. Think of an old-fashioned town bike, with a steel (or even aluminium) frame, heavy wheels, a chunky saddle, mudguards, a rack, and a basket containing 2 kilograms of potatoes, a jeroboam of champagne and panniers full of rocks: imagine how much that would weigh. Now double it. The downtube, seat tube and motor housing are cast from a single piece of aluminium alloy, and the rest of the bike is built to match – obviously strength is important, given the torque produced by the electric motor. So a lot of the weight is in the frame, and to that you can add the several kilograms of motor and several more kilograms of battery. Which is before you get to the chunky DT Swiss wheels and Big Apple 50mm balloon tyres.

It was all set up and ready to go, apart from the pedals and the handlebars, which had been twisted around to fit in the box and rotated to protect the brakes. The pedals that come with the bike are flat and plastic, with a grippy surface. I fitted instead a set of Shimano Deore XT pedals which are flat on one side, and which accept a cleat on the other. This means I can ride in regular trainers – or put on a pair of dedicated cycling shoes. I found the handlebar business a bit fiddly: I had to undo a lot of bolts to rotate brake callipers, shifters, the front light, the computer housing etc, but eventually got everything ready to go.

Meanwhile, I was charging the battery up to 100% for the first outing. First time you use it, they suggest charging it completely and then letting it go flat before you charge it again – in order to train the battery.

Let’s talk specs. The bike is a Limited Edition, which means that (unlike the standard 8G) it has no rack and a rigid fork. Mine is numbered 420 out of 500. I don’t know if that means they made 500 in total, or that many of each size. The engine is Kalkhoff’s own Impulse Evo 250 W mid-drive model with shift sensor technology. That means it drives the crank rather than the wheel hub. The shift sensor cuts the power when it detects a gear change so you don’t have to stop pedalling or slow down. In practice, it’s pretty seamless.

Integrated into the frame and giving the range its name is the battery, which is a 36V 17Ah battery. That’s over 600 watts, which is big for an e-bike. Very big. (And very heavy.) The battery can be charged on or off the bike. There’s a separate power supply for this, which connects to the battery using an Apple-style mag-safe adapter, which will only snap on the right way, thanks to magnets. The battery and motor are connected to the drivetrain by a Gates carbon belt drive rather than a chain, and the gears are Shimano’s 8-speed Alfine hub gears.

The white frame comes with matching mudguards but no rack. These are aluminium rather than plastic and they  properly go with this bike rather than being off-the-shelf. The rear mudguard has an integrated LED light (not as impressive as the rack-mounted light you get on other models). The front has a built-in 100 lux twin headlight. I don’t know how bright this will be in practice. It seems pretty good, but I’ve only ridden in daylight so far.

The Limited comes with a fancy Brooks Cambium C17 saddle (in black), with matching fancy handlebar grips. This is highly unusual in my experience. Even if you spend quite a lot of money on a bike (My Trek Domane 4.5, for example, was not cheap), you tend to get a bog-standard saddle, with the expectation that if you want a fancy one you’ll spend more. The Cambium retails at over £100, so it had better be good, right? It seems okay so far, but I’ve only been on one short and one 13-mile ride. The grips are another £50 value, and I’m afraid I’m a bit disappointed in them. They’re a bit hard (no cushion at all), and given the bike’s lack of any kind of suspension or damping, too uncomfortable. I was wearing cushioned gloves but still found my hand actually being bounced off the bar at one point. (The roads around here are disgraceful).

All of this weight and all of this power needs to be able to stop safely, and the Shimano M396 hydraulic disk brakes are up to the job. The Shimano Alfine shifter is the kind with a numerical display (it only indicates top, bottom, and fourth), though it feels a bit plasticky.

The brains of the bike are contained in an LCD display, which is about half the size of my phone. Using the simple control switch (which is on the left side of the bar, leaving the gear shifters on the right), you can set menu items such as level of assist (there are five settings, from Off to Turbo) and view battery level, speed, distance, cadence, and all the usual bike computer settings. The display also has built-in Bluetooth, so you can connect your phone to it through a companion app. This means you can use your phone as a sat nav, and the directions are displayed on the bike’s LCD display, meaning you don’t have to attach your phone. Should you want to do that, though, the LCD has a USB port which will supply a charge.

I went on two rides. The first one was just a quick blast to check that everything worked. I started off in Power mode (the next-to-highest level of assist) and in 4th gear, and from the first push on the pedal you could feel the motor kicking in and the bike surging ahead. I went around the block and through town, and my top speed was 27 mph. The motor cuts out at 15 mph, so anything over that is pedal power only – but if you’re going even slightly downhill it’s not hard to get up there.

Later on, when it had stopped raining, I headed around my usual 20km (13-mile) circuit. I thought I’d try Turbo mode, the highest level of assist – mainly because I want to run the battery down before Monday. As I set off, the display reported that I’d have a range of 31 miles. Well, in spite of the fact that I haven’t ridden a bike for over a month, I’m still fairly cycle fit, so my pedalling was clearly more than the bike was expecting. In spite of wind, cold, wet roads, it was a joyous ride. In recent years, with my leg muscles (perhaps?) weakened by Statins (or the blood pressure meds, or a combination), I’ve been struggling round that route at around 13 mph, but today I did it at (ahem) 15.6 mph. That, you’ll note, is 0.6 mph above the legal cutoff speed for an e-bike in the UK. That means that for most of the journey I was slightly above the 15 mph, which I’m pleased with. I was also pleased to note that the range the bike was predicting, after 13 miles, was still 31 miles.

I suspect that Turbo mode is more than I need anyway. I didn’t need to use gears 1-4 at all, and only used 5th gear to get up all the hills that usually see me labouring. So I was riding around with a fairly narrow range of gears – just four! – and found that my downhill speed topped out at 30 mph simply because my legs were spinning so fast that I had to stop pedalling.

Mind you, you don’t half notice when you’re going up hill and the motor isn’t helping you. Have I mentioned how heavy this bike is?

All things considered, this was great fun. I found myself chuckling as I launched up hills at a sustained speed. Most of the time I was pedalling as normal — but instead of pain and suffering and struggling against the wind, I was swooshing along (in near-silence, I should add) and actually enjoying myself. It was like having the wind at your back all the time – or, you know, being fit. I even overtook somebody. It’s rare that I see someone going in the same direction (most people seem to prefer anti-clockwise circuits, whereas I go clockwise) so it’s not going to happen often. I wonder what he thought as I blasted past? The sound the bike makes is more to do with the belt drive than the motor, I think. Anyway, I was past him so quickly he would have barely had time to register the sound. What he will have noticed is the enormous size of the thing. The Kalkhoff is a giant tank of a bike made for giant Northern Europeans – about as far as you can get from an Italian road bike with skinny tyres.

As to the balloon tyres, they weren’t providing much cushioning today. I might have to deflate them a little on these roads. I’ll add too that although I didn’t notice how bright the lights were, they do have a neat safety feature in that they stay on for a while after you switch the bike off. This means, say, that if you stop on a dark road and are taking time to hoik the heavy weight of the bike up a kerb or walking along with it for a bit, you don’t suddenly become invisible. The front light stays on for about 15 seconds, but the back light stays on for a few minutes. The commuting begins next week.