On giving up everything*

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How does this work, then?

Older readers will remember that I’d been controlling my eczema, reluctantly, by following a gluten-free diet. So well was this going that I started to play fast and loose with the strictness, reasoning that one pizza on a Saturday, made with a properly fermented 48-hour dough, was unlikely to cause more than the mildest of itches.

Even when the dermatology clinic tested my blood for the gluten allergens and reported “inconclusive” results, I stuck to the (almost) elimination diet on the basis that even if the effects were psychological they were no less real for that.

But the eczema made a gradual return, to the point that I asked for a refill of my steroid cream prescription.

At the end of March, I had a small slice of birthday cake on my wife’s birthday, and decided to go back to strict enforcement of the diet. Two and a half months later, and here we are. Still itching. And on a scale of 1-10 when anything below 6 is mild enough to resist scratching that itch, I’ve been 8-10 for weeks on end now, with big patches of eczema on the back of my legs, and my back, anywhere there might be extended periods of pressure. So the back of my thighs, for example: that’s worse when I’ve been sitting down, and the base of my back is bad especially after a car journey of any length. And around the waist band of my underwear, etc.

Went to the doctor (not the clinic, which had discharged me back when the eczema was under control), and he suggested I might try giving up dairy.

Groan.

*Once you remove anything with wheat in it from your diet, and then anything with milk in it, ugh. I now look at those “wheat and dairy free” labels ruefully, when once I used to wonder why the two so frequently went together. I tried, at first, a compromise, and went lactose free for a few weeks. This wasn’t too bad: there’s a pretty wide variety of lactose-free products, and they taste acceptable.

But that didn’t work of course, and so I now embark on the dairy-free part of my life, half-hoping this isn’t going to work. I mean, I like rice, and I’ll eat a bean salad, and I’ll grill some meat and so on. But I fucking hate that watery quinoa gruel, and all those bitty vegan options are just damp leaves. Soya and coconut cheese substitutes are gross.

I think I’ll try till the end of July, see if it works. And if it does, can I have a slice of bread to celebrate?

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So, Farewell then, The Americans

Season 6 of The Americans has drawn to a close, with a stunning finale, almost silent in its final half, reminding us that so much of this story was told without dialogue, and with strategically targeted musical nuggets, such as Dire Straits’ “Brothers in Arms” in that last episode. Even, I grudgingly admit, U2’s “With or Without You” which I’d normally run screaming from the house to avoid.

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[Contains spoilers]

I previously wrote about this show just before Season 5, which was an in-between seasons, designed to build inexorably to the climax that would be Season 6. At the end of Season 5, after a disastrous operation, Philip announces that he doesn’t want to do “the work” any more, and Elizabeth agrees to take on new assignments herself, while Philip only works to wind up existing operations.

So it is that Season 6 begins on a tense note, three years later, with an exhausted Elizabeth running on fumes and shutting herself emotionally from her husband, who is trying to make a success of the travel agency front operation—and failing. In other words, not to put too fine a point on it, this man who had really started to want to be an American was failing at being a capitalist. Gorbachev is in office in the USSR, experimenting with openness and reform, and reactionary elements within the KGB are seeking to destroy him. Inevitably, this conflict at the top level of the Soviet Union infects the Jennings’ marriage, building mistrust and resentment.

It was the sound of The Americans, in the end, that haunted me. It probably took me three or four seasons to understand why the soundtrack always sounded so odd. In every scene, interior, exterior, office, home, street corner, there was a lot of background noise. Where there was dialogue, it was clear enough, but there was always a great deal of background hum, as if the volume (or gain) had been turned up on everything. And then I twigged: every scene in The Americans sounds as if it has been recorded using a listening device (or, in the case of outdoor scenes, a shotgun microphone eavesdropping from a distance).

What does one do when something so good reaches an end? I think, probably more than any other show, I might watch it all again.

(Seasons 1-5 are on Amazon Prime video. I assume/hope that Season 6 (episodes currently on the ITV Player in the UK) will end up there in due course.

Childhood Canon

CometmoominlandSometimes you hear a podcast episode and think wistfully how you’d like to have been on it. Recent Incomparable episodes about childhood canon and recent conversations with colleagues about learning to read had me thinking about the media that shaped my tastes. I’m less interested in film and television than I am in books.

I learned to read with Dr Seuss – Green Eggs and Ham, Hop on Pop, and The Cat in the Hat – but at a very early age started the exploration of science fiction that continues to this day. I’m going to credit Tove Jansson with this: Comet in Moominland (1951) was the first Moomin book I read (when I was off school with whooping cough, I think), and although it isn’t scientifically accurate, it would be churlish to hold that against it, given that most science fiction of the time was similarly inaccurate. The description of the approaching comet’s effects on the earth and the crossing of the dried up sea on stilts gave me an early taste of the apocalyptic strand of SF that remains popular to this day.

I moved from the Moomins onto Enid Blyton’s Adventure series and Arthur Ransome, but started to spend more than 50% of my time reading about space and time.

220px-Blast_Off_at_Woomera_front_coverThe first science fiction proper I read would have been Hugh Walters’ series of books that included Destination Mars, Nearly Neptune, and Blast Off at Woomera (1957), which features another implausible plot as a 17-year-old kid is sent off to photograph the moon because of a feared communist plot. Having devoured those books, I moved on to Arthur C. Clarke, and his Islands in the Sky (1952), which also featured a teenage boy going up into space.

I then switched to Clarke’s more adult-oriented books, the most memorable being Childhood’s End and Clarke_Rendezvous_With_RamaRendezvous with Rama (1973), which at the time was Clarke’s most recently published novel. It lacks a proper plot, as much of his stuff does, but does manage to convey a sense of wonder at the (alien) technological sublime, which is another ongoing theme. Most recently, I’ve enjoyed Robert Charles Wilson’s take on it, with books like The Chronoliths, Spin, and Blind Lake.

My Clarke obsession was long enough ago that his novel Imperial Earth (1975) was published while I was in the midst of it. I turned 13 that year. But that novel was disappointing, as was his novelisation of 2001: A Space Odyssey, which might have been better left as the short story “The Sentinel”, which I had in one of the many short story collections I had accrued by then. These included his classic Tales From the White Hart, a fun collection of tall tales which gave me a taste for the playful side of science fiction.

I tried, around this time, to read some Isaac Asimov, but it never took. I never could read Asimov and only managed Heinlein in small doses.

A side trip to Durham to visit relatives led to me scoring a pile of interesting, more grown up, SF books from a distant cousin. I’ll forever be grateful to him, whoever he was, because he let me choose a bunch of stuff from his shelves, which I never was to return.

1255867Two of the most important of these were Larry Niven collections: A Hole in Space and Inconstant Moon (1973). The title story of the latter collection was an echo of Comet in Moominland, as a too-bright moon signalled a catastrophic problem with the sun to people on the dark side of the Earth, who realise they have just one night to live. These harder SF collections exposed me to ideas such as ramjets, time dilation, teleportation booths, and flash mobs. Another book in that particular grab bag was the very first World’s Best Science Fiction collection edited by Terry Carr. This included the canonical Harlan Ellison story “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream” but more importantly gave me a taste for these annual collections. I raided the library for every one I could find, and in later years, when Gardner Dozois picked up the torch, I have made a point of buying his annual collection every summer.

The final taste-forming book of my teens was a gift received during a hospital stay when I was 16 or 17. This was the all-time classic Penguin Science Fiction Omnibus, edited by Brian Aldiss. There were more good stories in that one book than in any number of annual Best ofs, and it remains the best introduction to Golden Age science fiction.

Besides all this, the importance of Doctor Who and Star Trek were comparatively minor. When it comes to film and TV science fiction, my support is grudging at best. Only Alien really cuts the mustard from that era, and I mainly watched Doctor Who for the companions.

The Great Flickr Shitr

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The first picture I uploaded to Flickr, taken in July 2004

Flickr was one of the earliest social networks, starting in February 2004, and, among other things, pioneered the use of the hashtag, which later became a key part of the Twitter experience. It was a place where you could upload photos/descriptions, connect with other users, join groups, make comments, and create themed collections of your own photos.

I joined in July 2004, and it really felt like a small and friendly community in those days. Of course, it was hard to see how they would ever make money.

They were acquired by Yahoo in 2005, and the long downhill descent began. There are three things that Yahoo did that are variously upsetting and annoying.

The first was that they neglected it, allowing its performance to get worse, and were particularly slow to respond to the smartphone revolution. Even as the iPhone became the most ubiquitous camera used by Flickr photographers, the Flickr app experience was kludgy. As Instagram demonstrated how simple a photo sharing social network could be, Flickr’s was complicated and slow. Even today, if someone shares a photo from Flickr to Twitter, it loads extremely slowly, making for a poor user experience.

The second thing was that they tried to drive Flickr users towards Yahoo as a web portal at a time when the very idea of a web portal was becoming ridiculous. But Yahoo are an advertising company, and that’s what they wanted to do. So they loaded an ugly, clashing Yahoo menu bar at the top of the Flickr site, and they forced everyone to use a Yahoo log-in rather than their old Flickr log-in.

Which is when the problems began for me.

The third thing was that Yahoo did what all these tech companies do: they tried to avoid their user support responsibilities by pushing people towards forums, where the same questions get posted over and over again, with similar answers, and nobody ever gets helped, and the secret portal into actual technical support is hard to find and opaque. All of which is the inevitable result of a free service that clearly doesn’t stand a chance of making money through advertising and which becomes a white elephant, or a millstone hanging around the neck of a slowly dying corporation.

Yahoo is acquired by Verizon, Flickr slips further down the list of priorities, and more and more people find themselves in the same situation as me: unable to resolve the log-in, or successfully recover lost passwords. In 2013, Yahoo was hacked, and 3 billion user accounts were compromised.

Around the same time, my Flickr log-in and password corrupted in some bizarre way and went from being a recognisable email/password to being long strings of random characters.

Like this: 0753036973656d61dc27j2gs1s29h4g8

That’s not my own corrupted log-in, but mine was very similar, and so was the password. I mean, it’s not even an email address. In time, I was unable to get in at all, and after a fruitless run-in with Yahoo support, I ended up creating a new Flickr account so I could continue to upload pictures.

But it was never the same, and I was never happy, and I eventually stopped using the service.

Screen Shot 2018-05-03 at 20.54.00The screen grab left shows a sample of the many Flickr users who are having issues accessing their accounts.

My own problems were exacerbated by the way my Yahoo identities seemed to burgeon. When Yahoo acquired Flickr, I already had a hidden Yahoo identity, because my then-internet provider, BT, used Yahoo as the backbone for its “brinternet.com” email service. But somehow, I ended up with yahoo.com and yahoo.co.uk identities. Over time, and attempts to log into Flickr, these have expanded, and I now appear to have four distinct ways of logging into Yahoo. Four!

But here’s the thing. Every single one of them connects to the new/replacement Flickr account, and none of them will connect to my 2004 vintage Flickr account. So I have four Yahoo log-ins, and no way to get into my old Flickr. In my mind, at least one of the log-ins should resolve to the old 2004 account, but no longer does. So it’s an orphaned account, is what it is. There’s a case here for keeping hold of all of your old computers, phones, and other devices, because account details might be cached/stored. O for the iMac that used to be in the garage.

And it has been five years.

I’ve tried on a couple of occasions to get help from Yahoo. When I saw the news that Flickr is being sold to Smugmug, I thought it was time to try again.

Yahoo’s response is basically robotic. You give them the details of your account(s) and you still get a response along the lines of “I cannot find the account with the details you have given. Please give…”

I got exactly the same automated response as last time. Replying to their emails rarely elicits a human response. They send through a link to “security questions”, which ask you things you could only know if you had access to the account. It’s enraging, and obscure:

  1. Name five private groups or private albums on the account
  2. Give the date of the last charge in the format dd/mm/yyyy
  3. Name the 3rd party services that are linked to the account (apart from Facebook/Tumblr)

My response to (1) is, I don’t know, I haven’t been able to see inside the account for five years.

My response to (2) is, I don’t even know what this question is asking.

My response to (3) is, I don’t know, I haven’t been able to see inside the account for five years.

We went through this three times.

Each time, I replied to their email saying I didn’t understand and couldn’t possibly answer their questions. Each time, I didn’t get a response until I filled in something on the security page. Each time, I was then told that my responses were inadequate.

In the end, they refused to give me access to my account—but they did offer to delete it on my behalf. Consider the warped logic of that: no, we can’t verify your identity, but yes, we will delete all these photos that might not belong to you, because why not.

Meanwhile, I still have four different Yahoo log-ins that all give access to the wrong Flickr account. Meanwhile, I continue to receive communications to my secondary email address which are aimed at my original identity.

The only solution appears to be for me to click through 3,600 photos and manually download them, then add them to the other account, and try to live with the knowledge that the kudos attached to being a 2004 early adopter of this pioneering service is no longer mine.

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And this is probably my most popular Flickr photo, taken in 1998 but scanned in 2005

A few album reviews

There have been a few big releases in 2018, and more to come. I wish Sugarland would drop their comeback already, instead of drip-drip-dripping pre-release tracks (four so far). The biggest surprise for me so far is that I didn’t prefer Ashley Monroe’s Sparrow to Kacey Musgraves’ Golden Hour.

Ms Musgraves and Ms Monroe have been on the same release cycle since their debuts in 2013. So far, I’ve preferred Monroe’s releases: prefer her voice, her songs, her production – especially on The Blade, released in 2015, and which sounds terrific.

DbP9MieW4AEqehsBut now comes Sparrow, and I’m shocked to say, I don’t think I like it. I just relegated the opening track, “Orphan” from my phone’s playlist, and I never do that so early in an album’s life. But it sounds awful to me. Her voice sounds off key and whiny to my ears. I felt the same about the pre-released “Hands on You”. It sounds like someone struggling with their voice, struggling to hit those notes. Sounds like she has a cold, or is too tired. The same problem crops up throughout, on the chorus to “Mother’s Daughter”, for example. “Wild Love” starts off more promisingly, with some nice tremolo guitar, but then the strings kick in, and instead of the strong voice such production requires, you get this shaky, tentative, thin voice. In terms of music, the album sounds less soulful than The Blade, and there are more strings in the background. Maybe it will grow on me, but so far I’m disappointed.

Golden hour Kacey MusgravesMeanwhile, Kacey Musgraves has a solid hit in Golden Hour. Ironically, my criticism of her sound has always centred on her voice, which I think weak and limited for a country singer. But I think it actually sounds stronger this time around, and certainly doesn’t suffer from the problems afflicting Sparrow. There’s certainly an attempt here to take her across to the pop charts, but that’s merely to consolidate her popularity outside country circles. She’s broken through sufficiently in the UK to penetrate the obstinately retro UK iTunes country chart, which is usually wall-to-wall Dolly and Johnny with recycled compilation albums. Musgraves’ sharp witticisms are poignards thrust into modern relationships. Even now, weeks after its release, Golden Hour sits at number four.

And let’s not forget that Ms Musgraves’ (and Ms Monroe’s) breakthroughs are taking place in an industry where female artists still don’t get played on US country radio.

Golden Hour has a bright, modern sound, and of course Ms Musgraves’ voice is clear and pure, perfectly pitched for the songs she writes herself. And there’s nothing here to frighten the horses, a basic backing of drums and guitars with some modern keys. Yes, there’s pedal steel guitar, she’s not leaving the genre behind like Taylor Swift. But then there is “High Horse”, which marries her witty lyrics with dance beats and techno sounds. It’s a new Modern Sounds in Country Music, and a clear progression from her last release. Getting better.

AshleymcbrydeBut Ms Musgraves doesn’t win the prize for best country album of 2018 so far. That goes to Girl Going Nowhere by Ashley McBride, which kicks off with a simple song about being written off by friends and family, which when she performed this title track at the Opry a while ago brought the house down.

Elsewhere, Ms McBride trades in heartland rock, on the likes of “Radioland” and “El Dorado” – to the point that I wonder if Mr Springsteen has heard the latter, which reminds me of nothing so much as “Dancing in the Dark”.

Meanwhile there are more country sounding songs, such as “A Little Dive Bar in Dahlonega”, “Home Sweet Highway”, and instant classic “Tired of Being Happy”, all of which foreground the witty, self-deprecating lyrics that make country great.

black-berry-smoke-2018Finally, I was prompted to check out Blackberry Smoke by their collaboration with Amanda Shires on the track “Let Me Down Easy” on their new album Find a Light. With their classic guitars-drums-keys line-up, they’re classified under Rock, but if iTunes had a category for Southern Rock, this would be it. Lead vocalist Charlie Starr sounds like a slightly improved Ronnie Van Zandt, and the sound sits somewhere between Skynyrd (with fewer extended solos) and the Allmans (with few extended solos). “Flesh and Bone” isn’t the strongest album opening, but the next track, “Run Away from It All” kicks off the record properly, with driving guitars and heavy hits on the drums. Occasionally, as on “Medicate My Mind” and the aforementioned “Let Me Down Easy”, they pull out the acoustic guitars and sound more like Country Rock. They’re not reinventing the wheel, but sound like what they are: a road-hardened, hard working rock band. And given that I recently filled my Phone’s playlist with the first five Lynyrd Skynyrd albums, Blackberry Smoke certainly fit fit right into my life at the moment.

 

Bosch Season 4

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Angels Flight, Los Angeles

People learn. Huh.

One of the absolute worst aspects of (especially long-running) genre shows is that nobody ever seems to learn anything or develop as a character. One notable exception to this was NYPD Blue, one of the all-time-great network cop shows, which had an 11-season story arc for Any Sipowicz which transcended the limitations of the format.

So to Bosch in its 4th season, and a welcome return for Titus Welliver in the title role, Lance Reddick as the now Chief of Police Irvin Irving, Jamie Hector as Bosch’s ex-partner Jerry Edgar, Madison Lintz as Bosch’s daughter Maddie (given more to do this time around), and Amy Aquino as acting Captain of Hollywood Homicide division.

As before, the season combines the plotlines from several of the Bosch novels by Michael Connelly, in this case the principle storylines come from Angels Flight and 9 Dragons. There is a lot less to do with ongoing cases in court this time around, and much more investigating, with a background of political manoeuvring and protests against police brutality. As such, it feels quite zeitgeisty, though there is a bit less of the stunning cinematography of Los Angeles that characterised Season 1.

This time the principle LA location is the titular Angels Flight funicular railway, which was originally located in Bunker Hill, but has since reopened as a kind of simulacrum that operates as a kind of intermittent and often neglected tourist attraction.

The fallout from previous seasons continues, but while Bosch remains a focus of contempt from many of his colleagues (mainly because he refuses to treat being a cop like being a member of a corrupt club), the people who work with him (including Captain  Billets and Chief Irving) no longer even pretend that he’s anything other than the best investigator they have. In other words, they’ve learned from working with Bosch that he is not corrupt, unwavering in his pursuit of the bad guys, and usually arrests the guilty party. So as much as other cops and politicians complain about him, this time they let him do his job. So there’s a lot less of the you’re off the case nonsense that sometimes besets this genre.

While investigating the murder of a lawyer who was about to embarrass the police department in a lawsuit, Bosch also pursues the man he believes responsible for his mother’s death, and deals with the unexpected death of a close family member. He’s forced to work with a couple of Internal Affairs detectives as well as the antagonistic Jimmy Robertson (Paul Calderon) and his former partner Edgar, returning to the job after injury.

It’s another solid outing for Bosch, and I remain puzzled at the critical disdain/indifference this show receives. Sure, it’s a police procedural, but it is better than anything else in this genre right now.

I previously reviewed Season 1, Season 2, and Season 3.

April in Paris

April 2018 Paris - 12My wife was running the Paris Marathon, so we were in Paris (and environs) for the weekend. Our place in France is about 5 hours drive from Paris, but B has a cousin who lives in the ‘burbs, and they very generously put us up for the weekend, and ferried us to and from the RER station, so we could catch the train without worrying about parking etc.

The RER was more or less unaffected by the national strikes affecting the SNCF network, so there was no issue getting into town. The RER is a regional network of commuter trains, something like the DLR, I guess, though the trains are long double deckers, so you’re less likely to spend a whole journey on your feet than you are in England.

Saturday was the day for picking up the race number and after we’d done that, we had a bit of a walk around. I didn’t want to queue for anything, or pay for anything, so we did just that, apart from at lunchtime, when I overpaid for an undercooked gluten-free pizza at a restaurant that offered that speciality. (There are a lot of pizza restaurants in Paris, by the way.)

The first spot I was keen to see was the Île de la Cité, for the simple reason that it’s a key location in my favourite Tim Powers novel, Declare. I didn’t have an epiphany, though, so we had a look at the queue to get into Notre Dame Cathedral (these kind of places always make me think of Don DeLillo’s Most Photographed Barn in America* in White Noise) and then crossed the Pont Notre Dame (bloke playing an accordion? Check), passed the Hotel de Ville and walked to look at the Pompidou centre.

It was quiet at first, but as the day wore on, the streets and cafés became a lot more crowded. We’ve always been early morning people, quite out of synch with French habits. It was clear that, even on a Saturday, people didn’t rock into town until lunchtime (even then, sitting down for lunch later than in rural France), and then set out for serious sightseeing and shopping in the afternoon.

I won’t complain too much about the undercooked pizza: it’s by no means the first such I’ve eaten in France, so can’t solely be blamed on the glutard crust, which does typically require a longer cooking time. My other half had a salad that she enjoyed, and at least they did Vezelay gf beer.

After lunch, we wandered around the left bank’s narrow streets, stopping for a Coke when the amount of walking we were doing threatened to ruin the methodical Marathon preparations. 

When we visited Berlin, my phone recorded 60,000 steps for the 3-day stay, and Paris wasn’t quite that extreme. By Saturday’s end, I’d walked 10km, had done nearly 16,000 steps. Given that B does about 1.5 for each one of mine, she was on 24,000. These prosaic details are what such visits are built upon. You either stand around in queues, sit around underground, or put in the miles. I always put in the miles.

Which is what I did on Sunday, with about 5 hours to kill while B ran the race. I checked in on her at 26km (near the Jardin des Tuileries), and then timed my arrival at the finish to coincide with hers. She took it easy, enjoyed the views, and suffered a lot less than she did for the London run last year.

Meanwhile, I walked from the Arc de Triomphe to the Paris Opera, and then down to Les Halles shopping centre. The streets were eerily quiet: a lot of the traffic had been cut off by the street closures, and I guess a lot of people were avoiding the area anyway. By the afternoon, Paris was back to its horn honking, impatient, irrational self as far as traffic was concerned. But I had the pleasure of crossing nearly deserted streets against the lights and enjoying the city as it ought to look more of the time. I’m a big proponent of banning motor vehicles from city centres altogether. There were bikes for hire all over the place, including those Chinese ones that just get left anywhere. I was tempted to download the app and use one, but I felt more confident navigating on foot, and didn’t want some dodgy bicycle hire company having access to my bank account.

I knew I’d need the loo at some point and also that France is extremely reluctant to provide decent public toilets, so my day revolved around arranging a couple of expensive pees. This started with the withdrawal of some cash, which was quite an operation. My wallet was zipped into one of the two rucksacks I was carrying, and I didn’t want to faff around with it while I was at the cashpoint itself, so I did all that down the street and across the road, and then wandered over to withdraw the money. The majority of people around at this time seemed to be shambling wrecks, people who looked through bins and talked to themselves, or yelled incoherently at passers by. This is not to say that Paris has more of a homeless problem than anywhere else. In fact, you can see more street people on a visit to Belfort than I did in Paris.

Two €10 notes weren’t going to get me a wee, so I then had to make change. Once I reached Les Halles, I found the target toilets: 50¢ entry, but nice and clean. Around the corner was a Starbucks, so I went and got myself a big Americano. What was I thinking, going to a Starbucks, underground, in the city of a million cafés? Well. No reason. But I sometimes can’t be doing with the faff of table service, and since I was on my own, I wasn’t obliged to. Also, shipmates, as bad as Starbucks coffee is, the French can’t make a decent espresso either, so let’s not pretend those pavement coffees are worth having. And, no, I didn’t want to sit on my own at a corner café. Instead of meeting an intriguing woman in that romantic setting, I was more likely to be approached by a dreadlocked homeless person.

Having filled up on the Americano, I pissed it away for 50¢, which felt like money well spent.

I then walked down the Seine to kilometre 26, waved at my wife, and then wandered into the Tuileries, waved at the Louvre pyramid, and found a place to sit down to eat some lunch.

I probably went for the second pee too early. But I needed to get across to the Avenue Foch for the fucking finish, so I paid 80¢ for the privilege of pissing near the Place de la Concorde. And set off along the Seine again. The closest I got to the Eiffel Tower was the Palais de Tokyo, from where I set off up the hill and down again to the crowded finish line.

I was there about 20 minutes before my other half. The grass was damp, so I sat on her pre-race jumper, which I’d had permission to throw away if it became too burdensome.

Sunday step total: 21,428

Saturday: 15,994

Total: 37,422

Total spent to pee: €1.30

Sights seen: lots.

Seine-side joggers who were visibly irritated by the presence of Marathon crowds: 3.

*Nobody sees the barn.

Apple and Education

Ibera - 4Apple held an education event last week at a ridiculously huge high school in Chicago. It was squarely aimed at what used to be one of their core (and most loyal) markets: K-12 schools in the United States. On this side of the pond, there have only been isolated areas where Apple gets a look-in. I used to be one of them, when I taught Media and Film Studies, but even then I didn’t have enough computers in the classroom for anything other than group work.

In these financially straitened times, Apple have been losing share to Google. Schools are starved of funds for ideological reasons, teacher salaries are rock bottom (also for ideological reasons), and Google offer both cheap computers (Chromebook) and a “free” suite of software that integrates with school systems.

Apple’s event introduced a new, cheaper iPad aimed at schools, which supports their (expensive) Pencil and has a suite of software aimed at school IT managers and teachers.

Now, if you take the iPad and consider what it can do, it’s great value. Whereas a Chromebook, like most cheap laptops, will fall apart within 3 years, an iPad will go on forever (as long as you don’t drop it). An iPad can be a still or video camera, and includes software to edit photos, create documents, and edit video or make music. Nothing in the Google suite of apps matches the quality of Apple’s software. Throw in the Pencil, and you can use the iPad across the curriculum. Which is not to mention the privacy concerns I’d have regarding Google and their “free” software.

It seems, however, that Apple has a problem when it comes to implementing class sets and multiple log-ins. Their user-switching tools are reportedly clunky. I don’t think, personally, that this is unique to Apple. I’ve watched students log into networked (PC) computers and (especially if it’s the first time they’ve used that particular machine), it can take a ridiculously long time. I’ve had students in my lessons who’d been issued with a laptop because of special needs, and they have sat waiting for it to log in for an entire lesson.

But if I was in charge of a budget and had the power to make things happen, would I buy iPads?

I don’t think I would. I’d replace suites of Windows PC and Chromebook computers with Apple in a heartbeat, but I’ve never been sold on the iPad.

Here’s the thing. A computer is only as good as its software, and while Apple’s software may be good (the best, even), here in the real world, teachers don’t have time to learn it. It’s not just budgets and salaries that are constrained, but time. You offer me a class set of brand new iPads (or even a one-iPad-per-child policy), and I’m going to shrug my shoulders. Those iPads are going to stay locked away, or in the students’ bags. Not only do I not have time to get to grips with the software I’d be using to assign work and set homework, but I don’t have time to design lessons and activities, or the inevitable administrative tasks that go along with setting class and homework.

We already get pointed towards online services that can be used for homework and resources. “It’ll save you time in marking,” they say. “It’s all marked automatically.” But it’s not just the marking time I don’t have. I don’t have the setting time, the thinking time, or the time to deal with the students who don’t do the assigned tasks (because, when a student doesn’t do the homework, you’re supposed to do something about it).

You think I’m whining. I teach seven different sets of students. Outside the extra time I choose to put in, I get 21 minutes per week, per class to plan lessons, set work, mark books, and do the admin for that class. Obviously, that’s impossible, so the extra time I put in is dedicated to those basic tasks.

So you can hand me the greatest IT tools in the world, the most amazing hardware and software, but I still don’t have time. It wouldn’t be so bad if the students themselves had any IT savvy, but it’s a rare student indeed who knows how to do anything beyond the basics. I spent 10 years teaching students how to use Page Setup and calling out, “You’ve got caps lock on,” when their log-in “wasn’t working.” These days, not being able to do something on a computer has replaced the dog as the the most common reason homework isn’t done. I’ve decided that life’s too short to watch any more people accidentally lose all the work they did in an hour, or not know how to resize an image. 

Strange Town – the perfect single

Introducing my 17 yo to The Jam a while ago, I suggested that they were a singles band, and that their Greatest Hits was the thing to have. Knowing my daughter’s love for classic soul music, too, I revealed unto her the secret of The Style Council, which for her was like discovering that what you thought was a mere Hob Nob was in fact a Chocolate Hob Nob. The purchase of two Greatest Hits collections of Paul Weller solo swiftly followed.

I must admit I’d barely paid attention to his later career, so it’s mostly new to me. And I only ever lent half an ear to The Style Council because it was the 80s and there are all kinds of terrible crimes against production values on those records.

Deep breath.

Anyway, it’s been a blast hearing all that stuff again. I was in the 6th Form at school when “Going Underground” was a monster hit (three weeks at number one). That was when The Jam went mainstream, and everyone knew who they were. I only ever owned one album by the group (All Mod Cons), and I heard the follow up because someone at school had it, which was enough to confirm to me that while they were a proper singles band, in the same way the Beatles and The Who had been (meaning that they released singles that weren’t on albums), their albums weren’t much cop (like The Who, but unlike The Beatles).

“Strange Town” was about a year before that. It got to number 15 in the UK singles chart, though that was when you had to sell a lot of copies to even break the top 20. Weller has said it’s one of the best three songs he’s written. As a single, it’s perfect. There’s something viscerally thrilling about the instrumental breakdown in the middle, which is not so much a guitar solo as a riff that gets repeated and then layered, which when combined with the driving rhythm section (always the best bit of The Jam) lifts the song to another level.

There are a couple of good lines in the lyric, too, delivered with a broad English accent, which totally nail both the national character (“They worry themselves about the dreadful snow”) and being a teenager in the 70s (“RUSH my money to the record shops”). That last defines my teenage self perfectly. I would get paid at my supermarket job, then walk around the corner and spend it immediately on records.

Weird isn’t it, what a national institution Paul Weller is, how popular the Jam were, and how little impact his various incarnations have had across the pond. I know there’s no rhyme or reason to that kind of breakthrough. The Cure, for example, have broken the US top 10 on a couple of occasions, but the best Weller has managed is with The Style Council – in the lower (three figure) reaches. And as far as his great run of singles with The Jam goes, well. “Start” managed a number 31, and that’s it.

He does have a US audience, but when he plays gigs over there it’s at venues like The House of Blues (somewhere around 2000 seats), but he probably likes it that way.

Saw them play from the back of a lorry at a CND rally once.

Amazon Prime vs. Netflix – which is better value?

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Remember The OA? It has that bloke from Star Trek Disco in it

I know what you’re thinking: it’s going to be Netflix, isn’t it? And you’d be correct, but not necessarily by the margin you’d expect.

I just reviewed my watch history on both services, and it was clear that I’d binged more shows on Netflix, by far, including back catalogue shows from other networks (Gilmore Girls, various Star Treks, Brooklyn 99 etc), but when it came to content exclusive to each service (Amazon Originals, Netflix Originals – both including some co-productions), it was much closer than you might think.

I selected 20 shows from each service that (give or take a couple of grey areas) you have to subscribe to see. On Netflix, these include some Marvel shows (Jessica Jones, Luke Cage), Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, Master of None, 13 Reasons Why, Stranger Things, Manhunt: Unabomber, and The OA. Grey areas for Netflix include Star Trek Disco and The Good Place, and shows like Travelers and The Expanse.

On Amazon, the 20 included such things as Casual, Outlander, Bosch, The Man in the High Castle, Patriot (aka Sad Spies), Marvellous Mrs Maisel, Red Oaks, and American Gods. Grey areas include Mr Robot, Halt & Catch Fire, and Catastrophe.

To be fair to both services, I limited it to a top 20 and bumped out (where I could) shows that I watched and gave up on, or ended up hating. So, for example, the only two Marvel shows I quite enjoyed on Netflix were included, but the others weren’t. I also excluded movies.

I then scored each show out of 10, and gave it a multiplier based on the number of seasons available – but only if I’d watched them. So although Amazon are about to drop Bosch Season 4, I’ve only counted the three I’ve watched.

It’s clear that Netflix has more strength in depth, and I found myself bumping more shows from that top 20 list in order to include stuff I’d enjoyed more. With Amazon, on the other hand, once you exclude other networks’ back catalogue (Seinfeld), you find yourself scraping the barrel of forgettable filler and including the likes of Hap & Leonard, One Mississippi and Hand of God.

That said, the scores were much closer than I thought. Taking account of Season multipliers, Amazon rack up points for Casual, Outlander, Bosch, Mozart in the Jungle, Mr Robot, and Red Oaks. They seem to be better than Netflix at continuity. Looking back through the Netflix list, you come across stuff like The OA and other Limited Series, which occupy you for a few nights and then disappear forever.

Anyway, here are the totals. Netflix scored 217 points. Amazon scored 215. A narrow victory, but if I needed to cancel one of them, I’d still cancel Amazon first, and I’d struggle to recommend it to anyone over Netflix, unless the question was, which streaming service has the nastiest aesthetic? or, which service has the worst user experience?