Brexit: the city in the sky

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City in the Sky by JoshDykgraaf.deviantart.com

My attitude to what the kids are calling Brexit is a fairly selfish one at the moment. It simply throws my retirement plans into a shredder, and I’m not sure what emerges on the other side of that shredder in terms of:

  • My right to live in France when I retire
  • My right to health care and prescriptions in France
  • The value of my pension
  • My tax situation

And so on. Multiply my own personal issues with those of thousands of retirees in Spain and France and points beyond, and you have a bureaucratic tangle that makes my head hurt. It doesn’t matter which country you live in: you want as little to do with the authorities and their bureaucracy as possible. Even having to ask the question puts you at a position of disadvantage, in much the same way as concerned EU citizens and their offspring in the UK, who are encountering callous indifference and bewildering misinformation at every turn.

I believe I would have to be resident in France for two years before I could even apply for French citizenship. But how does one gain residency when no longer a citizen of a member state? It’s Catch 22, innit, and there are probably a hundred other Catches awaiting us. Then again, what are my chances of health care and prescriptions and a decent retirement if I stay in the UK? Slim to none, probably.

Leaving aside my selfish concerns, I’ve always had an ambivalent attitude to the EU. I’ve never liked the way that it bypasses democratic processes. Sure, we get to vote for MEPs, but (a) nobody cares about that, and (b) a huge amount of what the EU does has nothing to do with the Parliament in Strasbourg, and is undertaken by appointees. The power of patronage is the main power at work within the EU, and it’s no more a good thing than it is at home. Faceless bureaucrats and jobs for the boys ate our democracy.

On the other hand, European rules (on working hours, for example) provide, in theory, a level of protection from rapacious capitalism that our own government would be reluctant to supply. The shitty human beings who have been running this country for the past 40 years have always erred on the side of corporate concerns, with little regard for what is good for the public and society. So taking away what little protection the EU umbrella gives is a worry.

But maybe it shouldn’t be. Because it really is hard, looking around me, to see how things could get worse. The punishment meted out to the poor and vulnerable over the past 10 years happened while we were in the EU. The rise of zero hours contracts; the slow destruction of our infrastructure; the erosion of living standards; the GBH committed against the NHS; the public money being siphoned off through a giant hosepipe into the hungry maw of private capital — all of that is happening without any protection from an EU, which is hard-coded with neoliberal economic policies.

So bring on your wrecking ball, maybe?

Of course, the whole Brexit project was probably underwritten by secret billionaires who want to turn the UK into an offshore tax haven. But it was given a racist veneer of concerns about immigration. I don’t believe that the billionaires who run our media give a shit about immigration, for example. They don’t care about the burden on schools and the NHS or the welfare bill. Their kids/grandkids are privately educated and they have private health insurance. But they persuaded a lot of voters that the country was being overrun. And to their tame politicians, the whole thing was just a game: a few false promises and lies, nothing really matters, because we’re insulated by our money from the consequences.

Which leaves us where? Outside looking in, I should think. Outside the EU looking in, but also outside the Citadel of the Rich, their city in the sky, which is what they’re hoping to hide in as things fall apart.

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Raleigh Stow-E-Way e-bike

aHR0cHM6Ly93d3cucmFsZWlnaC5jby51ay9tZWRpYS9jYXRhbG9nL3Byb2R1Y3Qvcy90L3N0b3dlMnEtMV8xXzFfMV8xXzFfMV8xLmpwZw==As a replacement for the disappointing and unreliable B’Twin Hoptown 500, my wife ordered a Raleigh Stow-e-Way, which is still a folding model, but a step up in terms of quality and (hopefully) technology. This bike costs £1100, which means (once you’ve paid a £100 deposit) it’s possible to buy it under the UK’s Cycle to Work scheme. This allows you to get a £1000 voucher and pay it back through your salary before tax.

Like most bikes, you can also get an interest-free finance deal from the dealer.

aHR0cHM6Ly93d3cucmFsZWlnaC5jby51ay9tZWRpYS9jYXRhbG9nL3Byb2R1Y3Qvcy90L3N0b3dlMnEtM18xXzFfMV8xXzFfMV8xLmpwZw==It’s a good-looking bike with a charcoal finish (orange decals), and a clean design that looks elegant. There are a couple of neat features, including a support at the bottom of the frame that protects the chain when the bike is folded, and a pannier rack which is guaranteed not to rattle because it’s part of the frame. It also has a couple of magnets which help to keep it folded neatly for transport/storage.

We got this from Rutland Cycles, who have several shops in Northamptonshire, Rutland and Cambridgeshire. The dealer was very friendly and helpful, and I’d recommend them. In terms of e-bikes, they have a really good range, and some of their shops are also hire centres, so you can even try before you buy.

aHR0cHM6Ly93d3cucmFsZWlnaC5jby51ay9tZWRpYS9jYXRhbG9nL3Byb2R1Y3Qvcy90L3N0b3dlMnEtMjRfMV8xXzFfMV8xXzFfMS5qcGc=The Stow-E-Way is bigger than the Hoptown, has 20″ wheels and is less portable, but would still fit in the boot of a hatchback or estate car, and is clearly aimed at the boating/caravaning crowd — or people with limited storage space. Of course, the great thing about a folder is that one size fits all, because the saddle post and handlebars have a lot of adjustment.

The motor is an R15 rear hub from Taiwanese manufacturer Trans-X. It’s a lightweight design which is extremely quiet in operation, and it uses a torque sensor to kick in the power quite gently, which means you feel more controlled as you start pedalling. It has 4 levels of assist. My wife was able to climb our steep hill quite easily in 6th gear on setting 4 – meaning she had 5 gears spare for steeper or longer climbs. It’s so quiet you barely know it’s on: you just feel like you’re suddenly much better at pedalling.

The rear cassette is an 8-sprocket Shimano Altus, which is their second-ranked mountain bike equipment. There are bound to be some compromises in an e-bike built to this price. The cassette has an 11-32 gearing range, which means that you could really tackle anything on this bike. The 6.8 Ah 36V battery from Trans X fits behind the seatpost, and promises power assistance up to 50km (30 miles), depending on conditions and setting. After a 14-mile ride, it had lost two out of its five indicator bars. On its initial full charge, the bike managed about 35km (22 miles), on mixed routes, including some hills and a headwind. I think it was mainly in settings 2, 3, and 4. The supplied charger connects to the battery either on or off the bike, and looks a little like a XLR microphone connector, only with 5 pins.

aHR0cHM6Ly93d3cucmFsZWlnaC5jby51ay9tZWRpYS9jYXRhbG9nL3Byb2R1Y3Qvcy90L3N0b3dlMnEtMl8xXzFfMV8xXzFfMV8xLmpwZw==The bike has mudguards and built-in lights, front and rear, which draw power from the battery — and the rear light stays on for several minutes after you switch off, which is a safety feature, in case you’re stopped or walking on a dark road. The lights themselves are switched on by a light sensor (built into the control panel), which detects whether they’re needed. Personally, I’m in favour of always-on lights, and I might also add a flashing light up on the handlebars to catch motorists’ eyes.

Another price compromise is evident in the control panel, which is based around LEDs and push buttons, and has no range indicator other than the battery bars, and doesn’t feature a computer of any kind, so if you want to track your speed/distance, you have to use your phone or wrist-based tracker. Switching the bike on for the first time after a charge means using the switch on the battery, after which you can use the bar-mounted control panel.

I’m really impressed with this bike for the money. It looks well put together, and it works smoothly and efficiently. If you live within 20 miles of work (and can possibly top up the battery at work), it’s an ideal option for the Cycle-to-Work scheme, and you’d save between 25-39% of the cost in tax savings, depending on your earnings bracket.

Buckingham-Winslow Cycle Path

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Google Maps

It was heartening to see this cycling infrastructure being put in a couple of years ago. It was a shame, in a way, that I had changed jobs and would have no real reason to use it. It’s a cycle/pedestrian path which has been installed all the way from the Tesco roundabout in Buckingham to Winslow, as part of an integrated transport scheme which includes the opening of a new railway station in Winslow.

It’s only about 7 miles, but it runs parallel to the A413, which is a busy road between Buckingham and Aylesbury (via Winslow), and it is completely separate from the main carriageway, making it, in theory, safe and accessible for cyclists of all ages and abilities. That’s the good news.

So since my wife had just taken delivery of her new Raleigh Stow-E-Way e-bike, we thought we’d go on a family outing to Winslow and back, with my teenage daughter the only one moving by pedal power alone.

To reach the cycle path involved crossing Buckingham, which we did via the park and though the Badgers housing estate. This brings you out onto the A413 close to the Tesco roundabout, and you can cross the ring road on the pedestrian crossing.

The first bit of bad news comes right at the beginning of the cycle path: it’s closed by roadworks, and there’s a sign directing pedestrians onto the opposite footpath. But cyclists? Who knows? So we used the road for a short stretch, then back onto the cycle route.

As all cyclists know dedicated cycle routes can be a pain to ride on because you are constantly required to Give Way to motor traffic, which often involves uncomfortable contortions as you try to turn your head like an owl in order to see over your shoulders. In my ideal world, it would be like the rules on water, where motor boats give way to sail boats. Motorists, who are not having to crane their necks to look behind them, should be giving way to the cyclists (that might be) in front of them; not the other way around.

Anyway, I lost count of the number of junctions/crossings where we, the cyclists, had to look over our shoulders to give way. They were helpfully painted red, but then this is a brand-new scheme, and we all know what happens to coloured tarmac and painted lines if they’re not regularly maintained.

The next bit of bad news concerns detritus. The narrative that cyclists are the ones breaking all the rules of the road is of course a convenient foundation myth for the Clarksonites, who are the real sociopaths, throwing McDonalds boxes, empty drink bottles, plastic bags, and other rubbish onto the grass verges and ditches that line this nation’s roads. As well as plastic, glass, and cardboard waste, passing vehicles throw up huge numbers of loose stones, and the trees at the side of the road drop their leaves, seeds, and fruit onto the cycle path for good measure. In short, you’re riding through a lot of crap, even though the underlying surface is pleasantly smooth in comparison to most British roads.

It’s also not a particularly pleasant ride because it does run parallel to a very busy A road, along which the Clarksonites do drive way too fast. You see them screaming past, on their way up to the rear end of a visibly slower vehicle, and you see their brake lights go on, and you wonder what can be going through their heads.

In Padbury, the cycle route is forced to cross the road twice, because there was clearly a reason why it couldn’t run alongside the local allotments. Crossing for the second time, I was very much aware that the oncoming Jaguar was doing at least 50 mph in a 30 mph zone. The driver didn’t noticeably slow down, either, even though there was a cyclist crossing the road in front of (I’m going to guess it’s a) him.

The next bit of bad news was that the cycle route was blocked again by roadworks at Adstock, where signs had been erected indicating that Main Street into Adstock was closed ahead. And in spite of there being many other options available, the Road Closed Ahead signs were smack in the middle of the cycle path, necessitating a detour around them, on the bit of the road where the signs could have been placed.

Riding back, there was an additional hazard caused by a workman who had parked his van on the cycle path at the same junction. He could have easily driven around and parked on the closed bit of road, but no: easier for him to block the fricken’ cycle route, which is also used by pedestrians, invalid carriages, pushchairs etc.

Another aspect of riding back was that we were now on the “wrong” side of the road, riding into the face of oncoming traffic. Although we weren’t sharing the carriageway, it was still hairy as we were buffeted by the slipstreams of oncoming trucks.

All in all, a useful commuting route, but too stressful and irritating for a pleasant leisure ride. And too many reminders that cyclists don’t matter and motorists are scumbags.

Blade Runner 2049

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I’m very familiar with the original Blade Runner, because I used to teach it as an exam text to my students. And, along with two or three other films (including The Exorcist, The Shining, and The Conformist), it’s a film I grew to love more every time I went through it. So I’d probably rank it among the top ten films ever made. It took Vertigo forty years (or four polls) to crawl its way to the top of the BFI 100 list, and though I can’t see Blade Runner getting there as soon as 2022, it’s a better film, for me, than 2001: A Space Odyssey. It was at number 69 in 2012, while 2001 was at number 6.

So there was no pressure on Denis Villeneuve in making this sequel.

My four five-year social media blackout meant that I didn’t even know Villeneuve was directing. I managed to avoid knowing anything about this film, including its title, until about two weeks ago. I have no idea why Ridley Scott chose not to direct.

I know I’m not alone in adopting this blackout policy. It’s a reaction to the oversaturated media landscape, and a content industry that prioritises clicks above everything else. If you genuinely care about something, it’s painful to hear even the most uninformed speculation about it. Back in the 90s, a “spoiler” was somebody telling you plot details; now, it’s just a feeling of being overexposed to something, so that you feel as if it has been watched for you. You’re overtaken by a feeling of enervation and simply can’t be arsed. I was looking at the iTunes movie store for something to rent last night, and there was nothing I felt like watching. I haven’t seen the most recent Star Trek film, for example, but the thought of sitting through it just made me feel tired. Anyway, here’s what I think all good internet citizens should do: don’t “review” or “preview” or speculate about anything until it’s out.

You can have the Deckard-is-a-replicant or Deckard-is-Gaff discussion as much as you like: but after everybody’s had a chance to see something. Looking at the production history section of the Wikipedia article now, I’m struck by how fucking repetitive and boring all of the reports are. The frenzy of question-and-answer simply revolved around whether Harrison Ford would be in it, and you just wonder why people obsess on such details.

I got something of that feeling sitting through the trailers “specially selected” to play before BR 2049. What a load of old shit. The intelligent and thought-provoking big ideas of Blade Runner wadded up like snotty tissue with the loud nonsense of barrel scraping superhero franchises. Urgh.

The relatively new Odeon at Milton Keynes Stadium is a decent enough venue. It never seems to be horribly crowded, and doesn’t smell of rancid fat, which is a bonus. BR 2049 was playing on multiple screens: you could see it in IMAX (no thanks), or 3D (no ta), or 2D. Sitting in the 2D theatre before the showing, the loud rumbling from the IMAX theatre next door was unpleasantly gut-twisting, that almost below hearing threshold bass making me feel a bit sick.

And because the showings were out of synch, you could still hear the theatre next door during the quieter sections of my showing, which was a bit of a bummer. Some sound leakage might be inevitable, but it’s a complete certainty given the sheer volume at which the film was being played.

I’ve never understood the volume people. I suppose they must be extroverts who are afraid of quiet. The audio volume in the theatre I was in was so extreme that the sound was obviously being distorted. This was a real shame, as one of the key marvels of the Blade Runner film(s) is the soundscape. But here it was being rammed so violently into my ears that its subtleties were being lost. I’m not counting that a black mark against the film, but against the exhibitor, in this case the Odeon.

Anyway, I’m pretty sure the BR 2049 soundtrack is a marvel, but can’t really be sure. The production design, lighting, and cinematography was brilliant, and I appreciated the world-building, which did not patronise or “as you know” the audience. Needless to say, shit had gone down between 2019 and 2049.

The narrative plot was a little bit thin, I thought, but then the plot of the original was also quite slight. What I did find interesting this time was the way in which the atmosphere and ambiguity of the original book was baked-in. The fucked climate and environment of the future was foregrounded, and the rarity and luxury of natural substances like wood, like real animals, was crucially important. So there are moments in this film that go unexplained, just like in the original, which I really appreciate. Ultimately, a film is only great if it rewards further viewings. There’s also a strong similarity between Ryan Gosling’s “K” and the original cop of the novel: his desire to fulfil his “wife’s” every desire, for example. And then there’s that feeling, far more foregrounded than in the original, that literally anybody could be a replicant. A nice reference to the unicorn sequence, too.

So, this was great, I think. It’s almost a shame that there was no shitty voice-over that can be subsequently removed, but at least we can hope that there might be missing sequences that can be put back in. My favourite scene was the bit in the waves, which reminded me a lot of the ending of Kim Stanley Robinson’s Aurora: the feeling that, no matter how much humanity tries to destroy this planet, nature has the power to overwhelm and wash over us.

This was a film that made me not want to reach a verdict or a conclusion, which means I want to watch it a few more times: which is as it should be.

Alien: Covenant

Social-media-blackoutMy media blackout on Alien: Covenant was so effective that its release and reception almost completely passed me by. I only remembered it was there when it showed up on iTunes and was available for rental.

I’m a little aggrieved that the rental price was hiked up for £5.49 — for this of all films, as if the franchise still carried some kind of ‘brand premium’ after the crushing (but not if you run the other way) disappointment of Prometheus.

So, anyway, I rented it last weekend and sat down to watch with low expectations.

And, because my expectations were so low, I wasn’t disappointed.

I’ve got no issues with details like the production design, the cast, the cinematography, or the performances.

I just have an issue with the whole thing.

What, really, is the point of this franchise?

  • People waking from frozen sleep.
  • A space ship.
  • A signal.
  • A planet (or planetoid, or planet-like moon).
  • A robot, who may be good, or may be evil.
  • An alien or aliens.
  • People who act in an irresponsible or bizarre way.
  • A main female character who survives.
  • Returning to frozen sleep.

This is the mix-and-match plot line for most of the Alien films. And it was brilliant in the first film. The second ramped up the budget and the numbers along with the action. The third made it all a bit claustrophobic and intense in a different way. The fourth tried our patience and stretched our credulity.

There may be eight plots in literature, but there’s only one plot in Alien films. These prequels are adding nothing, telling us nothing new, but are simply repeating the same old plot beats (see above) and annihilating logic. If aliens can grow from spores, why are the face huggers deemed necessary? And how can there be baby face huggers outside of the eggs, which until now have been deemed necessary for their production? And why does nobody, ever, say, “Don’t come near me, I’m contaminated”?

Director Ridley Scott is said to be leading up to the origin of the Space Jockey of the first film, but he’s taking his time. And the only reason for taking that time, or that these films seem to exist is not because they have a compelling or new story to tell, but because people keep buying tickets/downloads. Its as cynical a marketing exercise as splitting popular novels into two or more films. Like the fucking Hobbit needed to be as many films as Lord of the Rings. If they were making Lord of the Rings today, it would be nine films, wouldn’t it? And still shit.

So Alien: Covenant passed the time, and if I hadn’t seen all the other films, it would have been all right, though frustrating in not having a proper ending. But I have seen all the other films, and there wasn’t a single unpredictable element. It followed the well-worn path and left me longing for another plot.

Blade Runner beckons.

TP 🎸 💘 💔

I was always faintly embarrassed by the Flying V guitar in the logo of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. I associated the Flying V with cheesy early 70s glam rock, which was never my thing, and it was difficult, in that heyday of punk rock and amateur cut-up graphic design, to deal with that elaborate logo. It’s not even a good design, for a guitar. Too much wood, too much weight, a back-ache on a strap.

But Tom Petty was a lifeline to me. I was 14 in 1977, the Year of Punk, and standing firm against peer pressure to betray my true love, which was 60s rock, especially the kind with melodies and literate lyrics. My schoolfriends were beginning to buy albums, and there was a certain amount of scrabbling to prove something or other about how hip and happening you were. One kid had gone from extolling the virtues of Queen and their boast of “no synthesisers” the year before to popping into Woolies on our school camping trip to the Wye Valley in order to buy The Damned’s first album. It wasn’t that the pressure was hard to resist; it was just that I was continually called upon to justify my retro tastes. You wanted an answer to the inevitable question, a quick and easy, no-arguments answer, but it was hard to come by, because Modern Music Was Rubbish.

In 1977, I was in the first flush of my Beatles obsession, and exploring the thin pickings of the singles and albums around the house. It’s amazing to think, now, but the Beatles had only been split for 7 years back then: there were still regular reunion rumours, and for the next few years there would be “sightings” of the reclusive Lennon as well as compelling documentaries like Tony Palmer’s All You Need is Love and Rutland Weekend Television’s All You Need is Cash. I didn’t like Queen, and I’d always preferred Slade to T-Rex, and I really didn’t like Bowie. Over those years I discovered music that I would love for the rest of my life: the Mick Taylor Stones (but not the Brian Jones); The Who; the 1969 Velvet Underground; Bruce Springsteen with Max on drums; Bob Dylan; Buddy Holly; 60s girl groups (various); ’53-66 Frank Sinatra. Tried and rejected: Pink Floyd, Hawkwind, The Doors, Roxy Music, and many more. But there was always a feeling, ridiculous in hindsight, that the music I was listening to was old and unfashionable and out of touch. The seven-years-gone Beatles seemed like they came from an era as distant as music hall. I didn’t much care, but I did have the feeling that I needed something I could point to and say, see, there is some of your modern music. 

But I didn’t like that stuff that sounded like one chord being slid up and down a fretboard, with frantic thrashing, with guitars held around your knees, with gobbing and moshing. A certain type of (sexually repressed?) bloke will manufacture excuses to be in close quarters and sweating with a bunch of other blokes: not my thing. I liked Jonathan Richman’s second attempt at recording ‘Roadrunner’, but not the first.

The difference between that thrashy punk stuff and the New Wave of British Heavy Metal seemed to simply come down to musicianship, and I didn’t like either. I still think that Never Mind the Bollocks sounds like an overproduced heavy metal album.

Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers performed “Anything That’s Rock ’n’ Roll” on Top of the Pops in 1977. For me, Top of the Pops was a dire desert of disco and bubblegum, occasionally leavened by the presence of something half-decent. As thin as they sounded, with their re-recorded BBC version (because TotP was going through one of its periodic all-music-must-be-performed-live phases), they were still the most exciting thing I’d seen on there for years. And then, even better, I caught them performing  “American Girl” on the Old Grey Whistle Test in 1978. And I finally had an answer to an —incredibly, at the time — frequently asked question: don’t you like any modern music?

Of course, Petty’s sound was rooted in 60s rock, jangly guitars and all, but his sensibility was pure, late 70s angst, and their look (at the time) at least nodded to current rock fashion. Their songs and albums were also fairly concise. None of the self-indulgent fat and bloat that would come to characterise the CD era. And, in 1979, they changed everything by releasing Damn the Torpedoes, which is at number one in my list of Best Albums of the 1970s. In those years, 1978-79, the old guard had responded to the new energy of punk new/wave with some good music. Lou Reed put out Street Hassle; the Stones put out Some Girls; The Who did Who Are You; Springsteen, who wasn’t really old guard, put out Darkness on the Edge of Town. But Damn the Torpedoes was one of those albums that you can honestly say has no filler, and still has an immediate, visceral, power to raise my heartrate. That drum sound!

The great thing about the Heartbreakers was that they almost always kept a sense of humour about what they were doing. They embraced the video age in the 80s, but their first compilation of these videos was full of sarcastic captions about Mike Campbell’s awkward guitar playing pose, and their Alice in Wonderland “Don’t Come Around Here No More” is a classic. And in the CD era, Petty would include such moments as the interval on Full Moon Fever, which advised the listener that this would have been the moment to get up and turn the record over.

I saw them play live as support act and then backing band for Bob Dylan, and it’s fairly telling that of the six times I saw Dylan live, that was the only one that didn’t leave me disappointed. And I took my whole family to see them play at the Royal Albert Hall in 2012. I don’t think any band, apart from The Who, has a better two-hour set. Talk about no filler. Springsteen would leave his audience disappointed if he played just two hours, but the Heartbreakers’ set was a fantastic and satisfying romp through the absolute highlights of thirty years, with road-hardened versions of all the best songs. Mike Campbell must have played that closing solo on the live version of “American Girl” thousands of times, but it was always a joyful surprise. Their Super Bowl half-time show, too, was exemplary, adapting to the special requirements of that occasion with sheer magic. And it was watching that Super Bowl show, with my skin prickling with anticipation, that I finally had to admit that I fucking love that Flying V guitar.

Caputo Criscito Lievito Naturale and Caputo Viola 00 Flour

criscito1A biga or poolish is a form of bread starter or pre-ferment. Not exactly a true sourdough, it’s a way of developing complexity of flavour and a light, open texture, and still requires some planning ahead.

Since my problems with eczema* started, I’ve been experimenting with longer fermentation times for my pizza crusts. You should do this anyway, of course, but a busy life and a packed TV schedule make it too easy to opt for the lazy option of making a quick dough with 10g of instant yeast. Anyway, Saturday night pizza is sacrosanct, and it currently the only wheat-based thing I eat in a normal week.

Caputo Criscito is a means of making a long-rise dough without the need for a biga. It’s essentially dormant “ancient mother yeast”, which is reactivated in a dough by the addition of a small amount of live or instant yeast. So for a 48-hour dough, I added 1/4 teaspoon of instant yeast; for a 24-hour dough I used 1/2 a teaspoon, though I could probably have gotten away with less.

Caputo sell their Criscito in a 1kg bag (it’s mixed with 00 flour), and recommend 30g per kilo of flour in a recipe. So for my 450g Saturday night pizza dough, I added a tablespoon, which worked out at 15g.

My first attempt was made with the last bit of Caputo Blue flour in the cupboard. I made the dough and left it in the fridge from Thursday night to around noon on Saturday. Then I left it out at room temperature for the early part of Saturday afternoon, before making up 3 dough balls, which I left for a couple of hours. Room temperature in our house is currently around 18°C, because we haven’t got the heating on yet and haven’t lit a fire.

The resulting dough was beautifully stretchy and cooked to an open, airy texture. I stretched it into rounds that were almost transparent in places. My wife loves thin crusts, but the cooked crust still had a structure of air bubbles, crunched when you bit into it and yet remained chewy. It was probably the best pizza dough I’d ever made.

Until this week.

pizzeriametroBIGInstead of my usual Caputo Blue, my latest 25kg bag of pizza flour is Caputo Viola (more like Lilac), a flour designed for long-rise doughs such as the tradition Roman Pizza a Metro (pizza by the metre). I obviously don’t have the means to make pizza a metro. Although I do have a rectangular barbecue stone in France that would allow for a slightly longer pizza, a longer peel or “pizza shovel” would cost about £60.

The recipe for dough made with Caputo Viola uses the whole 25kg bag (!), but I think it requires about 62% water to flour, as opposed to the 65% of Caputo Blue. In the event, I added a bit more water to make a quite wet dough.

I forgot to make it Thursday night (doh), so I made it Friday night with a little extra yeast, as I said above. Early Saturday afternoon, I divided it up into three balls, which by early evening were very well risen.

Again, this dough stretched out easily, and cooked (on the barbecue stone) to absolute perfection. The crust was crispy and chewy and put every single restaurant pizza I’ve eaten to shame. But it was also, far and away, the best crust I’ve ever made.

The only problem, for us in the UK, is getting hold of this stuff without breaking the bank. I bought mine from a vendor on Amazon, and just to buy Criscito on its own will set you back £12.09 for a 1kg bag… plus £16 delivery. I bought the Caputo Viola and Criscito in a package for £41.66, plus £26.10 delivery to the UK. This seems outrageously expensive, but if I set myself up as a Caputo distributor and used, say, Parcelforce 48 as a dispatch service, it would cost around £40 to send a 25kg parcel. So £26 is not so bad, after all. Worth it? Well, if you’re as obsessed as me, you simply cannot buy better flour in the UK.

*The eczema is currently under control, with just a hint, now and then, of itchiness on my left thigh [touches wood].

Guerilla Media?

220px-Power_to_the_PeopleToday presenter, former political correspondent of the BBC, and obvious Tory Nick Robinson last week wrote an article in which he set out the challenges and attacks faced by the BBC and the mainstream media from the alternative media: the likes of The Canary and Westmonster.

Worth pulling apart.

Robinson raises the stakes to near hysteria when he describes all this with the language of warfare:

Attacks on the media are no longer a lazy clap line delivered to a party conference to raise morale. They are part of a guerrilla war being fought on social media day after day and hour after hour.

They don’t like it up ‘em, do they?

I’m no fan of sites like the Canary. I’ve always regretted following links to them from Twitter. I don’t like the style or tone of their journalism, and I don’t like their obvious bias, even if I might share it. But they exist because of a well-founded perception that the BBC in particular has been letting us down, not just lately, but for year after year and month after month.

The BBC has a duty, baked into its charter, to be impartial. But, weasel-like, the BBC always manages to be a tacit supporter of the government of the day. Knowing full well that angry ministers can do a lot of damage to the institution via their friends in the right-wing media, the BBC is notoriously brown-nosed, no matter who is in power. They brown-nosed the neoliberal “New Labour” government too. Robinson tries to argue the opposite, citing times when government ministers complained about the BBC, but he’s being selective with the facts. He mentions Churchill complaining about the BBC during the General Strike of 1926, knowing full well that Lord Reith was ensuring that the broadcaster was quietly supportive of the government:

since the BBC was a national institution, and since the government in this crisis was acting for the people… the BBC was for the government in the crisis too.

Robinson says,

Our critics now see their attacks as a key part of their political strategy. In order to succeed they need to convince people not to believe “the news”.

This seems to imply that the BBC is spending much time reporting facts. Sure, it might tell us about a hurricane or two, feeding the usual oh dearism, but the real beef these alt. news sources have with the BBC is with political coverage, and in particular its apparent inability to be impartial to the truth.

This is what they do: debate. Perhaps it’s a hangover from their days at Oxford or Cambridge, but notwithstanding BBC editors’ love for them, debates can be rigged. For example, a debate between a completely unqualified and paid-for climate change denier (e.g. Nigel Lawson) and an actual climate scientist is not unbiased. Robinson justifies the airing of Lawson’s lies on behalf of the oil industry secretive charitable foundation he ‘founded’ with the idea that people with ‘alternative views’ should not be silenced:

They should be challenged and if, as Lawson did on Today recently, they get their facts wrong we should say so.

But Lawson didn’t “get his facts wrong”. He’s paid to tell lies on behalf of a powerful lobby, which hides the sources of its funding behind charitable status. By all means, get him on and challenge the “views” he’s paid to have. But make it fucking clear to the listeners that he’s there representing not ‘alternative views’ but the tiny and wealthy membership of a ‘charitable’ foundation that seems to be swimming in mysterious money.

Claim and counterclaim: that’s most often what the BBC reports when it comes to political issues. And they structure reports so that the most ‘important’ person goes first, and any responses to the claim being made are buried further down in the story. And in-studio debates, notoriously, are stage managed and constantly interrupted by hectoring presenters (or other guests who won’t shut up), hurried along, and cut short by artificially generated arbitrary deadlines dictated by weather bulletins and news summaries.

What the BBC could do, but never does, is demonstrate an impartiality to the truth. Rather than allowing, say, Boris Johnson to make a completely false claim about the amount of money that would go to the NHS following Brexit, the presenter could stop him — in his tracks — and point out that he’s lying. Could quote the Office of National Statistics at him, and therefore let him know in no uncertain terms that he would never be allowed to get away with telling such a lie on a BBC news programme. The popularity of a recent clip of NBC journalists challenging a lying contributor shows how hungry the public are for this kind of thing.

But they don’t do that. Instead, they demonstrate ‘impartiality’ by having someone else in the studio to make another claim that Johnson is lying, which just makes it all seem like a game, with the ‘winner’ being the person who repeats themselves the most, shouts the loudest, or speaks last, before the arbitrarily imposed cut-off point. This suits Johnson and his ilk down to the ground, insulated as he is by his family money from the consequences of anything he says.

Unfortunately, the alt. media that have come along are mainly just offering a different kind of bias. For Robinson to talk about these news sources as waging a war against the BBC/MSM is disingenuous in the extreme, because the real and present threat to the BBC has always been from the Murdoch-owned right-wing press, the Dailies Mail, Express, and Telegraph who have no interest in reporting the truth and every interest in destroying a national institution they see as a barrier to their profits.

The BBC follows their news agenda, focuses on their obsessions, giving disproportionate time to the bugbears of the political right: immigrants and the “undeserving poor”, and continually failing to reveal when contributors are representatives of right-wing thinktanks, or corporations, or simply nutty minority pressure groups. They give airtime to the likes of the Taxpayers’ Alliance, offer blanket coverage of everything UKIP does, but more or less ignore, say, the Green Party, which probably has more members and more widespread support. And they repeated the attacks on Corbyn from the press as if they were news, lending credence to the idea that they are all Tories.

Star Trek: Discovery

star-trek-discovery-klingonsThis new Star Terk Trek arrived on Netflix UK without much fanfare. There was no more hype for it than there was for The Expanse, and there were no critic previews, so no big reviews dropped in the runup.

All of which makes me, someone who watched first run Kirk Terk on the BBC in 1969–70, slightly nervous about this series.

The double pilot episode of Star Trek Disco did not exactly make clear what the show’s premise is, and I don’t want to look it up, so all I have to go on is that we have a human protagonist raised by Vulcans who, as a first officer on USS Shenzhou is overdue for her first command. I think we’re around the time period of the Krik era, but there’s no sense that the timelines are going to overlap. I don’t think it’s going to be graphic designers in space, though.

But there are Vulcans, including Sarek, Spock’s father, and there are… Klingons.

Original series Klingons were simply heavily made-up white (?) men with fancy facial hair. Then came the brown-skinned people with forehead ridges on TNG. And now we have a range of skin tones including jet black and albino and more facial prosthetics than seems decent. 8 hours in the makeup chair etc.

But here’s the thing. Klingons are the most boring people in the Rats Kert universe. It’s like watching a rugby team play drinking games. And, oh, the subtitles.

Over the two pilot episodes, it felt like 50% of the time a bunch of actors in uncomfortable prosthetics were hacking up phlegm, and you had to read bloody subtitles, which weren’t about anything other than the usual Klingon blach blach blach.

So, the story, about an incident on the edge of Federation space that sets off a war, is a bit of a drag, and the pacing is badly affected by the extended sequences of people in rubber masks with hacking coughs. Groan.

And even after a feature length opening, our protagonist isn’t on a ship called Discovery, and in fact we haven’t been introduced to the ship. Nice title sequence, though.

B’TWIN HOPTOWN 500 FOLDING ELECTRIC BIKE

UPDATE: the bike has gone back to the shop for a refund. See below for why.

The other electric bicycle

As a counterbalance to the snarking from people concerning e-bikes being a form of “cheating”*, I like to enthuse about them whenever I can. It took a year or so, but eventually my wife couldn’t resist the siren call.

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Hoptown Top Ranking

The difference between us, though, is that while I was willing to spend around £3k of money-I-didn’t-have on my Kalkhoff, my Mrs will only spend a smaller amount of money-she-does-have. For me, I could have spent £1k, but I didn’t have that money, either, so whatevs.

So, with budget being an issue, she wasn’t ever going to get the bike I’d picked out for her in my money-no-object fantasies. (That, by the way, would be something like the Riese and Müller Nevo, in a build with a carbon belt drive and a hub gear – which would cost between £2879 and £3779 ) So, to Decathlon we repaired, and considered their range of reasonably-priced (and, to be fair, quite well reviewed) e-bikes. If you’re on a budget, they’re not bad.

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Riese and Müller Nevo

Bonus fact: the French government offer an up-to €200 refund, in order to encourage fitness and cycling.

Bonus bonus fact: Decathlon seem to have added this into the € price, because the one she got is just £599 in the UK.

Decathlon offer a town bike style model, the Elops, with a rear hub motor and a couple of price points, based mainly on battery size/life. But the model that caught my wife’s eye, not just because of its price, was the Hoptown 500, a folding electric bike. (https://www.decathlon.co.uk/C-811556-electric-bikes)

The Hoptown comes with a 6-speed Shimano drivetrain (derailleur), ergonomic grips, a gel saddle, and built-in front and rear lights. It has a 6Ah battery that gives a relatively small range of 15-25 km, which is good enough for going around town and for a short commute. If you have facilities for charging the battery at work, you could commute longer. For reference, my Kalkhoff’s enormous battery is around 13Ah, I think, so twice the capacity. And – because I am cycling fit – I’m getting up to 72 km (45 miles) of range on Turbo mode, which is the highest level of assist. So I can go to-and-from work (24 mile round trip) twice on a charge – possibly having to drop it down to Sport mode for the last bit.

big_b9d303f15bdc433fa45972a24c5fe2bcNow, the idea that a normal person would be able to lug this Hoptown thing onto the train and commute with it is laughable. It still weighs a lot for a folding bike. But for an electric model, it’s relatively lightweight. Furthermore, whereas my bike is too heavy to go on the car without the addition of an expensive tow-bar and platform bike carrier combination, the Hoptown actually folds down small enough to go in the boot of the car. It was even possible to load up all our summer holiday luggage (including art equipment, a guitar and amp, and the usual bags) and still get the Hoptown into the boot.

So. It’s an ideal solution for someone who wants to buy an e-bike and use it in two locations.

A test ride in the Decathlon car park was arranged, and, happy with it, we set off home with it in the boot.

Not so fast. The only model they had in the shop was the display model, and they couldn’t find the charger. Huh. So an employee drove over to the next town’s store (Montbéliard is just 22km from Belfort), and brought over another model, giving us the charger from that. Visions of Decathlon robbing the charger from Peter to give it to Paul until the end of time.

A few km from home, I dropped my Mrs off with the bike, and left her to ride into Giromagny and then home. This would be a good test of the bike, as the journey from Giro to Auxelles involves at least three pretty hard climbs.

Not long afterwards, she phoned me to complain that the bike’s motor had cut out. I drove out to meet her, and encountered some strange behaviour. Getting on the bike myself, I set off pedalling and the motor kicked in. And then failed again.

So the excuses started. It must be that the battery, which appeared to be fully charged in the show room, was still awaiting its first overnight charging cycle. Batteries are really the most vexatious aspect of modern life, aren’t they? We left it on charge overnight, and the next day fired up the bike again for Maiden Voyage Part 2: I Tell You, This Ship Is Absolutely Unsinkable.

Worked for a bit. Failed. Worked for another bit. Failed. Seemed to work again after using the brake, as if the brake was a switch that turned the motor on and off. Huh.

So we phoned Decathlon and arranged to take it back. The brake-switch thing wasn’t supposed to be a thing, they said.

Since they had the bike they’d “borrowed” from Montbéliard, they gave us that one instead.

So, new bike, new battery.

No problems.

Back in the UK, the bike is deployed, and the manual informs us that the battery will reach peak efficiency after 5 charge cycles. So we deal patiently with the foibles. Sometimes the motor just cuts out. You stop, and turn it back on again, and off it goes.

One of the issues with the building-to-a-budget thing is that you miss out on what turn out to be very useful features. My Kalkhoff’s display tells me how much battery is left, how far I can go on it, and so on. My lights stay on for a few seconds/minutes even when the motor is switched off. The Decathlon’s built-in lights go off when the motor does, so if you’re riding in the dark/fog on a country lane and the motor randomly cuts out, you become invisible to traffic.

Nevertheless, it mostly seemed to be working okay. So my daughter borrowed it one morning last week to ride to work/school with me. A proper test, because it’s a 50-60 minute ride on country lanes, and about 13 miles. It seemed to go quite well, with the motor cutting out only a couple of times. Not bad! (Number of times my Kalkhoff motor cut out: 0.) Again, we made excuses. It cuts out when you’re going faster than 25kph, and to save battery it switches off? Maybe? Or it’s perhaps overheating on the hills and needs a cooling off period? Or, actually, this was a really long ride for the quoted range of this bike, so the battery was probably on its last legs by the end.

Anyway, we got there, taking about 10 minutes longer than I normally do on my bike.

Took the battery out (it’s not very big, with limited range), put it on charge, and then put it back in for the ride home. The light on the charger was green, indicating a full charge.

And this is where the problems began. The motor cut out on my daughter a lot on the way home. It seemed to happen whenever she hit a bump, but it also happened at inopportune moments: at the bottom of a steep hill, usually. So we nursed it home, sometimes having to fold and unfold the frame in order to re-engage the battery, and the excuses stopped. This thing, just like the first one we had, was faulty.

Two for two.

Luckily, Decathlon is an international retailer, so we took it over to our local store and left it overnight. 24 hours later, they called back to say that the battery had been faulty, and they’d replaced it.

So now the bike is on its third iteration, but here’s the thing.

Riding an e-bike is a pleasure. It puts a smile on your face. It’s like cycling, but without the suffering. Think about that: it’s all of the pleasure of cycling (including good cardio exercise, because you are pedalling) without any of the protestant work ethic nonsense about suffering and pain. It’s better than driving a car. You feel good, you enjoy the sunshine and the countryside, you arrive at your destination only mildly perspiring and able to go about your normal day without wobbly legs.

But if you have a constant nagging anxiety that the thing is going to randomly let you down at the bottom of a hill? Not so much.

So I have my fingers crossed that my wife’s latest bike and battery combination will be reliable, but I don’t think I’d want to risk my daughter riding to school on it. Because it’s a long ride home on a heavy bike with no assistance.

UPDATE: In the event, the replacement battery caused problems almost immediately. It arrived with a full charge, but then when we plugged it in to charge it up, the LED indicator on the charging unit remained green. So I removed the battery from the bike and tried to charge it off the bike. This seemed to be working (red indicator, changing to green after a few hours), but as soon as my wife tried to ride it: fail. All of the same symptoms we’d seen before, so we took it back to Decathlon for a final time, and got a refund. Note that the £600 refund did not cover what she actually paid for it in € (given exchange rate and transaction fees).

aHR0cHM6Ly93d3cucmFsZWlnaC5jby51ay9tZWRpYS9jYXRhbG9nL3Byb2R1Y3Qvcy90L3N0b3dlMnEtMV8xXzFfMV8xXzFfMV8xLmpwZw==The verdict

This ought to be the entry level for a lot of people. Once you’ve ridden an electric bike and felt that push in the back and the wind in your hair, you don’t want to stop. They are A Good Thing. But, if you can afford to spend more, you should. Get more range. Get a mid-drive motor (situated around the pedal cranks), get something German or that £4000 Trek Supercommuter. Spend upwards of £2k and you’ll be a lot happier.

My wife is actually going to order a bike costing twice as much: the Raleigh Stow-E Way (2017 model shown above), which will be arriving, hopefully, in early October. Watch this space. It looks like a much cleaner design, and has the battery behind the seat post.

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This isn’t cheating

*If an e-bike is cheating, then so is driving any car that is not a fucking Hamleys pedal car.