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.

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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. 

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?

Loaded

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A pile of steaming bullshit, yesterday

It’s time for one of those periodic I’m-not-one-to-blog-about-work-but… posts.

Teacher workload has been in the news, and I was just momentarily nonplussed by the reporting of a speech given by some empty suit to a head teacher’s conference. The reporting of this speech is along the lines of, this bloke promises not to introduce any major new reforms of examinations so that teachers can catch a breath.

Here’s a quote from the Graun’s coverage of the speech (which, to be fair to them, takes a different angle than the BBC’s straight parroting of whatever they were briefed to say):

Hinds had earlier earned applause when he said there would be no new tests imposed on primary schools and no overhauls of the national curriculum, GCSE or A-levels for the remainder of the current parliament, beyond those already announced.

So let’s unpack this. He said, no overhauls of the national curriculum, GCSE or A-levels for the remainder of the current parliament. Ha ha! So how long’s that? Does he mean current parliamentary session? In other words, no new reforms until, oh, at least until after the next summer holidays? So We have a whole seven months of respite? Or does he mean until there’s a general election? Which, given the state of this government, might be sooner than he thinks.

The sting in the tail of the Graun’s coverage of course was that phrase beyond those already announced. Because the inconvenient truth is that, with the exception of English and Maths, most subjects are only just starting to deal with the new back-to-the-50s specifications forced upon us by Gove. So teacher workload caused by new specifications isn’t going away for the remainder of the current parliament. It’s only just begun.

The other thing that bothered me about all this is that the audience, while they seemed fairly hostile to this particular Tory suit, were the people largely responsible for teacher workload: head teachers. They can pretend all they like that it’s the government who force all the shit upon teachers, but the truth is that the biggest problem in schools is school leaders who are susceptible to gimmicky ideas, don’t understand their own job, and cover up their ignorance with wave after wave of accountability nonsense as part of a target-drven culture of fear and conformity.

The worst thing they do is not acknowledge that each new initiative comes on top of the last new initiative. And because they would never admit that anything they introduced was a waste of time and effort, everything remains in place, festering away under the big pile of Things That Must Be Done. This pile of steaming bullshit, more than anything, is the source of workload pressure, and this is what’s driving teachers out of the profession. Every new school year begins with a long list of Things That Teachers Have To Do, and, from then on, new shit is piled on top of that on an almost weekly basis. These head teachers, let’s not forget, are all careerist bastard shitbirds.

Anyway, as Refusenik in Chief, I take pride in ignoring most of it. What you can’t get away with not doing, you learn to game. This has always been the main issue of Accountability Culture: everybody just games the fucking system to survive, so what’s the point?

If you switch your focus to self-preservation, you can survive teaching. Don’t be tricked into going the extra mile or bullshit about how to create inspiring lessons. Don’t take work home, don’t work more than 40 hours a week (stick to 35 unless there’s a parents’ evening) and never, ever volunteer for anything. And print this on a t-shirt: if their parents (and grandparents) cared, they wouldn’t vote Tory.

Melting Down is Good for Business

Rupert-Murdoch
Toxic masculinity, as embodied by Rupert Murdoch’s melting face

It’s been a week of meltdowns in the news, sure enough. Meltdown was the name of one of the CPU bugs that were revealed in the New Year. While people were still shitting their pants over the Great Apple Battery Scam (not a scam), Intel revealed something they’d been sitting on for a while, which was that the way their CPU chips works (by speculatively anticipating what they’re going to be asked to do next) leaves them vulnerable to exploits. This was trumpeted widely as a precursor to the End of All Things, Millennium Bug style, since just about anything with an Intel or ARM processor was affected, but (as of Saturday) we’re still alive. Still, you can smell the lawsuits from here, can’t you?

It was last May that all British Airways flights from two airports were cancelled because of an IT problem, and this is the kind of meltdown that pundits fear might ensue when a system vulnerability like this is revealed. More seriously, that same month saw “cyber chaos” in the NHS, as computer systems that hadn’t been updated from Windows XP were attacked over a weekend.

This is what I think of whenever people express concerns about Trump and his obsession with weapons and nuclear buttons. This past week of Whitehouse Meltdowns following the “revelations” in Michael Wolff’s book have been entertaining, and you can’t help but hope it takes us one step closer to the Hollywood Ending of this Presidency, which is when the American people collectively point their fingers in Trump’s direction and pause dramatically before saying, “You’re fired.”

While it’s clear that millions of people are going to suffer as a result of Trump’s “welfare for the rich” tax legislation and his “welfare for the rich” healthcare changes, I have less fear that he’s ever going to launch a nuclear strike. This seems like a cartoon fear of a cartoon president, a childlike clown who has no real power, and is simply going to end up being managed when the grownups take over. Trump is not Putin: he has no real power. Like the rest of the Republican Party, he’ll do the bidding of his corporate and media masters, the Ronald McDonald birthday clown of politics.

As well as being good for lawyers in class action or cease and desist lawsuits, these various meltdowns are good for the news business, as people addictively click on stories to read about how Apple or Intel are ruining their lives or how Trump’s hair is combed and lacquered. And I’ve noticed as an adjunct to all this that the papers are full of chin-stroking columns about the perils of social networking and screens. It’s all New Year New Me and Think Of The Children and, very helpfully, Black Mirror season 4. Same as it ever was, if you ask me. Ten years ago, I would chortle with my students about all the Facebook negging that the Daily Mail went in for, but like lawyers smelling Class Action, the newspapers are all smelling New Year’s Resolutions, as people try to detox from Trump and Bannon and Trolls and whatever that episode of Black Mirror was about.

Should we be worried about tech meltdowns? Probably. As rail commuters weep about paying nearly £8000 a year just to get to work, and our cars hit pot holes and have their own personal meltdowns, and the NHS suffers through yet another Winter Crisis, it’s clear that our infrastructure is fucked. And when it comes to IT, which is increasingly getting involved in every part of our lives, the infrastructure is all in the hands of corporations. So whether it’s your light bulbs, your front door, your fridge, or your TV, these CPU vulnerabilities are likely to strike anywhere. And the only way to hold these corporations to account is via the blunt instrument of the class action lawsuit. Because the politicians do not have their minds on infrastructure, do they?

In the UK, we’re distracted, permanently, by Brexit meltdown. In the US, they’re distracted by Trump meltdown. And even if they weren’t, absolutely no politician ever is interested in building infrastructure projects that won’t come to fruition until long after they’ve left office in disgrace after putting their hand up someone’s skirt. So, in a sense, we can blame toxic masculinity for all of these meltdowns. Men are really too emotional for high office.

Lens me your ears

comaprison imageInternational lens crafters Hoya now offer a special type of glass for night driving called EnRoute. Gimmick, I hear you cry, and yet you will have noticed, as have I, how much harder driving at night is in the era of LED and halogen headlights. Talk about your law of unintended consequences. The big selling point of LEDs and halogens has always been that brighter, stronger pool of light in front of your car at night, which is bound to make night driving easier, right?

I find it hard to believe that anybody now finds it easier to drive at night. You could accuse me of getting older, sure, but my difficulties with night vision probably stabilised about 20 years ago. What causes me to utter the words Jesus Christ  or Jesus Fucking Christ multiple times when driving at night are the eye-searingly bright headlamps coming the other way. Doesn’t matter if you have the fanciest £1000 option Christmas tree lights on your car, you too are being blinded regularly – especially on dark, undulating, winding country roads.

I’ve often complained about the absence of cats’ eyes from French roads. Driving at night over there in wet conditions often involves moments where the white lines disappear completely, and you have no idea where the road is. I had a couple of truly hairy motorway moments this summer in thunderstorms, one of which was in broad daylight, and my problem with disappearing roads dates back at least 20 years.

But the journey we completed yesterday, 21 hours after we set out (on what is normally a 9–10 hour drive), may have been the worst yet.

I’m kicking myself for a series of poor decisions to start with. Poor decision number one was that I booked a 9 a.m. crossing — because getting through passport control (my greatest stressor) is dead easy at that time, but it meant leaving home around midnight. ‘Around midnight’, when my wife is involved, always ends up being ‘Around 11 p.m.’, which is when we set out. As usual, I checked Google Maps for the best route, and what I think of as ‘the Northern route’ was marked as one minute faster.

In other words, nothing in it, but on the basis of that single minute I chose to take the Northern route. A key advantage of this route is that more of the first two hours of the journey are on dual carriageways, whereas both of the two Southern routes involve two hour stretches on N or D roads, passing through multiple villages. Another advantage of the Northern Route is that it is mainly on N roads, so there are fewer motorway tolls to pay, which in these financially straitened times, might be important to me.

The N57 follows the Moselle valley, and winds and undulates considerably more than a motorway, and is not as well marked or lit, and the road surface is more variable than a motorway. I only ever seem to drive on it in the worst weather, so I don’t have good memories. What I was thankful for, given that we were setting out at the arse end of a bank holiday (it was still New Year’s Day when we set out), there were no lorries, and therefore much less spray than there would otherwise have been.

So the journey North was okay. By the time we turned westwards on the N4, lorries were starting to appear again. Still, I felt like we were going to reach Reims within about 4 hours, which is making pretty decent time. And we were within an hour of Reims, approaching Saint Dizier, when disaster struck.

A decision not made was to continue a little further than Nancy to Metz, where I could have joined the A4 autoroute, and travelled across to Reims that way instead. How much time would have been in that? Google wasn’t saying. Anyway, compared to the A4, the N4 is a piece of shit: a patchy, badly lit dual carriageway with invisible white lines, and — it turns out — massive (and notorious) pot holes.

The pot hole we hit at 70 mph — and it was that, around 110 kph, the speed limit, on cruise control — was so deep and so wide that it felt like driving into a brick wall. I had literally just been thinking, as I so often do, about how bad it would be to get a flat tyre in our shitty VW Touran diesel with its shitty — and expensive — “tyre repair kit”, which is what you get instead of a proper spare wheel. I had been thinking about the inconvenience and inevitable difficulties of a flat tyre at two o’clock in the morning in the middle of nowhere, France, when we hit the pot hole. There was a brief moment of almost hope that no damage had been done before the rear tyres — both of them — completely deflated.

So even if we’d had a spare, we were fucked.

Luckily, I pay over £200 a year for international driving cover through the AA, so we were covered.

But it was dark, and windy, and cold, and we were on an N road, not a motorway. There was no hard shoulder, so we were pulled into the side on a dual carriageway, and the lorries kept thundering past, some of them so close they weren’t even all the way into the outside lane. I made everyone, including the cat, step over the barrier and away from the car, and we stood there wrapped in blankets for an hour while we waited for the tow truck and a taxi.

What great service. I mean, after the one-hour wait, it was terrific. We were taken to an Ibis hotel (basic, but modern and clean) and the car was towed to a garage, where two new tyres were fitted by noon the following day. We weren’t covered for the tyres (which aren’t included under “parts”, apparently), but the tow, the labour, and the taxi journey(s) and the hotel rooms were covered. As much as I’ve resented shelling out for this cover that we’ve never before needed, I was so glad to have it. And if it hadn’t been for the cat freaking out all night long, I’d have had a good night’s sleep on a comfortable bed in the Ibis.

The pothole was locally famous. The tow truck guy had picked up someone with exactly the same problem at the same spot two days before. And both taxi drivers were aware of it, too. I expect it’s that pothole that keeps the Saint Dizier local economy afloat.

Anyway, here’s my message to car manufacturers. Your LED headlights are a fucking blight on society, and your absent spare wheels are an absurd swindle to match your lies about ‘clean diesel’.

 

Instant Pharma

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Yep, it can be done

The schools were closed, so I had a look online last night at the Kafkaesque appointment booking system and changed my doctor’s appointment from the 18th to this morning at 8:30. Latest symptom of my gradual falling apart: constantly watering eyes.

Which was ironic because walking down to the doctors in the snow this morning was even more treacherous than it might have been because, with my eyes filled with tears, I couldn’t see where I was placing my feet. You might be asking yourself, why was your original appointment (made two weeks ago) so far ahead in time? And the answer is, because the Kafkaesque system seems to release random tranches of appointments, so there’s a kind of lottery system: depending on when you log in, you might get lucky.

Which, I’m sure we all agree, is exactly how a local care health system should work.

I also tried this morning to phone and make a nurse’s appointment, as required, for my hypertension review. You can’t make those online, so you have to go through the hellish telephone tree instead. Now, I dialled on the E of Eight o’clock, when the system opens, and after pushing the virtual buttons on the telephone tree, found myself at position number THIRTY FOUR in the queue.

By the time I was walking carefully down the hill into town at around 8:15, I was at number 21, so I hung up – chancing that they would let me make an actual appointment at the actual reception.

I managed to do this – for January, wahey – and then sat waiting for my name to appear on the Screen of Shame in the waiting room. I’d arrived ten minutes early, and the delay (20 minutes after the surgery had opened) was given at 20 minutes. In the event, it was more like half an hour, which is pretty good work, if you think about it, to be half an hour behind after 20 minutes.

The waiting room was like a scene from the toddler version of Mad Max, with snot-covered, ear-infected kids squirming around and spreading their germs while their mothers conversed with unnaturally loud voices. Prescription obtained, the next step was to slide and slip to the pharmacy, which was closed because the pharmacist hadn’t arrived at work. Which meant slip-sliding away to the next pharmacy (Boots, as ever, being a last resort). I say slip-sliding because, of course, the pavements were treacherous with compacted, slushy snow and ice.

Should this be the case? Is this normal? The main road through town was actually relatively clear of snow. The gritter lorry only just came up our road a minute ago (and didn’t come as far as our house), but they appear to have cleared the main road yesterday. So cars were fine. Most of the cars I saw were huge 4x4s, naturally, so it’s nice for them that the road was cleared, isn’t it?

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Yep, pavements snowploughs (and blowers) are a thing – just not where I live

Meanwhile, pedestrians, of which there were many, were left to fend for themselves. And you might shrug your shoulders and accept this as just the way of things, but it is most emphatically not. There are many reasons why the UK (England in particular) has never really felt like a European country. As a stark expression of our national values, the fact that pavements aren’t cleared while roads are is a clear indication that we don’t belong in Europe.

There are such things as pavement snowploughs and gritters. There are probably even some in this country – somewhere. But in a Tory-run area that has cut public services to the bone? In 4×4 country? I’ve even seen salt being applied by hand at pedestrian crossings in France.

Meanwhile, I’ll be off to the physiotherapist this afternoon, hoping I don’t slip and fall on my bruised tailbone – again.

 

 

Reflections on NaNoWriMo

S l1600I participated in NaNoWriMo this year, in spite of my objections to the use of the word “National” in the title of what is by now surely a global event. GloNoWriMo works just as well.

Anyway, I squeezed out 50000 words, somehow, in this hard term for teaching with a workload to die for from.

Don’t know if I’ll finish it, or even if I could if I wanted to. I don’t know if I could come up with an ending. I’ve done it in the past: you just write and write and while you’re writing, inspiration can strike, and you suddenly get that hook, the thing that’s going to drive you towards some sort of ending. But it’s probably a symptom of general tiredness that I wasn’t really feeling it this year.

And yet: I dribbled out 50,000 words, by putting together a couple of ideas I’d had in the past and trying to make them work together.

You’ll be wanting to know what it was about. It’s about a widower who is presented with an opportunity to find out why his journalist wife was murdered fifteen years before. By resurrecting some old technology, he and a retired cop come across documents left by his wife which lead them in a direction previously unexplored.

That’s the bones. Which is all I really banged out in November, without knowing how it would end. I left it in the middle of things, on the South Bank of the Thames, with the red lights winking on the construction cranes. Just abandoned it, with relief, as I crossed the 50,000 word target.

In writing the material left by the wife, Jo, on old floppy disks, I was confronted with the problem of digging back to the turn of the century. What was it like back then? I mean, if you were travelling abroad in the summer of 2000, what network access would you have had, what phone would you have been using? How much was the internet a part of your life? I’m sure I’ve dropped things into sentences that make no sense in the world of 2000 or 2002.

I didn’t have a mobile phone till about six or seven years after that, although I did have a Palm Organiser with a colour screen and a stylus that I synched to my Mac. Had absolutely no use for it, of course (got it from Macworld for a Letter of the Month). Those days! As for the internet, I think we got that at home while I was doing my PhD, late 90s, but if I’d been abroad in 2000 (as I almost certainly was at some point), I’d not even have missed it back then.

But it’s by creating these problems and limitations for myself that I hope to unlock something interesting. I just have no idea what.

The Old Grey Calendar Test

StarKickerI mentioned in my previous post that I have 200-and-something songs in my 2017 4-star songs playlist. It made me wonder: how does 2017 compare to earlier years? Has it been a pretty decent year for music? A few years ago, I had a theory that there were on years and off years, with the even-numbered years generally off. It’s not quite that simple, but – before looking – I’d say 2017 has been a solid good, but will this music pass the test of time?

I start the smart playlist-of-the-year at the turn, and let it build. I still acquire a decent amount of new music every year, and I’m still interested enough in new country artists that I’ll try most things at least once. One change in my habits this past year is that I haven’t actually paid for much music. It’s a trivial saving in the big scheme (over £200, though), but given that so much music is available for free on YouTube (and I’m talking official artist accounts as well as user-uploads), I’m just using a download utility. Rather than accumulate a mess of mis-labelled music, I always take the time to make the metadata as much as possible. I feel a little bit bad about this, but the music industry has done pretty well out of me for 40 years or so, and most of these artists are making their living playing live. YouTube is obviously seen as a loss-leader.

So. 208 songs (I’ve added the balance of Chris Stapleton’s From A Room Vol 2, which was released on December 1) in the 2017 playlist. But how many of them will still have 4 stars or more in a couple of years?

They come from around 25 albums, which means I’ve acquired a couple of albums per month this year. In the 2016 playlist, there are still 192 songs, from around 20 albums. Not a bad hit rate, though only 15 of them have been awarded 5 stars, making them keepers.

In the 2015 list, there are just 77 songs remaining, from around 10 albums, give or take. So 2015 looks like one of the off years, suggesting that 2017 might see a similar falling away.

2014 was definitely an on year. There still remain 118 songs from 13-15 albums.

The last year for which I retain a smart playlist is 2013, which still has 40 songs from 11-ish albums. Only 6 have been awarded the coveted 5-star rating. But back then, I was still paying for most of my music, whereas my new status as a freeloader means I’m downloading stuff I would never have paid for.

But how much music has been rejected from each year? That’s the true test, right? So, the total number of tracks in my iTunes library with 2013 as a release date is 354. The 40 survivors represent the top 11%.

2014: 440 total, so the 118 survivors represent 27%.

2015: 274 total. 77 survivors represent 28%.

2016: 318 total. 192 survivors = 60%

2017: 208/218 = 95%.

Turns out, 2017 was a below-average year for new music acquisition, demonstrating, perhaps, the difference between just clicking a “Purchase” button and consciously taking the time to download and edit metadata. This is not to say that I haven’t added stuff released in prior years, but I’m not going far down that rabbit hole (the answer is 354). I don’t imagine this 95% situation will last long, so we’ll have to see what starts to irritate me when it comes on in the car.

TP 🎸 💘 💔

I was always faintly embarrassed by the Flying V guitar in the logo of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. I associated the Flying V with cheesy early 70s glam rock, which was never my thing, and it was difficult, in that heyday of punk rock and amateur cut-up graphic design, to deal with that elaborate logo. It’s not even a good design, for a guitar. Too much wood, too much weight, a back-ache on a strap.

But Tom Petty was a lifeline to me. I was 14 in 1977, the Year of Punk, and standing firm against peer pressure to betray my true love, which was 60s rock, especially the kind with melodies and literate lyrics. My schoolfriends were beginning to buy albums, and there was a certain amount of scrabbling to prove something or other about how hip and happening you were. One kid had gone from extolling the virtues of Queen and their boast of “no synthesisers” the year before to popping into Woolies on our school camping trip to the Wye Valley in order to buy The Damned’s first album. It wasn’t that the pressure was hard to resist; it was just that I was continually called upon to justify my retro tastes. You wanted an answer to the inevitable question, a quick and easy, no-arguments answer, but it was hard to come by, because Modern Music Was Rubbish.

In 1977, I was in the first flush of my Beatles obsession, and exploring the thin pickings of the singles and albums around the house. It’s amazing to think, now, but the Beatles had only been split for 7 years back then: there were still regular reunion rumours, and for the next few years there would be “sightings” of the reclusive Lennon as well as compelling documentaries like Tony Palmer’s All You Need is Love and Rutland Weekend Television’s All You Need is Cash. I didn’t like Queen, and I’d always preferred Slade to T-Rex, and I really didn’t like Bowie. Over those years I discovered music that I would love for the rest of my life: the Mick Taylor Stones (but not the Brian Jones); The Who; the 1969 Velvet Underground; Bruce Springsteen with Max on drums; Bob Dylan; Buddy Holly; 60s girl groups (various); ’53-66 Frank Sinatra. Tried and rejected: Pink Floyd, Hawkwind, The Doors, Roxy Music, and many more. But there was always a feeling, ridiculous in hindsight, that the music I was listening to was old and unfashionable and out of touch. The seven-years-gone Beatles seemed like they came from an era as distant as music hall. I didn’t much care, but I did have the feeling that I needed something I could point to and say, see, there is some of your modern music. 

But I didn’t like that stuff that sounded like one chord being slid up and down a fretboard, with frantic thrashing, with guitars held around your knees, with gobbing and moshing. A certain type of (sexually repressed?) bloke will manufacture excuses to be in close quarters and sweating with a bunch of other blokes: not my thing. I liked Jonathan Richman’s second attempt at recording ‘Roadrunner’, but not the first.

The difference between that thrashy punk stuff and the New Wave of British Heavy Metal seemed to simply come down to musicianship, and I didn’t like either. I still think that Never Mind the Bollocks sounds like an overproduced heavy metal album.

Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers performed “Anything That’s Rock ’n’ Roll” on Top of the Pops in 1977. For me, Top of the Pops was a dire desert of disco and bubblegum, occasionally leavened by the presence of something half-decent. As thin as they sounded, with their re-recorded BBC version (because TotP was going through one of its periodic all-music-must-be-performed-live phases), they were still the most exciting thing I’d seen on there for years. And then, even better, I caught them performing  “American Girl” on the Old Grey Whistle Test in 1978. And I finally had an answer to an —incredibly, at the time — frequently asked question: don’t you like any modern music?

Of course, Petty’s sound was rooted in 60s rock, jangly guitars and all, but his sensibility was pure, late 70s angst, and their look (at the time) at least nodded to current rock fashion. Their songs and albums were also fairly concise. None of the self-indulgent fat and bloat that would come to characterise the CD era. And, in 1979, they changed everything by releasing Damn the Torpedoes, which is at number one in my list of Best Albums of the 1970s. In those years, 1978-79, the old guard had responded to the new energy of punk new/wave with some good music. Lou Reed put out Street Hassle; the Stones put out Some Girls; The Who did Who Are You; Springsteen, who wasn’t really old guard, put out Darkness on the Edge of Town. But Damn the Torpedoes was one of those albums that you can honestly say has no filler, and still has an immediate, visceral, power to raise my heartrate. That drum sound!

The great thing about the Heartbreakers was that they almost always kept a sense of humour about what they were doing. They embraced the video age in the 80s, but their first compilation of these videos was full of sarcastic captions about Mike Campbell’s awkward guitar playing pose, and their Alice in Wonderland “Don’t Come Around Here No More” is a classic. And in the CD era, Petty would include such moments as the interval on Full Moon Fever, which advised the listener that this would have been the moment to get up and turn the record over.

I saw them play live as support act and then backing band for Bob Dylan, and it’s fairly telling that of the six times I saw Dylan live, that was the only one that didn’t leave me disappointed. And I took my whole family to see them play at the Royal Albert Hall in 2012. I don’t think any band, apart from The Who, has a better two-hour set. Talk about no filler. Springsteen would leave his audience disappointed if he played just two hours, but the Heartbreakers’ set was a fantastic and satisfying romp through the absolute highlights of thirty years, with road-hardened versions of all the best songs. Mike Campbell must have played that closing solo on the live version of “American Girl” thousands of times, but it was always a joyful surprise. Their Super Bowl half-time show, too, was exemplary, adapting to the special requirements of that occasion with sheer magic. And it was watching that Super Bowl show, with my skin prickling with anticipation, that I finally had to admit that I fucking love that Flying V guitar.