The Nara* diet

Things were taking a turn, trouser-size wise, so steps had to be taken. I remove myself from the sentence in order to avoid responsibility for my own agency.

I’d read a review in the Guardian of The Case for Keto by Gary Taubes, and thought I’d seriously give it a try. My greatest weakness in food is most definitely the carbohydrate, and I have spent my life stuffing bread, pasta, rice, and potatoes on a rotating basis. I even dedicated a huge chunk of my time to perfecting pizza.

So – like many people I’m sure – I am not inclined to be enthused about a high-fat-no-(or low)-carb diet, and like everyone else I’ve got 50 years of inculcation about the dangers of too much fat. Everything about this diet goes against the grain.

First problem: a decent recipe book. I’m just not well enough informed, and couldn’t go to browse in a books shop, so I made the mistake of ordering two likely candidates on Amazon. I wanted to start off with a 14-day trial, so I wanted a 14-day meal plan. I ordered two books. When they arrived I was disappointed. One was self-published with no photography, and the other had photography, but both were American. And as anyone who has been to the States knows, American food and ingredients are bad and weird. The book with the 14-day meal plan started off with a “breakfast sausage” recipe that, I kid you not, served eight.

I tried to imagine the person who would make this quantity of breakfast sausage in a house with – at most – two people who might try this diet. It just seemed like the author couldn’t be bothered to adjust quantities. The other book is titled, The Easy 5-Ingredient Ketogenic Diet Cookbook, and, reader, I’m here to tell you that that is a lie. The recipes have five ingredients over-and-above the fifteen or so “essentials” she lists at the front, many of which are esoteric, peculiarly American, or just weird.

As I found when I was gluten free, the problem here is the attempt to make “keto versions” of standard dishes. So, for example, what is “keto gypsy toast”? It is not toast, contains no bread, and seems to be some horrific amalgam of ingredients, including coconut flour, of which I am not a fan. With a diet that encourages you to eat meat, oily fish, butter, cream, and leafy green veg, I don’t see the need to construct such horrors as “Cauliflower Pizza”. Just as good as the real thing! Erm, no, it’s fucking not, AS YOU WELL KNOW.

So both books were chucked on the reject pile. I’m not going to faff around in the kitchen trying to make alternatives to much-loved foods.

This was not a good start. And for me, this doesn’t feel like it’s going well. I’m seven days in, and I don’t feel, yet, any confidence that ketosis is happening. I have kept the carbs low, I have tried my best to eat against my ingrained habits, but I’m not feeling it. My other half has lost 2.2kg in a week, and she’s happy, and not feeling hungry. Have I lost weight? Maybe. But I don’t feel like it’s falling off me or anything, and while I’m not doing too badly on the hunger front, I don’t think I’m capable of shovelling enough fat into my body. I just can’t bring myself to do it.

So I end up eating what we had last night, which was a really nice meal of stuffed oven-baked sea bass with roasted fennel. It was a proper diet meal, and I was generous with the olive oil on the fennel, but it didn’t feel like a keto meal. When I had a rump steak, similarly, it was great, but I cut the big fucking rind of fat off it, and never would that pass my lips. On the first day, I followed a recipe for a creamy tomato soup, which was lovely, containing loads of cream and butter. But the portions were so small because of the “net carbs” in the tomatoes that you felt cheated. So when I made up my own chicken and courgette soup, I threw in some cream, but made it so you could have a decent bowlful. You can see here my food pathology at work. The calorific result may have been the same, but with one of them, the bowl was full.

“Net carbs,” by the way, is essentially carbohydrate minus fibre, so you are encouraged to seek out high fibre foods. There’s a spectrum with nuts, for example. Brazil nuts: excellent; cashew nuts: avoid. And I quite enjoy snacking on nuts, or forcing down a small square of 100% cocoa chocolate with an espresso without sugar. You feel like a Benedictine monk, mortifying yourself with bitterness.

But ask me to ladle butter and cream into a crock pot with skin-on chicken pieces and “keto dumplings” made of coconut flour, or whatever, and you lose me. I had bacon and eggs for breakfast. I’d have liked to have had a bit of fried bread and some stewed tomatoes, but you can’t.

Another week of experimentation. I have weighed myself, so I know what the damage is. I’ve never been that concerned with weight: I know how hard it is to haul my carcass up a hill on a bike. But I am concerned with trouser size and notches on my belt. So I’ll know, in another seven days, whether I can get into those trousers I was bursting out of more comfortably.

Meanwhile, I have turned to some strange foodstuffs to make cooking easier. Those barenaked noodles aren’t bad at all. They aren’t food, really, but the texture and mouth feel of them is fine, so you can make a dish of stir fry or noodle soup and feel quite happy eating it. I also quite enjoy those seaweed wafers. Again, virtually no nutritional value, but lots of iodine. In the post: some keto snack bars, because I have craved something sweeter on the tongue.

Top tip, by the way. If you dip down into 85% chocolate, the Divine brand has more fibre than, say, Green and Blacks. And more fibre means fewer net carbs. Four squares of that chocolate was just 1.4g of net carbs, which on some days you can get away with. Anyway, I am not an advertisement for keto. I’m on a diet, and I might lose some weight, but I’m not a scientific miracle. So I’m calling my diet the Nara* Diet. © ® etc.

*No Spaghetti, no Carbo…

The City We Became by N.K. Jemisin

With a heavy heart, I have to conclude that this book is not for me. I struggled to read it and probably should have given up after the first fifty pages. But I kept hoping it was going to kick into gear, and it didn’t.

The (uninspiring) blurb reads as follows:

Every city has a soul. Some are as ancient as myths, and others are as new and destructive as children. New York City? She’s got five. 

But every city also has a dark side. A roiling, ancient evil stirs beneath the earth, threatening to destroy the city and her five protectors unless they can come together and stop it once and for all.

With the pedigree behind this (Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy is brilliant), I felt I couldn’t really go wrong, even if that blurb didn’t really speak to me. Does this work better if you are American? A New Yorker? Is it full of in-jokes about New York? I detected a hint of such, in the position Staten Island takes in the narrative, but it wasn’t particularly interesting to me. In fact, I so much don’t give a shit about New York that I wasn’t really rooting for it, if you know what I mean.

A common complaint (from me) about this kind of book: this felt a bit plotless, more of a Menippean Satire than a novel, and there really didn’t seem to be much progression in terms of either plot or character. It was just a series of encounters, with the ‘ancient evil’ for example, which didn’t really get anywhere. And while I was always sure that an explanation for all these events further down the road, there was always a sneaking suspicion that I was getting the explanation, and it didn’t convince.

Quite a lot of this felt like treading water, people sitting around in rooms discussing things (Menippean satire style) and it was just tiring really. Is it an allegory for multiculturalism vs. white supremacy? Who cares.

The worst aspect of this? The first of a trilogy? Ugh. I’m pre-emptively bothered by the marketing of those forthcoming books.

It’s ad hominem all the way down

I have rarely been as physically repelled by another human being as I am by Trump. The person to whom I would compare him is Jimmy Savile, whose fake blond hair and predilection for bling are only the most superficial of many similarities. Sure, you wouldn’t catch Trump with a cigar in his mouth unless a prostitute had pissed on it first, but consider the gold. 

We’ll have a problem with verb tense here, so let’s stipulate the ever present trauma caused by both and stick to the present

Both are predators who happily boast about their predatory behaviour, knowing they were safe from consequences. Most importantly, both have been enabled by others, particularly in the media, who stood back and reaped the rewards of letting these men operate. Neither would be described as book smart or intellectual, but both have a kind of reptilian cunning that they use successfully to manipulate people.

Both make my skin creep, and I don’t just mean since we found out. I’m one hundred percent sure I’m not the only person who found Savile creepy, back in the 1960s and 1970s. Watching Top of the Pops with him on was like staring into a vortex of wrongness. I hate the fact that such wrongness is often termed Lovecraftian, as if that kind of horror is reserved for white supremacists, but there it is.

Savile rubbed up against Thatcher for the opportunities it gave him, and Trump of course is a plain vanilla fascist. It’s just a shame, isn’t it, that the internet cried wolf with their Hitler comparisons for so many years? Because when the real thing came along, everybody ignored it. 

What I’m most interested in, as a recovering Media Studies teacher, is the way that these predators were created by the media. Trump was given a platform by the producers of The Apprentice, and in spite of his clearly repellent personal qualities was allowed to develop his personal brand and then use it to spread his lies. Savile was protected and promoted by the BBC which it has since become clear was an organisation that repeatedly turned a blind eye to its many sexual predators, from Rolf Harris to Frank Bough. Saturday night “family” entertainment was so often given over to nonces that the mind boggles. “Following the accusations made against you, we have no option other than to give you your own prime time entertainment slot. You can go on before the Black and White Minstrel Show.”

Trump’s media enablers extended into what we used to quaintly term “New Media”, and his fascist organisation was given a home on Twitter, Facebook, and other places where he could get access to the information-poor people who became his mob.

Last week’s Capitol putsch was the most predictable event since someone placed a marshmallow in front of a three year old with poor impulse control. Not only did people predict it, and see it coming, but the event was telegraphed in advance by the events organisers. Ever since, “Some very fine people on both sides,” this has been the obvious endgame. Even for the chronically short-of-memory, it has been on the cards ever since, “Stand back and stand by.”

So nobody was surprised, especially those whose job surely it is to watch political events unfold. And yet it happened. And was immediately followed by the tappety-tap-tap of paid opinion havers.

I can only conclude that as “shocked and appalled” as people have claimed to be, they wanted it to happen. Just as they wanted Savile on Jim’ll Fix It, just as they wanted Trump on The Apprentice. They wanted the rolling news, shocking-scenes-from-inside-the-capitol: for the ratings. For the clicks. For the engagement.

If Trump didn’t exist, it would have been necessary to invent him. Except, of course, that’s wrong: he is an invention. The big pink fake hair blinged up cartoon villain demanded by the insatiable appetite of the smiling beast that consumes us.

From Now – Podcast review

🚀

Scene One: Int. Living Room - Day

SOUND:                THE TAPPETY TAP TAP OF COMPUTER KEYS. THE
                      DISTANT SOUND OF A SMALL SPEAKER.

ROB:                  I wonder if the producers of this
                      show bothered to Google this.
                      "do. clones. have. the. same. DNA."

SOUND:                THE SATISFYING THUD OF THE RETURN
                      KEY BEING HIT WITH GUSTO.

ROB:                  Ah. Here we are. "Clones contain
                      identical sets of genetic
                      material in the nucleus—the
                      compartment that contains the
                      chromosomes—of every cell in
                      their bodies. Thus, cells from
                      two clones have the same DNA
                      and the same genes in their
                      nuclei." I don't suppose,
                      then, that they bothered to
                      check anything about relativistic
                      effects, or the current state
                      of the space programme,
                      or any part of the rich
                      history of science fiction
                      or space opera.

And that, dear reader, is the tale of a missed opportunity so large you can probably see it from space. The production team behind From Now, the new fiction podcast from QCode, have clearly got a budget. They’ve got Richard Madden, Brian Cox, Lance Reddick, and several other named actors. And it’s audio, so they can create magic with just the voices and some good sound effects. And yet, what they’ve created is bilge that is so bad it’s on the same level as Charles Chilton’s Journey into Space, the unlistenable BBC radio drama from the 1950s that inexplicably keeps being repeated on Radio 4 Extra.

I can only assume they spent so much money getting Brian Cox that they couldn’t afford a decent writer.

See, what you should do if you want to make a good science fiction radio drama is just adapt something already written. How much are the radio rights for something like Ringworld, or The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet? One can only assume it’s eye-wateringly expensive, leaving the producers no choice other than to toss some sciency-sounding fridge magnet words onto the nearest whiteboard and go with that.

The sound of a huge cheering crowd as a space ship launches to explore (hand waving) some distant planet. Apparently nobody expects this exploration to take very long at all. (Perhaps the writer meant to check how long interstellar travel might take and forgot.)

Sounds of consternation as the ship disappears. But then it reappears 35 years later. And the “youngest member of the crew” (as we keep being told) seems to be the only survivor. And he’s the same age as when he left. BUT WE KNOW HE’S NOT A CLONE BECAUSE WE CHECKED HIS DNA.

(Also, perhaps writer intended to look up relativistic effects and time dilation, so that perhaps just one Earth scientist might say, “Hasn’t aged, you say? And…?”)

Anyway, the future media are all over it, “If you’ve just joined us, here’s another exposition dump…”, so that’s okay.

Perhaps the worst bit is when Brian Cox (who plays the survivor’s now much older twin) remembers “how Scottish” he used to sound, only then there’s a flash back to their childhood and both boys have English accents.

Perhaps this isn’t about the mysterious ship at all, and it’s a weird science fiction show about a Mysteriously Changing Accent.

Anyway, it’s terrible.

The Hotel – BBC Sounds

Over the past 15 weeks, I’ve been transfixed by this series of 15-minute readings on Radio 4: The Hotel by Daisy Johnson. Unlike most Radio 4 readings, the producers employed a variety of different voice actors, to tell short stories from different periods of the titular Hotel’s history, from before it was built to its end. The diverse range of familiar and unfamiliar women’s voices include Nicola Walker, Maxine Peake, Rebecca Root, Adjoa Andoh, and Juliet Stevenson. As such, each episode has a slightly different tone, although the creepy atmosphere is maintained with superb sound design.

I’ve not read Daisy Johnson, but her book Everything Under was shortlisted for the Booker prize (which for me is more off-putting than encouraging). She also wrote Fen, which seems like it might be a similar collection of disturbing short stories in a similar setting to The Hotel. I must say, she seems to be one of those authors where the blurb doesn’t give you any idea of what’s inside. The overall impression is gothic. Her most recent book is Sisters, which again seems to be a gothic tale set in a creepy house. Anyway, I’m intrigued enough to check some of these out, although what I’d really like to do is to read all the Hotel stories for myself.

The BBC don’t give you much information as to how the series was put together, beyond the name of the producer (Justine Wilett), the author and the readers. Did the producer also do the sound design? Well done, if so.

The only complaint I have about The Hotel is with regards to the listener. On occasion, and for various reasons, I found it difficult to concentrate on a particular episode, missed some details, lost track. There’s nothing stopping me from listening again, of course, but one of the reasons I’d like to read them for myself is that there’s also nothing stopping me from lapses in concentration and focus, particularly at the moment, when work concerns keep intruding.

They’re all available now, so you can binge, although there was a certain pleasure in the slow release over so many weeks. Even in normal times, the BBC’s 15 minute readings tend to be daily rather than weekly, so they did something different with The Hotel. It’s a good listen, with many spine-tingling moments, and excellent work from all involved.

Robbed

I’m not really one to re-read books. In that sense, the Kindle has been a blessing for me, because they’re (usually) cheaper and don’t take up space. I’ve got 221 books in my Kindle library and a further 50 or so in the Apple Books format. The only book I do re-read a lot is Tim Powers’ Declare, which is one I’ll pick up in the summer if I happen to run out of other books to read. Something about that book, that it’s stand-alone, that it’s so perfectly pitched at my obsessions, means it’s one I’m sorry to finish.

And I suppose it’s that feeling, of being sorry to finish that is the root of anyone’s re-reading programme. There’s a question often asked on Simon Mayo’s Books of the Year podcast, and it goes something like: which book that you’ve read would you like to live inside?

Which is a tricky question, because, no, I would not like to live inside the world of Declare, with all its conflict and bewildering occult elements. Personally, I’d probably go back to something like Swallows and Amazons, and as long as I could stay on the lake, camping on the island, eating ‘pemmican’ and drinking ‘grog’, I’d be happy. But I think there are books that you love to be lost inside, and sorry to finish, even if you wouldn’t want to live there.

I recently finished the ninth novel in Robin Hobb’s “Realm of the Elderlings” sequence about the bastard assassin Fitzchivalry Farseer and his strange friend The Fool. This sequence of three mountainous trilogies was written between 1995 and 2017, and would be quite an achievement on its own — but the prolific Robin Hobb wrote an additional seven novels set in the same fictional universe in between each of the Fitz/Fool trilogies. The first nine books were written at a pace of one-per-year. Then Hobb wrote three books set in a completely different fictional realm before returning to the Elderlings and writing the final* seven, again, at a one-per-year pace, between 2009 and 2017. The mind boggles at the volume of material. That’s 19 books in 22 years (plus other bits and pieces). In the same period, George RR Martin has managed not to finish A Song of Ice and Fire, having stalled after five books.

I make this comparison not to have a go at GRRM but to point out that what Hobb has achieved is no easy feat. She makes it look easy. And I find it ironic that when TV producers go looking for properties they pick on Martin’s unfinished opus and rehashes of Tolkien, when all along there was this rich universe of character and plot.

Now, I’ve steered clear of the odd seven Elderlings books, because I was into the Fitz and the Fool story and didn’t want any side trips. So I’ve always got the option of reading the seven other books, but at the moment I simply feel bereft at having finished the core nine. The truth is that some of the characters of the side-trip seven appear in the final trilogy, and although I was unfamiliar with them and obviously missing references all over the place, I still don’t feel inclined to read them.

Except I know I’ll weaken. When I said ‘bereft’ above I wasn’t exaggerating. I wandered around for days after I finished feeling lost and lonely because I’d been so steeped in Hobb’s world for so long that I couldn’t face life without it. This is so unlike me. What is it about them? As I’ve said before, they’re really easy to read. By this I mean that they’re not Janet-and-John simple, but that Hobb’s style is relaxed and pleasant, conveying huge information dumps without making you feel like you’re wading through treacle. I’ve criticised GRRM’s style before on this blog, and Hobb is, for me, so much the better writer. She builds the world, peoples it with interesting characters, and then lets events play out without ever forcing them or rushing them. Actions always have consequences, and the emotional pay-off towards the end of the final book is both earned and satisfying. Again: think of the carping about the TV ending for Game of Thrones. The complaints there about inconsistent characters or inconsistent storytelling may or may not have been justified, but you definitely do not feel cheated at the end of Assassin’s Fate. When you feel irritated by one of Hobb’s characters, it’s because they are being irritating and she wants you to feel that frustration.

Anyway, bereft. It’s hard to recommend fantasy because it’s such a vast field and there are so many crossovers and similarities. A bit of magic, a few dragons, lah de dah. It’s hard to differentiate. I spent many years following Katherine Kerr’s Devery series, and ended up feeling bored and impatient with them. No such feeling with Robin Hobb: consistent, gripping, moving, and with a proper ending. Highly recommended.

*Hobb holds out the promise that there might be more, if she can think of an ending. I admire her restraint at not starting something she doesn’t know how to finish.

The Vow

I finally got around to watching The Vow, the HBO documentary series about the DOS/NXIVM cult and all those goings on. Beyond the usual prurient fascination with famous (and non-famous) people getting involved in cults, the series offers an insight into how people can be manipulated — and especially into the linguistic dimension of this manipulation.

Creepy Keith Raniere was the leader, now convicted on multiple counts of weird shit and sentenced to 120 years in prison. He comes across as a curiously charisma-free zone in the copious video footage used in the documentary, and you immediately start to wonder how he could have created this fiercely loyal circle of acolytes. His gift seems to involve his way with questions and vague TV hypnotist tricks, in which he reflects back on people their needs and desires, exploits their insecurity, and then blends into the background while they do his bidding.

His background was in multi-level marketing, which is the “it’s legal this time, honest” version of the classic pyramid or Ponzi scheme. Of course, these cons only work if the people being recruited are greedy and needy, and it is remarkable how often these things spring up. Only recently, the BBC’s documentary podcast The Missing Cryptoqueen detailed the growth of a similar money-making cult involving the murky world of crypto currency and blockchain. People invest their life savings, recruit their friends and relatives, lose everything, etc.

An interesting dimension of NXIVM as a pyramid scheme is that it was almost literally a case of money for old rope, or, in this case, a sash. Martial arts style coloured sashes were the only outward sign of people’s progress through the organisation, which in its detail reminded me of nothing so much as s c i e n t o l o g y. Another similarity with that particular tax avoidance scheme dressed up as a New Religious Movement (NRM) was the involvement of actors. Not Hollywood actors, per se, but actors working in Vancouver on mid-budget science fiction shows. The names are familiar to anyone who has followed the story, and they centre around two shows in particular: YA Superman drama Smallville and the rebooted Battlestar Galactica. The involvement of people from this latter is doubly ironic, since that show was steeped in religion, specifically Mormonism, from the very beginning.

One day the book will be written on how science fiction and NRMs became so intertwined. It’ll be a big book, one that needs to take into account the paranoid style of American political thought, puritanism, Max Weber, the history of quack medicine, televangelists, travelling tent shows, and, well, America.

wikipedia

The hilarious diagram above gives a flavour of the mixed up and half-baked “philosophies” creepy Keith used to seduce people. As I noted on twitter, what with his sweat band, his volleyball, and his judo, he comes across like one of the characters in Napoleon Dynamite. And once you start seeing these people as extras in that film, it all becomes even more absurd.

There seem to me to have been two distinct phases to Creepy Keith’s Quack Cult. The first involved “business” people, interested in career progression, the greasy pole, success etc. Those interviewed in the documentary always seem to claim some level of prior success. “I was successful but felt that something was missing” being a typical expression. My argument here is that none of them were properly successful, not yacht money successful, and even if they had some (temporary) success it was all cash flow and no savings. Like sharks, they needed to keep moving or their debts would kill them. This is America, after all. Where people go from putting down a deposit on a McMansion to living in their cars in the space of a year.

Anyway, creepy Keith starts here, and he attracts some women, including at least one with some inherited wealth who can bankroll his programme. He starts banging some of these women, even as they all embark on recruiting more people to the pyramid scheme, which is focused on “Executive Success”. LOL.

Now, as others have noted, The Vow is a bit sneaky with the timeline, presenting you with a mixture of footage from different periods, and not really giving you much of a sense of the true order of events, or the time period over which they happened. But my suspicion is that, by chance, Creepy Keith lands what he would see as a Whale. Someone involved in the entertainment industry who can bring in others. And, to put it crudely, the quality of the crumpet he was attracting suddenly went up a notch. From semi-successful “business” people, he moved up to younger (and hotter) actresses. Allison Mack (cute), Kristin Kreuk (very cute), Grace Park (cute), and Nicki Clyne (kinda… cute). Now, what do all these people have in common, apart from mid-budget science fiction TV shows filmed in Vancouver? (Perhaps the real reason David Duchovny left The X Files?)

To be brutal: they’re all attractive, all involved in quite successful TV shows, but none of them are really the main thing. And, beyond the tight (and ever diminishing) circle of their shows’ fans, they’re not household names. And there’s the rub: ambition. All that is solid melts into air.

Both the “business” people and the “media” people had in common a certain level of precarity: success that was either temporary or fragile and fickle. And all of them were greedy/needy enough to be looking for something more, something solid. Enter creepy Keith and his system of sashes.

Allison Mack, in particular, seems to have been seduced by the feeling of being Big Fish in this small cult’s scummy pond. You can see her in the video footage presenting herself to an adoring audience as if she’s the biggest thing that ever happened to them. Which she probably was. But the other thing you can see in the video footage is the way creepy Keith could tear down her walls and reduce her to insecure tears.

It’s no surprise that behind all this is neurolinguistic programming, the technique used by stage mentalists, conmen, seducers, actual therapists, snake oil salesmen and populist politicians. And the genius of a cult like this is that once people have been programmed, even when they have doubts, they express themselves in the language of the cult. This language includes words like “purge” and “suppressive”, and phrases like “envy-based habits” and “exploration of meaning”, the latter of which was given the acronym EM. It doesn’t really matter what any of these terms mean; in the cult world, they mean what they mean, and people begin to express themselves using them. Groupthink develops, and the limits of acceptable speech are defined. At which point, if you become concerned that you’ve heard about young women signing up to be “slaves” to “masters” and branding themselves and providing blackmail material to ensure their silence and complicity, you express these concerns using the language of the cult. And then the cult replies to you, “I think you’re expressing your envy and being a little suppressive. Would you like an EM session?”

At which point, you’re lost. It doesn’t matter that these jumbled ideas don’t make sense: the point is that the sands keep shifting so that nobody can quite grasp what’s going on. The master manipulator always leaves his acolytes wondering if they’re the only ones who don’t understand what he’s talking about. The emperor has no clothes. We’ve all had bosses like him.

It’s all fascinating. And yet: familiar. The cult members dancing outside creepy Keith’s jail are no different from the Family members sitting outside the courtroom while creepy Charlie Manson was on trial. And the only conclusion you can come to is that people are weird, and insecure, and needy, and, yes, greedy.

The Vow loses momentum after a while. Because it doesn’t really have a timeline, and because it’s not entirely honest with its audience, it meanders and carries on way past where it should have been edited. At best, it’s a three-parter, and I’m afraid the protagonists are not terribly sympathetic. But it’s a very American story, I think. The charismatic cult leader and the sex cult disguised as self improvement is a tale as old as the hills.

Three iPhone cases

Even though I’ve only had my new iPhone 12 since the end of October, I’ve already bought three different cases for it. Is this a record?

My kid was telling me I ought to go caseless because the phone itself is so nice, but (a) I don’t agree really; and (b) I don’t think I want to live without the drop protection a case offers; and (c) I just don’t like the feel of the naked phone in my hand.

My first thought was a clear case, only I’m not of course gullible enough to pay for the Apple version. I bought instead an Eono by Amazon case, which claimed to be “ultra clear” and “anti-yellow”.

I’ve got nothing against yellow. It’s his fan club I can’t stand.

A couple of problems with this case. Number one, as previously noted, there ain’t no way you can have your iPhone looking as shiny and fingerprint-free as the marketing photo suggests. Second of all, it feels cheap and nasty to the touch, and makes your seven million pound iPhone look cheap and nasty. Here’s the (two star) review I left on Amazon:

Although this arrived in packaging that spoke of a premium product, I was disappointed in both the appearance and texture of this case. It looks like cheap plastic and feels like it too.

My blue iPhone 12 is already a smudge and fingerprint magnet, and this case does not improve matters, showing every mark and looking grubby from almost the moment I put the phone into it.

The plastic is flexible enough so that the phone slips easily in and out. I have thankfully not tested its impact protection (touch wood) and cannot attest to its resistance to yellowing as it is only a few days out of its box.

Ultimately, this feels like something cheap and quite nasty to put over something expensive and beautiful.

(I may have lied about the “beautiful” bit – or it’s possible I’ve gone off my new iPhone since I bought it.) What happened next of course is that I was contacted by “Eono”, who attempted to suborn me with a replacement case (which they claimed was new and improved) or a full refund.

This is xxxxx from Eono. Thanks very much for ordering Eono phone case.
But I’m very sorry it brought some bad experience for you.
Based on your description, we did some research & discuss and we found the reason. Due to the material and the shape, it will cause local sliding. We have upgraded and recover the issue may face, it will not happen again.
And about the fingerprint, because too much fingerprint oil will cause the surface to be too slippery and the phone will slip off easily. Now as long as you wipe it lightly, your fingerprints will fall off. All things considered, this is a good state, is that right?

I would like to resend you a new case to have a try again. Is that OK?
Of course, if you really don’t like it. I would like to full refund you and you don’t have to return it.
What’s your opinion, Robert?

Ha! Well, my opinion was that I literally couldn’t be arsed, and so I did not take them up on their offer. Also I was a bit worried about my fingerprints falling off. Also highly sceptical about the new design, given that this was all about five minutes after the new phones were released.

Three people have voted my review useful. Is this a record?

So I swiftly moved on to order something else, and stumbled across the Bellroy range. I already have a Bellroy wallet (my second), and I highly recommend them. So I ordered their reasonably priced bog-standard phone case in coral – because I was already missing my lovely coral iPhone XR. It’s my everyday case now, and I love the look and feel* of it. It’s fairly easy to get the phone in and out, and it doesn’t add too much bulk and weight. The leather looks good, and the price was £15 below the equivalent Apple leather case.

*Unfortunately, there is a problem. Both the power button and volume up/down buttons have no feel whatsoever. So you find yourself either squeezing too hard, or not squeezing enough. Given that you habitually put your phone to sleep hundreds of times every day, this is a bummer. I would give this case my unconditional endorsement were it not for that. The button feel might seem trivial, but it’s really not. It annoys you every single time.

Finally, I ordered myself a new Quadlock case, in anticipation of carrying my phone on my bike. This would be my third of these (is this a record?), and I think they’re still a great bet. It’s a shame they’re not available in more colours, but the combination of materials is perfect: solid and stiff around the connector, flexible enough at the sides, with a good bumper. Among their wide range of different accessories, Quadlock also now offer a ring attachment, which is new. So you can use this to keep the phone securely in your hand with your finger hooked through it, or use it to prop the phone up on a table while you slurp soup or noodles. There’s a whole range of things you can get to attach the case to, and this remains the best ecosystem for a range of different uses. I’d much rather this than Apple’s MagSafe connection, which offers nothing over a more reliable connection to a so-called wireless charging station. And since wireless remains an energy wasteful means of charging a phone, I’m not bothered.

Overall verdict:

Get yourself a Quadlock. Avoid the Eono, and probably spend the extra £15 for the Apple leather.

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Let’s talk about anti-fog wipes

Like, I’m sure, many spectacle wearers, I’ve tried a number of different anti-fog wipes. They’re all pretty useless, and none of them are capable of doing what their packaging claims, although some are better than others.

What do we want? Well, if you’re me, you need up to 20-25 fog-free minutes for various work purposes, sometimes several times a day. And for the weekly supermarket trip, you need up to an hour of fog-free performance. I’m sure these are standard use cases for most people.

The first ones I tried are the best I’ve tried. Life Art Dry Anti-Fog Cloth.

You might not think these would be any good, and they do not perform as the packaging claims, but they do work quite well for short periods of time. Let’s consider the packaging. Underneath the Life Art branding is the slogan, Care Eyes, Care Life. I’m sure we can all agree that these are words to live by. And then at the bottom, it says, in all caps, give you clear view. And front and centre, in big lettering, is the claim Reusable 700 times/PC. I don’t know what PC stands for. Per cloth?

Anyway, they stop working effectively after about 20 uses, so the 700 times is a bit of a stretch. Also, they claim to be effective for up to 48 hours, and I’m here to tell you that after 20 minutes, you may not be fogged up, but the inside surface of your glasses will be wet, and the condensation will start to run like raindrops on a windowpane. In the marketing materials, we’re informed that Suede anti fog nano molecules Let the fog trouble away from your life.

All in all, what this means is, they will work, but you’ll have to re-use the cloth every 10-15 minutes. But having been slightly dissatisfied with these, I ordered an alternative.

So No Fog High Performance Lens Cleaning Wipes

I’m used to carrying something like this about my person all the time, because I obsessively clean my expensive glasses with VU Wipes, and make sure never to use potentially scratchy materials.

These are also disappointing. Most of the time, they don’t seem to work at all, and they especially don’t work if you, say, wipe your glasses first thing in the morning and then hope that the anti fog will still be effective, say, three hours later. Up to 24 hour performance is offered on the packaging, as well as (helpfully) not for use on contact lenses. Anyway, these are a mixed bag. If you clean your glasses with one of these and then immediately put on the mask and go shopping, it’ll work. But if you then put on the mask again an hour or so later, you’ll fog up immediately.

I’ve tried combining the wet wipe and the dry cloth, and this seems to work a bit better. Finally, a halfway house:

Old Schoolmate Frame Glasses and Antifogging, to give them their full title.

These are halfway, because you get a suede-like cloth, but it is damp to the touch like a wet wipe. Please wash your hands after use on the front of the packaging is a bit worrying. Also keep away from children.

I’m sure this is fine. Anyway, you’d think this combo option would work better. It says it works for “about” 24 hours, but as far as I’ve been able to ascertain, it doesn’t work at all. I could literally clean my lenses and then put on my mask for a 2-minute walk to the work toilet, and I’ll be fogged up before I get there.

Conclusion:

I’d probably buy the Life Art again. It works reliably enough that you can get used to its foibles. The wet wipes are second best, but sometimes don’t seem to be effective, plus you have to dispose of them much quicker. And the Old Schoolmate ones are a dud.

Look out for more cutting edge consumer reviews coming your way soon.

Perfect sound forever? On the subject of expensive headphones

One of the more irritating aspects of being the owner of a teenager is the impossibility of communicating with them because of the constant presence of earbuds/airpods. I suppose the benefit of huge over-ear headphones is that at least they’re a clear visual cue that you will not be heard.

(Classic Dad joke: move your lips in the direction of the teenager without saying anything.)

£550 is a lot of money for a set of headphones. This is the price of Apple’s recently announced Airpods Max (stupid name). As I mentioned on the Twitter, the only reason for such pricing is to make your expensive headphones seem cheap. When I was in the home recording game, I used a pair of 80ohm Beyerdynamic DT770 Pros. When I bought them, in the early 2000s, they seemed luxuriously expensive, around the same price as the then-ubiquitous DT100 headphones, which were widely used by professionals as their reference headphones.

Now, there’s a difference between “reference” loudspeakers or headphones and the best sounding speakers and headphones. The idea of a reference device is that you listen to everything on it and it becomes transparent and neutral, allowing you to gauge the quality of your mix/recording without “colour”.

One of the problems of audio equipment is that it’s really hard to write objectively about sound, and so sight-based metaphors start creeping in. Transparent. Colour. What the fuck does this all mean?

As someone with a little bit of this in my background, I’m always sceptical of consumer equipment. What exactly are you getting for your £550? Some kind of chip-based audio processing, an automatic EQ, various “modes”, and so on. Do I want this? I kind of don’t. I tend to think that, for example, George Martin at his peak had better ears for this than I will ever have, and I’m pretty sure that Abbey Road sounds amazing out of the box, as it were, and should require no boosting or enhancing. I kind of want my equipment to allow as much of the original recording to reach my ears, as, um, transparently as possible. No software algorithm or Silicon Valley programmer is going to know more about how the fucking Beatles should sound than the fucking Beatles themselves.

I’ve said it before, but one of the absolutely insane features of our modern age is that people are apparently willing to spend enormous sums of money on audio equipment (in the form of “smart” speakers, airplay speakers, bluetooth speakers, headphones, earbuds, etc.) in order to listen to compressed music streamed or downloaded over the internet. Some people are apparently going to spend £550 on Apple’s Airpods Max in order to stream music and/or movies over the internet.

Maybe we’ll eventually get to the stage (5G?) where the music we download and stream is of a higher quality than a bog-standard CD or vinyl LP, but there is currently a weird disconnect between the expense of the equipment and the shoddy quality of the source. What exactly do people think they’re going to hear?

Anyway, you know they’re not serious audio equipment, because you don’t know how many ohms they come with. Another criticism: whereas the original Airpods completely changed the paradigm of “wireless” headphones, these Airpods Max cleave to the traditional design of over-ear headphones. It’s as if Apple didn’t even try to design them without a band. Imagine a set of cups that went over your ears without the necessity of the hairdo-destroying band. It would be like science fiction.

And, according to John Gruber, they weigh a ton. I can’t help thinking these are nothing more than a status symbol, a late capitalist shibboleth, and a symptom of decadence. At the end of the world, they’ll say, people started turning away from the problems, deciding that solving them was too much effort. They shut themselves away from each other wearing elaborate and heavy contraptions to close their senses off from their environment, in full retreat from reality.