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Diminishing tech returns — 4 July, 2015

Diminishing tech returns

Screen Shot 2015-07-04 at 14.28.09It struck me, as I spent two nights this week trying to sort out my daughter’s problems with her new Apple Music app, that Apple have been releasing a lot of stuff recently that doesn’t work that well.

When I worked for an IT company, we always used to joke about ‘upgrades’ making things worse, and computers being rubbish. The problem for the industry has always been that it relies too much on making stuff obsolete as quickly as seems reasonable (to them) and refreshing/recycling their product cycles. When you depend on your existing customer base for the your future income and profits, you’re always going to be making things steadily worse.

Tech always follows this pattern. Things start off basic, with few features. Then, for a few cycles things might improve as ‘missing’ features are added and the usefulness and functionality of the hardware/software improves. But then, always, a tipping point is reached and the platform is in trouble.

PageMaker was good up to version 5, I seem to remember. Then PageMaker 6 was worse, and then it died, to be replaced by InDesign. InDesign itself is so long in the tooth that it’s too hard for new users to learn properly. Long-term users probably hate and resent it by now, too. Photoshop probably peaked around CS1. The current version, again, is just too hard for a new customer to pick up and use effectively. Think about that: you’re only making something for people who have been using it for years, and who can take on board new features or simply know enough to ignore them.

MS Word peaked around version 5. Apple Pages peaked two or three versions back. iMovie peaked at version 2. iTunes, christ, it’s been so long since it was any good, I don’t even remember.

First computers got to complicated, and they gave us smartphones, which were simpler. Software written for mobiles had to be small, efficient, and fast. But then the hardware kept ‘improving’, so the software got more complex, with more features, demanding more and more of the hardware. So then they introduce the Watch, which gives us a smaller, simpler platform again. But there’s a problem, a perception that even these simpler platforms are starting out too complex.

I’m not sure it’s entirely true of the Watch. I mean, there’s a whole lot of web sites depend on publishing how-to articles and FAQs and reviews, and they have a stake in making things seem a little bit difficult. So I haven’t got a Watch and couldn’t say, but I do know how disappointed I have been in recent years by the following:

  • iMovie – which took a turn for the worse, threw away loads of features (I guess Apple were trying to do the right thing) but just became a lot less useful. This was mainly because Apple have tried to make iOS and MacOS versions more or less identical.
  • Pages – which went from being a fast and efficient word processor and page layout app to being half-crippled for the same reason that iMovie was
  • Aperture – which was better than Photoshop for virtual darkroom duties, but has now been discontinued
  • Photos – which replaces the terrible iPhoto and Aperture, but does less than the latter and is (again, I say this) intentionally crippled so that iOS and MacOS versions match.
  • Various upgrades to the Mac itself, which have created loads of niggles. Slow discovery of WiFi; Mail refusing to send; printers disappearing and reappearing; Airplay, which barely works and means I’ve wasted £ on speakers I never use.
  • And now iTunes/Music, which have fucked things up in bizarre ways. For example, my star ratings have disappeared from about 25% of my tracks; artwork has disappeared; my daughter’s phone kept logging into my Apple ID (how?) and downloading my playlists to her phone (older, with less storage). Twice.
  • Family sharing, ha ha.
  • iCloud, ha ha.

I could go on. Some of the problems don’t even get that much publicity, and I think I know why. People now expect their tech to be complicated and barely functional. All the new users Apple have gained in recent years have come from platforms where this was how things were. But for long-term Mac users (a smaller niche), the way things are now is much, much worse than it ever was.

The case of Photos, and even iMovie, were instances where Apple was trying to do the right thing by users, and strip things back to the basics, trying to make things easier. When it comes to Music, however, they’re glomming on new features and complicating the interface and user experience.

Music discovery and music consumption are in fact two separate things. Mixing them together creates a poor user experience. The nice thing about iOS was in fact the way that the iTunes store, with its fairly useless music discovery tools, was completely separate from the Music listening app. But the new Music throws in your face the frankly terrible curation going on in the iTunes music store when it comes to new music discovery. It reminds me of my old job, a few years ago, when I had to step in to stop the purchasing department from creating new product categories for almost every new product they put into the database – mainly because they didn’t know enough about stuff to know what it was or what it did. In the case of music, different employees are obviously categorising music in different ways, so that the same artist doing the same sort of thing will ends up under Blues, Country, Singer-Songwriter, or Folk, depending on, I guess, who is inputting the data. Or maybe the problem is at record label level.

Anyway, finding new stuff is not easy. And human curators who know less than you do are not going to help.

For a few years, it looked as if Apple might succeed in the Jobsian project of turning computers into appliances. But recent events have sent things off the rails. There are lots of things to love about Tim Cook’s Apple. I love his activism, his focus on diversity, his robust response to dickhead analysts and shareholders. But. We’ve taken several steps backwards from the computers-as-appliances goal. And this is not the first blog entry I have written rueing a recent Apple ‘upgrade’.

Five minutes with Apple Music — 30 June, 2015

Five minutes with Apple Music

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An artist’s impression of what it might look like to see the Ashley Monroe album on the iTunes country landing page

Well, after spending a few minutes with the new Apple Music I am prepared to issue my definitive, irrevocable opinion of it*.

*Not really, but I was actually surprised at how quickly I grew irritated by it. I mean, I’ve already said I didn’t think it would be for me, but my attitude had mellowed somewhat since, as I thought about how much my daughters might like access to unlimited music on the family plan, and how that might end up being cheaper for me than my current music buying habit.

But then, a mere five minutes in, I went off the whole idea. Ten minutes later, I disabled the Autorenew on the subscription option. So why?

*ahem*

  1. The getting to know you screen, with its friendly bouncing circles of artists. That’s just another algorithm, of course. But, well, it’s sexist for a start. Tell it you like Country, and it offers you around 10 male artists for one or two female artists. I was able to double tap on favourites like Brad Paisley, Alan Jackson, Tim McGraw, and the Dixie Chicks showed up (last album released in 2006). But no Martina McBride, Sara Evans, Ashley Monroe, Gretchen Wilson, Brandy Clark, Little Big Town etc. So we’re broad-brushing at this stage, but I hate broad brushes when it comes to musical tastes. X does not follow Y. To offer me Cliff Fucking Richard and not Tom Petty was just gross and disgusting. (Maybe these are signs that Mr Petty is not playing, who knows?)
  2. Once in, it offers you ‘curated’ playlists which are, frankly, rubbish. For some Apple ‘curator’ (or algorithm) to offer me a Bruce Springsteen ‘Deep Cuts’ playlist was just an insult. Don’t you know who I am? Yeah, I need some maths equation or corporate drone to tell me all about Springsteen. As to the artists it suggests, please. Toby Keith? Like, if you tapped Dixie Chicks and they offer you Toby Keith? That’s just trolling.
  3. The Country home page is as shite as the usual iTunes store home page. Yes, Kacey Musgraves is front and centre, but where the fuck is Ashley Monroe? Where, Apple? What the hell is wrong with you people?
  4. Radio? Radi-no. See notes above under curators.
  5. Oh, and £9.99/£14.99 – rip-off Britain. A fair price, even allowing for currency fluctuations by adding 10% to the € price, would be more like £7.69 and £11.69. Call it £7.99 and £11.99 to be generous to Apple, and we’re looking at being ripped off to the tune of £3 per month on the family plan, £36 per year. Paying, in other words, for more than two phantom months that other European countries don’t have. That would be Greedy, coming between June and July, and Bastards, coming between August and September.

So I still don’t know how my kids will take to it, but my visceral reaction has honestly surprised me. Turns out, I’ve still got really strong opinions about music and music discovery, even at my age.

Podcast Central — 28 June, 2015

Podcast Central

Robot or Not?
Robot or Not?

Time for a regular update on what I’m listening to, podcast wise.

I’m on the cusp of a big cull, because (thank goodness) my days of long commutes are numbered, and in September I’ll be needing about 100 minutes less listening material every day, 500 minutes a week – over 8 hours of podcasts I won’t have time to listen to.

I’ve decided I’ve got too many storytelling podcasts on my list, so a few of those will go. And I probably listen to way too many tech podcasts – given that I’m going to be a bog-standard English teacher next year. I think I’ll probably drop a number of the NPR style shows as well.

As an English teacher, I’m enjoying Helen Zaltzman’s The Allusionist, which is a bi-weekly examination of word origin stories. It tends to be short, which is a blessing, and Ms Zaltzman has a proven track record of sharp wit, evidenced on her other podcast Answer Me This, which you don’t need me to tell you about. It’s been interesting to hear her pop up on The News Quiz a couple of times recently, and you know what? I can see her being a perfect replacement for Sandi Toksvig.

The Incomparable Game Show continues to be great fun. If you like Radio 4 6:30 pm comedies, you’d love this. They tend to be longer (podcasts allow for this) and sometimes stretch to absurd lengths (as when they play Trivial Pursuit and can’t finish even though they reduced it to just 3 wedges per person), but it’s fun. My favourite sub-episode is still “Inconceivable” but I also loved the week when they were answering questions from a 1970s home version of Family Feud, which is called Family Fortunes in the UK. Trying to guess what 100 idiots might have said in answer to questions in the 1970s – so funny.

Live From High Fidelity is great. I don’t always have time for it, I confess, and I usually don’t know who the interview subject is, but this show in which two guys interview a guest about their career and play some vinyl is terrific. I loved the Maria McKee episode, and the Glyn Johns episode was brilliant.

I might stop listening to Radio 4’s The Media Show, because, well, not going to be teaching media. But I’ve started listening to Mair and Peston’s Radio 4 Interview Show, in which they take turns, um, interviewing someone. The high concept is that one of them prepares and the other one doesn’t. The one thing I miss about listening to actual radio is Eddie Mair, so this is a pleasure.

My current favourite podcast is Reconcilable Differences, with Merlin Mann (of 43 Folders fame) and John Siracusa (of Accidental Tech, Hypercritical and long, long Mac OS reviews fame). They sit and discuss their personal biographies and related matters. The tagline is that they ‘try to figure out exactly how they got this way’. Both men are interesting, and to listen to them talk (at length, be warned) is a pleasure.

Finally, John Siracusa also turns up with Jason Snell on a short, short podcast (2-3 minutes per episode) in which they discuss whether something is a Robot or Not. So far, I think, only a Roomba vacuum cleaner is a robot.

Kacey Musgraves – Pageant Material // Ashley Monroe – The Blade — 24 June, 2015

Kacey Musgraves – Pageant Material // Ashley Monroe – The Blade

kacey-musgraves-pageant-material-2015-billboard-650x650I’m not entirely sure, but I can’t help thinking Kacey Musgraves has gone a  bit Lynyrd Skynyrd. Not in terms of sound – that’s simply an evolution of what it was before – but in terms of what she sings about.

You know the story of Lynyrd Skynyrd: excellent first album (Pronounced), including the jukebox favourite ‘Freebird’ as well as instant classics such as ‘Tuesday’s Gone’ and ‘Gimme Three Steps’. And they kept releasing and touring and touring until the only things in their lives were the record label and the never-ending tour. So eventually all of their songs seemed to be about the record label and being on the road. And then half of them died in a plane crash.

This is Kacey Musgraves’ second album, but already I’m getting a strong impression that the things she’s got to write about these days include standing or sitting around at awards ceremonies – an indication, perhaps, of what a whirlwind of success (and near-misses) she has been swept along by over the past year.

So how good was that first album? I think it was pretty good. My daughter liked it more than me. I thought the stripped back sound was fairly pleasant, but a whole album’s worth of it wore a bit thin. The hit single ‘Follow Your Arrow’ was very good, but got a little over-exposed, in much the same way that Little Big Town’s ‘Girl Crush’ has.

At the time, I was listening a lot to both to Same Trailer, Different Park, and Ashley Monroe’s Like a Rose, which I preferred. You don’t have to either/or this, of course, you can have and like both, and I did. But I did think that some of the attention lavished on Kacey Musgraves might have also been directed towards Ms Monroe. Not to take anything away from Kacey Musgraves, but Monroe songs like ‘Weed Instead of Roses’ and ‘She’s Driving Me Out of Your Mind’ deserved the kind of attention that ‘Follow Your Arrow’ was getting.

And here we are again, a couple of years later, and once again the release dates are somewhat clashing.

First up and already out is the new one From Ms Musgraves, Pageant Material, which is a 14 song collection that moves us along slightly in terms of sound, and a little bit in terms of song quality. It’s unfortunate that the lead single ‘Biscuits’ was so similar to ‘Arrow’ (Chuck Dauphin called it ‘Follow Your Arrow Pt 2’) – not because it means Musgraves is a limited songwriter but because it’s a clear indication that the record label are putting their heavy, sweaty, interfering hands all over her. You can just imagine the Nashville-like scenes, as she presents them with an excellent selection of original songs and some suit demands to know where the single is. And by single, he (or she) means, where’s that song that’s exactly the same as that other song you had?

(All of this done in the vacuum of a record label that seemingly doesn’t know that there’s very little fucking chance that a country radio station would play a single by a female artist in the first place.)

To be fair to ‘Biscuits’, it’s a decent song, and has a more interesting structure than ‘Arrow’, particularly in the breakdown/middle 8, which takes the song in a completely different direction. But another song here that perhaps sounds too familiar is ‘Family’, which if you told me it was a cut held over the first record, I’d believe you.

The opener, though, sounds like it might be from the soundtrack of one of those Summer of Love ‘Head’ movies. Lush strings and a song about getting high, which is sort of KM’s stock-in-trade by now. ‘Dime Store Cowgirl’ is her summing up her image and acknowledging she’ll never be properly showbiz. This is kinda what I was talking about with the Lynyrd Skynyrd thing. The title track, too, hints at the idea that she doesn’t feel equipped for being nominated and having to make speeches at awards ceremonies. Again, it has an interesting structure, and she uses the melody to play with the lyrics in a creative way. I really like the title track, in fact.

If you took this album’s attitude back 15 or 20 years, and swapped genders, a lot of this could have come from some kind of new-wave ‘outlaw’ like Travis Tritt. While Tritt wouldn’t have sung about pageants, there’s a similar outlook here, a kicking-against-the-pricks attitude. Of course, in the case of the modern country music industry, the pricks she’s kicking against are the good ol’ boys who dominate the charts at the moment with their songs about trucks and beer – all of them owing a debt to Travis Tritt and other country new-wavers. ‘I don’t want to be part of / Your good ol’ boy’s club’, sings Musgraves, displaying a confident middle finger to the mainstream country media, which has collectively decided to try to ignore women.

If you liked or loved the first album, you’ll surely like this, and if you appreciate good songwriting you should too. The songs can sound deceptively straightforward, but she hits you between the eyes sometimes with extraordinary lyrical flights that remind me of that other clever songwriter, Taylor Swift. Lacey Musgraves is far removed from Ms Swift in terms of genre, but has a similar intellect.

Which brings me onto The Blade, Ashley Monroe’s forthcoming follow-up to Like A Rose. This isn’t out till July(?), but because of the modern way of releasing music, I’ve already got four tracks, which is enough for me to declare a judgement. Monroe’s sound is less stripped-back than KM’s, and her voice (objectively) has a better tone and more range. This album, like her previous, is co-produced by Vince Gill, who sees her as a natural successor to Dolly Parton and Loretta Lynn.

The opening track and lead single, ‘On To Something Good’ is a rolling country-soul instant classic. Go ahead, play the video above. I’ll wait. It has the kind of instant appeal of ‘Take Hold of My Hand’, the opening cut on Dwight Yoakam’s 3 Pears. It really is a fabulous sounding track.

There’s also a version of a song previously recorded by Matraca Berg: ‘I Buried Your Love Alive’, which gives that song the more powerful impact it deserves.

The title track, on the other hand, has a completely different feel: a slow ballad with pedal steel guitar it’s an emotionally intense break-up song.

I let your love in, I have the scar

I felt the razor against my heart

I thought we were both in all the way

But you caught it by the handle

And I caught it by the blade.

Lyrics like this are why I love country music.

The Blade sounds like (it’s going to be) a more mainstream country offering than Pageant Material, which is why Kacey Musgraves has a better chance of appealing to a cross-over audience than Ashley Monroe does. But there should be no such thing as an if you only buy one country album this year… Get both.

(I might update when I get hold of the rest of The Blade – but it’s worth pre-ordering on the strength of the first four tracks alone.)

Sleep — 22 June, 2015

Sleep

Sometimes I put it down to my age. You’re told, aren’t you, that teenagers need more sleep and older people need less? I’ve always been kind of okay on 6-7 hours of sleep, but it has been a long time since I got even six hours in a night, and I am not okay with it.

Teaching brings with it a unique set of pressures: students you can’t get onside, pointless admin, the stress of inspections and so on. Every now and then this can affect your ability to get off to sleep or sleep through the night. But it comes and goes. The year follows a pattern. The first term is full-on, dark, miserable, and hard. The second term, as the days get longer, things ease up a bit. By the third term, the exams start kicking in and the pressure transfers more onto the students (or should) and the classes finish, and the sun comes out.

But it’s been a couple of years now, and I’ve not been sleeping, regardless of the time of year. First of all, I can’t get into the right frame of mind to sleep at night. I’ve tried to help the process by cutting down on caffeine, limiting evening screentime, reading printed books again, and buying a new bedside lamp. The lamp seemed to improve things for a bit, but I soon started having the same old problems. The second of these is when I wake during the night (which I know is a natural part of the sleep process), I often can’t get to sleep again. So I’ll wake at one in the morning, and I’ll be awake a long time. Or three in the morning, and that’s all the sleep I’m getting tonight. Finally, when I do sleep, I always wake up too early and then can’t back to sleep again, not even to doze fitfully until dawn.

So you’re constantly behind, and then of course the sleep anxiety kicks in, and it begins to consume you.

Eventually, I gave in and went to the doctor. This is remarkable for me. Part of the stress of holding a job these days is the difficulty you have in making time for these kinds of appointments. To get a planned appointment takes weeks, and my employer makes it very difficult to arrange time off. It’s easier to just pull a sickie and put the doctor on repeat dial until you get through. It so happened there was a Friday when I wouldn’t really be generating any work for anybody else by taking time off, so I went to see the doctor and got some sleeping pills. I know how common these are, but this is my first experience with them.

First of all, not being able to drink was a bummer. I’m not a heavy drinker, one bottle of beer or a couple of glasses of wine is my upper limit, and I usually stop very early, but still, I avoided alcohol – reluctantly. I took the pill downstairs in the kitchen and went for a quick bath. I suppose I was in bed within 20 minutes.

I read for a bit, as usual. I’ve been reading Dracula, and finding it heavy going (going on at length being its main flaw), but dropped it for the weekend in favour of John Scalzi’s Lock-in, which is a much easier read when you’re feeling woozy from lack of sleep and/or a pill.

I didn’t feel drowsy in the usual sense, but woozy I suppose is the best word. A bit spaced out. I put the book down and  turned off the light. Would sleep come?

It did. My mind was less active, less focused, and I think I fell asleep within minutes. I did wake a couple of times during the night, but went straight back under. I also woke early, but not ridiculously so, and was able to doze until it was time to get up. On a Saturday, you’d hope for a lie-in, but we were going to a university open day, so I was up at six for the long drive.

But I slept. And on the Saturday night, also slept. The true test came on Sunday night. Would I be able to get away the night before work? Would I be able to sleep through to the alarm?

I did find it harder getting to sleep. Now the problem might have been that I wasn’t all that tired after having two good nights. So maybe going to bed later might become an option (I confess I’ve been going up between nine and ten for a long time). Anyway, it took longer to drift away. And I woke up early. I think about five, about 45 minutes before my alarm is set, which meant I was a little later than usual. Most mornings, 4:30 is my (frustrating) awake time. So I got an extra half an hour, but in front of that was a fairly decent night’s sleep.

I know a lot of people don’t like sleeping pills because they make you feel zombie-like even during the day. I get this, and I suppose if I’m honest I didn’t feel fully awake until 11 o’clock or so. I was okay to drive, I hope, but definitely felt brighter later in the morning. And, what the hell, it’s only work.

My next move is to try going to bed later.

Cooking with the Uuni 2 — 19 June, 2015

Cooking with the Uuni 2

Welp, I’ve been eating pizza all day long and I’m very thirsty (anchovies), but I think I’ve got a handle on the Uuni. I’m cautiously optimistic, but maybe I need a few more tries at Uuni uni.

The Uuni is a tabletop wood-pellet fired pizza oven, and this is the second generation of a product which was, I believe, launched by a Kickstarter. I’ve wanted a wood-fired pizza oven in the garden for about 20 years, but they’re way out of my price range and I don’t have the chops to build my own. I’ve been cooking pizza on a stone on the barbecue for several years – very successfully, too, but I couldn’t resist the Uuni. At £189, it’s a fraction of the price of a proper oven, but the company claims it can cook a pizza in two minutes.

Maybe. The thing about barbecue pizza (cooked using a granite stone), they’re fantastically crispy. They take between 7-10 minutes to cook (depending on how long the barbecue has been on) and they crunch in a very satisfactory way. The thing is, though, as spoiled as I am by crunchy bases, I think the authentic street food is probably softer. Cooked – but softer, chewier. You’re supposed to be able to fold it up and eat it on the go, after all.

Anyway, the first time I tried the Uuni, I cooked the pizza for a bout three minutes. It was cooked, but only just, and the crust was edging towards having a soggy bottom. I am mainly to blame: I don’t think I waited the requisite 10 minutes for the oven to get hot. I left subsequent attempts slightly longer, and when I fired it up for the second time this evening, I cooked each pizza for 4 minutes, turning it halfway through cooking, so it was evenly heated.

I’m quite pleased with it (though a bit pizza’d out to be really enthusiastic). You have to keep adding pellets to the hopper. I think a scoop or two per pizza to keep the fire hot enough. On the last one, I actually forgot it was in, and went back after quite a lot too much time to find it wasn’t only not burnt but not really properly cooked – because I had failed to feed the fire.

(The pellets go in what looks like a small chimney – it’s a hopper that feeds the fire as fast as the fire burns them. Quite a clever system, but you do need to keep topping it up.)

My overall conclusion: this needs something better than its all-metal cooking base. Metal gets hot, yes, but it also loses heat when the fire goes low or the door is open. And it’s not absorbent. I think what the Uuni 2 needs is a pizza stone base. I note that some users have floored it with quarry tiles. I think I’ll buy a pizza stone (a 30cm one would fit), which will help absorb moisture from the crust as it cooks, and retain heat too. Annoyingly, I have two of these in France, but that’s a month away. People have also tiled the top of the Uuni, trying, I suppose, to get it to retain more heat. The design is basic: sheet metal bent into shapes, which is why it’s so cheap. Adding insulation and other fancy features would probably double the price.

It’s well engineered though. There are a lot of parts. It arrives neatly packaged in a heavy but compact box, and comes with an allen key and IKEA-type instructions. Took me half an hour to assemble. Just one part (the metal lug to which you attach the wooden handle on the door) was out of true and it was hard to line up the screws. Coincidentally, a spare one of these had been tucked into the box when shipped. The original I tried was also scratched. So either I got lucky and someone noticed the scratch and supplied a replacement; or they knew they had a bad batch of these items and put the replacement in to avoid customer service calls. Either way, the replacement was a perfect fit.

Anyway, I’ll update this when I’ve tried it a few more times, or with a stone.

The River and Southeastern — 18 June, 2015

The River and Southeastern

I entirely blame the crapness of the iTunes curators for this, but Jason Isbell and his album Southeastern completely passed me by until recently, when I read about him in an article by one of my two trusted sources for Country music news and information. The first of these is Grady Smith, who has been writing about Country for the Guardian for a while. I think he started around October last year, but it took a while for me to notice, because as far as the Graun is concerned, this is something for their US edition and doesn’t get the prominence on the UK home pages.

The second source is Chuck Dauphin, whose column The 615 on Billboard.com is a useful source of release information. While both sources are male, both are critical of the Country music industry’s current sexism and obsession with (subtextually racist) songs about trucks and beer. Their tastes don’t exactly match with mine, but they at least offer a path to check things out.

The problem with Jason Isbell is that iTunes doesn’t even categorise him under Country but (depending on the album) under Blues or Singer/Songwriter, the latter of which is possibly the least useful genre category that music can offer.

Southeastern came out in 2013 and is under Blues, which is just ridiculous. I mean, yes, all pop music has its roots in the blues, but watch the video above of an excellent performance of the wonderful song ‘Stockholm’ on the Letterman show and tell me you’d file this one under Blues. I love it when a good album has a truly excellent track like that, because it means there is absolutely no work involved in deciding whether I like something or not. So, thanks to whichever of my two sources it was, Grady or Chuck, I downloaded Southeastern and have now pre-ordered the forthcoming Something More Than Free.

I really like his sound – guitars and keys with a bit of violin, it’s quintessentially Country. He has a smooth voice with some break in it and writes great melodies. ‘Stockholm’ is my new jam.

Meanwhile, back in 1980, Bruce Springsteen released an album called The River. There are a few things I remember around the release of this record. The first is that Julie Burchill wrote a scathing review of it in the NME, which was never a publication known for identifying a stone classic on initial release. Turns out, Burchill’s sneering at Springsteen’s use in his lyrics of simple girls’ names ending in -ie or -y (why, like Julie, Julie?) and what she saw as his over-use of cars and highways, was kind of missing the point. The second thing I remember is that the double album was priced as a single and came in a single, non-gatefold sleeve. I was slightly disappointed at the use of tiny black and white photographs (for example of the art installation Cadillac Ranch, immortalised in the song), but can’t knock him for trying to look after his fans’ pockets.

And the final thing I remember is that I got The River for my 18th birthday and left home (just like in the song ‘Independence Day’) about three weeks later.

So what of The River? Did it deserve the Burchill sneers, or does it stack up as the pinnacle of a great musician-songwriter’s career, Springsteen’s equivalent of Blood on the Tracks? Well, of course I’m biased, but there are a number of reasons I think this is his best work. Born in the USA, while it was a huge seller and transformed his career, is spoiled for me through the use of nasty synths and that wardrobe-falling-downstairs-in-a-cathedral 80s drum sound which is just horrible. Following that, Tunnel of Love was less bombastic but equally compromised by 80s production trends, while the Human Touch/Lucky Town release dumps the E Street Band and have the air of a mid-life crisis. They meant a lot to me at the time, but I don’t think they hold up today.

Of course, and to continue to draw the parallel with Dylan, Born to Run is his Highway 61 Revisited, and I’m not for one moment suggesting that it and Darkness on the Edge of Town aren’t essential. But The River has a scale and a breadth and a maturity in terms of songwriting that make it stand out for me.

To address the car thing: yes, it’s not a mistake that so many of the songs feature cars. It’s an album which rests on the automobile as a metaphor for freedom, prosperity and social mobility, Springsteen’s version of the green light in The Great Gatsby. Cars are for driving – but in this case it might be driving your girlfriend’s mum down to the unemployment agency. Or it might be driving endless highways in fear of ending up buried in the ground at the Cadillac Ranch, a symbol of the dead American dream. Or it might mean driving all night because it’s the only job you can find; or driving a stolen car both fearing and hoping you’ll get caught. It’s about the way you keep doing the thing you used to do because it’s all you know how to do, because you don’t know how to change and are trapped in your life.

I repurchased The River for the third time (!) the other day and I’ve been listening to it as an album for the first time in over 20 years. Whereas my restless younger self would keep skipping tracks and playing favourites over and over, as was my habit, I’ve been listening all the way through, from start to finish. And it’s great. Not a single dud track, which is incredible, given its length. It helps that my younger daughter is really into Springsteen right now, and it’s so great to be seeing this stuff through her fresh perspective. You cease to doubt something’s status as a classic when it speaks so powerfully to a different generation, 35 years on. Thirty-five years, and it sounds fresh and bright and full of raw emotion – and a river runs through it.

In many ways a pessimistic album, it was released at the beginning of the Reagan/Thatcher era, and the start of the decline of our civil society into the cauldron of nasty selfishness that has replaced human decency and empathy as far as political discourse is concerned. But to listen to The River is to remember that humanist values are still the best that we have, and that our ability to empathise with other people is what makes us good.

An ambulance finally came and took him to Riverside
I watched as they drove him away
And I thought of a girlfriend or a young wife
And a state trooper knocking in the middle of the night
To say your baby died in a wreck on the highway

Sometimes I sit up in the darkness
And I watch my baby as she sleeps
Then I climb in bed and I hold her tight
I just lay there awake in the middle of the night
Thinking ’bout the wreck on the highway

Echo Park Life — 14 June, 2015

Echo Park Life

150388000000000-00-750x750This article by Stewart Lee, ostensibly about Britain’s Got Talent but really about Twitter and its inability to cope with nuance, focused my mind on something I’ve been thinking about for a while: giving up the Twitter.

I’d be no loss to the service, only have a few followers, and I’m not looking for sympathetic pleas to stay. Over the past few months, I’ve felt as if I’m coming to the end of a phase, and come September will be entering a new one. I’ve been teaching a variety of creative subjects for a few years (Media, Film, Creative Writing), but after a sequence of events, that’s coming to an end. I’m starting a new job, and after nine years of teaching Media etc., I’m becoming a bog-standard English teacher. (Nine years, incidentally, is the longest time I’ve done anything.)

I follow many of the people I do on the Twitter for professional reasons. They work or comment upon the media, or they are writers, or they’re into nerdy film stuff. Strip those away and you have a few friends/acquaintances and people I have followed maybe because they follow me, but not much else. Come September, I’m going to be teaching English instead of those creative subjects, and right now it really appears as if the opportunity to teach anything other than English will not come again. The climate has changed. I had hopes that if the Tories didn’t get back in, things might change again, but they did and so they won’t. Another five years of this. Batten down the hatches, focus on the earliest possible opportunity to retire, and try to survive.

One of the things I’ve been telling my students for a long time is that Twitter is really a giant echo chamber. Nobody gets their mind changed on Twitter, and quite a lot of the time people are saying the same things over and over again. And it can be like clockwork. On a Sunday morning, for some reason, a lot of people seem to watch Andrew Marr on telly in order to get enraged. In the morning, a lot of people listen to Radio 4 and get enraged. On a Thursday (?) a lot of people watch Question Time and get enraged. During the week, people get enraged about other stuff. Sexism, racism. Poetry, commentary. Sometimes, people die, and everyone posts something.

An echo chamber. Sometimes you join in, sometimes you don’t. It can get irritating, which added to all the rage just becomes a bit depressing. I’ve been muting so much stuff lately that’s there’s very little left.

It has its positive side. It’s how you know what’s going on in the world. You feel in touch with current events. But – and I’ve blogged about this before – knowing what’s happening in the world doesn’t really add to the sum of human happiness. The best thing that Twitter does is make you laugh, but is that enough?

Maybe I just need a break from it, who knows? Maybe I’ll take a break and maybe I won’t come back. Perhaps it’s such an addiction that I won’t be able to stay away. To be honest, I wonder why I’d bother keeping an iPhone if I’m not using Twitter (for listening to podcasts, but I could do that on an iPod Touch or iPad Mini).

There are five weeks till the end of term. I’ll play it by ear.

Apple Music: why I’m not excited — 10 June, 2015

Apple Music: why I’m not excited

applemusic-apps-6cI confess, I don’t get the Music thing. This may be because I am old, but I think it’s more than that. I think we’re talking here about a cultural gulf between filtering and collecting. I wouldn’t be so crass as to say there are two kinds of people, however. Somewhere between filtering and collecting lies curating. And somewhere west of filtering are the gnomes of no interest at all.

I remember once having a conversation with a friend about the fact that I occasionally took 10 or so compact disks down to the second hand shop and traded them in for enough money to buy a couple of new ones. He was, at first, nonplussed, because he’d adopted the mindset of the collector, in which having thousands of albums is better than having hundreds, and having hundreds is better than having, say, 90. But I was always ruthless: if I didn’t play it anymore, I sold it. This was back when a second hand CD had some kind of value. When Amazon came along, I switched to selling online – until that method of recycling was killed by the people who steal postage from their employers.

[You know who you are: you put the item (book, CD, DVD) on Amazon for a ridiculously low price (0.01p for example), knowing that you get the standard £2.75 postage fee. Which you don’t have to pay because you put your item through your employer’s postage franking machine. If employers were to crack down on this, those of us without access to a free franking machine and those of us who are, you know, essentially honest, might go back to selling second hand goods for what they’re really worth. But there’s no market for books or CDs right now. You might as well just give everything to a charity shop.]

I’ve always been suspicious of the kind of person who has an all-inclusive musical taste. Jay Z and Taylor Swift, and Fleetwood Mac, Queen, U2, and Beyoncé, and Madonna, REM, and Bruce Springsteen, Snoop Dog etc.. I just don’t see it. This is collecting rather than filtering.

So I was reading something about the history of illegal music downloading the other day, and a penny dropped, kinda. Because the author of the article basically admitted that his vast music collection, across multiple terabytes of hard drives, was an end in itself, and that in no possible way could he have ever listened to it all. He admitted he had things in his collection that he didn’t even like, but that the whole point of the collection was for it to be complete.

So that’s the far end of the spectrum, away from no interest at all, into a territory where ownership is everything and it almost cycles right back around to no interest at all (in actually listening).

I’m not a person who walks around all day with an earbud in, so the longest stretch of time in which I might be listening to music would be on a long drive to France. So let’s say that’s 10-11 hours in the car. By my reckoning, you can comfortably cover that amount of time with between 400-500 songs. I keep a (filtered) playlist on my phone of 1000 songs, so might get through most of them on a round trip – if we ignore the probability that for some of that round trip I’d be listening to several hours of podcasts.

As of now, I have somewhere over 4000 songs in total in my iTunes library. That’s not my entire music collection, as there are large numbers of CDs that I have never bothered to import and probably couldn’t even give away by now. Using the star rating system, I filter these down to 1000 for the phone, but even that is unsatisfactory, because I’m not happy with the way the Music app on the phone handles playback, and OTA synching doesn’t work properly. Here’s why.

I’d like my 1000-song playlist to regularly update itself based on recency of playback. But there’s no synch (or ‘continuity’) between ‘recently played’ on my laptop and ‘recently played’ on my phone, as far as I can tell. My phone also keeps forgetting where it was in the playlist and (when you plug it into the Media interface in the car), it just starts over from the beginning all the time – especially if you swap cars often, which I do. Hit Shuffle, and I still keep hearing the same songs repeatedly, even though there are (in theory) 1000 to choose from. I have a theory about Shuffle, but like most people I am always dissatisfied with its idea of shuffling. Playing three Rolling Stones tracks in a row may be mathematically random, but it’s also a pain in the arse, especially when you keep hearing the same tracks at the beginning of Shuffle playback, as I do. I have the track ‘Anchorage’ by Michelle Shocked. It’s near the beginning of the alphabetical listing, but it has also appeared several times (in the past couple of weeks) on the Shuffle playback, so I reckon I’ve heard it five or six or more times in the last fortnight, which is more than enough times, thanks.

When it comes to updating, the iPhone should synch over the air when connected to power, but I guess it only works if the laptop is also plugged into power and left on. Well, I’m not going to leave my laptop on all night just to synch the phone, but I rarely get around to synching manually. So the playlist gets stale instead of refreshing itself. A song should play once and then disappear until it comes around again. (If I wanted to hear it more often, I’d add a separate playlist with different algorithms.)

I’ve always been a filterer. Rarely had an album, in any format, I wanted to listen to all the way through. Even more rarely do I go on listening to something, even if I love it, once I’ve reached the played-to-death stage.

My daughters occasionally berate me for the fact that I sold almost all of my vinyl. My youngest and I were watching a Bruce Springsteen concert on YouTube the other day (we do this occasionally) and, although it was the Born in the USA tour, most of the songs seemed to be coming from The River. At some point my daughter asked me which was my favourite Springsteen album, and after thinking about it, I said it probably was The River. And yet: there was not a copy of this record in the house. I owned it once on vinyl, and then I owned it once again on CD (to the distant sound of cash registers ringing in Sony headquarters). And now, under pressure from my kid, I was buying it for a third time (kerching, -ing, -ing).

Ironically, this was an album Bruce originally packaged as ‘a double album for the price of a single’, back in the day when artists like him and Tom Petty were fighting against the record industry’s attempts to hike prices for what they saw as a gullible captive audience.

But there it was: The River was an 18th birthday present that I then played to death, and then bought a second time and didn’t play as much – so the CD ended up being sold on, or given away or something. Or maybe, and this is possible, it’s actually upstairs in the loft in a box. I’m sure I’m not the only person who would rather just pay for it on iTunes than hunt around in boxes up in the attic.

Which brings me to this Apple music service, which I just don’t get. I don’t get it because I don’t want to play playlists compiled by other people. It’s not that I’m closed minded: it’s that my whole life has been about an exploration of music in which I follow my nose and my own interests on a journey of discovery that has taken me from Beatles for Sale to Jason Isbell via 70s rock, 60s soul, 80s country and so on. The pleasure this has brought to my life is immeasurable, and I don’t understand why I would turn my back on this (ongoing) personal discovery in favour of streaming stuff from some online music service. As to the radio offering, no. I’ve spent almost my entire life avoiding the tastes and wittering of DJs, and I’m not going to start now, thanks.

My real world experience of 3G and 4G data connections also makes me skeptical about streaming in general. Outside the house, my opportunities to listen to music are either in the car or on the bike. Well, my data coverage in the country lanes on my bike rides is patchy to say the least. On the move in the car, I don’t know. And the longest stretches of time I’m away from wifi are in France, where the data coverage is good, but the data speed is pathetic. I’ve never managed to even listen to a low-quality BBC iPlayer audio stream over there. I suspect that my network speed is throttled because I’m on an international roaming plan.

So I can’t see Music fitting into my life, is what I’m saying, and yet I live in a world in which it’s a big enough thing that it fills up my Twitter timeline and most of the podcasts I listen to. I like to own the music I play, I like to filter and curate my own playlists, and I don’t want to listen to some jackass DJ wittering in the background.

Thumbnail sketches — 4 June, 2015

Thumbnail sketches

  1. IMG_7012For the past couple of years I’ve been suffering (although that’s a strong term for what is an inconvenient irritation at most) from a permanently split thumbnail.
  2. Of all the signs of encroaching old age that one might fear (creaking joints, high blood pressure, spreading waistline), grooved fingernails seems like something trivial, but when one of the grooves is so deep that the nail just splits and stays split, it’s a pain in the arse.
  3. The doctor was no help when I mentioned it (on an unrelated visit) some time ago. Just shrugged in a don’t bother me with your cosmetic problems kind of way. Then again, Doctors hate it when you try to get a two-for-one visit, don’t they?
  4. I have never looked after my nails properly. Never had a manicure, never looked after the cuticles, and often suffered from hangnails and the like.
  5. The grooves, I thought, might be caused by something like lack of iron, but I really don’t think I’m anaemic. So it was probably age or something, but why does age punish me with a split nail?
  6. Keeping it short stops you from catching in on random objects and splitting it even more, but when you forget, it can literally be anything: pulling on a glove, opening the car door, pottering in the kitchen or garden.
  7. It’s a nail of two halves.
  8. I’ve tried all kinds of products. A cosmetic groove filler, plus a supposedly nail strengthening varnish, plus a nail strengthening liquid, for example. I’ve tried products for brittle nails, damaged nails, and even nail fungus. Nothing seems to work.
  9. (My conclusion with the nail products thing is that they are mostly nonsense, though I will admit my nails seemed less brittle and flaky after all this treatment.)
  10. The last time I caught the slightly-too-long nail on something and split it badly was so severe (and quite painful) that even now, weeks/months later, my nail has what looks like ingrained dirt trapped underneath it. It might be oil, or the black stuff I painted on the garage roof the other week, or dried blood, or, you know, dirt.
  11. I finally read something that seemed to make sense, which indicated that the cause of this kind of thing is trauma to the nail matrix (maybe I hit it with a hammer or whacked it in a door), as well as dehydration of the nail or cuticle.
  12. The same article indicated that the last thing you want to do with splitting nails is use nail strengthening solutions. Oh.
  13. IMG_7006So I’m trying on last time with a range of products to moisturise and feed and repair. I have a range of Nailtiques products in a sampler set (£30!), which includes moisturiser for cuticles, nail bed, hands, (feet), a protein to paint on, and a nail oil (which seems a bit like Olbas oil).
  14. Nails grow at 3mm per month, it says here, so I’m guessing I need to keep this up for three, four months to see if anything good happens – in the meantime, keeping my nail as short as possible to avoid catching it on stuff.
  15. This is my life now.
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