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The Affinities by Robert Charles WIlson – review — 21 May, 2015

The Affinities by Robert Charles WIlson – review


There are some authors whose books I can’t wait to get. Tim Powers is one: I will always pre-order the hardback and re-read it many times. Robert Charles Wilson is another. So when the (US) hardback landed on my doormat, I set A Song of Ice and Fire book 4 aside and ploughed through this in a couple of days. I will doubtless read this again in a year and enjoy it as much, or more, as I did this first time.

Since the publication of his extraordinary literary SF novel Spin (2005), RCW’s reputation has been high. He’s prolific too, which is a blessing. It doesn’t seem that long ago that I was reading his last novel, Burning Paradise (2013, in fact). Just as Tim Powers’ main protagonist is (often, not always) a hapless (sometimes wounded) innocent caught up in events beyond his kind, RCW’s protagonist is (often, not always) a somewhat detached outsider who finds (usually) himself caught up in momentous, world-changing events, often involving the technological sublime (that which Arthur C Clarke said was indistinguishable from magic).

The Affinities follows this pattern. We already live in a world governed by algorithms. We get (sometimes not very good) music and movie and book recommendations from them; many people sign up to dating sites and apps that try to match people up using them; the financial system is dominated by them; the security services surely rely on them; Twitter and Facebook suggest who we ought to be following/friending based on them. Algorithms are everywhere. What if, asks The Affinities, someone designed an algorithm so effective and accurate that it could put people together into mutual interest groups that could become a powerful replacement for family, alumni association, old boy’s network, whatever?

Our hero, disdained by most of his own family, takes the test and finds himself a member of one of the largest affinity groups, Tau. His problems fall away. He finds work, accommodation, friendship, love. He is constantly expected to put his affinity associations ahead of his other relationships. Affinities seem stronger than blood, stronger than the nation state. But what happens when these groups become so large and so powerful that their only true rivals are other groups, other affinities?

So our hero finds himself caught up in events which spiral out of control and test his loyalties.

This is good: beautifully written (as ever), fast-paced, fascinating. My one complaint is that it seems a bit short. I’ve been reading George R R Martin, so maybe it’s a problem of perception, but I wanted more, much more. I wanted more time away from A Song of Ice and Fire. I might have to go and re-read The Chronoliths. Again.

On the other hand… — 9 May, 2015

On the other hand…

The new Dwight Yoakam platter is a corker. After a return to form in 2012 with 3 Pears, Mr Yoakam is clearly on a hot streak. Recorded in Studio B at Capitol Records in Los Angeles, Second Hand Heart is a guitar-heavy, bright and breezy dose of honk, and indeed tonk. (This is the recording studio with the legendary echo chambers designed by Les Paul and used by Sinatra among others. I used to have a convolution reverb version of those chambers – sounded completely natural.)

Opening track ‘Another World’ has fast-strummed acoustic guitars and chiming, tremolo electric guitars, Beach Boy-style backing vocals and thumping toms. ‘She’ starts with a lone tambourine before the loud guitars come in, layer-upon-layer, including 12-string. It keeps getting better…

‘Dreams of Clay’, the longest track on the album, and a re-recording of a song from Tomorrow’s Sounds Today, starts of sounding like a more gently-paced ‘Suspicious Minds’, and the guitars join the arrangement over the first couple of verses. My favourite 20 seconds of the whole album is the twangy solo (starting at around 2:45), consisting of a series of bass note riffs, joined by a pedal steel before the middle 8.

The title track takes us back to the wall of sound of the opener, while ‘Off Your Mind’ is classic Yoakam, and could have come from his first couple of records (this is a good thing).

The album includes a couple of covers: the first is a hard-driving version of ‘Man of Constant Sorrow’ (which you may remember from the soundtrack of O Brother, Where Art Thou? and which Bob Dylan recorded on his debut album in 1962. The other cover is Anthony Crawford of Sugarcane Jane’s ‘V’s of Birds’, which closes the album. Churchy organ, twangy guitars, mandolin, a descending chord sequence: beautiful.

Yoakam’s voice is fantastic throughout and this is a wonderful record, reminding me why I loved country music in the first place: guitars, cadillacs etc. etc..

Speaking of which, on the same day I downloaded Second Hand Heart, I was overcome with an attack of nostalgia and also downloaded On The Other Hand: All the Number Ones by Randy Travis.

Together with Yoakam, Randy Travis was my introduction to what was then called New Country in the mid-1980s. A colleague gave me a cassette with Yoakam’s debut and Travis’ Old 8×10. With a rich baritone, Travis was the natural successor to the likes of George Jones, though I didn’t know it at the time. He had his own hot streak from the mid 80s to the early 90s. What happened next? Unlike Dwight Yoakam, he was unable to write his own material, so when the good songs started going elsewhere, his career stalled. He turned to gospel music and found a niche, but personal problems and alcoholism brought him low. How low? Walking naked into a 7/11 and trying to buy cigarettes low.

So it has been many years since I listened to his music. I owned some vinyl (long gone) and a couple of CDs (also long gone). So this was a real trip down a 25-30 year old memory lane. And you know what? I always said about country music that the greatest thing about it was its timelessness. When they get it right, they get it right forever. You shouldn’t be brought up short by short-term trends in drum sound and production values (qv. Born in the USA). Sure, these records sound a lot quieter than modern recordings (especially compared to Second Hand Heart above), but the instrumentation is classic, and Travis’ voice was always classy.

What went wrong? Apart from the songs drying up, he had his thunder stolen, probably, Garth Brooks (whose records have not aged as well) and Alan Jackson (another artist who can provide his own songs).

But this is a great collection, and I found myself listening to songs from years ago like ‘Forever and Ever, Amen’ and ‘Deeper than the Holler’, ‘Is it Still Over?’ and ‘Hard Rock Bottom of Your Heart’ with tears in my eyes.

Worth a listen – absolutely timeless. And now, this:

May May surprise you? — 8 May, 2015

May May surprise you?

deer-hunterI didn’t pontificate in advance, and nobody cares what I think, but, being a pessimist, I did always mentally add 3% to the Conservatives and subtract 3% from the Labour totals in all the polls, mindful of shy Tories and the like. Pollsters always give a 3% margin of error, and – notwithstanding the Blair years – I have a lifetime of electoral disappointment to draw from. So when I saw Cons on 34% and Lab on 33%, I read that as (worst case scenario) 37% against 30%. According to the Graun just now, Labour’s vote share was around 30% and the Cons 37%.

Mind the gap.

Worst case scenario? This is still Thatcher’s Britain, so it’s always going to be a worse case scenario.

What went wrong for Labour? Well, the likes of me wouldn’t vote for them. This is a party that took us to war in Iraq and invaded our privacy, attacked our civil liberties and allied themselves with Bush. A party that introduced fucking Academy schools and allowed the bankers the freedom to fuck the economy and is still trying to appease the bastards with its lackwit austerity policies.

So they were never going to be left wing enough for me (or the people of Scotland, maybe); and yet they were probably too left wing for wealthy tax-avoiding Southern Britain. (Even if people stand no chance of being liable, they always imagine increased  taxes on wealth are going to affect them… somehow.)

Side rant: it’s not even as if I could have voted Labour, since Labour don’t stand against Bercow in my constituency. Green and the Ukips did, so I was – for once – able to vote for the party I wanted to vote for. The Green Party got 7400 votes in Buckingham, which isn’t bad. At least they didn’t lose their deposit.

What else? What went wrong in Scotland? Maybe it wasn’t (just) the left wing thing. Maybe it was that Labour allied themselves with the Tories during the referendum and when you line up alongside those bastards it’s hard to tell you apart. The referendum left a bitter taste, and in a first-past-the-post system, the Referendum Minority turns into a FUCKING MASSIVE VOTING BLOC. Labour were fucked by FPTP, and since they’ve always opposed electoral reform, ha fucking ha.

Milibland’s campaign was, well, bland, but the absolute worst mistake was that stupid monumental stone. How the fuck did that happen? Scripted by Armando Ianucci. It was the equivalent of Kinnock’s triumphalist stadium gig, back in ’92. Fucking idiot. And, yes, weird. Like a floor cleaning robot programmed to talk about politics. These things matter.

As for the Lib Dems, they signed their death warrant when they lined up alongside the Tories in the coalition. In 2010, a lot of people specifically voted Lib Dem in an attempt to keep the Cons out, and they knew it and still went ahead and joined the Tories in government. The result in 2015 is eight MPs, seven of whom will probably stand for the leadership. Nobody will care.

The UKiPs were also fucked by FPTP, as were the Greens. I have mixed feelings. On the one hand, our unfair electoral system protects us from nasty racists. On the other hand, our electoral system is unfair. The UK is four countries, with a different election result in each one. United! Kingdom! Labour did all right in Wales and bits of London – but I don’t want to live in either of those places.

The next thing to dread is the EU referendum. I’m looking into becoming a French citizen.

In which I ponder A Song of Ice and Fire by George R R Martin and the fantasy genre in general — 6 May, 2015

In which I ponder A Song of Ice and Fire by George R R Martin and the fantasy genre in general

51WSPDUy7KLOne of the odd side effects about the extremely high staff turnover at my current employer is that stuff gets left lying around by people who are, ahem, no longer with us. One such stuff was a complete collection of George R R Martin’s fantasy epic A Song of Ice and Fire. This obscure book has been, I believe, adapted unsuccessfully for television. You may find DVD copies at your next car boot sale, under its simplified title Game of Thrones.

Enough of that irony. So some person left all these books behind and I enquired as to their ownership. Nobody seemed to know anything, so I took them. This has been a great help in my sleeping better by not reading off screens project. So much so that the iPad has been abandoned by the whole family, and I’m now paying for a data contract that has literally seen zero use in about six months. Ha ha!

I’d read the first book, so started in on the second and then read the third, which is in two volumes, and now I’m on the fourth. It’s an epic struggle against indifference, let me tell you. The ruthless paring represented by the television adaptation has made a dirge into a 3-minute pop song.

I don’t hate these books, but I feel about them as I do about most fantasy. I’m reading for the plot, which needs to move faster. You might think you would read for character, but actually there are so many of them, and you spend so little time with each one that there’s very little character development. The actors in the TV show do a brilliant job of bringing these rather flat characters to life.

I’ve got a so-so relationship with fantasy. I’m a big fan of hard science fiction: so much so, that I flat rejected St*r W*rs on the basis of its fantasy elements and disdain much of what passes for SF in the movies. I have read Lord of the Rings multiple times, but every time I did so I skipped huge, boring chunks of it – especially the back story bits. As to the film adaptations, I’ve always said it should have been a TV series, and I think the success of Game of Thrones bears that out. Once the world-building becomes visual, the actual story can take over.

Years ago, I read Anne McCaffrey’s Pern novels, and some of Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Darkover series – but both of these had a basis in science fiction. My favourite straight fantasy has to have been Katherine Kerr’s Deverry series, but I have to admit that it went on too long, with too many books (15 of them), and I grew tired of it long before the end. I went from a lover of the books who read the early ones again and again to someone who bought the final few out of obligation and ploughed through them joylessly. Loved the first five, was okay with the next five, but really didn’t enjoy the final five. It felt a bit like the final two seasons of The X Files.

A Song of Ice and Fire is odd. It seems like the prose has been passed through some kind of processor that has removed all sense of authorial voice from it. There are multiple points of view, but you don’t really sense that there’s a different person for each one. It all strikes me as being a bit robotic. I cannot fault it for technical accuracy or style. It doesn’t feel hateful, like reading something by David Eddings or whoever. It just feels bland.

Which may be a good thing, given the extreme length. Considering their success, they don’t half break the show-me-don’t-tell-me rule. So much of the action seems to be taking place either in the distant past or elsewhere. Sure, there’s a deliberate muddling of stories and garbled hearsay element, so you’re never really sure if this person is really dead, or has really done what they’re reported to have done. But there’s also an element that reminds me of Tolkein’s habit of telling you long, long stories about long dead people in order to explain why some sword or other was broken. The begats, in biblical terms.

I’m interested in the world, in why its seasons are so long, in why they’ve never developed industry – or have forgotten technologies they used to have. What is it with a thousands-year-old civilisation that has forgotten how to make decent swords and so much else? The explanation could be science fictiony, which appeals to me. I mean, it could be that the long winters are so destructive and leave so many dead that they forget how to do things – or can never build their civilisation beyond the pony stage.

But if explanations for all these things are forthcoming, they’re so many thousands of words ahead of me that I begin to despair. I’ve yet to tackle the fifth book (in two volumes), and might give this a rest for a while when I get to the end of the fourth. I’ve got Robert Charles Wilson’s new one on the way, so I think I’ll read that.

To give you an idea of how slow things are. I’ve been thinking the current Season 5 was treading water a bit, but as I started Book Four, I was thinking, oh, well, I’m more or less caught up with events on the TV series, so I’ll soon be ahead. I know the TV series is diverging at this point, but I’m halfway through the fourth book and events have still not progressed beyond the first couple of episodes of Season 5. That’s how slow it is.

Home coffee roasting: the popcorn method — 2 May, 2015

Home coffee roasting: the popcorn method

IMG_6900There are plenty of places around the interwebs giving advice on how to roast coffee using a popcorn maker, but I thought I’d record my method here for posterity.

You will need:

  • Hot air popcorn maker (see below)
  • Green coffee beans
  • An airtight container
  • Two metal sieves or a flat baking-sheet sized metal mesh
  • (Optional) A smaller metal mesh or strainer (see below)

IMG_6896IMG_6897IMG_6899The first thing to be aware of is that not all hot air popcorn makers are suitable. You need one with air vents around the sides (not at the bottom), and you need one that isn’t going to keep switching itself off when it gets too hot. This is hard to determine when you’re buying online, because the product marketing shots rarely show the inside vents and the product information doesn’t necessarily tell you about the thermal cut out. (I thought when mine arrived that I had got a wrong ‘un, but it turns out it’s fine.) The one you can buy in Lakeland is the right kind, but you’ll find cheaper online.

I first tried this a few years ago, when I was using a (manual) Gaggia machine and a separate grinder. When I moved over to various types of pod machines, I obviously stopped doing it, but then just over a year ago I got my bean-to-cup machine and it has been in my mind to do this again. Apart from anything else, I love the chocolate cake smell that fills the house when you’re roasting the beans.

There are various methods for home roasting. You could try a baking tray in the oven (but beware of smoke if you have smoke alarms). You can get a stovetop ceramic roaster, which looks interesting, but I don’t have the right kind of stove, and my barbecue with the gas ring on it is in France. I considered getting one and using my camping stove (and still might), but not for now. If you have the budget, you can buy a dedicated home roaster like this one, but they are really expensive.

I’m not doing this, by the way, for cheapness. I’m doing it for freshness. The crema of freshly roasted beans is about two to three times thicker than the crema you get when you buy beans in the supermarket. I don’t have a proper coffee roaster nearby. It was when a colleague gave me some beans he’d bought at the one near him that I decided to do it myself.

Second thing to be aware of: do not leave the plastic assembly on the top of the popcorn maker. It will melt. I’ve improvised a useful mesh cover (see above) by destroying a tempura strainer I had lying around in the kitchen drawer. This has two benefits: it stops the chaff that blows off the beans from flying around too much; and it stops stray beans from escaping from the machine.

IMG_6902I set mine up on a small table outside the house, with the power cable passing through the window. You still get the useful aroma in the house, but any chaff (and there will be chaff) blows away outside, and the machine can be aircooled a bit. Any smoke produced will also disperse outside rather  than in.

You can only do a scoop of beans at a time. Use the scoop that comes with the popcorn machine. Prepare to do a few batches in a row, allowing the machine some cooling off time in between.

The expert sites will advise you to listen out for first and second crack. I find that this is an inexact science. I really base my decision on the colour of the beans and the chocolate cake smell. Also, when you stop the machine, if you leave the beans where they are, they will probably start to smoke (and potentially burn), which for me is a sign that they’re roasted enough.

IMG_6872You’re doing it yourself, so do what suits. If you like the modern tendency for more lightly roasted beans (with ‘fruity’ flavours), go for that. If, like me, you want a darker roast (but maybe not the blackest), then use your judgement and trial and error. I’ve found that 15-20 minutes in my machine gets the beans the colour I want, and the resulting coffee was, in the immortal words of Agent Dale Cooper, damn fine.

IMG_6898Once roasted for the requisite time, the beans have to be cooled rapidly. This is what the two sieves are for. Some people use a flat mesh screen: I guess if you’re DIY-minded, you could make one. The idea is to stop the beans from continuing to cook in their own residual heat, lest they burn. I pour from the popcorn maker into a sieve and then pass the beans from sieve to sieve until they are cooled. They don’t have to be cold. I say cool enough to put your hand in. Obviously wait until you try this, and don’t plunge your hand into scalding hot beans. If, like me, you have one sieve slightly bigger than the other, you can kind of sandwich the beans between them and use the smaller sieve to spread the beans around, rubbing away to remove any excess chaff. But simply pouring from sieve to sieve works just fine.

Note: when green, the beans smell like vegetation. Whilst roasting, you get a kind of cake-cooking-in-the-oven smell. They only start to smell like coffee about 20 minutes after the roast. When they’re cool, put them in an airtight container and leave them. I always wait a day: this gives the essential oils time to emerge and the coffee aromas to develop. You can lift the airtight lid after 20 minutes or so and you will smell coffee.

IMG_6901I got my green beans from Amazon. Rave coffee do a wide variety of green beans, so you can have hours of happy fun trying the various kinds. And when you’ve tried all the Rave, there are others to choose from, even on Amazon. They’re about a fiver (or less) a pack, and you can roast in small batches to keep the beans in your machine as fresh as possible. I’m sure you can find cheaper elsewhere, but the choice offered by Rave is clear and convenient. The label warns you to watch out for foreign objects (I assume stones), but I haven’t found any*.

This takes a little time, but if you’re in the business of making coffee from fresh beans, you’re not looking for instant gratification. The results are well worth it, and there’s nothing quite as satisfying as the first cup from a fresh batch.

*UPDATE: a few minutes after hitting Publish, I poured the very last batch into the popcorn machine, and there was a tiny white stone hiding at the bottom of the packet. So, one stone per pack. Also worth knowing: Rave offer a 4-pack sampler set of green beans on their own web site at a fairly decent price. They also suggest blending combinations, if you want to experiment with that.

Undisclosed episode 2 —

Undisclosed episode 2

Screen Shot 2015-05-02 at 08.27.05First things first: I thought the audio quality of the second episode of Undisclosed was much improved, and I didn’t notice any of the presenters talking too fast this time, so thumbs up to that.

As the first was about Adnan’s day, this episode was about Hae’s day, and called into question many, many of the things we’d been assuming were true. If it’s about anything so far, Undisclosed is about the unreliability of memory and the ways in which witnesses can’t really be trusted to have remembered the facts.

None of this is terribly surprising, but when the legal system (and this case in particular) is so determined to keep relying on sworn witness statements, it’s good to be reminded of it. In fact, Serial itself might well have spent more time on this – made it more of a theme – because the very first episode began with the notion that Adnan Syed is in prison because he couldn’t remember what he was doing in one twenty minute period six weeks before he was asked about it.

The first episode of Serial began with that question: could you remember what you were doing six weeks ago, if asked? Obviously, it depends on whether you were doing something particularly memorable; or whether your life is pretty regular and has routines.

Say, for example, you remember the day vividly because you happened to be co-coaching the school wrestling team, and you wanted the more experienced coach to be at the match with you, but they didn’t turn up? You’d remember that, especially if it made you anxious, vividly. This was one of the key points in the original trials, and in Serial itself. Why did nobody check, then, whether there really had been a wrestling match on January 13? Turns out, there wasn’t. The match that Hae didn’t turn up to was the week before, on January 5th. That’s your ineffective assistance of counsel, right there.

What does this mean? It means that our ideas about the time-line of Hae’s last day are wrong. It means that a witness was mistaken. It means that there was a pattern to Hae’s behaviour, that this previously reliable and responsible girl suddenly let a friend/colleague down. Why? Maybe because of her intense involvement with her new boyfriend?

One thing that does interest me was that there was apparently a teacher who was the liaison between staff, students, and police. This teacher was close to Hae and was apparently planning a trip to France with her. This, I want to know more about. Was it a school trip? With a group of students who would by then have graduated? Or was it a private holiday? A teacher with a student? I think we need to know.

The famous local news clip, showing Hae posing for indoor hockey footage and being interviewed, was also supposed to have taken place on the 13th. Only nobody mentioned it, talked about it, or remembered it. Turns out, that was almost certainly the week before, too.

We still don’t know what happened. But we do apparently know that a lot of what we thought we knew is wrong. Which throw loads more reasonable doubt into the case, but doesn’t provide Adnan with anything convincingly exculpatory.

Apple Photos can fuck off — 25 April, 2015

Apple Photos can fuck off

Screen Shot 2015-04-25 at 20.34.20I’ve been quietly seething since Apple announced that they would no longer be updating Aperture – shortly after I’d finally got around to buying it. I’d been living with the woefully inadequate iPhoto for so long, I was almost in denial about how much quicker an alternative app might be. I simply couldn’t believe that Aperture’s ability to deal with a large-ish photo library would be superior in every way.

I wasn’t all that interested in the advanced editing tools in Aperture (or Lightroom, or Photoshop, for that matter). I’m a snapshot snapper who likes to compose the shot in the camera and my interest in tweaking the resulting photos is restricted to a quick boost here and a quick crop there. I don’t shoot raw and I barely have time to deal with quick edits of the number of photos I take, let alone spend time titivating them. In Aperture, I mostly stuck to the built in pre-sets and I didn’t delve too deeply into its options. I was just grateful to be able to scroll through the library without stuttering.

We’ve all been dealing with this digital photo legacy. Back in the days of negatives and prints, you’d end up with shelves full of photo albums and boxes full of those envelopes that Truprint would send you, and hundreds of negatives that you kept forever without any intention of using them again. With digital photos, that endless storage of negatives has become the endless storage of sub-par snaps, items you should have deleted more or less immediately after import, but kept – simply because you have a life-long photo hoarding habit.

It’s all a bit messy. I’ve got multiple iPhoto libraries dotted about, not even safely backed up, and even in the short time I’ve been using Aperture I’ve accumulated about 60 projects and a dozen albums and the prospect of ever going through them all and organising them fills me with dread.

So to Photos, Apple’s annoyingly generically named replacement for both iPhoto and Aperture. It has been reviewed and discussed widely. It’s okay. Like recent versions of iMovie, it’s stripped back in ways guaranteed to infuriate at times. For example, instead of being able to quickly rate imported photos based on gut reaction between one and five stars, you now only have the option to mark them as favourites – or not. My use of the star rating was fairly precise. Four stars and over might get uploaded to Flickr. One stars would be deleted immediately. Two stars, maybe deleted later. Three stars remained in limbo. Five stars? Well…

Photos does have some decent editing options. Nothing like Aperture, but okay. What I’m missing are the Aperture presets, which were my main way of quickly tweaking pictures. Photos gives you the auto-enhance option, or you can use the same filters you get on your phone – or you can delve into manual settings, which takes more time than I’d like.

When you first launch it, you’re offered the chance to use iCloud storage for all your photos, and having the option to optimise the storage on your devices. But Apple are notoriously expensive for this kind of thing. Why? Because they can, I think. Their core customers are not the kind of people who know or care about what other companies offer. I currently pay £7.49 per year for 20GB of iCloud storage. I pay for this so I can use Pages, Numbers and Keynote and access documents from any of my devices. To accommodate my photos, I’d need to pay £6.99 per month for 500GB. That’s nearly £84 per year, fact fans. Amazon are similarly expensive, but they dangle unlimited photo storage for Prime customers, which is £79 per year, close, but gives you video streaming and free one-day delivery on Amazon orders. Dropbox gives you a terabyte for less than the price of Apple’s 500GB.

I almost went for Apple’s rip-off, but stayed my hand. I thought about it. Do I want to be able to see all my photos on all my devices? Why would I want to do that? I barely look at photos on my phone as it is. I take ’em, I Instagram ’em, and I edit them on my Mac and upload to Flickr. What else? I’ve more or less abandoned the iPad. So if I paid, it would be about having my precious photos safely stored.

But how many of them are really precious? Let’s return to those five-star photos in Aperture. What do I do with them? I print books. For the past few years I’ve paid for (expensive) Apple hardcover photo books – in the largest size. For 20 pages, you end up paying in excess of £35, but you’ve now got something you can keep forever (and hope to rescue should your house burn down). Doing the maths, I can afford to get a couple of these printed per year and still come in under the £84 for iCloud storage. And iCloud storage doesn’t help you deal with the fact that 90% of the photos you’re storing are probably not worth keeping.

So my decision was made: I’d up my book production from one per year (sometimes more than the 20 pages, so more expensive) to two per year, and I’d go on doing what anybody who wants to preserve photos should be doing, which is printing them.

So it was back to Photos and into the Create Book option. There are some new templates to choose from. The process of getting a project started was much more fiddly than in either iPhoto or Aperture. In fact, the process sucked. It’s much harder to get the photos you want to print (from various albums and imports) in one place. When you do finally manage that, and you select the Create Book option, the software automatically populates the pages – at a rate of one photo per page. So you end up with something that would cost a lot more than the (already expensive) £36 or so. Why do this? I think for the same reasons that they rip people off for cloud storage: they’re counting on people not noticing how much more expensive their book just got than the base price on the Choose Template screen.

Screen Shot 2015-04-25 at 20.37.23So I then spent time re-designing the pages to accommodate more photos and then deleting the unwanted ones. Again, a fiddly process. Finally, I’m ready to order.

Screen Shot 2015-04-25 at 20.35.24But the store is unavailable. For updates? But then that message disappears, and you can agree to the terms. But then the Buy Book option is greyed out. When I try to re-add my shipping address, I’m told I live in an Unsupported Country.

I wonder if the store really is closed for updates. I do a search and find the Status page. It’s Green to Go, according to Apple themselves. I try again, and then I give up and open Aperture. I go through the process of re-creating a version of the book in Aperture. I realise I’d never got around to creating an Aperture book. All my previous books were done through iPhoto. Aperture gives you much more control over the editing of pages and content in terms of size, fit, and cropping. I do all this just to test whether the Store is actually down.

And it’s not. So I order the book in Aperture. And then I decide I’ll go on using Aperture till it dies and Apple can fuck off with Photos.

How about this Undisclosed podcast, then? — 14 April, 2015

How about this Undisclosed podcast, then?

Screen Shot 2015-04-14 at 16.12.11Undisclosed: the State vs. Adnan Syed is a new (fortnightly?) podcast from a group of lawyers who have been blogging about the case since it was made a public obsession by the Serial podcast. Both parties are at pains to point out that this new thing has no connection with the old thing, except you have to have listened to the old thing in order to understand this new thing.

I hope that’s clear. I had read two of these lawyer-bloggers (Susan Simpson, who writes View from LL2, and Rabia Chaudry, who writes Split the Moon), but was not aware of the third (Colin Miller, who writes Evidence Prof), so I knew that they had much, much more to say about the case, in greater detail, than the Serial podcast had time for. Some of the detail, you should be warned, can get pretty gruesome. If you’re squeamish about CSI and stuff like that, do not read Evidence Prof., for example.

So who is this for? You have to be really interested in this case. I know a lot of people ran out of steam with Serial, and lots of people were a bit bummed that it didn’t really have a conclusion. If you are one of those people, I don’t think Undisclosed is for you. Because this is going back over old ground in granular detail, exposing flaws and contradictions in the case and the evidence. Some of this points to Adnan’s innocence, some of it might not. Some of it just muddies the waters. What it does definitely achieve is the complete undermining of the prosecution case, which (as Serial listeners already know) was a narrative constructed to point to Adnan’s guilt, and which deliberately ignored or tweaked facts to fit.

The first episode goes right back to Serial’s first episode, and considers Adnan’s schedule on the day Hae Min Lee disappeared. It interrogates the witness statements assembled by the police (playing samples from the original recordings) and exposes their inconsistencies. For example, the business about track practice and what day it was, and when it started and what time Adnan arrived, what he was doing between the end of school and the start of practice, and how he participated when he got there. Or the differences between what one witness said at the first trial, and what she said at the second trial. Or the famous phone call that Adnan received at another witness’ house, his supposedly paranoid reaction, and when exactly this event took place (spoiler: possibly not on the day of Hae’s disappearance at all).

These people have examined the call logs not just of the day of Hae’s disappearance, but of other days, too. They expose some statements as being completely mistaken or misremembered. Unsurprisingly, they remind us just how much and how often Jay changed his story to fit the police case, whereas what Adnan said in 1999 and what he said in 2010 remains pretty consistent. Calls that were supposed to have been from Hae’s brother turn out probably not to have been, and so on.

It’s fascinating – but only if you have an affinity for these kind of granular details.

But this is not Serial. Most especially, it doesn’t have anywhere near the same quality audio. The sound is uneven – and I’m not just talking about the old recordings of witness statements. I think one of the three talks way too fast. The presentation, in short, is nowhere near as slick as Serial’s, and none of these lawyers would claim otherwise. So if what you enjoyed about Serial the most was the NPR-style richly layered soundscape, steer clear.

I’m personally always ready to learn more about this case in particular, and I’m definitely interested in understanding how prosecution and defence cases get constructed and how juries can be bamboozled by misleading evidence. So I enjoyed it and have subscribed.

Recommended for die hards.

Larkin Poe, Bullingdon Arms (Art Bar), Oxford, April 10 2015 — 13 April, 2015

Larkin Poe, Bullingdon Arms (Art Bar), Oxford, April 10 2015

P1020218Like all my gig reviews this will doubtless turn into some kind of existential tract, so consider yourself warned.

This was my second attempt to go to a gig at the Bullingdon Arms, the first (to see Tift Merritt) having been aborted a couple of years ago when it turned out the venue was age-restricted, meaning we couldn’t take our daughters into it. My oldest daughter, who was with me for this Larkin Poe event, still hasn’t forgiven me for the half-serious discussion we had outside on the street, when I suggested options for abandoning the kids to a coffee shop on Cowley Road.

Now, from what I could tell, no age restriction was mentioned. The venue now has a separate door, around the side of the pub, so maybe that’s what has changed. Anyway, there we were.

Larkin Poe play roots music. Their first few EPs were a bit folky, a bit country, and they’ve played backup for the likes of Kristian Bush and Elvis Costello. Kin, their debut long player, now they’re signed to a label, has been described variously as ‘swampadelic,’ ‘zesty Americana,’ and ‘grungy T-Rex glam overlaid with harmonies.’

They’re touring as a 3-piece, with versatile drummer Marlon Patton adding electronic bass sounds with a foot pedal. Talk about being able to rub your stomach and pat your head at the same time.

The Lovell sisters, Megan and Rebecca, are 25 and 23 years old. They’re a young, talented, genre-busting, hard-working band.

So naturally their audience consists of grizzled old blokes.

Having read that Tweet before heading down there, and having seen a number of disturbingly similar photos of middle-aged bloke flanked by the two sisters, I felt somewhat self-conscious. I’m 52 and I was with my 17-year-old daughter, who loves Larkin Poe. Maybe 10-15% of the audience was close to her in age. The rest were your typical Radio 2 or UK roots music crowd. Anyway, not wanting to be in the ‘five deep’ crowd of grizzled and balding blokes, I stood to one side.

Thinking of it, all my life I’ve been going to gigs where the median age seemed to be 50+. So even when I was in my 20s, I found myself surrounded by ageing rockers or retirement-age country fans.

I’ve got nothing* against these people. But I do wonder about the future of live music when my daughter’s age group seem only to be interested in the huge arena gigs of the top acts, and don’t seem to bother with the local, the small, the sweaty and sultry pub back room. Because that’s where real music is, and that’s where you’re standing so close that without a zoom, you can take pictures like this.


So how was the gig? Extraordinary. These people can fucking play. Megan’s slide playing is incredible, and Rebecca’s singing voice does the whisper-to-a-scream thing to match Maria McKee. They shred, they wig out, and they rock the roof off. They also pull out surprises (if you don’t follow them on YouTube), like a segue into ‘Black Betty’ or a cover of Nancy Sinatra’s ‘Bang Bang.’ And their final encore, a tribute to those other musical siblings who sang two-part harmony, was ‘All I Have to Do is Dream’ by the Everly Brothers.

*Well, I have, a bit. I particularly have something against the people who came in just as support act Jess Morgan started her set, stood in front of me, and then proceeded to have a full-volume conversation, non-stop, until the bloke standing next to me had a word (thank you). I was desperately trying not to get wound up because I was with Chloé and didn’t want to embarrass her, but fuck. These people come out, pay for tickets, and then act like they’re sitting at home in their living room, ignoring the fact that people around them are trying to listen to the music. Jess Morgan was all right, by the way, and had a particularly good fingerpicking technique. Everybody’s a support act once, right? People talking at gigs is one of the reasons I’m ever-more reluctant to go to them.


Kristian Bush – Southern Gravity — 12 April, 2015

Kristian Bush – Southern Gravity

We already knew that Kristian Bush was a great songwriter. As one half (or one third in the early days) of Sugarland, he produced a run of no-filler albums and provided backup vocals to his professional other half Jennifer Nettles. Nettles is one of the best singers in the business, and released a solo album last year (reviewed here).

While Nettles was promoting her album, Kristian Bush took something of a backseat, but he was connecting with his fans through his web site and releasing song demos on what he called Music Mondays. I wrote about this a while ago. While his gruff voice doesn’t have the range or power of his Sugarland co-worker’s, it’s pleasant enough, in the tradition of singers like John Hiatt and Bruce Robison.

Through the magic of *cough*WiretapStudio*cough*, I was able to create a playlist of my favourite Music Monday songs, and I’ve been looking forward to the official album release.

Which is great. It’s an upbeat collection (including seven of my own Music Mondays playlist), which has a positive, life-affirming vibe. It’s the kind of record that goes along with summer road trips and backyard barbecues. Recommended.


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