Posted in bastards, music

Will no-one rid me of this turbulent Apple Music app?

music-1I was looking forward to iOS 10 for one main reason: I was hoping that the infuriating, vexatious, troublesome Apple Music app would be fixed, somehow. I was even prepared to put up with its new, even-more-fucking-ugly appearance if it would stop annoying me.

(I don’t like the San Francisco font that has taken over the interface of iOS. It’s just as bad as Helvetica, and I hate Helvetica.)

I’ve been complaining for a long time about the way Music shows tracks on my phone that are not on my phone, even though I have checked (and checked and checked again) the option to only show music that is on my phone. But no matter my preference: Music continued to show all music that I had ever purchased on iTunes. Quitting and restarting the app would sometimes fix the problem, but then it would just occur all over again. Telling it not to use mobile data (no need, because I only want to hear music I have already downloaded onto my phone) would also create issues, throwing up an error message telling me to connect to wifi. Why? So it could show/play music that was not on my phone, notwithstanding my preference for it not to do that.

And on and on and round and round we went. Even, sometimes, when it was only showing what was on my phone, the other phantom tracks would still be there, so that tapping on a song in the middle of the Gs would start playing a song from the middle of the Bs. Because, you know, invisible tracks.

So I had all the fingers crossed that the new Apple Music would behave itself.

I especially synched a refreshed playlist on the first day. And then the first thing I notice when I look at the playlist on my phone is a little cloud symbol. Why? Because some of the songs in the playlist are apparently not on my phone. How come? I checked the playlist: nope. These songs are not supposed to be on my phone because they’re not in the playlist.

One problem, I thought was the presence of the phantom “purchased” playlist that Music creates for itself, even though I don’t want it to. I deleted that. This seems to partially cure the phantom tracks problem – at least until you synch your phone again.

So I synched again, deleted the “Purchased” playlist. Same thing. So I deleted that whole playlist, deleted all my music off the phone, and resynched a clean, new playlist with a wired connection. Same thing. So I went through my iTunes, checking every single album for stray “whole album” ratings that were being misapplied to individual tracks. Resynched, this time limited to 800 tracks by least-often-played. Eventually, I have it: no cloud symbols, no tracks that shouldn’t be there, mainly because they’d all been played too many times before. It has taken several days.

Except: I’m out in my car and the podcasts run out and music starts to play automatically. First song to appear on the screen in the car: “All Over The World” by ELO. But it doesn’t actually play, so the phone bounces to another song, and so on.

Well, there are several things with that. First of all, “All Over the World” is not on the synched playlist. It is in my “purchased” items, but not on the phone. It’s in the cloud. Which, specifically, I have repeatedly told my phone to ignore. So we’re back with phantom purchased tracks, except, “All Over the World” is not the first on that phantom list. It is the 28th song, alphabetically, in the unwanted “purchased” playlist. So why was the phone trying to play it? It makes no fucking sense, except in a universe in which Apple are deliberately trying to wind me up.

And so the dance continues. I’m playing music in the house, thinking I’m playing from my 800-track synched playlist. But then a song comes on that I don’t really like and haven’t had in any playlist for a number of years. Yep: another phantom track playing randomly from the cloud, even though it’s not on my fucking phone.

I can’t even. So Apple music continues to be a pile of steaming ordure and yet is so deeply embedded in the system that I can’t kill it. Weeping uncontrollably, shaking with frustration, I say this: I just want to play music I have carefully collected over decades and filtered down to this one playlist that I want on my phone. I just want my phone to behave like a fucking traditional iPod. I don’t want your streaming service, I don’t want your radio, I don’t want your curated playlists, I don’t want the load of old toss that is your @connect feature.

This is so frustrating that I’ve reached the stage of barely listening to music because literally every time I try I’m confronted with this bizarre, unwelcome and unwanted behaviour. It’s like trying to get to sleep and being repeatedly woken by the cat. I want to have a good old listening session, especially to stuff I bought recently, and then some filler track from an album I bought ten years ago comes on and I just want to smash things up.

Over the past month I’ve spent more time dealing with all these problems than I have playing music.

Which is before we even get to the actual playback of the actual music I want to hear. I know all the theories about a properly random shuffle, but the truth is I prefer the “randomness” offered by an alphabetical playback of all my songs. Except, because of all these issues, Music makes this one of the hardest things you can do. Apart from playing songs that aren’t supposed to be there, it always goes to the beginning of the alphabet, forgetting where it had reached.

So, okay. If I concede that that’s impossible and just select, “Shuffle All”, what then? What happens then, as far as I can tell, is that it starts playing the same few songs over and over again – never quite reaching far enough into the playlist to play anything it hasn’t played in the last week or so. For example, I swear to you that I have heard Keef singing “Before They Make Me Run” at least five times in the past month or so, whereas about 700 other tracks haven’t popped up at all.

Posted in Books, entertainment, Review

Luna: New Moon by Ian McDonald

mcdonaldi-luna1-newmoonukAccording to its Wikipedia entry, this novel has been called Game of Thrones in space. You can see what is meant by that: this is a novel about near-future industrial dynasties on a commercialised and privatised Moon. It’s about a murderous and deadly frontier where there is no law except contract law and where there are a thousand ways to die.

So yeah: a bit like Game of Thrones. But not necessarily in a good way. I’ve said before that while I love the TV series (occasional pacing issues notwithstanding), I did not enjoy reading the novels. The novels seem soulless to me, written in an affectless style, as if put together by a committee.

And I did not enjoy reading Luna. There are sections of this novel I have in fact read before, in short story collections, and the novel seems to have been constructed around these fragments. But here’s the thing: I don’t care about any of the dynasties, any of the people, or their business ambitions. I’m not particularly interested in their polymorphous sexualities, their fashions, designer drugs, or much else about this society.

The main focus here is the Corta family, of Brazilian origin, who are competing – in some unspecified way – with other corporate families who originate from Russia, China, Nigeria, and Australia. Each family has a monopoly of some particular resource, but the Cortas and the McKenzies are at each others throats because their businesses overlap in some way.

There are arranged marriages, court cases, secret societies, and more – but I wasn’t interested in any of it. The thing about business, for me, is that it just isn’t very interesting. It’s worse, even, than playing Monopoly: it’s watching other people play monopoly. And though the stakes are meant to be high and lives are at risk, the fact that it’s so easy to die on the moon lowered the stakes.

There are lots of names: sons and daughters and second sons and more sons and daughters, and arranged marriages and custody battles over their kids, but it all ends up a big wash of interchangeable people who have walk-on parts, or pop up here and there, but not so much that you start caring about them. It’s another science fiction menippean satire, a series of meetings between characters who exchange views, but there isn’t much of a plot, and the climax ends up being both rushed and boring, with nobody to root for and nothing much to care about. If a meteor shower had hit every habitat and killed everyone, I wouldn’t have been bothered.

I have a horrible feeling there will be sequels. Ironically, like Game of Thrones, this might indeed make for good television, so I’m not saying don’t watch it, but don’t feel bad about not reading the book(s).

Posted in entertainment, music, Review, Television

Roadies (Amazon)

roadies-showtime-series-filming-locationsSo Showtime’s rock ‘n’ roll series about the behind-the-scenes action behind a (fictional) rock band’s tour has been cancelled. This is not surprising, given the poor critical reception the show received, and the poor viewing figures. Half a million people, apparently, which isn’t many – but it says something about the show that this audience, though small, remained steady throughout its run.

Thing is, I read that Tim Goodman review in The Hollywood Reporter, and heard him discussing the show on the TV Talk Machine podcast, which led me to expect Roadies would be much, much worse than it actually is.

The theme here is that, while the world might be ready for a good TV series about rock music, neither Roadies nor HBO’s Vinyl are it. I started watching Vinyl with some excitement, but quickly grew tired of its meandering storylines, its pointless murder sub-plot, and the over-the-top performance by Bobby Cannavale. But the real reason I stopped watching Vinyl was that it was just nasty. It was a nasty show about nasty people and the blame for that goes to the door of Martin Scorsese, who set the tone in the series’ opening episode. The problem with that feature-length pilot was that it used movie-style broad brush strokes. Bobby Cannavale clearly hit rock bottom then and there, and continued to bump along on the bottom in subsequent episodes.

Roadies, on the other hand, was not nasty. It was corny, and mawkishly sentimental, and criminally underused some of its cast, and the blame for all of that belongs to show creator Cameron Crowe. But overall, its heart was in the right place, and I think there were enough good – fun, even – things about the show that it might have been redeemed for a second season. Tim Goodman complained that early episodes underplayed the fictional Staten-House Band, but I think over the series the balance was about right. You could tell that the vision for the show was that the band were supposed to be just offscreen, in much the same way that the President was originally supposed to be in The West Wing. Now, Rob Lowe ended up leaving The West Wing when Martin Sheen’s President Bartlett took over the show – because it wasn’t the show he signed up to do. Roadies is meant to be about the people who usually occupy the background, so I think it was right that we only slowly got to know the band members.

The regular guest star slot for support acts and other musical walk-ons was one of the pleasures of Roadies. Again, support acts get short shrift in the real world, so it was good that the show focused on their struggles behind the scenes, as well as including cameos for the likes of Lindsay Buckingham and John Mellencamp.

My favourite episode was the Lynyrd Skynyrd flashback episode, with a well-cast Nathan Sutton as Ronnie Van Zandt – and a legend about them blowing the Stones off the stage when they supported them. Although it’s not hard to blow the Stones off the stage – they’re a shit live act.

So, it exists. Ten episodes of patchy quality but with enough warmth and heart to get you over the humps. I’ve enjoyed watching it. It’s free for Amazon Prime members, and unjustly maligned to be compared with the execrable Vinyl.

Posted in cycling, musings

Cycling’s dirty little secret?

The Information

I’ve continued to research the market in electric bikes and I’ve discovered some interesting things. At the same time, I’m finding it hard to settle on a purchase. Good information is hard to come by. There are a couple of YouTube channels that review e-bikes, and the odd web site, but the truth seems to be that there are a lot more e-bikes out there than there are reviewers. The limited number of reviewers means everything’s filtered through the preferences and prejudices of one or two people. Or the reviews are so generally positive they’re bland. Especially when it comes to finding out about more recent models, you’re kind of on your own. I thought there would – obviously! – be a magazine dedicated to e-bikes, but when I went to the big W H Smith in Milton Keynes, there appeared to be nothing available.

(An online research reveals an American title, but even then the latest issue shown on its web site dates from December 2015.)

It’s also hard to see them in person, unless you happen to live near a specialist retailer. Even then, most retailers tend to carry a limited number of brands, so there really isn’t anywhere you can go to see a wide variety.

Even a thorough trawl through the online reviews isn’t much help when it comes to current or forthcoming e-bikes. A YouTube review of a bike from 2014? In this fast-developing market, 2014 is ancient history. As Ferris Bueller said, in his documentary about e-bikes, “Life moves pretty fast.”

I think I know what the real problem is, and we’ll get to that. First, let’s talk about design.

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I’ve never been a fan of the e-bike that has a rear hub motor and its battery on a rack over the back wheel. That’s a lot of weight over the back wheel, and it looks ugly, too. Bikes designed like this tend to be the older and cheaper ones. The motor can be placed in the front wheel instead, but your driven wheel is then also your steering wheel – and it still looks ugly. The ugliness is in the design (or lack of it): these are clearly regular bikes with electric motors glommed onto them.

As the market has grown – and it has clearly been growing – the designs have improved, and we’re starting to see electric bikes that are designed from the ground up as electric bikes. It’s increasingly rare to find a rear hub motor on a latter-day e-bike. Most manufacturers are offering a crank motor, which places the centre of gravity low and which responds more directly to your pedalling input. The key advantage of these in design terms is that both wheels can be a more conventional bicycle design, depending on the genre of the bike.

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Trek Conduit+

Still, it’s common to see the battery attached to the rear rack or stuck on top of the downtube. We’re getting closer to the idea of an electric bike being true to its own nature, but I still think they’re ugly. The Trek Conduit+ made my original shortlist but I’ve discovered enough other options that I won’t consider it now.

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Scott E-Sub Tour

The closer you get to a nice-looking e-bike, the higher the price. Forthcoming models from Specialized and Giant (see previous post) are going to retail between £2k and £3k, which makes your eyes water a bit. At least the Trek is closer to the £2k mark, as is the Scott E-Sub Tour. This latter is typical of the kind of design that’s making some effort to incorporate the battery into the design.

It’s in the hub

Which brings us to the Germans, and their Swiss/Austrian cousins. Once you get into the high Sierras of £3000 plus, the e-bikes start looking very nice indeed (though I have an issue with the drab colourways). Just look at this Rotwild.

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German engineering

The battery-incorporating downtube doesn’t look any fatter than that on my carbon road bike. You’d pay similar money for the (Swiss-made) Stromer ST1, but that still has a hub motor. Stromer’s high-end ST2S, with electronic gear-shifting and a 180km range, comes in at a cool seven and a half grand. 

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Stromer ST1 has a rear hub motor

One thing I’ve discovered you have to watch out for are the so-called “speed” models, which are capped not at 25 but 45 kph. This means they have to be registered, licensed, and that you have to wear a proper scooter/motorbike helmet when riding them. You can usually tell it’s a speed bike because the motor is 350 watts – whereas the legislation limits the bike to 250 watts if you don’t want to register it etc. I can imagine that hurtling along at close to 30mph will make you want to wear a helmet, anyway.

So I’ve ended up looking at two manufacturers in the main. The first is Kalkhoff, which offers both regular and “speed” designs based around its “Integrale” design (the name refers to the integrated battery), and other models with the battery on the back of the downtube. The second is Scott, which offers its elegant-looking E-Silence in a variety of configurations.

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Kalkhoff Integrale 10 has derailleur gears – like most e-bikes

It’s a complicated business. One thing that has been giving me anxiety is the combination of derailleur gears with the electric motor. Even without a motor, derailleurs are a pain in the arse: fine while they’re working, but I have proved myself over decades of cycling to be absolutely hopeless when it comes to maintaining or adjusting them. Why have gears at all? You might well ask. You’d think that with a motor, you could just have a single-geared bike and let the engine do the work. But these pedal-assist bikes all require you to be pedalling at a steady cadence, which means you have to keep your legs spinning at the same rate, even on the hills – hence the gears.

Which brings us to the nub, or hub, of my decision-making. On the one hand, I’ve never quite trusted the mysterious technology of hub gears. You can’t see them working, and even when you look at animations of how they work, I still don’t understand how they work. It’s all smoke and mirrors, man.

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Belt drive? Oooh.

But then you see the words belt drive and you think, oooh.

A belt drive means no chain. And no lube. And no mess. Hub gears are sealed, designed for low maintenance, which means for a daily commute you could just get on and ride without worrying about the whirrrrr-click of a derailleur or the filthy gunk that accumulates on a chain in all weathers. A lot of people get a hub geared bike for winter riding anyway, but in the context of an electric motor they make even more sense.

So I’m pretty certain I’m going to plump for the belt drive option. The Kalkhoff S11 has Shimano’s latest and greatest 11-gear hub, but unfortunately it’s a speed bike, so it’s off the table. If they offered the 11-gear hub with a 250 watt motor I’d jump at it.

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Kalkhoff Integrale 8 Ltd – belt drive and Shimano hub gears

A further disappointment came when the UK distributor said that the Integrale 8 (Shimano 8-gear hub, 250 watt motor) was sold out. But, they said, they have a few limited edition white ones arriving next week. These have a rigid front fork instead of  the standard suspension fork and mudguards but no rack. That’s okay: I have a rack. So that’s one option (see above).

My other option is a Scott, but their only belt drive model is the E-Silence Evo (below) which is (a) not out yet and (b) closer to £4k than £3k, so way out of my budget really. Why are we even talking about this? Well, because instead of a Shimano hub gear, it has a CVT – a continuously variable transmission. This is the Nuvinci N330, which offers a 330% range of gearing with a technology even more mysterious in its workings than a hub gear. It’s an automatic gearbox for bikes: you set the speed you wish to pedal and the bike automatically adjusts its gearing, keeping your feet spinning at the same rate – assisted by the motor, of course.

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Scott E-Silence Evo with continuously variable transmission and belt drive

“Cheating”

I was talking to someone the other day, and I mentioned my plan to get an e-bike and they said, “That’s cheating.”

Which brings us to cycling’s dirty little secret. You start researching this and you realise how big the market is, how much competition there is, and yet how hard these things are to see on the high street. Evans cycles, for example, are happy to sell you an e-bike on their web site, but when I went into their big shop in Central Milton Keynes the other day? Not a single e-bike.

The shop I went to in Dorking to drop off my carbon road bike for repair had one in the window – a Trek women’s model.

Your basic retail problem is that the staff in these places often display the same kind of twattishness common to guitar stores and record shops. They’re the kind of people who spout macho nonsense about suffering up the hills and sticking to The Rules (Rule #5: Harden The Fuck Up). You’d no more want to ask one of these people about an e-bike than you’d want to engage a music shop employee in a conversation about music.

This is the Strava crowd, the King of the Mountains crowd, the hypercompetitive macho manboys. I’ve been using Strava to keep a record of my rides for a while, but I’d been thinking maybe I ought to not use it when I get an e-bike, because it would belie my true status as the 450th fastest rider out of 750 on that particular hill.

But then, what better way to subvert the bullshit than to shoot up a hill twice as fast as usual and drive them all crazy?

Posted in cycling

e-bike gum

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In the background to all my iPhone vacillation is the fact that I busted up my road bike driving home from France. It looks as if (if I’m willing to take it apart and package it up to send away) I could get it repaired for around £500. But that’s a big if. How do you box up a bike to post it!? How much does it cost? Anyway, apart from the damage to the frame, the wheels are out of true, so there’s more work to be done. An alternative would be to buy a second hand one on eBay and use the premium components from my wrecked bike to upgrade it. But I’m not enthused.

Thing is, I’m thinking of getting an electric bike. I actually prefer to ride for a purpose, and  going out on “fitness rides” is a bit of a drag (plus I’m not built for hills and hate them). What I’d like to do is go back to riding to work on a regular basis, the way I used to in my 20s.  Most e-bikes are peddle-assist these days, which means you still have to pedal, and the motor cuts out at  15 mph (25 kph). You also still need gears, to keep your pedalling cadence steady. Well, 15 mph is a respectable speed to get to work (nine miles or so) and it would still be a bit of daily exercise. I’d still raise my heart rate a bit, but I wouldn’t necessarily arrive feeling weak and sweaty.

My shortlist candidates (so far) are pictured above.

I’ve seen the Giant Quick E+ (or similar) in the Giant shop in Belfort this summer. This is an attractive range of bikes. I like the way the battery is incorporated into the down tube. Giant’s advantage is that they have their own drive system and battery. Of course, it still weighs a ton, but that goes with the territory. The motor is in the hub, and it’s got built-in lights and hydraulic brakes. I don’t like the colour, but all of these commuter bikes (including mudguards and lights in the package) are dull.

The Scott E-Silence is a better colour, but an unknown quantity in terms of pricing, as it’s just been announced. It uses a Brose “silent” belt-drive motor, so it’s supposedly much quieter than other e-bikes. It too incorporates the battery into the down tube and if anything it’s better looking than the Giant.

Finally, the Trek Conduit+ looks like a bit of a throwback, with it’s lumpy battery sitting on the down tube. It uses the Shimano Steps motor and has the best built-in lights of the three. The front light is in the head tube and the rear lights are on both sides, at the end of the chainstays. I like the look of the Trek the least, but it’s probably a very practical design. For example, the ugly battery is easy to remove so you can take it in to charge it, or to transport the bike on a carrier. It’s also a Trek, and my last three bikes were all Treks, so…

Waiting till I finish paying for the car we bought for Chloé’s driving lessons, but then I’ll be taking the plunge… maybe.

(In France the summer, we followed someone on a mountain bike up our very steep hill one night and they were going at such a clip, it was really impressive. Most people cycle past our house with their legs spinning like mad and the bike barely moving. This cyclist was easily doing the speed a normal person might manage on the flat. So it was that the e-bike idea crystallised in my mind.)

Posted in musings

Need vs. Want

metronicon540roundeddropshadow-300x300Having been on the tick cycle since my first iPhone (the 4), this is the year I’d normally be looking to upgrade. After a couple of years, I’d usually be complaining about the battery life in my two-year-old phone by now: to begin with.

But the battery life in my 6 Plus is fine, really. It lasts all day, most days, and it has never been an issue.

Still, there’s a new iPhone with a swanky new camera and clever cores that run those low-level background tasks on reduced power. The camera looks good. So it’s not really “telephoto” but it is a 56mm equivalent lens, so now you have the two main lenses that every photographer should have: a wide angle and a portrait lens.

So I might want it, but do I need it? Of course not. And this time around, I’m less inclined to get it anyway. I’ve had several moments recently when I was tempted to commit iPhone suicide and just get rid of it altogether. Imagine the lightness you’d feel not having that seductive device calling from your pocket all the time; imagine the money you’d not be spending on a data plan.

When I consider my phone usage it comes down to five things:

  • Twitter
  • Podcasts
  • Google Maps
  • Music
  • Dots (my perennial mindless time-killing game)

Now, four of those five things are fairly important to me, but none of them really require the processing power of most-powerful-iphone-we’ve-ever-made, do they? And only three of them require the use of the screen.

What about photographs? Well, I do take a lot of photos, but only at certain times of the year. And a lot of my photos are taken on my Panasonic system camera, so while I’m impressed by the new camera technology, I’m not hankering for it right now.

My kid is hankering for my phone, however, so there is pressure coming from below in the iPhone food chain. She would kill to have the 64GB I have instead of the the 16GB she makes do with.

Can I afford a new phone? No. But then I never can, really, which hasn’t stopped me in the past.

Something cheaper than an iPhone would be a new Apple Watch. And for a while, I was telling myself I might buy the Watch (Series 2) instead of a phone this year. But I don’t need one. I wouldn’t even take advantage of the GPS to take it cycling without my phone: I always take my phone with me on bike rides in case of accident/puncture/throwing a spoke etc.

So it comes to this. There is no need, and there is not currently enough want to make me take the plunge. So I might wait until next year, who knows? The danger time is actually November (I never buy early in case there are bugs or manufacturing problems). So if I can get past the end of this year without succumbing to temptation, I might skip it this time.

 

Posted in Books, entertainment, Review

Two book reviews

Uprooted by Naomi Novik

This Nebula award winning novel was published in 2015 and has the benefit of being (so far at least) a standalone book and not part of a series. I’m on record as not being the biggest fan of the fantasy genre, though I clearly like it more than, say, someone who never reads any. But I picked this up because it won the award an I’m glad I did.

I wasn’t keen on the cover on the edition I had. Of the three above, I think I prefer the one on the left. What I mean by this is that I wouldn’t have even picked this up or shown any interest in it if I hadn’t heard it mentioned on The Incomparable. Which means this book had to overcome a lot of prejudice to win me over.

It achieved this fairly quickly. If I had to blurb this, I’d say it starts out a bit like Beauty and the Beast meets The Sorcerer’s Apprentice and a little bit of A Wizard of Earthsea. Which means it involves a young girl dragged from the bosom of her family/village to serve a monstrous local wizard (known as The Dragon) who then learns just enough magic to get her into trouble. It moves on from there, though, and the pacy story takes you into a fully realised world in which a malevolent entity in a forest wages war on human settlements.

I’ve seen a few online complaints from people who “don’t get it” and object to it winning the Nebula. I guess some of these people simply object to the female author and female protagonist. In another sense, you could say that this is a fairly standard fantasy with no surprises, but I think that would be to miss the point about what this book brings to the genre. It’s fresh, lively, well-paced, and although it’s a mashup of various fantasy and fairy story ingredients, it takes enough unexpected turns to keep you interested. The writing is excellent, too, and as someone who doesn’t enjoy most fantasy, I welcomed the skilled handling of the story elements.

alex-marshall-a-crown-for-cold-silver-193x300A Crown for Cold Silver by Alex Marshall

In terms of writing style, I’ve complained before about George R R Martin’s writing in A Song of Ice and Fire because I find it lacking in terms of authorial voice. The books in that series read to me as if they’re written by a machine or a committee. And just as Naomi Novik brings a much fresher voice to her work, Alex Marshall (pseudonym of Jesse Bullington) brings a lively style to this first in a Game of Thrones-like series.

The comparison is apt for several reasons. The first is that Crown is set in a fantasy world and there’s (of course) a map of the star-shaped continent upon which the action takes place. The second is that there is and has been a competition between different claimants to be ruler of an empire. The third is that there is an extremist religious group that tries to act as the power behind the throne. The fourth is that the narrative has multiple points of view.

I could go on, but the point is that this is a fantasy novel along very similar lines to A Song of Ice and Fire. The key difference, of course, is in the telling, and I found this to be enjoyable, funny, human, and (crucially) far less prone to the longeurs of ASoIaF (which we need to distinguish from the far better TV adaptation). Pacy seems to be my word of the day. This tale fairly motors along – at least until all our characters meet up for the decisive battle.

Another key difference between this and ASoIaF is in the sexual politics, and the reason A Crown for Cold Silver was honoured by the Tiptree Award committee. We have several female protagonists (of various ages, including the normally invisible ones); we have women and men fighting, drinking and adventuring alongside each other; we have gay marriage; we have people sexually attracted to each other regardless of gender. And all of this is mere backdrop to the story, deftly handled and sustained, without feeling forced, awkward, or artificial. It’s so normal that it makes all those other books, including the ones in  which feisty female protagonists fight to be taken seriously as warriors, or magicians, or healers, seem silly. And, you know, there are no rape scenes.

Your heart sinks after 700 pages of anything and the knowledge that there’s a sequel, which of course there is. But, aside from that, this is a confident, entertaining, stonking good read.

Posted in bastards, musings

If you have to light a fire, is summer over?

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Years ago, before the kids, B and I drove from round here to the South for a week or so, sleeping on the sofa bed in one of her great aunts’ houses. Conventional wisdom had it that you drove overnight, so we set off at 10 pm and, to begin with, stayed on the Route Nationale. After a couple of hours, we stopped for a rest and, standing at the side of the road somewhere around Lons-le-Saunier, were treated to the most spectacular meteor shower I’ve ever seen.

Yes, it was the Perseids, so it must have been this time of year. A clear, warm, August night. Last night, when I stepped out of the house around midnight to see if there were any meteors, I was wearing a jumper and all I could see were grey clouds.

Yesterday was cold. So much so, that B decided to light a fire. I objected, not because I too wasn’t cold, but because it seemed too much a reminder that September, and work, is looming.

Spending the six weeks* of summer here over the past 10 years means that this place feels like home, and I don’t hanker for England at all. The fact that the job has become horrible and the country not much better means that I’m ever more reluctant to set out for the channel tunnel and its irritations (security theatre). Melancholy descends, and it’s hard to enjoy these August days.

There’s something in the quality of August light. The sun is just that little bit lower in the sky than it is in July, and the shadows stretch slightly further, and the leaves catch the light at an angle that is both beautiful and a reminder that Autumn is getting close. And then I think to myself, I’ve never seen this place in September, and the reality of being a wage slave comes crashing down. Just the idea that one day I might see these trees start to turn and the September shadows in the garden keeps me going, I suppose.

*This summer holiday (for teachers) is a total swizz: barely six weeks. We’re back on Sept 1, which is just fucking malicious. At least the kids get an extra weekend.

Posted in bastards, musings

Will I miss it?

Inspired by Twitter’s top philosopher (or top Twitter philosopher) @guylongworth, this post is.

MarmiteA few years ago, I used to think about retiring to France and worried about missing a few things from the UK. Over time, that list of things-I’d-miss has grown shorter and shorter. Packing for our summer visits would often involve compensating for those items in various ways, but things have changed.

Let’s arbitrarily say, fifteen years ago my list of missable concerns (when based in France) would be as follows:

  • The BBC
  • British television in general
  • Decent tea
  • Fish and chips
  • Cosmopolitan cuisine
  • The internet
  • Not having to kiss people to say hello and goodbye

I used to consider the BBC a great jewel in the UK’s crown. French television was and remains more or less terrible, and I’d compensate for our absence by programming my PVR to record a shit-load of stuff every time we were away. Our visits, 15 years ago, were usually about two weeks, and our PVR allowed programming up to 14 days in advance.

How have things changed? I barely watch anything on the BBC now – not only that, but I’ve been sickened by its toadying to the current and previous governments, its infiltration by Agents of Murdoch, and its chronic bias towards a right-wing news agenda. As to my TV watching: it’s all on-demand, streaming, virtually none of it live. I barely use my Freeview PVR when I’m in the country and never bother to programme it when I go away. I’ve grown used to the idea that, should I move here permanently, I’d be able to find various ways of compensating (pointing a satellite dish at the right place in the sky; subscribing to Netflix/Amazon Prime; or just hitting the Fnac and buying a boxed set). So the first two items have been crossed off my list.

A decent cup of tea is still an issue. For our now 6-week summer and other visits, we pack a lot of Yorkshire Tea. French supermarkets serve us poorly (fucking Liptons), so future me would still need the odd tea-based care package or dash across the channel to Kent Sainsbury’s. It’s no wonder tea isn’t popular when you can’t buy the proper stuff and the supermarket shelves are groaning with yucky fruit teas and insipid Liptons.

Fish and chips is also still an issue, but it’s just as big an issue in the UK, where the corporate interests have been allowed to dictate fishing policy over decades, meaning that most fish stocks are unsustainable. Of all the things the EU might have achieved on our behalf, controlling over-fishing was crucial. And of course, every attempt was met with a UK media narrative about interference and rights and freedoms, all based on the short-term economic interests of the profit takers and not the people who pay the tax. Still, it remains the case that if you want decent fish and chips in France, you have to roll your own. I’m unlikely to bother much, and I’ve resigned myself to giving it up like the bad habit it is, or eating friture de (farmed) carpe and liking it.

Cosmopolitan cuisine. An odd thing to say about France, but their strong gastronomic tradition means that, beyond (usually poor) Italian food, you can’t really get international foods here – certainly not a good curry or other Asian food. Maybe in Paris, but we’re a long way from there. Considering the French history in Vietnam, I’m especially surprised that there aren’t Vietnamese restaurants on every hight street. You can, in the bigger cities, find North African and sometimes Spanish food, but France is quite unlike Germany, the Netherlands, and other European centres. I don’t particularly like the French style of food (summed up as: fatty meat with a fancy sauce), so I do miss the options. I’m so often disappointed in the French take on pizza that I’m better off making my own. I think jars of curry paste and other oriental ingredients would have to go on the care package list, along with tea.

The next item on my old list, the internet, has been less of an issue since the Three network introduced their Feel at Home scheme, which gives you your UK contract even while roaming, in selected countries – including France. The speeds are throttled, but it’s okay for Twitter and (usually) Instagram. This summer, I’ve gone even further and (expensively) hired a home wifi dongle that allows you to share a 3G+ (or 4G) connection amongst up to 10 devices. This gives us the level of 3G we’d get if we had bought French sims, as we did for a couple of years. It’s only 3GB a day (so-called “unlimited”) before it gets throttled, but the speed is okay. And when I move here, I guess we’ll get an actual hard-wired internet connection.

Over the years, the list of food items I find it hard to do without has grown. English cheddar cheese is hard to find in France (so much for the single fucking market) and irreplaceable for certain things. The French make a lot of cheese, but they do nothing to match the sharp tangy taste and meltability of cheddar. French sausages tend to be too salty and nowhere near as tasty as the best British sausages. And good bacon is similarly hard to find. All of these things get added to the care package/cross channel Saino’s list. Actually, there’s a small business there: the potential to disrupt the high prices charged by supermarkets for the likes of Marmite and baked beans.

Mainly, these days, when we spend 6 weeks in France, I miss having a useable oven in my kitchen. I do most things on the barbecue and the stove top, but if/when I retire here, I’ll have to get a proper, modern oven to replace this propane-fuelled piece of shit that tends to leave things raw on top and burnt on the bottom.

Culturally, the biggest problem I have over here is that you can’t just say hello to people: you have to kiss-kiss or shake hands both to say hello and goodbye, even when on a short visit. It’s lucky I’m not a germophobe, but it’s enough to turn you into one. At the wedding last week, I was forced to kiss-kiss and shake hands with an astonishing number of people I’d never met (and will never meet again), and leaving a social occasion can take half an hour, depending on the number involved. Just once, I’d like to be able to enter a room, wave my hand, and be done.

As to the rest of British culture: the small (island)-mindedness; the celebration of ignorance; the dominance of the right wing press; the monarchy; the dominance of media and arts by public school educated Oxford/Cambridge graduates; the arrogance; the sense of entitlement; the delusions of grandeur; I’ll miss none of it.

Posted in bastards, Publishing

The Guardian Problem

Screen Shot 2016-07-31 at 15.51.55So the Guardian lost £69 million, wiping a huge chunk of its Scott Trust cash cushion in the process. Print ad revenue is down, and so is online ad revenue. The whole enterprise seems to be circling the drain, and would have disappeared but for its £800m nest egg.

It’s a shame, because the UK media needs a voice independent of corporate/billionaire interests – one that’s stronger than the mealy-mouthed BBC – which doesn’t provide in-depth analysis and doesn’t prioritise the truth in the same way that the Guardian could.

But the Guardian doesn’t really act as an independent voice, and that’s its problem. Ideally, it would make enough money to cover its running costs and not have to dip into its capital funds; ideally, it would be supported by people like me, who would happily pay £5 a month to maintain its autonomy. But I won’t, because it isn’t.

Strike one: of course, its trust fund is invested in the money markets and depends on the continuing survival of the current economic model to maintain its value. So it would be against the Guardian’s own interests to argue for anything other than the survival of the current economic model.

Strike two: the whole point of the Trust is the keep the Guardian running along the ‘the same lines and in the same spirit as heretofore.’ In other words, meaningful change is not in the Guardian’s DNA. A lot of Guardian readers mistakenly think that it is a left-wing newspaper, but it’s not. It’s a Liberal newspaper, and socialist ideas generally give it the heebs.

Strike three: strikes one and two are never more starkly illustrated than in the Guardian’s lack of support for Jeremy Corbyn. In fact, in not supporting Corbyn, the Guardian aligns itself with The Dalies Mail, Telegraph, Express, Times, and Sun etc. Why would I, with my vaguely socialist beliefs and natural inclination to support Corbyn’s ideas about workers’ rights and economic reform, want to pay £5 a month to support a newspaper that followed the same line as all the other newspapers? Where is the meaningful difference here?

Strike four: talking of meaningful difference, let’s turn to the rest of its content. In its attempt to maintain its free, ad-supported digital model, the Guardian has gone down the route of publishing articles that attract social media links and clicks. This means that it tends to devolve to the same crap that all the other media outlets publish. This means endless recaps/blogs about trendy television programmes; articles with clickbait-style headlines (key phrases like “How [whatever] is [whatever]” or headlines that ask questions or [x] Reasons [x] will [x]). It also means too many columnists adopting contrarian opinions, providing the kind of ‘hot take’ that gives the internet a bad name. And having seen the damage created by contrarian journalists-turned-politicians (Johnson and Gove), I think, frankly, that this country has had enough of contrarian journalists.

There’s way too much content on the Guardian web site, and most of it is the same old shite you find everywhere else. It was a mistake for any newspaper to give away its content for free, a decision driven by Fear of Missing Out and misplaced concerns about the BBC. By all means, make AP-style news reports free, but keep all the analysis and opinion for the print edition, or stick it behind a members-only paywall. Also, charge memberships for people who want to post comments on articles. Another idea: update the home page just once a day for non-paying visitors, and keep all the breaking and rolling news and regular updates for paying customers only. Any article in any section of the web site leaves you in a grumpy mood as soon as you accidentally read just one of the comments beneath it. And that’s a problem because, man, do I not want to belong to that particular club. Guardian readers appear to be the nastiest people in the world. Why would I pay £5 a month to be lumped in with that lot?

Whatever: without providing a real alternative to the so-called mainstream, without giving me the alternative voice I crave, there’s no point to the Guardian.