Frequently Arsed Questions

nobody cares what you think

Three Reviews: album, book, and tv series. — 6 October, 2015

Three Reviews: album, book, and tv series.

1035x1035-ryanadams19891. Ryan Adams – 1989

Is this controversial? It certainly caused a buzz and a stir and for something put together in a few weeks has certainly had a cultural impact. At one extreme, a lot of people were recommending it on the Twitter. At the other, there were chin-stroking New Statesman columns about mainsplaining. It has been featured on The Daily Show and played on Radio 2. Is Ryan Adams mansplaining Taylor Swift? Am I about to do it too?

I feel in an awkward position because I don’t want to be getting into arguments about sexism, but I don’t think that Ryan Adams is guilty of mansplaining Taylor Swift; neither do I think that many people have come to a realisation about the talents of Ms Swift just because.

In my own review of Taylor’s 1989, I wrote that I admired this new version of Taylor Swift and said that a number of the songs were ‘dangerously earwormy’. I linked her decision to abandon any pretence of a country sound to the appalling treatment meted out to women on Country radio, and suggested that the 100% pop move was akin to Miranda Lambert’s decision to pepper her own album with swears.

I am and have been a fan of the Swift oeuvre, and didn’t need Ryan Adams to reveal her brilliance to me. And it really annoys me that I have to pre-amble my review of this album with these credentials just because of some sneering knee jerkiness happening out there on the interwebs.

All that said, it was always inevitable that the original 1989 wouldn’t gain a permanent place on my phone’s playlist simply because of the pop production values which are not and have never been My Thing. Love the woman, love the work, but my ears weren’t built for 80s synth sounds.

The service Ryan Adams has done is not to ‘reveal’ the brilliance of Ms Swift’s songwriting but to allow it to exist more comfortably alongside the country/americana/70s rock sound vibrations in my life.

I’ve never been a particular Ryan Adams fan. So it wasn’t as if this was really calling to me. I certainly wouldn’t look to him as an arbiter of anything. Have a very few Whiskeytown tracks but not as many of them as I have Taylor Swift albums. He’s far too prolific to be easy to get into, and his philosophy of banging out recordings (while it’s probably the way I’d be as a professional musician) means that his work sounds less refined, less produced than most of the stuff I listen to. He admitted in his Daily Show interview that his version of 1989 took him about 3 weeks to put together – a long time for him, but not for most other people. It has a lively and spontaneous feel, but it also doesn’t feel particularly arranged. Whether this will last longer on my playlist than the original, I don’t know, but it is great fun, and it’s great to be hearing these songs played in looser arrangements with the vibe of a whole different genre. What’s great about it is, even with the loose arrangements and low-key production, these songs shine through.

A few years ago, Kris Delmhorst recorded an album of songs originally recorded by the US ‘New Wave’ rock band The Cars. It was very good. This is a similar kind of thing, the kind of tribute album you’d expect a Dylan or a Browne to get: and Taylor Swift is up there in that exalted songwriting company.

517iwyzVjoL._SX323_BO1,204,203,200_2. The Girl in the Spider’s Web – by David Lagercrantz

Let’s begin with my objection to the titles this series of books gets in English. From Men Who Hate Women in Swedish to Millennium Series in other territories, there are a number of ways to refer to the Stieg Larsson’s work. But in English, the woman becomes the girl and the girl has a tattoo. It’s all a bit nudge nudge wink wink. It’s all a bit fucking annoying.

Deep breath.

I’ve only read the originals once, thought them good, but I haven’t paid much attention to the controversies surrounding this sequel. So Larsson may have planned ten books in total but didn’t get very far. Imagine if George RR Martin were to die unexpectedly. Would you want A Song of Ice and Fire to be completed by someone else? Probably.

I make the comparison deliberately because of the sheer number of pages in Larsson’s books, which compares to the huge Game of Thrones books. Whereas I found the latter heavy going (flat prose, flat characters), I enjoyed reading Millennium, found them properly gripping proper page turners.

Spider’s Web, or Men Who Hate Women volume IV doesn’t become properly gripping until about 250 pages in. It’s not as long as the Larsson books, so you’re well over halfway through by that point.

It has the grittiness of a thriller. The style is easy to read, the story flows along. There are a lot of different characters and points of view. I’m not sure the author knows what to do with Lisbeth Salander, though he has certainly picked up on details in the earlier books that left readers puzzled: why did Larsson make mention of this person when they don’t really feature? Well, here they are, featuring.

It doesn’t feel like the same series. There isn’t the attention to detail or the sense of immersion in a world. The plot burns too quickly, maybe.

Cynical marketing exercise? Possibly. But my expectations weren’t very high, so it’s all right.

651016-hand-of-god_768x10243. Hand of God – Amazon Prime

Amazon Prime has some good stuff (Bosch) and some forthcoming intriguing stuff (The Man in the High Castle) and some forthcoming already-a-hit stuff (Mr Robot). In the meantime, there’s this: a 10-part Amazon original about a corrupt judge having hallucinations/visions and seeking revenge for his son’s. er, comatose state…

It managed to get a positive response for its pilot, or they wouldn’t have made any more, would they? But the critics have slammed it, by all accounts. My feeling is, it’s all right, but it does have problems.

Problem number one is the religious element: the show wants to have it both ways: the judge is deluded and cracking up; at the same time, his ‘visions’ seem to contain enough truth to make you believe they are some form of supernatural intervention. Are we to believe in the agency of the son-in-a-coma’s spirit? Or are we to believe that the judge unconsciously knows stuff that his own delusions are feeding him? Either way, I’m uncomfortable with the religionism in this, and there’s an underlying nastiness to it which feels like someone’s world view.

Problem number two is that the show focuses on the suffering of the son who was forced to watch as his wife was raped. I’ll repeat that: his wife (notice the use of the possessive case) was raped. Her suffering is unimportant. It’s not her who attempts suicide. It’s all about the son, lying in a coma in hospital. And the lack of compassion for her, the treatment of her, is a problem. Why not make the show about the judge seeking revenge for her rape? Why doesn’t he care about her? Why do we have to have a rapey plot in the first place? Why can’t the son be committing suicide following a simple burglary/home invasion?

Problem number three is that there are too many sub-plots. Sure, they kinda tie together in the end, or some of them do, but there are enough character arcs to cover a 22-episode full season, and this is not that. It needed paring down.

Problem number 4 was the general lack of charisma in the cast. Ron Perlman is a born supporting player and couldn’t pull off the Dennis Franz trick. Dana Delaney has been in too many things. Julian Morris doesn’t have enough charisma to play the charismatic preacher. Probably the best of the bunch were Elizabeth McLaughlin and Emayatzy Corinealdi – though neither had enough to do. They tried to give the latter more, but that ended up being one of the sub-plots that didn’t really go anywhere.

So a mixed bag. On the one hand, loads of problems. On the other, I did watch to the end, and the major plot twist at the end did kinda work.

Volkswagen, you’ve changed — 4 October, 2015

Volkswagen, you’ve changed

File photo dated 07/01/09 of new VW cars waiting on the docks near Sheerness in Kent, as a transport lobby group suggested that millions of cars on UK roads could be recalled as a probe into rigged emissions tests on Volkswagen models in the US threatened to reach Europe. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Issue date: Tuesday September 22, 2015. The German car maker apologised after America's Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) found the company had cheated clean-air rules before ordering it to recall nearly half a million diesel models built in the last seven years. See PA story TRANSPORT Volkswagen. Photo credit should read: Gareth Fuller/PA Wire

I’ve been meaning to post something about the VW situation. The only thing worse for me, as a fully paid up brand fanboi, would be for Apple to suddenly start to dominate their industry… oh.

My affection for the VW brand has always been based on its boringness, that dull reputation for reliability. I always liked the way its engines worked their best at lowish revs, the unflashy design, the plain but functional controls. I liked the slow evolution of both the Beetle and the Golf, the kind of incremental evolution that Apple makes with its phones and laptops. I liked the way the Golf was a genuine everycar, looking as good parked on a gravel drive in the country as it does on the street outside a city terrace.

My wife has owned other brands (a Ford, a couple of Fiats), but I’ve driven nothing but Volkswagens for over 30 years. In order:

  • Beetle 1200
  • Beetle 1303
  • Polo Saloon
  • Golf 2
  • Polo Saloon
  • Bora
  • Passat Estate
  • Golf 5
  • Polo

In addition, my wife has had a Polo, a Lupo and now a Touran. That makes 12.

So, this diesel business. I always knew the diesel engine never had the foothold in the US market that it has in Europe. The Americans, it’s fair to say, do not present a united front when it comes to CO2 emissions, but some states have had stringent air quality standards for years: California in particular. And yet…

Somehow voodoo marketing and sleight of hand have meant that concerns about particulates and nitrogen oxides sank into the background while society focused on CO2 emissions and methane. But the evidence of our own eyes should have warned us something was up: that perpetual haze, the rarity of clear days. You can see the Alps from the bottom of our garden in France on a clear day. The last time I saw them clearly was about two years ago.

So they’ve been lying to us, and maybe some other manufacturers have too, but we’re also culpable because we decided diesels were okay, and that concerns about particulates etc. were unimportant. And we end up with London as one of the most polluted cities on earth: which shouldn’t be happening, should it, this far into the 21st century, with us all driving greener and more economical cars than those that they used to make in the 70s?

How do I feel about VW now? My main feeling is that it’s diesel that should be over, and that my next car (of whatever brand) should have a petrol engine (I’d buy a Tesla in a heartbeat if I had the money). I’m pretty sure that VW are going to be punished enough for this scandal, and that anything I say or do will be meaningless. Am I pissed off with them about this? Yeah, like the fox is pissed off with the scorpion I am. But my feelings about the company have changed because of something else.

If there was a difference between the VW brand and its Audi subsidiary it’s that with Audi you not only pay a premium for the prestige but also for absolutely everything over and above the car and its engine. Things that are standard across other ranges cost extra on an Audi. One of the directors of my old company had an A4 a few years ago: nice looking car. But in the back seat: manual window winders and a bench seat that was about as hard as a park bench.

Screen Shot 2015-10-04 at 19.28.07I was on the VW web site the other day, and I noticed that, when configuring a Golf, only one colour doesn’t cost you extra. Whereas you used to be able to spec a red or white (sometimes black) car without penalty, your only choice now is urano grey. Urano. Even the name seems calculated to give offence. And it’s a disgusting colour, too. The current fashion for white cars (driven, in large part, by Volkswagen themselves who made both Scirocco and Golf look good in white) has given them an opportunity to gouge their prices.

So regardless of the diesel emissions scandal, I’m pissed off with VW for this practice. So fuck ’em.

Corbyn: just when you thought he was out… they pull him back in — 26 September, 2015

Corbyn: just when you thought he was out… they pull him back in

040369250GIA_bisI was disappointed, if not surprised, to see the headlines saying that our new, radical, dangerous shadow chancellor will follow the fiscal charter of the incumbent, reactionary, incompetent chancellor. (John McDonnel: Labour will match Osborne and live within our means). In spite of promising signs in the first week, when the media narrative indicated that Corbyn and his new team were doing everything ‘wrong’ and stomping all over tradition, and ‘needed’ a spin doctor, the process of pulling them back in to the establishment narrative of economy and society has begun.

When I started work for the Apple dealer I used to work for, I had a choice. Would I muck in with the team and become one of them, or would I stand aloof and apart, refusing to be a joiner or a team player etc.. The pressure was high. Muck in implies getting your hands dirty. In this case it wasn’t so much hands as soul. Being one of them would have meant participation in and tacit approval of company social events that sometimes involved lapdancing clubs as well as binge-drinking and random coupling. And I did not want to do that. So I didn’t. So that, and my accent, meant that I did not fit in, was seen as a snob. If you’re not there when people disgrace themselves and degrade women, they haven’t got anything over you. You have to do the thing, do the nasty, to join the inner circle. The final straw for many of the staff came when I chose to wear a Brasil football shirt to work when England were playing in a World Cup tournament. My snarky act of minor rebellion caused considerable outrage. After that, they hated me.

This is how organisations operate. They blow dog whistles, they operate under shibboleth, they have tacit understandings. They put up hurdles and hide bear traps. When Corbyn became the leader of Her Majesty’s Most Loyal Opposition, the die was cast. Unpack that title, for a start. Most loyal. Which means, kneel, which means, sing. How can you accept such a title if you claim to be a republican? Turn up at the service wearing a donkey jacket: game over. Turn up at the service dressed in a smart dark suit and refuse to sing: game over. Become leader of the opposition and join the Privy Council (which involves taking an oath on the kneel): game over. Refuse to do that: game over.

Whether it’s waving a burning £50 note in the face of a homeless person, accepting fellatio from a dead porker, or kneeling before the queen, all organisations have a price of admission. You wanna join the crips, you gotta steal a car, or take part in a drive-by shooting. You wanna join the Teamsters, you gotta do a little thing. To be in you have to undertake certain acts. And when you have undertaken those acts, once you have been through the threshold ritual, you are changed. You cannot change back. Over here, you are a boy; over there, you are a man; but to get there you must pass through this line of people who are beating you with sticks. Over here, you are a socialist. Over there, you can be Prime Minister. But first you have to pass through the ritual in which you’re just another empty suit who parrots the narrative peddled by the oligarchs and the corporations.

Corbyn is still liminal — just. He’s not quite all the way in. He has poppy day to negotiate. He has yet to kneel before the queen. If he fails to do so, he will remain an outsider, and will face five years of character assassination from the mainstream media. If he refuses to wear the poppy, may [god] have mercy on his [soul].

I too started a new job recently. So far, I’m fitting in okay. I bought some cakes on MacMillan Coffee Morning, donated a fiver. I’ve managed to gloss over the fact that I’m not interested in the rugby. I’m not doing the long hours thing, though, where you stay at work late ‘working’ so people know you are ‘working’, so that’s going to be an issue. And I’m not going to wear a fucking poppy, so that will be another one.

A lay-person’s guide to The Great Content Blocking Controversy of 2015 — 19 September, 2015

A lay-person’s guide to The Great Content Blocking Controversy of 2015

Screen Shot 2015-09-19 at 09.04.19A lot of the tech podcasts I listen to often refer to ‘ordinary people’, that vast majority of technology users who use devices without necessarily understanding how they work. Which can sometimes sound like a snotty remark but is certainly something that holds true for Apple products in particular. For example, it turns out, most people don’t care how much RAM is installed in their tablet or smartphone; most people aren’t bothered by the number of megapixels in the camera. Nokia once launched a phone with 31 (was it?) megapixels, but people didn’t rush to buy it.

Most people are satisfied that their iPhone or whatever works. They might complain if they can’t run an update because of a lack of space, but those pains are usually temporary. The tech podcasts are always harping on about the inadequacy of the 16GB iPhone (friends don’t let friends buy 16GB), but it turns out that 43 percent of iPhone sales are of 16GB models. Regular people just get what they can get and what they think they can afford. From Apple’s perspective, they get a new customer who gets the ‘affordable’ phone. When it comes time to upgrade, that customer is likely to go for the bigger capacity middle tier, having experienced how shit things can be at the bottom end. This is what you call playing the long game. The entry-level iPhone is good enough that people want to stick with it; but 16GB is bad enough that people will spend more the next time. And more likely to want to replace an ageing phone than keep it another year.

I consider myself halfway between an ordinary person and a techie. I understand technology, and I know a lot about it, but I’m not a coder or an engineer. One thing I think we’ve all been aware of over the past couple of years is how shit web sites are in mobile Safari. You follow a link from a tweet and it takes you to, say, The Independent. The page loads slowly, even though you are on wifi or a fast 4G connection. When the article appears, it is interrupted every few lines by intrusive ads. While you’re reading the article, the progress bar at the top shows that the page is still loading. You finish reading the article, and the page is still loading.

Or these scenarios: you follow a link to a story, but instead of getting the web page you get bounced into the App Store and are prompted to buy the app that goes with that site. Or the page is covered by a prompt to buy the app. Or the page is covered by a massive ad that you can’t dismiss. Or there’s an ad on the page that scrolls when you scroll, making the content impossible to see. Or the page loads and you start to scroll but then an ad appears at the last minute and you have accidentally tapped it, and a new page opens, one you didn’t want to visit.

Instead of the article, or news story or opinion column, you just get assailed by ads. And everything takes forever to load. Back in the late 90s, we used to say that seven seconds was the time you got before a web visitor grew restless and decided not to stay on your page. Seven seconds seems like luxury now. Even though computers are a lot faster, even though bandwidth is a lot wider, somehow the web got really, really slow. Especially on mobiles. It’s especially bad if you have anything other than an unlimited data plan, or if you’re roaming overseas. These news articles shouldn’t be gobbling your data in the way they are.

What’s been happening is that struggling publishers are allowing ad networks to run all kinds of scripts, throw up all kinds of intrusive and nasty advertising, to run all kinds of nosy trackers, in order to pay their overheads and (in some cases at least) writers. The ad networks aren’t advertisers per se, they are the brokers, the middlemen. And they don’t care that you just followed a link and can’t read the article. Their job is to serve ads. They also don’t care how they serve those ads: because they’re charging advertisers per ad served, they have found ways of serving a lot of ads. Some of which, it seems, aren’t even visible.

Allegedly, there are JPEGS and videos running away underneath the ads you do see, which are also ads, and which the ad networks are charging the advertisers for. It almost seems like a massive fraud is being perpetrated, doesn’t it?

Into this dystopia slips the largely unassuming iOS update to version 9. This is not an aggressive update. There aren’t new, flatter icons, there’s not a lot of surface change. If it was a leopard, it would be a snow leopard. There’s a new system font (hooray) and the return of the -1 screen, which now features suggestions from Siri. The fucking shift key problem has been (sort of) fixed. But there is a small new feature that is proving controversial.

It was a slow train coming. The publishers and ad networks could see it coming down the track. But still, if you visited Macworld, or iMore, or CNET, or any newspaper web site, the experience was bad: the pages loaded slow, the progress bar sometimes never reached the end. From Apple’s point of view, it was embarrassing. Because when almost all web pages load slowly, you’re not thinking, javascript, you’re not thinking, trackers, you’re not thinking, fifty ads loading in the background that I can’t even see. You’re thinking, gee this tiny little mostly-text web page is taking forever to load. Mobile Safari is SHIT.

And there’s the rub. With so many ‘ordinary people’ of the opinion that mobile Safari is shit, Apple had to act. And they acted by allowing developers to create content blockers. Go ahead, try it: download Crystal. Suddenly, those Independent and Guardian web pages appear instantly. Orders of magnitude quicker. Mobile Safari is fast. Your £600-700 iPhone is fucking amazing. You have as much computing power in your pocket as you’d have found in a laptop of a few years ago. This technology is remarkable. But those scripts, those trackers, those possibly fraudulent ads, were slowing everything down (and hogging your data).

And as soon as the public got hold of these blockers, the publishers started howling. Marco Arment released one, Peace, that he’d been quietly working on without talking about it on his podcast. It went straight to the top of the App charts. Something that the techies might have thought was just for them turns out to be of appeal to ‘ordinary people’. The content appears: the ads don’t. Everything is quicker.

The problem, of course, is that if the ads don’t load, the publishers don’t get paid. Nor do the ad networks, but I have less sympathy for (most of) them, because this situation is their fault. Some ad networks (like The Deck) don’t serve nasty ads, and yet their ads too are blocked. So sites like Daring Fireball and Six Colors are losing revenue. I think because of this, because some of his colleagues and friends were suffering, Mr Arment had a change of heart. He withdrew Peace from the store after two days. I think he was expecting Overcast levels of interest, and the success shocked him.

The publishers have always had this problem. But (with the exception of those smart enough to use the less-is-more approach of Daring Fireball) it’s of their own making. They’ve been giving away their content for free for too long and trying to pay for it with levels of advertising that cross the line in terms of intrusion and invasion of privacy. Some of them (in the UK) have tried to blame the BBC for this, but although the BBC news content is free, it’s also pretty shit, Ceefax quality, and no competition for the newspapers with their campaigning and political agendas, which the BBC can’t follow. No, the free model was the publisher’s own fault, and now they need to do what they should have done fifteen years ago, and look more seriously at subscriptions and micro-payments, or even short “sponsor-read” type articles which follow the podcast advertising model and are less annoying.

Most of all, advertisers and ad networks need to stop fucking tracking people’s online habits. Leave us our privacy and remember: just because you can do something, doesn’t mean you should.

On the charming Mystery Show podcast — 16 September, 2015

On the charming Mystery Show podcast

Mystery-LogoI spotted Gimlet Media’s Mystery Show podcast cropping up in the recommendations section of Overcast, and immediately downloaded episode one to give it a try. I was instantly charmed, and although I’m a jaded podcast listener who was into Serial long before you were, I promptly downloaded the rest of the half dozen episodes that have been broadcast so far.

I  think Mystery Show definitely owes something to Serial, in that it’s a species of investigative journalism with a brilliant female presenter and clever editing. But whereas Serial tackled the life-and-death case of a possible, probable miscarriage of justice, Mystery Show tackles puzzles on a much smaller scale. The one rule is, these mysteries can’t be the kind of things you can solve with a Google search.

And therein lies its charm. Episode one features a woman who swears she once joined a video rental store, borrowed a video, and then, the very next day, when she went to return the film, the store was gone. Episode 2 tackles the mystery of a book Britney Spears was photographed carrying (apparently she is frequently photographed clutching reading material). Episode 3 is about a fancy belt buckle that some guy found in the street. That’s my favourite so far (made me cry). Also: the how tall is Jake Gyllenhaal episode is laugh-out-loud funny.

Presenter Starlee Kine is brilliant: very witty, with a savant-like gift for getting people to open up to her. The subject matter is light enough to be endlessly amusing, and the mysteries are trivial, everyday, and yet somehow deeply fascinating. It’s not studio bound, but somehow manages to get out and about, into the country, and Kine seems to encounter interesting people everywhere she goes. Every interview gives a little boost to your faith in humanity. It’s heady stuff: this podcast spreads happiness

I’ve culled a few podcasts from my list lately (my commute being so much shorter now), but this one makes the grade. It’s refreshingly different, too, coming from a different stable (not Radiotopia, not Incomparable, not 5by5 etc.). Starlee Kine is already a podcasting star, and I particularly thank her for introducing me to the guy who runs an artisanal pencil sharpening business.

Bluetooth earbuds and the price point problem — 14 September, 2015

Bluetooth earbuds and the price point problem

Halterrego Liberty H bluetooth earbuds (écouteurs)

143-9-1404895145Here’s a funny story. Well, not that funny. I’ve been putting up with my Plantronics bluetooth headbuds for a while, and growing increasingly uncomfortable in them on my bike rides. There’s an unfortunate clash between earbuds, glasses, and helmet and/or cap. It’s not so bad when I wear my regular glasses, which are Oakleys with straight arms, but in the sunshine I wear my RayBan prescription sunglasses, and they hook over the ears in the traditional way. So what I’ve been hankering after for a while are earbuds that just go in the ears and don’t hook over them.

I’d been steeling myself for trying something else, but the thing with earbuds is, they’re like bike saddles. You can’t really try them on (ew), and even if you could, you wouldn’t be able to tell in a few seconds what the reality of wearing them for an hour or more would be. I make the analogy to bike saddles because there are loads of options when it comes to saddles, at lots of price points, but until you’ve ridden around on one for a few hours, you don’t know if it suits you. I want to try a Brooks Cambium, but at £150 it’s just too great a risk. £150 and my arse doesn’t like it? What then?

Steeling myself, as I said, for buying something else, and maybe working up to spending on something like the Jaybirds Bluebuds, which at £126 look very expensive, especially when compared to the myriad el cheapo options now available. What to do, what to do?

What I did was, I went on holiday for six weeks and inadvertently left the Plantronics at home. So I was looking around, everywhere I went, for something I could use, something not too outrageous.

France isn’t generally great for electronics, so there wasn’t much doing. I ended up in an E Leclerc Electrical Goods/Books/Entertainment shop (not attached to the main supermarket, but across the road), where I saw these, the Liberty H by unknown brand Halterrego.

Which brings me to the price point problem. On the one hand, £14.99, which seems a bit cheap for what they’re supposed to be. What do you want? Sweat proof, comfortable to wear, decent sound quality, decent battery life. £14.99 doesn’t give me much faith that such things are possible. On the other hand, £126 for something I’m going to be wearing for an hour or two each week is tad steep. What you want, ideally, is something halfway between the two. Shopping on Amazon, you can find the Plantronics Backbeats for about £60, but in France you’ll only find them in Fnac for the full €120. And they hook over the ears, so no.

The Libertys were about €80, or £59. But they were a brand I’d never heard of, so what to do, what to do?

I bought them. They come overpackaged, in a hard plastic case with a slidy in bit and a challenging unpacking procedure. They come with alternative earpieces, standard stuff, and they have some kind of attachment that’s supposed to help them stay in your ears. It’s not an over-ear hook, but some kind of in-ear gizmo. Once you remove them from the heavy packaging, they weigh almost nothing. So you think you’ve just paid £60 for a pair of £14.99 earbuds. The battery can’t possibly last more than an hour, you think. But it does. The sound quality is fairly decent too. They’re louder than my old Plantronics, and I’ve got no complaints about that at all. The sound they’re competing with on the bike is not traffic, but wind. Travelling downhill at 30+ mph, you hear nothing but wind in your ears. They’re even fairly decent for use with the big French petrol lawnmower, although only for music, not for podcasts. You can’t hear This American Life and mow with the Honda.

I don’t think they’re sweat proof. The USB connector for charging is uncapped, for a start. They’re quite fiddly to switch on (tiny little button), but they paired quite easily and have done so reliably every time I used them. The battery seems to last at least 7 hours, if not longer.

It’s the comfort angle that’s bugging me. With the ear hook things, I didn’t know what to do. Didn’t know what angle to put them at or how they’re supposed to work. No helpful instructions included. It’s assumed you know. So I took the gizmos off. At first, I thought this was better, but I’m still constantly having to push them back in my ears. Maybe I’ve got the wrong size earpieces on, but past experience tells me that I’m not happy with any size. Couldn’t tell you if my earholes are small medium or large. I can’t see them and I’ve got nothing to compare them to.

Riding out at the weekend, they were in but not firmly in and they moved about whenever I turned or dipped my head. Annoying. At one point, the right side came out altogether and yet when I jammed it back in (whilst on the move), it stayed put till the end of my ride and didn’t even move. It made me wonder why I couldn’t put it in like that at the start of the ride.

I don’t find them too comfortable after about an hour. My ears start to feel funny and it’s sweet relief to remove them.

All in all, I wish I’d never bought them, but I mostly wish I’d remembered to take the Plantronics. Now I feel like I’ve already spent £60 on new earbuds and cannot justify another purchase so soon.

(I know it’s potentially dangerous to wear earbuds whilst pedalling, but I’m very experienced on the bike, and I’m very careful. I look over my shoulder a lot, and you can generally hear traffic approaching – it’s not as if they’re noise cancelling. Anyway, if a car comes up behind me and the driver decides to knock me into a ditch, being able to hear it happen isn’t going to help much. Most cars come up behind you and overtake you quite safely.)

Corbyn’s Victory – my cool take — 12 September, 2015

Corbyn’s Victory – my cool take

A doomed Enterprise?
A doomed Enterprise?

I’ve held off discussing the Labour Party leadership. I’m a (lazy, non-activist) Green Party member and I vowed after Iraq, after various other Blair/Brown betrayals, that I wouldn’t be voting Labour again. It’s been easy: I live in Speaker Bercow’s constituency, so Labour don’t even stand here and it hasn’t been an issue. As an old leftie, I always hated Blair, and considered Brown to be a lucky chancellor and an inveterate tinkerer. He blew it with me when he bailed out the banks. Given their behaviour since, given the media and political narrative that ensued, that blamed overspending and not bad lending for the near-collapse of the world economy, I still think he (and everyone else) was wrong to bail out the banks. Investments can go up as well as down.

Right now, we could be living in a post-capitalist, post-neo-liberal world, instead of this shitty austerity-riven, blame-the-poor, punish-the-weak, welfare-for-the-rich dystopia.

Miliband was the wrong leader to succeed Brown. A zero charisma, zero ideas, empty suit, slightly weird adenoidic who was a bacon sandwich photo opportunity waiting to happen.

Which leads us to here and this leadership election between three more empty suits and a man in a jumper. I said at the beginning that Corbyn was destined to be another Michael Foot.

I liked Michael Foot. One of the few politicians I’ve ever heard speak (at a CND rally), I considered him a decent, highly intelligent, principled man. I loved him and his donkey jacket, and I watched him destroyed by our almost-wholly right wing media as the Labour Party (always a coalition of competing philosophies and interests) disintegrated around him.

Labour. Never quite so radical as they were in 1900 and 1945, they’re an amalgam of socialist societies, career politicians with no principles, right wing trade unions, and left-wing firebrands. In the post-Foot era, the left was shoved aside and the Party was stewarded by a series of increasingly right-wing leaders into a position to win big in ’97.

So here we are and here we are and here we go, as the Quo said, and the cycle is set to begin again. Or is it?

Did you just see what happened. Every. Single. Major. Media. Outlet. They were all against him, especially the Guardian, publishing think pieces and opinion pieces and news pieces, seeking to pooh pooh the very idea him, the unelectability of him, the very Michael Footness of him. Never has there been such a clear and blatant effort to exclude a candidate. The very Labour Party itself wrote to many of its own life-long supporters (such as journalist/comedian Mark Steel) and forbade them from voting for him. And still he won. He won bigger than Blair, and he won fair and square, even among established and traditional Labour Party members.

A collective delusion, a close-your-eyes and wish for it, a doomed enterprise. All of this. For the next five years it will be A Very British Coup all over the shop, and the press and the BBC and the rest will be at him and all over him seeking to kick him to death before the 2020 election. It’ll be Michael Foot and the donkey jacket and the Cenotaph all over again.

Or will it?

Because you know what we didn’t have in 1983? Twitter. We didn’t have the means to construct a counter-narrative, to fact-check their lies and hand them their asses, over and over again. With Foot, all that old CND lot, there was never the power to fight back to organise, to mobilise, in the way there is now.

I used to sit at union meetings back in the 80s, and listen to the lefties bemoan the state of the Labour Party, the old “Labour Party compromisers”, the frequent betrayals. Nobody ever hates the Labour Party so much as their most passionate supporters. And for all these years, these years since Kinnock, the idea that the Blairites might be toppled, that New Labour might be given the boot, that anybody with any socialist ideas at all might ever get onto the front bench let alone into the leadership seemed like the purest fantasy. The Labour Party was lost to us, and some of us joined the Greens.

But there he is. Not just winning, but winning bigger than Blair. Dare to dream?

Bosch – review — 11 September, 2015

Bosch – review

Screen Shot 2015-09-11 at 16.43.01
Readers of the books will recognise this place

Following my last entry (and a prompt from my sister), I finally got around to watching Amazon’s 10-part TV series based on Michael Connelly’s series of novels about Los Angeles police detective Harry Bosch.

I have read the vast majority of these books – acquired through various means and on various platforms, so I was familiar with the character and the style of storytelling. My immediate impression on watching the first episode (which I think you can watch for free even if you haven’t got Prime?) was that the producers of the show (which include Connelly in an exec post) have got things just right. No easy thing.

Now, when it comes to genre fiction like this, it can be difficult to explain to a non-reader/viewer what makes something like Bosch (in print and on screen) worth checking out when at face value this might appear like ‘just another’ cop show.

  • Item: Bosch is something of a lone wolf, a maverick, who is frequently in conflict with his superiors and colleagues.
  • Item: But he gets results.
  • Item: He is estranged from his family and often lets his daughter down by being absent/late for promised visits.
  • Item: But there is deep love there.
  • Item: He is obsessive, consumed by his work, and works odd hours.
  • Item: But he has a deep empathy for the victims of crime.
  • Item: He’s off the case, back on the case, suspended, etc.
  • Item: But he keeps working the case anyway.

And so it goes. It’s hard not to point at that list of cop show clichés and infer that it’s just another genre show. And yet, to use another cliché, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. First of all, the novels, police procedurals, are written with an attention to detail and  a respect for accuracy that brings them to life. Bosch as a character develops over time and has a convincing set of motivations based on his back story, and the author manages to put him in situations that resonate with the back story without coming across as too contrived.

Second of all, the TV show uses the novels creatively. Rather than simply adapting Novel A into episode A (or sequence of episodes based on A), the series uses all of the novels to fill in the background experience and then combines three of them to create a slow-burn series with exquisite pacing. (The three are The Concrete Blonde, City of Bones, and Echo Park.) Back in the day, ITV adapted the Inspector Morse novels into 2-hour TV movies, but Bosch goes further, spreading the story over 10 episodes in a way that creates a gripping plot that unfolds convincingly, at the kind of pace that seems honest and true. Of course Bosch as a working detective is involved in more than one case at a time. So he’s dealing with a civil court action in the aftermath of one case; a cold case prompted by the discovery of the bones of a murdered child in the hills above Los Angeles; and a serial killer who becomes obsessed with Bosch and starts to commit crimes designed to communicate with the hero detective.

In addition to the excellent characterisation, pacing, storytelling, and interweaved narratives, the cinematography is superb. Ever since watching the documentary Los Angeles Plays Itself, I’ve been alert to the different ways in which the city is portrayed, and (I’m pretty sure thanks to the author himself), the representation of Los Angeles in this film is really special. It’s a city you’ve seen a million times (in True Detective season 2, for example), but this show makes it seem fresh.

Titus Welliver in the title role couldn’t be more perfectly cast, and the supporting actors also manage to bring characters to life from the page. My one quibble might be that Bosch’s partner Edgar (Jamie Hector) comes across more sympathetically than he does in the novels, in which he’s a bit of a jobsworth whose real passion is his side job as a real estate agent.

The last thing I’d say is that the episode length is just perfect. We’ve grown used, in recent years, to these cable shows with 1-hour episodes, and they can seem really epic. Bosch offers episodes of a more traditional 40-something minutes, and it really works. Just like in the good old days of binge watching DVD boxed sets of big network shows, you find yourself slightly disappointed every time an episode ends, and (knowing that the next one is just another 40-something minutes), you dive right into the next. So I watched the ten episodes in two sittings, five episodes per.

And that’s it. If you have Amazon Prime, it’s must-see. Better than just about anything else on at the moment and better than most other cop shows. Period. Is it better than Justified? Yes. Is it better than The Wire? Don’t ask me: I hated The Wire. The true question is, is Bosch worth getting Amazon Prime to see? Which is harder. It’s just one series. I’d definitely get it on DVD if I could. If you already buy a lot from Amazon, Prime is probably worth it for the next-day delivery.

Too Much TV? — 7 September, 2015

Too Much TV?

3ef0306f5741cfb33bfe3b16874aaf8f-jordskottThe idea that we might be reaching peak TV is currently in the air. John Landgraf, who is CEO of FX said as much during the recent TV Critics Association summer press tour:

“By our best current estimates, we believe 2015 will easily blow through the 400 series mark. I’m also asked when and if this proliferation of scripted series will level out and/or even decline. But just when I think we are at that point, another network jumps into the scripted game. I, long ago, lost the ability to keep track of every scripted TV series, as I know you do, even though we all do this for a living professionally; but, this year, I finally lost track of the ability to keep track of every programmer who is in the scripted programming business. And as you critics know better than anyone in America, this is simply too much television.”

So here we are. Far from having too much television over the summer, I had not enough. Our French TV has stopped working (the aerial has somehow become disconnected, long story). So when I got back to the UK and my Now TV box, I was eager to catch up on stuff I’d missed. For the record, the only TV I managed to watch over the summer were two series I was keen enough to download episodes from iTunes: Humans, and Jordskott, the latter of which was really for my obsessed daughters more than myself.

While I was away, I missed the final three episodes of True Detective season 2, and there were only two left on the box when I returned. But, although I was kinda enjoying it, and I watched episode 7 just before it disappeared, I didn’t pay much attention. It just wasn’t good enough for me to worry too much about it. So I doubt I’ll watch the finale.

In any other era, True Detective would have remained Must See TV, but now there’s always something else to watch instead. And that’s the point about Too Much TV. In times gone by, I would complain that TV Networks were too ruthless to give programmes a chance to grow an audience. We all lamented the passing of Firefly, which was probably killed by its own fans downloading episodes rather than watching them live. Now we live in a different era: a lot of whats out there is on download services like Netflix, Amazon, or Hulu, and some shows are dumped online wholesale, primed for binge watching. But these days, it’s the audience who are forced into the position of being ruthless. You watch an episode of something, a single episode, and if it doesn’t grab you, you give it up: because there’s always something else to watch. If something is being raved about, like Sense8, you might give it more time (I did), but you’ll still give up after three, four episodes (I did).

Since coming home I’ve checked out a number of new things. (James Patterson’s) Zoo was always going to be stupid and ridiculous, but would it have been so bad it’s good? No. It’s just silly, and I’m not even willing to hate-watch it. I’ve watched a bit of The Strain, but I’m not sure if I’ll see it through. I also watched an episode of Backstrom, which I quite liked, but it has already been cancelled, so what’s the point? Aquarius, a fictionalised account of the Manson murders was alright for one episode, but I’m already a bit bored of it. I watched a bit of The Fixer, but that was rubbish (had the geezer from the equally rubbish The Last Ship in it). I’ve seen a couple of Agent Carters, but (as with all superhero fare), bof. I tried Dag, but was underwhelmed (I rarely find modern comedies funny).

And now we get to the point. In this era, it’s not good enough to be good enough. Decent stuff just drowns in the flood. There is so much excellent TV that nobody needs to watch the merely adequate. And the chance that you’ll come across something good/excellent is increasingly unlikely. I’ve been on Amazon Prime for a couple of months now, and I’ve watched nothing. The big network shows of the recent past like the various CSI: franchises are slick, competent, entertaining, but no match for Game of Thrones or (if that’s your thing) The Wire etc. And they all seem to go on for too long – or have long ago passed the ends of their natural lives. Zombie shows, which can’t compete with The Walking Dead. 24 episodes? Really? To bother with a big network show you have to love it – notwithstanding its need to appeal to a broad audience. So I find the shows of this kind that I still watch have something about them that makes them slightly odd or quirky, an acquired taste. I still love Person of Interest, for my own reasons, and I watched both seasons of The Blacklist because, well, James Spader, and it still seems fresh. But there are vast swathes of TV I don’t even glance at these days. The BBC and ITV have nothing for me.

Into this world of too much TV, Apple are about to release a new TV product. Will it make good stuff easier to find? Because that’s what is urgently needed. A discovery feature. But can Apple deliver? As far as I’m concerned, they didn’t manage it with Music, so I’m skeptical that they could do it with TV.

Canada by Richard Ford (review) — 2 September, 2015

Canada by Richard Ford (review)

canada covers
A selection of the covers produced for Canada – the one I had is far right

Literary fiction is not really my genre, but in straitened circumstances (in France without enough to read) I picked this up, along with some others, in the Belfort Fnac.

Although this 2012 novel features both a bank robbery and a double murder, you can tell it’s not really in the crime genre, because the focus here isn’t on the crimes themselves but on the effect they have on the first-person narrator, Dell Parsons, a 15-year-old boy whose fraternal twin sister has run away to San Francisco while he has been exiled to Canada.

The book takes about half its length (250 pages) to reach Canada, by the way, which it does at the end of Part One, which deals with the lead-up to the bank robbery.

Canada is a quintessentially American novel, because only in the United States does Canada mean what it means in these pages. So it’s rather odd to be a British person sitting in France trying to grasp this meaning. This is a novel about borders and lines, decisions, and appearances. Set in 1960, its action takes place over a very short period of time. Kennedy and Nixon are in an election campaign, but we never quite get to the result of that election, which simply fits into the background, anchoring this novel in a time when the border between Canada and the USA was more porous than it is now, when it was more like, say, the border between France and Germany in the EU: only the font change on the road signs lets you know you’re in another country.

Canada: a place that looks the same as the USA, where the accent is supposedly different, but not much, and where the head of state is a distant queen, seen only in portraits, and where the dollars are a different colour.

Everybody has slightly weird names in the Parsons family. Dell’s parents, Bev (a recently discharged airforce man from Alabama) and Keeva (the Jewish intellectual and disappointed daughter of Polish refugees) somehow end up robbing a bank. Dell tells you this almost immediately, but takes over 250 pages to get to the point, as it were, because (of course) the robbery itself isn’t the point. Dell’s narration takes you forward and then back again, going over the same ground again and again, puzzling things out, and filling in more detail as he goes. There’s a scene in Part Two, in Canada, in which Dell watches a woman called Flo paint a scene: he watches her, dabbing and scrubbing, adding details, making what she originally put onto the canvas look more like the object in the real world that she’s portraying.

“So. Do you like us up here?” Florence glanced at me for a third time to be certain I was noticing her carefully applying paint to the post office. It pleased her, I thought, to be observed painting. “Canadians always want everybody to like it here, And us—especially to like us.” She made a careful little jab at the post office door, then turned her head sideways and looked at it that way. ‘But. When you do like us, we’re suspicious it might be for the wrong reasons. America must be a lot different. I have a feeling nobody much cares down there. I don’t know a lot about it. Doing things for the right reasons is the key to Canada.”

Dell’s narration is like this: a charcoal outline, and then colour, and then detail, and scrubbing, and shading, and filling in, until the picture becomes more complete. It’s a key passage: doing things for the right reasons, is the centre of the novel.

Dell spends the first half of the story trying to work out just why his mother agreed to rob the bank. He never quite gets there in his mind. He’s clear, after a while, that his father was probably born to it: probably always wanted to do it. But his mother, who wanted to be a poet, who needn’t have gone through with her accidental pregnancy and marriage to a man with whom she shared nothing in common bar their children; his mother is a puzzle.

There’s a puzzle in the novel, too: one of Niagra Falls, up on the border between the USA and Canada, which Bev Parsons works on while he’s waiting for the police to come and arrest him. And just as with Keeva Parsons and her motivation, in the end there’s a piece of the puzzle missing.

Dell is whisked away by a friend of the family and dumped up in Canada, in a near ghost town, where he stays for just a few weeks. He’s told us about the robbery: now he tells us about the murders. Meanwhile, his sister, Berner, has run away with the remaining proceeds of the bank job, and goes on to lead a very different kind of life.

Where Berner is active and opinionated, Dell is quiet, passive, and thoughtful. Events happen around him, and he observes, but he rarely becomes an actor in this plot.

Arthur Remlinger is another American in exile in Canada. He’s the dandyish and intellectual proprietor of a rough hotel in the middle of nowhere, frequented by truckers and hunters. Like Dell’s intellectual mother, Remlinger’s a puzzle with a piece missing, and Dell, his mother in jail awaiting trial, transfers his curiosity onto him.

While I was slightly infuriated at first with the glacial pace of this narrative, by the time Dell reached the beginning of his 250-page build-up to the second shocking event of his sixteenth year, I was prepared for it and relaxed into the rhythm of the prose. It’s interesting, food for thought. Literary fiction still isn’t my thing, but if you liked something like The Lovely Bones, you’d probably enjoy this too.


4 out of 5 dentists recommend this site

fantastic film and tv

off the wall views on off the wall stuff

David Harmer

Author, Poet, Lecturer and Consultant in Drama, Writing and Oracy

ceblialite's Blog

Hey hi hello


John Harvey on Books & Writing - his own & other people 's - Art, Music, Movies, & the elusive search for the perfect Flat White.


Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight uses statistical analysis — hard numbers — to tell compelling stories about politics, sports, science, economics and lifestyle.

rashbre snapped

there is fun going forward


4 out of 5 dentists recommend this site

fantastic film and tv

off the wall views on off the wall stuff

David Harmer

Author, Poet, Lecturer and Consultant in Drama, Writing and Oracy

ceblialite's Blog

Hey hi hello


John Harvey on Books & Writing - his own & other people 's - Art, Music, Movies, & the elusive search for the perfect Flat White.


Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight uses statistical analysis — hard numbers — to tell compelling stories about politics, sports, science, economics and lifestyle.

rashbre snapped

there is fun going forward

ragtime cyclist

cycling, pro cycling, and the bits inbetween

Aerogramme Writers' Studio

Books and Writing I News and Resources



Dr. Doyle's Editorial and Critique Services

thoughts on reading, writing, and editing News

The latest news on and the WordPress community.

The Obald

a work-in-progress

The daily life of an English teacher.

Just another weblog

Catharine Soulipsis

Spit it out! There\'s nobody looking!

Bob\'s Book Reviews

Collected Literary Musings

Only Two Rs

Thoughts & discussion on reading & writing with a historical flavour


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 423 other followers