New podcasts on my list

weblogo-gameshow@2xMy list of podcast subscriptions is ever-evolving. My finger hovers over the delete button on a few of them, and I experiment with a few.

I sometimes feel I listen to too many tech and nerd related podcasts. Am I a nerd? I don’t know. I’m obsessive to a degree, but never with just one thing at a time. I have a certain amount of social ineptitude. On the other hand, I’m not obsessed with the narrow range of things that seem to occupy the attention of most nerds, and I’m most definitely not a gamer. I don’t really congregate with other nerds, and don’t feel part of any particular community. There are few people with whom I have long discussions about the things that interest me. Life is kind of lonely in that respect, so the hours I spend alone in the car with podcasts are good company.

The Incomparable Game Show is such an interesting project that I felt moved to write about it. I sometimes skip whole Incomparable episodes (usually if they’re about Star Wars), but I generally like the discussions, even if I’m not particularly interested in the topic. I can usually justify listening on the grounds that the discussions are frequently media-related, and it all helps with the subject knowledge and being down with the kids. Ha ha.

The Game Show is an experiment in formats. They’re trying out a few on a rotating schedule, and so far they’ve all been enjoyable and funny. Listeners familiar with panel shows on the radio such as Fighting Talk, Would I lie to You etc. will pick up quite quickly what’s happening.

The first in the series is Inconceivable!, which is nerd heaven: a quiz based on knowledge about TV shows, books, movies, games, and so on. I found this very entertaining. It’s so weird to hear a pop-culture based quiz. My favourite round was, “Opening Lines,” which simply involved identifying fantasy or science fiction novels from their first lines. Knowing the answer to a couple of these made me happy, and I just shouted, “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep” for the rest. There are also questions about items you might find in SF universes, and there was another about minor characters in individual Star Trek episodes. It sounds unpromising, maybe, but was extremely entertaining in the execution.

Counter Clockwise is based on the existing Clockwise podcast (which is a guaranteed-short technology ‘cast), but uses pop culture topics instead.

The most recent format to appear is Turns Out, which is surely based on Would I Lie to You, but in its first episode at least had a very funny (and apparently accidental) twist that had me cracking up in the car. There’s also a quickfire true-or-false round which is slightly different. You might say that there were some teething problems, but the fact that this is produced independently of a major broadcaster gives them the leeway to experiment, adjust, and evolve the formats as they go.

The genius of the podcast format is that it doesn’t have to conform to a schedule or stop for the news at the top of the hour. Episodes of Game Show vary between 39 and 53 minutes, which is the most uncommercial thing you can imagine.

I’ll also briefly mention You Must Remember This, Karina Longworth’s self-produced Hollywood History podcast, which I’ve been finding very enjoyable. At the moment, she’s spending several weeks discussing the activities of Golden Age movie stars during the second world war. This week it was Hope/Crosby, but we’ve also learned the fascinating stories of Hedy Lamarr, Charlie Chaplin, Errol Flynn, Rita Hayworth, Orson Welles, and many more. It’s well produced, and it’s so great to have the luxury of spending time with a subject. Film History by now is a long way separate from the trends in Film Studies, but there is still a lot of relevance to movie stars and their power to fascinate. And the stories are great.

Rewatching Alias

Alias.sizedFollowing the Buffy marathon of recent times, I noticed that NowTV were offering all five seasons ofAlias, JJ Abrams’ series about a high-kicking secret agent. Starring Jennifer Garner as CIA operative Sidney Bristow, I always thought Alias was something of a natural successor to Buffy, with the idea of a female action hero transcending genre. Alias is more science fiction/espionage than fantasy/horror, but it also has elements of fantasy in terms of the show’s Maguffin: the Rambaldi artefacts. There are also unfortunate levels of torture, although our hero doesn’t generally need a man to rescue her. She does have a support network which is mostly male, though the occasional appearances of her mother and the later addition of Melissa George as a rival agent does mitigate that problem.

Watching these shows back to back you are struck by the extraordinary levels of violence in both Buffy and Alias, and the ways in which brute force is presented as the solution to a number of different problems, or as a way to settle an argument or simply shut somebody up. Alias does also contain some sexy visuals, but it never goes very far, and if Jennifer Garner (or, later, Melissa George) does dress up in stockings and suspenders, it’s only in order to get close to somebody and do them harm.

Alias lacks the wit and humour of Buffy, though it does have some laugh-out-loud moments, and, following the earlier show’s lead, pulls out some audacious plot twists. At the end of Season 2, for example, Sydney Bristow wakes up in Hong Kong after losing consciousness in a fight at home in L.A. She soon discovers that two years has passed, and everything about her world has changed.

Probably my favourite feature of the show is the legendary Milo Rambaldi, a renaissance era genius in the vein of Leonardo who not only invented all kinds of advanced technologies but also issued a series of prophecies. The obsession that major character Sloane has for Rambaldi artefacts rings true, and of course they provide a number of excuses for Sidney to go on missions.

No show ever did cliffhangers better than Alias, although the payoff was rarely a match for the anticipation generated. Watching it week by week, back in the day, it was must-see TV for me. Having the luxury of an on-line boxed set means I can just binge on about four episodes in a row. The cliffhangers still work, though.

I thought I knew the show too well to watch it again, but that turned out not to be the case. The story arc of Season 1 in particular surprised me, as events that I thought had taken a couple of series to come to pass, seemed to happen in very quick succession. This left a black space on my inner roadmap, and I’ve been enjoying watching all over again. My girls, big Buffy fans, not so much. Perhaps suffering Boxed Set Fatigue, which is a thing.

Alias had a great cast of characters and a love of Bond-style gadgetry. In the end it was burdened by the weight of its backstories and interpersonal relationships, in much the same way that shows like ER, The X Files and NYPD Blue were. A shame, but an inevitable consequence of not wanting to do an adventure-of-the-week type thing. Season-long arcs have a lot to answer for, and for a showrunner, a tough balance to strike.

Polti Vaporettino Lux Steam Gun

231706505We’ve had a steam floor cleaner for a while, but it had never occurred to be to get hold of one of these (a smaller, hand-held steam gun) for cleaning other bits and pieces. The idea came to me through the usually funny Answer Me This podcast. I like everything about this podcast apart from the silly musical jingles and interludes. Someone was asking about how to clean a greasy kitchen hob, and presenter Olly just reeled out the Polti Vaporettino.

They come in various sizes, some with much higher capacity, but I wanted something small enough to store easily. We have a lot of space issues in our house. I went all the way to John Lewis on Sunday, hoping to pick one off the shelf, but it turned out they didn’t stock them. For around £35, this is considerably cheaper than the £99 Kärcher model they did have on display.

The Polti comes with a variety of attachments: a grout brush, two round brushes (one wire), a squeegee, a scraper, and a flexible hose.

Now, my problem with my hob is not grease. I have a ceramic hob, and the problem with ceramic hobs is that they are too hot to clean when they need to be cleaned. By the time the hob is cool enough to clean, the thing you spilt on it has burned on so thoroughly that its nigh-impossible to remove.

I have tried all the ceramic hob cleaning creams, and I’ve bought a razorblades-based scraper, but there are always permanent rings of burnt-on pasta and potato water.

I was genuinely skeptical that this would work, but it was recommended on a comic podcast, so…

The water capacity of this is small at 200ml, and you do have to wait a bit between refills to top it up because of the hot element problem. That said, it delivers enough steam for enough time to help you with a single job, or maybe two smaller jobs. So, for example: the kettle. Over time, bits of kitchen grease and debris insinuate themselves into hard to clean areas. A quick blast of steam and a bit of brushing: the kettle looks new. That burnt-on bit at the top of the toaster? With some carefully aimed steam (and allowing the toaster to completely dry before switching it on), and some brushing/scraping: much improved.

I won’t post photos because I don’t want you to see how greasy my cooker hood was, but the steam wand and brush was highly effective on this. That said, the encrusted grease on the brush required steam cleaning itself.

So far so good and to the hob. As I said: skeptical. This is burnt on starch that is so thoroughly burned in that it almost seems like discolouration of the ceramic and doesn’t seem three dimensional enough to respond to razor-based scraping.

But it worked. Not a quick or instant process, but with patience and care, you can clean the burnt on gunk away. I say “care” because I resorted to the wire brush option. I didn’t want to scratch the ceramic, but it was the most effective way. It clears a patch at a time. If you cleaned the spillage shortly after it was spilled, you could do it quicker, I’m sure. But I’m talking here about years of neglect (the shame).

Quite pleased with it, but it is yet another device that needs storage space for it and all its attachments, like the Magimix (which I often wonder about in terms of the balance between its undoubted usefulness when you need it but its complete pain-in-the-arseness when you don’t.)

The Who give a fuck: live at the O2 Arena, London, Sunday 22 March 2015

treesThis concert didn’t quite feel real to me until it happened, but then it did and so it was. A friend of my daughter was offered corporate tickets to see The Who. Her own family weren’t interested, and so she asked my daughter, who she knew would be, and I was roped in to be the designated adult.

But this conversation happened months ago, and because I didn’t buy the tickets, see the tickets, or really think about it very much, I was almost completely unprepared. Call it denial: the last time I was at the O2 (Fleetwood Mac), I swore it would be the last time, and I vowed that my gig going would be restricted to the more intimate venues and the more intimate acts. It would take something very, very special to persuade me to drop another £300 or so for the family to see someone big in a big venue. Taylor Swift: no. It was a school night, and I couldn’t face the idea of all those screams. Little Big Town: almost… but no. Another school night, and we’ve already seen them. The last two Country2Country gigs: no. Line-ups not compelling enough, and the people I did want to see would be relegated to support status, and largely ignored by the O2 crowd, which is something I hate (no atmosphere).

Now, if Bruce Springsteen were to play any time in the next couple of years, I have at least one daughter who would never speak to me again if I didn’t at least try for tickets, but I wouldn’t on my own account. I’ve seen Springsteen (outdoors) on three occasions, and have no memory of enjoying it. The last time, at Milton Keynes Bowl, in the era during which he’d dumped the E Street Band, was very disappointing. I don’t like this go there to be there, to say you were there, business. I want to be moved. I love music and I want to feel something.

What about Sunday? It was a school night, but the tickets were free, and it’s only the bloody ‘Oo. I saw them once before, in August 1979 at Wembley, shortly after Moonie died. Kenney Jones was on the drum stool, but this was in many respects the classic Who line-up, with four on the stage (and a sneaky keyboardist somewhere in the wings). It was a great, great concert, although history hasn’t been kind in its opinion of Kenney Jones in the band. It was a cloudy, cold, August Saturday, but at around three o’clock, when the first act hit the stage, the sun came out. And there was Nils Lofgren with his little trampoline, followed by AC/DC (who they?), the Stranglers, and then the ‘Oo, in fine form. Townshend was still on the Gibson Les Pauls then, with Helvetica number stickers on them. I was 16.

Back then, following my first BIG outdoor gig, we encountered the after-gig nightmare of how to get home. It finished reasonably early, just after 10, so it should have been fine, but there just weren’t enough tube trains and buses for 80,000 people (minus those who arrived by car). The tube station was completely blocked, we had no idea where to go or how to get there. Somehow, we ended up at Watford Junction, where we waited till the early hours for someone’s dad, in his pyjamas, to come pick us up. I don’t know how we all fitted into the car. Different times, as they like to say on the Simon Mayo Confessions podcast.

Getting home after these big gigs gives me the hives. My next time at Wembley, for the Stones in ’82 (terrible), we got on a random bus – just to get away, and ended up walking for miles and miles and miles and miles. By the time Springsteen played there in ’85, I had a car, and so we drove, and I cleverly parked in the perfect spot. All I had to do was start the engine and bump down a kerb, and I was away.

Leaving the O2, you always encounter the difficulty of getting into North Greenwich station, onto a train and somehow to Euston in time for a train. This time, I booked the River Bus Express and we were among a select few who travelled back on the Thames. A lot of people choose to arrive by water, but very few leave that way. It was slow, but it didn’t involve an anxious wait outside a closed tube station and a crush to get on a train. We got off at London Bridge and onto the Northern Line to Euston. It shouldn’t even have been so bad: the gig was over by 10:15, there were no encores, so we could, in theory, have made it to Euston well before 11 o’clock. But the Thames boat thing is slow, so we ended up on the Sunday night 11:34 with some semi-inebriated, sweary young people, who embarrassed my daughter and her friend by being so stupid and annoying they were ashamed for their generation.

But it had been a sweary night, so what can you do?

We got home around half-past one in the morning, leaving just four hours until I had to get up for work. Oh, the humanity.

The support act were Slydigs, a forgettable guitar rock band. They came on stage quite early and were ignored by most of the O2 crowd, who stayed, as they always do, in the bar. Some of the audience stayed in the bar until well into The Who’s set. The tickets cost £75. Just saying.

Anyway, the wait wasn’t too bad. The Who hit the stage and charged into a 23-song setlist that included all of the numbers you’d expect on a Greatest Hits, with a few off piste songs. They were great. There was no interval and no boring acoustic set in the middle, no costume changes and no sense that the people we’d come to see were around 70 years old. The line-up now includes an extra guitar player (Townshend’s brother Simon, who also supplies backing vocals), and three keyboard/percussion/backing vocalists) as well as Entwhistle’s replacement Pino Palladino and the Moon-trained Zak Starkey on drums. This fills out the band quite well and allows them to play more subtle versions of their songs. Modern audiences seem to expect things to be more like the record, don’t they? If you listen to Live at Leeds you’ll hear stuff that’s nothing like the record.

Townshend made some sly comments about this sort of thing, teasing the crowd by threatening a thinner guitar sound on the intro to ‘My Generation’, saying it was more like the original, but then resorting to the louder style. They crashed through a load of the singles. “Can’t Explain”, “Substitute,” “The Seeker,” “The Kids Are All Right,” “Pictures of Lily…” I could go on. They did. Townshend commented that a lot of the older ones were really short. It wasn’t until the later 60s that things got longer, and then they hit the motherlode of synth based extended anthems such as “Baba O’Reilly,” “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” the Tommy stuff, the Quadrophenia stuff.

So it was standard. They played the same Tommy medley they played at Woodstock, more or less; they played two from Quadrophenia, including “Love, Reign O’er Me” that hit an emotional high.

Was there a sense they were going through the motions? I’ve always felt that The Who have the best 2-hour set in the history of rock music. Springsteen can do a better three plus hours, but almost nobody can match The Who for a no-filler set of hit followed by hit. Even dropping in lesser-known songs like “Slip Kid” and “Join Together” didn’t derail things. They played the whole of “A Quick One, While He’s Away,” which you could argue was strictly for the fans, but when you can play “Who Are You?,” “Pinball Wizard,” “See Me Feel Me,” “Listening to You,” “Baba O’Reilly,” and “Won’t Get Fooled Again” and still have “Magic Bus” to pull out of the hat? Only, maybe, could Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers get close to The Who for a 2-hour set, and they don’t have the song recognition that transcends generations.

Don’t even bother talking about the Stones. Another thing I’ve always said about The Who is that history is made by those who show up. So they were at Monterey in 1967; they were at Woodstock; they were at Live Aid in ’85. They played the 9/11 memorial concert, they ticked the Glastonbury box, and the Superbowl box, they did Wembley 1979, which was one of the first big Wembley gigs, if not the first. It was a proof-of-concept, if nothing else.

And they’re so British. As much as they were influenced by American soul music and the blues, all that, they do everything with a British accent and a sense of healthy irreverence. It’s “Baba O’Reilly,” after all, a deliberate puncturing of the overblown portentousness of gurus and mantras. It was between songs, early in the set that Townshend approached the mic and said, in response to something Daltrey asked, ‘Who gives a fuck?’ It was then, said my daughter, that she knew the concert wasn’t going to be some po-faced, soulless run-through by some old and out of touch geezers. There’s a connection between The Who and their audience that is unique. They’re bruisers, troublemakers, used to adversity. Their trials are like our trials. Roger Daltrey grew frustrated as the gig progressed because he kept having issues with his harmonicas. It was like the sound person had forgotten to patch them in. He managed to get one working (just) for “Baba O’Reilly,” but initially picked one up in the wrong key. Being who he is, it got to him. You could tell by the end when he’d tried to play harmonica during “Magic Bus” and got feedback and eventually gave up that he was really uptight about it. As the band stepped forward, arms around each other, taking the well-deserved applause, Daltrey was still pacing the stage, still upset. Eventually he came in, put his arm round Pete, thanked the crowd, mentioned the technical issues, and said,

‘Anyway, who gives a shit?’

Visions of the old Johanna

piano-02I’ve long been of the opinion that the very best rock bands had a keyboardist. These players are often the best musician in the band, the muso, and can bring an added dimension of competence. Although the presence of a proper musician in any band can be a source of conflict (“Let’s do this in 12/8 time”), the pleasure they bring to the music is compensation enough. Consider three bands:

  • The Band actually had two keyboard players, Garth Hudson and Richard Manuel. Hudson was considered the music teacher in the band, though Manuel supplied the soulful voice as well, and could double up on drums when Levon was playing the mandolin or something.
  • The E Street Band also had two keyboard players. The late Danny Federici supplied the glorious hammond organ (and was responsible for the horrid synth sounds that popped up on Born in the USA), but it is ‘Professor’ Roy Bittan who gives Springsteen’s band that sense of wide open space.
  • Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers are also a class act, helped in no small part by Belmont Tench’s in-demand piano and organ chops. Watch the video of Bob Dylan performing “Knocking on Heaven’s Door” with the Heartbreakers and you see what his playing can bring to a performance. There has been conflict. Mr Tench famously objected to being asked to play simple block chords when he would rather play notes (I suppose), but that’s why you have frontmen like Tom Petty.

I could go on. There have been great bands without full-time keyboard players, but they usually sneak one in somewhere. The Beatles had both John and Paul who could play piano, and George Martin could fill in in the studio. One of my favourite tracks is “Rock and Roll Music” from Beatles for Sale, which features (according to the sleeve notes) all three of them on one piano. You need look no further than Hey Jude and Lady Madonna for evidence of how important piano was to the Beatles’ sound. Billy Preston also added organ and electric piano to the tracks recorded for Let it Be.

Preston also played with The Stones, who famously kept another piano player in the wings, deeming him too ugly to be a full-time Stone. Nevertheless, Ian Stewart played on a lot of their records before his untimely death in 1985. Nicky Hopkins also shows up in the credits on many occasions.

The Who’s classic synth loops were created by Townshend in the studio, but, since the late 1970s, John Bundrick has supplemented the band on the stage.

My daughter is in a band, and I’ve been encouraging her to recruit a keyboard player. My own band fell short in this respect, and apart from my complete lack of charisma and talent, I’m sure this is what cost me my big break.

Notwithstanding the acts referred to above, here are a few individual songs by other artists I think stand out because of the piano playing on them:

Evil Woman (Stripped Down Mix) – ELO. Taking the string section away lays this one bare with excellent results.

Every Mother’s Son – Lynyrd Skynyrd. This is a guitar track, but the piano interlude in the middle of the song is superb, carrying that ‘rolling’ feel you get from skilful expression pedal use.

Wayward and Weary – Tift Merritt. Talking of pumping that expression pedal, watching Tift Merritt perform on piano is an education in how piano playing is about much more than the fingers and thumbs.

Still Rollin’ – Gretchen Wilson. A great track from one of her recent albums that features that same rolling, country-style piano.

The Fuse – Jackson Browne. You could pick any number of Browne tracks, but this one in particular put the piano in the foreground on the outro.

Sing about death much, Tim?

“If I died today, who’d turn off my coffee pot?”

“I guess I really should have seen it coming, I’ll always died by my own hand.”

“And he said someday I hope you get the chance, to live like you were dying’.”

“This is not some kind of cry for help, Just good bye I wish you well… Because I love you, I’m gonna kill myself.”

Tired and Emotional?

15_DRIW_SLA_web1_1135592aImagine you’re watching a movie. The hero, in spite of a slew of character flaws, has already survived a number of conflicts, and we’re approaching the story’s climax. Everything depends on the hero being at a certain place at a certain time. People are relying on him, waiting on him. There is nothing to stop him arriving on time beyond a certain streak of self-destructiveness. What does he do?

He goes to the pub. He drinks. He arrives at the certain place but the time is two hours late. People have given up waiting. Still, there’s one last chance at redemption, if he can take responsibility for his own actions and acknowledge his fault. But he doesn’t. Instead, he blames someone else. He blames them loudly, publicly, violently, and apparently without self-awareness.

Are you still rooting for him? Really?

This, by some accounts, is what led to what the BBC called a ‘fracas’.

There’s being tired and emotional because you’ve been working hard all day, including some overtime, and then getting really cranky because you’ve not had a chance to eat and realise that that chance to eat will not come. And then there’s being ‘tired and emotional‘ (in the Private Eye sense) because you chose to go to the pub, chose to arrive late, and then flew into a rage because a hotel chef (who probably does work long hours) went home instead of waiting for you to arrive.

Interesting how so many people turned this into a narrative about free speech, when it’s really a narrative about selfishness, egotism, and poor timekeeping.

Using Google Maps as my main sat nav

Screen Shot 2015-03-13 at 22.44.35

One of the first apps I bought when I got my iPhone 4, back in the 19th Century, was CoPilot, the slightly cheaper alternative to TomTom. Both apps cost 30-something quid for the Western Europe edition, and like all proper satnav apps they allow you to navigate without needing a network connection. This is their chief advantage over the built-in Apple Maps app, or the venerable Google Maps.

For some time after Apple released Maps, I didn’t even have Google Maps on my iPhone. Both my 4 and my 5 were paltry 16GB models, and I couldn’t afford to keep stuff around that was’t paying its way in terms of storage space used. But my iPhone 6 Plus is a 64GB model, and I downloaded the Google app again recently, and started experimenting with using it as a sat nav.

Why did I feel the need? Hard to say. Nothing much wrong with CoPilot, but it does charge you a subscription fee for its fairly lacklustre traffic/rerouting feature. I had this for a couple of years (only one of which I paid for) and it never once saved me any time or got me onto another route. It would notify me of 5-10 minute delays, but it always said there was no quicker route. I’m also not enamoured with CoPilot’s Points of Interest feature. They never really are points of interest, and it’s rubbish at finding the supermarket you know you want, or the car park.

Because G Maps is connected to regular Google search, you can find just about anywhere using the words you would use. For example, CoPilot is hopeless at identifying the Eurotunnel terminal at Folkestone, whereas it pops up in G Maps immediately. In the example above, ‘Waitrose Milton Keynes’ is near-impossible to find in CoPilot, but Google gets it.

When I tried Google Maps, I was immediately impressed with the speed/accuracy of its traffic feature, which pisses all over the service offered by Apple Maps. Google’s harvesting of data is obviously on a different level.

Another thing that has impressed me about G Maps is its estimation of journey and arrival time, which has proved far more accurate than CoPilot’s. I’m a person with a great sense of direction (fact) and I generally learn how to get places when I’ve been once, so I don’t need a sat nav unless I’m going somewhere entirely new. On the other hand, when I’m on a journey of any length, I do like to know ‘how much longer?’ and to have a rough idea of what time I’ll arrive.

I confess I’ve become obsessed by this latter since starting my new job with its horrible commute. It’s not about arriving at work, but rather getting home. Anything around an hour or slightly under is a triumph. It helps too, when I’m feeling a bit frazzled and tempted to leave the motorway to take the A5 or something. When Google tells you the A5 will take 12 minutes longer, you stick with Plan A.

Google colour codes both the route and the time till you arrive. The road you’re supposed to be on is blue. Alternative routes, as they come along, are shown in grey, with an indication of how much longer or shorter they’ll be. A cross-country grey route that’s ‘1 minute longer’ is usually a good bet, if you know the blue route takes you through a town centre and a series of traffic lights at rush hour. You can usually make up the minute fairly quickly and use less fuel on a more direct route on country roads.

When there’s slow moving traffic, the route turns orange. When the traffic is stationary, it turns red. As to the time indicator, it’s green when you’re on target to hit Google’s original prediction (or go slightly under). It turns orange when there’s a slight increase, and red when you’re going to face considerable delay. Interestingly, it also turns black when the arrival time gets ‘locked in’ by the laws of physics. If you’re two minutes from home you can no longer make up any time.

Google’s orange-red coding of the route is not exact, but it is pretty good. When the motorway matrix signs are saying ‘Queue After Junction’ you will see the red or orange ahead. On the A422 towards Buckingham, there’s often a patch of orange at the Maids Moreton right turn, because this frequently causes a shift into first gear and a short delay. What’s good about this is that it reminds you, sometimes, not to go hurtling round a corner at top speed, because there’s orange ahead.

What I really like about G Maps is the usual offering of 3 alternative routes, with live traffic information. Even then, you still have the option of cutting onto a back road, and instead of insisting that you ‘turn around when possible’ G Maps takes it in its stride, and simply recalculates the route and arrival time. It’s also very smart when it comes to map display. You can see it zoom in as you get to a junction, and it then zooms out again to show you more of your route. This is much more flexible than CoPilot’s display, which is something you have to adjust yourself.

The one drawback is that G Maps needs a data connection and uses quite a lot of data. I’m on an unlimited plan. Still, when I drive in France, I would normally revert to CoPilot, because the maps are already downloaded. Except now France is a Feel at Home destination on the Three network, which means I can use my existing data plan (within reason) when I go. When you’re in an area with no signal, G Maps can get very flaky. It’s not good at  calculating a route on the move, and I did experience a number of app crashes when driving in France at half term. The app has been updated more recently, and hasn’t crashed since the update. It still prefers you to be stationary when it’s calculating a route, though.

The thing I miss in G Maps compared to CoPilot is the display of the speed limit wherever you are and the GPS-calculated speed you’re doing. Surely it would be possible for G Maps to display this?

As to Apple Maps, its key advantage is the way it carries on working in the background, even with your phone screen off. I quite like the way it wakes itself to display the map on the lock screen as you approach a junction. On the other hand, when you’re driving somewhere like Milton Keynes, it gets irritating to hear ‘take the second exit at the roundabout’ 50,000 times. Google Maps has a less irritating voice, which is easy to mute and unmute, depending on your circumstances.

Short version: if you have a decent data plan, the free Google Maps is all the sat nav you’ll ever need.


One of the undoubted benefits of the YouTube era has been the surprising availability of almost miraculous cultural artefacts. For example, I still can’t quite get my head around the fact that you can find a concert film of the Beatles at the Hollywood Bowl in 1964. Back in 1977, when the 1964 and 1965 concerts were included  on a vinyl release, I would scarcely have believed that one day I would be able to watch – and in reasonable quality, considering it was 50 years ago.

I blogged a while ago about the appearance (on the UK iTunes store, at least) of Bruce Springsteen bootlegs, particularly from the 1978 Darkness on the Edge of Town tour. YouTube has a number of gems, too. I was never lucky enough to see Springsteen in the pre-stadium days, but the bootlegs and YouTube allow you to get a taste. You can also compare, perhaps unfortunately, to more recent shows.

Back in the early 1980s, all we knew was that there was a film of Springsteen performing Rosalita in Phoenix in 1978. I remember it being featured in the legendary Jeff Bridges-presented documentary about rock music (“Rock ‘n’ Roll – phew!”). The 9+ minute video was an tantalising glimpse of just how exciting Springsteen could be in his heyday.

1978 Springsteen is loose and rangy, diving all over the stage like a deranged mannequin. His set consisted of recent songs from Darkness, classics from his first three albums, unreleased tracks (“Independence Day”, “Fire”, “Because the Night”, “The Ties That Bind”), and classic covers, such as the Detroit Medley and the extended “Quarter to Three.” You simply cannot watch without being astonished at his energy levels, his showmanship, his rapport with the audience, the love and trust evident in his relationship with Clarence Clemons.

Recent Springsteen is still brilliant, that’s not what I’m saying. He knows that every night is someone’s first and only show, and he brings it to the absolute limit every single time. But 60-year-old Bruce is (of course) stiffer, less athletic than 29-year-old Bruce, and his voice is tighter and has less range. He’s also performing in a completely different way, simply because of the nature and size of the venues. And the E Street Band of 1978 was smaller, playing more intimate venues, and I’m afraid much better than the E Street Band of today. Two of the original members are dead, and the additional personnel have to be there, I suppose, because Bruce and Clarence together used to be the show, and older Bruce needs more help in the vast arenas he now plays around the world.

The Capitol Theatre show is available as an audio Bootleg – or (see above) as a pretty ropy black and white video recording of a TV broadcast. It’s low contrast, horribly degraded, visually, looking more or less the same as the Beatles Hollywood Bowl footage of 14 years earlier. But: it is brilliant. It’s Springsteen the guitar hero, the guy who leapt onto amplifiers and onto pianos and PA stacks – health and safety be damned. It’s the Springsteen of the 9-minute “Prove It All Night”, the 14-minute “Quarter to Three”.

There is a colour video from the 1978 tour. It came from slightly earlier in the summer, and was probably a local TV show, this time in Maryland. In spite of the colour, the video quality still leaves much to be desired, but that doesn’t matter. There’s something incredibly moving about performances of “Thunder Road” and so on in this era. I feel incredibly lucky to have access to these historical documents, the kinds of things I would never have believed could exist, back then. And maybe – just like the 1975 Hammersmith Odeon show, which is available in very good quality – they will emerge in more pristine condition.

I defy anyone to watch the 1978 Detroit Medley and not feel unconstrained joy.

Innori Natural Light LED desk lamp

maxresdefaultI’ve been sleeping really badly of late – the past year or so, actually. I’m so tired that I often struggle to stay awake early in the evening, and if I give in to sleep I then have trouble getting to sleep later; all of which becomes a self-stoking cycle of broken sleep. I’m also waking up way too early – between four and four-thirty. On a weekend, this means I’m awake then, and still awake until work-day waking up time, at which time I seem to be able to doze for an hour or so, which is cold comfort. On work days it just means I’m awake long before I need to be.

I’ve got this horrible long commute now (‘long’ in my terms is anything over my previous 30 minutes), which I hate, and which is also tiring – especially on days when the motorway is seized up and all routes home seem blocked by standing traffic. When you spend two and a half hours driving home and then struggle to sleep and then wake up early, it all becomes a bit stressful. I’ve also discovered that waking up early and leaving early is pointless. The traffic on the A41 is actually worse if I’m arriving at work around 7:30 am, than it is if I arrive at, say, 7:50 or 8:00. So leaving home at, say, 06:20 offers no advantage compared to 06:40.

I’m not helping my own situation, I know, by reading at night on my phone. I know, I know. I spent a fortune getting the 6 Plus for reading and now I’m admitting that the main purpose is one of the causes of my insomnia. At work, I found all of the Game of Thrones books lying around. I’ve read the first volume (on my phone), but thought it would be a good idea to read the rest on paper, and stop this phone night reading habit.

Which brings us to the topic of reading lamps. Traditional bedside lamps aren’t designed for reading. And modern lighting in general re-creates the phone problem. The light is too white, too blue, too close to daylight, and too likely to disrupt your sleep in the same way that reading on the phone does. (On the Apple iOS Wish List: a “night mode” that changes the screen light temperature to a warmer yellow, thus aiding relaxation and sleep.)

I considered, seriously, a lamp from the Serious Readers range. These are highly engineered built-for-the-purpose lights designed to give years of service. But, oh my, the price. The cheapest comes in at £99, and the most expensive is an eye-watering £349. That’s almost iPhone money. If I hadn’t already bought the flaming phone…

But, encouraged, I kept looking, and came across the Innori natural light desk lamp. The downside: it’s a desk lamp, not a bedside light. It looks incongruous and spaceship-like in the bedroom. It has a sturdy metal base for stability, but its body and arm is made from lighter weight plastic. But it does have several clever features.

The first clever feature is the mode-switching. It has four different settings: Reading; Studying; Relaxing; Sleep. Each setting changes the temperature of the light. The most daylight-like is Study Mode: you don’t want to be falling asleep, so it’s a wide awake 6000~7000°K. Reading Mode is a warmer but still bright 4,300~5,300°K, and Relax Mode is a dimmer setting at the same temperature. Finally, Sleep Mode is the dimmest of all, and the warmest, at 2,500~3,300°K. K stands for degrees Kelvin, by the way, and it’s counterintuitive, but the lower temperatures in °K equate to what is usually termed “warmer” light. That’s because firelight is right down at around 1,700°K. As a point of reference, moonlight is measured at around 4,100°K; a warm fluorescent lamp is around 3000°K. Temperatures around here are going to encourage your inner cave person to sleep.

The second clever feature is the built-in 60 minute timer. This switches the light off automatically, which means you can keep reading with your eyes drooping and then just chuck the book to one side when the light goes out. It means you’re less tempted to keep reading when you’re hooked on a narrative.

The third clever feature is the built-in USB port, which means if you have limited plug sockets near your bed, you can charge your phone through the lamp. You can even use a hub to charge more than one device.

In use

With the light assembled and plugged in, use is straightforward. Push the glowing on-off button, select a mode, and (if you want) adjust the brightness using the +/- buttons (5 steps are available). In a darkened room at night, with you sitting right next to it, you can actually read quite comfortably even with the light set to Sleep Mode. If you need more light (because there are two people reading), then the Reading Mode offers more light, without going into the wake-up Study Mode.

I’m pleased with this. After two nights, I’ve already been sleeping better (not awake for hours with my mind racing about work, waking closer to 5:30 than 4:00). It’s not perfect, but improving. The lamp doesn’t buzz. There is a red stand-by light, but I can live with that. At £40, this was considerably cheaper than the desirable Serious Readers lights. Recommended.