Childhood Canon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Uncommon People by David Hepworth (review)

coverI have David Hepworth to thank for my podcast habit. It was the flash of insight that went along with listening to an episode of The Word podcast several years ago: I realised that I could listen to people talking about The Beatles forever, and took a mere two-hour discussion in my stride. Whereas, I thought, mainstream radio might offer a 5-10 minute whiz-around of talking heads and that would be your lot. Not since John Lennon died had I been able to indulge myself in hours of nitpicking and train-spotting. Some podcasters apologise now and then for being a little too much inside baseball, but that, for me, is the whole point.

Uncommon People: The Rise and Fall of the Rock Stars 1955-1994 is Hepworth’s follow-up to 1971: Never a Dull Moment, which I reviewed a while ago. I ended up being underwhelmed by that book because I had little interest in the music being discussed (turns out that 1971 didn’t see much that I like released). I’m underwhelmed by Uncommon People for different reasons.

I just watched one of my favourite movies, Pleasantville, with one of my classes, and when it finished I told my students that I thought it was almost perfect bar two things. The first thing was that it had too many endings. The second was that, for a movie that uses colour as a metaphor for change and prejudice, it neglected to include any actual people of colour.

So here’s what’s wrong with Uncommon People. On the one hand, Hepworth has a tendency to labour the point. He was always the shouty one on the Word podcast, and it could start to get on your nerves. As an editor, I’m sure, he would be able to look at such writing and strike out the third-to-tenth ways in which he expresses the same idea. As an author, one suspects that each chapter needed to be a certain length, and he just couldn’t stop himself from adding just one more pithy way of explaining what he meant. This is the Too Many Endings problem.

When the material is familiar, this starts to grate. I’m sure there won’t be many people reading this who don’t know at least 50% of the lore herein. Which is a problem. Because what can Hepworth say about Bob Dylan, or the Beatles, or Elvis, that hasn’t been said many times before? And while we might enjoy sinking into the warm comfort of this history, it still reads a bit like Shouty Dave trying to bludgeon you with his point.

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This is a bit about Elvis that starts to labour the point

On the other hand, Uncommon People is a victim of rock’s historical sexism and tendency to think colour doesn’t matter. There are chapters on Janis Joplin, Bonnie Raitt (who I’d never describe as a rock star) and Madonna (likewise), and it opens of course with Little Richard and features Jimi Hendrix. But give or take Michael Jackson (not a rock star) and Bob Marley (*sucks teeth*), the subjects of each chapter are overwhelmingly white and male.

As to the idea that the breed died out after 1994 and Curt Cobain, I’m afraid I lost interest at least a decade before that. He argues that tech and Hip Hop took over from Rock after 1994, which may well be the case. The fact was, nobody was measuring sales properly before the 1990s, and it’s almost certainly the case that Country was bigger than Rock all along. I made the mistake of commenting to this effect on the Guardian review of this book and got shouted down. I didn’t feel like explaining that US charts are based on airplay not sales, and that the absence of Country in mainstream playlists doesn’t mean it’s not outselling other genres. Still, with this book, the idea of a rock star is the point. Sales don’t matter, popularity doesn’t really matter. What counts is the image and the attitude.

The conceit of the book is that he takes a single date for each year and tells a story about a particular star in that era. This allows him to cover Bob Dylan twice, for example, but his choices seem perverse and arbitrary all the same. Bob Dylan in 1961 was not a rock star (though I take the point that his reinvention of himself sets the template). Bob Dylan in 1986 is a rock star, but not really at his peak. Of Dylan the original rock star of 1965-66, or 1975-6, there’s nothing. The sheer charisma of Dylan in white face on the Rolling Thunder Revue tour is stunning.

As to the inclusion of obvious pop stars like Duran Duran, Jackson and Madonna, one wonders why they get in while others don’t. Obviously, everyone will have their own lists/ideas, but Tom Petty (an inspirational figure to many musicians who is name-checked and referenced in tons of songs) is mentioned only in passing. More, um, damningly, Damn the Torpedoes, which is objectively the best album of the 1970s isn’t even included in the end-of-chapter playlist for 1979. What’s up with that? It’s like doing a list for 1967 and ignoring Sgt. Pepper.

Anyway, this is a bit of a grind. Grinding your teeth through the over-egged pudding of some chapters, and grinding your way through chapters about insignificant nobodies later on. I borrowed from the library, so I’m not too disappointed.

Pepper @ 50

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Listening to John Roderick and Merlin Mann talk briefly about The Beatles (with more promised to come), I was prompted to write down my own thoughts. It’s fair to say that I started to listen to podcasts when I had the realisation that I could listen to two hours of people* talking about The Beatles forever, whereas the mainstream media would almost always consider a 10-minute segment in a 40-minute programme sufficient. My epiphany was that there is no such thing as too much of something to the true obsessive. That said, probably the most interesting thing I’ve heard related to the Sgt. Pepper anniversary this week was the World Service documentary, How Sgt Pepper Changed the World, of which more below.

Knowing that Roderick on the Line was going to actually discuss the 50th anniversary release of Sgt Pepper, I went out and bought the new “stereo remix”, which is a hyped up way of selling you a package and no doubt renewing some mechanical copyright. How many times have I bought it now? Three times, at least, which is not as many times as I’ve bought The River, but close. As to hearing a difference, well. I’ve got nothing to play it on, really. I can play it in the car, or through the TV speaker board via the blu-ray player, or I can rip it into iTunes and listen on headphones via my phone — but I’m not going to hear any significant differences. Low end? What? My ears can’t reach down there.

I bought my first copy about 12 years after it was originally released. Prior to that, I’d only heard those tracks from it that were included on the Blue 1967-1970 album, which was the first record I ever bought. In an intense period between the ages of 14 and 16, I bought the whole (then available) Beatles catalogue, which included some dodgy Hamburg recordings, the Hollywood Bowl live LP and a boxed set of their singles. I then became known as The Beatles Guy at school, and a number of people borrowed the albums from me to tape them. Jennifer Hargreaves returned at least one of them with chocolate in the grooves.

There was a certain amount of surprise and delight in opening the Sgt Pepper package. The eye-poppingly colourful gatefold portrait, the glossy finish, the cardboard cutouts. This was matched by the colour 8×10 portraits and the lyric poster that came with The Beatles (white album), and counterbalanced by the disappointment of both Abbey Road and Let it Be, which came with nowt. You get about 1/10th of that surprise and delight in a CD-sized package.

Merlin said, upfront, that he did not consider Sgt Pepper their best work (though his recent tweets indicate something of a reassessment). But it is by now a common enough thing for a fan to say. My own firm favourite has always been Beatles for Sale, and if you made me pick a Late Period record, I would plump for The Beatles or Abbey Road, depending on my mood. A lot of fans prefer Revolver, and I can see why. Lennon is stronger on that one than he is on Pepper, but while I can appreciate “Tomorrow Never Knows” on an intellectual level, I fucking hate listening to it, and I think quite a lot of the album is insubstantial and half-baked in a way that the stuff on Pepper wasn’t. And “Taxman” is such a Tory song. Sure, the top rate of tax in 1966 was 98%, but Britain was a better country for it, producing stuff like, oh, Sgt. Pepper, for example. Bless him, but George could come across as overly concerned with material goods, and he did a lot of moaning in his songs.

Like The Beatles themselves, Sgt. Pepper is greater than the sum of its parts. A handful of the tracks stand out, but the album’s cohesion (notwithstanding Lennon’s dismissal of it) is what makes it exceptional. There’s talk that George Martin regretted the convention that didn’t allow them to include “Penny Lane” and “Strawberry Fields Forever”, but I think they’d have tipped the balance. It may have been wishful thinking, fairy dust, smoke and mirrors, but Sgt. Pepper is its own thing. It works.

It mostly works as a conversation between generations, with The Beatles acting as media. Which is to say, Sgt Pepper is a message from the Baby Boomers to the Greatest Generation, via four War Babies in the guise of a fictional band which itself straddles the period covered by recorded popular music.

It’s the in betweenness of Sgt Pepper that makes it great. The Beatles could always do this: they could do end of the pier, they could do variety and music hall, and they could do sweaty rock ’n’ roll. Sgt Pepper rolls it all together, and that’s its genius. I hate “When I’m Sixty-Four” as a song, but on the album it’s perfect. It’s the turn of phrase, mostly from McCartney (but Lennon to an extent), who manages to perfectly reproduce the vernacular in song. “She’s Leaving Home” captures the voice of the quintessential Daily Mail reader, whose bewildered, passive-aggressive response to their daughter leaving home is met with the apparently impenetrable blandness of “she is having fun”, a four word phrase which contains a generation gap so wide that the Daily Mail still hasn’t managed to cross it.

Meanwhile, Lennon perfectly captures the Andy Capp voice of The Mirror, with “Nothing to say but what a day, how’s your boy been?” And you keep hearing such lines throughout, turns of phrase that transport you back to black-and-white, shillings-and-pence, garden-fence Britain, when there were still people living in WW2 prefabs, and you could smoke on the top deck of the bus, and people saved up for things instead of just buying them on credit.

And the Beatles are in between the prefabs and Carnaby Street, between Andy Capp and Oz, between Morecambe and Wise and Art Happenings. Musically, they’re between John Philip Sousa’s marches and hard rock. They’re the static in the wires, the parasite on the message, talking about ‘taking tea’ with a knowing wink, or drifting off into a dream after smoking something, offering parody and sincerity in the same breath. They’d do it again with their Boxing Day film of that same year, Magical Mystery Tour, with fish and chips all round and tank tops muddled in with the walruses and fools on the hill. That same mix of end of the pier fish and chips mixed with hard rock would show up again in Tommy the following year.

It’s fair to say that Lennon was struggling on this album, as he himself admitted. The chip on his shoulder, and his paranoia about whose fucking band it was, and his general demeanour of being a bit of a dick caused him to piss all over the legacy of The Beatles in his 1970 Rolling Stone interview. And even later on, when he was slightly more mature, he still didn’t really like it because it was “mostly Paul”, and he felt under pressure, scrabbling to keep up with McCartney’s prodigious creativity. I think he looked back on that period and remembered the flop sweats and not the actual music. And it’s so infuriating that he died before he could finally grow up properly and escape from his ego trap. Sure, he was taking too much acid, but his dismissive recollection of Pepper as ‘A Day in the Life and that’s it’ was way off beam. As to his contribution to the album, it’s still significant, even if his own memory was faulty. The dour refrain on ‘She’s Leaving Home’, as well as his own songs.

As to the year he had, between the end of 1966 and 1967, and in spite of his flop sweats, he contributed ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’, ‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds’, ‘A Day in the Life’, ‘All You Need is Love’ and ‘I Am the Walrus’. Not bad for a struggler.

The only song on Pepper I still can’t really listen to is ‘Within You Without You’, not because of the Indian sounds, but because of George’s dreary voice singing that endlessly dreary melody. And if there’s anything that doesn’t fit with the music hall vibe or the snapshot of mid-60s British culture, it’s that one track, which screams out to be skipped.

One thing Merlin pointed out was that The Beatles were working in an atmosphere of being constantly dismissed by the hipsters of their time, and written off by the British Press, who had been asking the question, Are The Beatles finally over? since 1963, and would go on asking it until 1971, when they switched to, Will The Beatles ever get back together? Even now, if Macca and Ringo are set to appear on the same stage, The Guardian rolls out a Surviving Beatles to Reunite headline.

Every single, every album, was reviewed by the music press as a certain flop. People had been waiting for them to fail in much the same way that the tech press are (now) waiting for Apple Inc. to fail. Meanwhile, ‘serious music fans’ were getting into Hendrix and the Floyd, or spray painting Clapton is God in underpasses. The Beatles were a pop band, and nobody had heard a note they’d played live since 1962. Sgt Pepper was similarly dismissed, but it was too important and too powerful and too good to be damaged by bad press. That the Daily Mail have always been negative about The Beatles is proof of their brilliance.

Most of all, the album raised consciousness, creating the conditions that allowed others — in many fields, and all around the world — to experiment and succeed or fail on their own merits. I still think it’s incredible that these four individuals, this alchemical combination of introverts and extroverts, were able to produce music of such artistry and genius as a group, when later on, as solo artists, they only sporadically managed to produce a similar spark. Whatever John said later, about not really liking The Beatles, the answer should always have been, ‘But John, your solo stuff is rubbish in comparison. You know that, right?’

Never before, never since. Nothing like them. 1960s Britain. 98% tax.

* Usually Middle aged blokes (sadly).

Notes on Shit Town

Now, I’ve had enough, my box is clean

You know what I’m sayin’ and you know what I mean

From now on you’d best get on someone else

While you’re doin’ it, keep that juice to yourself

Odds and ends, odds and ends

Lost time is not found again

Bob Dylan, “Odds and Ends”

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Spoilers for S-Town below.

Since the original Serial (and consider this your regular reminder that I listened to it before you did), podcasting has exploded all over again into a smorgasbord of true crime, true stories, true documentaries, true meditations and true history.

Serial itself spawned an array of spin-off shows, with mixed results. The original Adnan Syed / Hae Min Lee story was continued and given more detail and depth by the Undisclosed crew, who (notwithstanding patchy production quality) managed to bring a nitpicking legal rigour to the story that led to a landmark court case. It’s fair to say that Adnan wouldn’t have got his post-conviction hearing without the tireless work of people who picked up the thread abandoned by Serial, once it had reached its concluding shrug of a final episode.

Then there was Serial season 2, which focused on a case (Bowe Bergdahl’s desertion of his post in Afghanistan) that had far less global resonance, and in the end a lot less human interest than they’d perhaps hoped. It too ended on an inconclusive note, and perhaps people started to yearn for a less open-ended style of podcast. It must be hard being Serial.

Meanwhile, true crime stories spring up all over the place, and the recent Missing Richard Simmons tried to create a fascinating mystery over the abrupt retirement of a minor celebrity. Again, the global recognition wasn’t there, and I’m afraid Missing Richard Simmons (which credited three production companies) was being hyped by certain media organisations trying to muscle in on the success of podcasting. (Stitcher)

The second season of Undisclosed was a salutary lesson for the Serial people. Rather than casting the net wider, it focused on another potential miscarriage of justice, this time in a small town in Georgia. Giving the people what they want, in other words. The case of Joey Watkins lifted the lid on the petty jealousies and rivalries of a small community, and gave an insight into the aimless and violent lives of American teenagers living on the edge. It demonstrated the sad poverty of outlook and opportunity in such towns, and how ordinary teenage angst and upset can lead to deadly violence in the land of the gun. It also revealed how easy it is to end up rotting in jail, all avenues of appeals used up, even though nobody believes anymore that you committed the crime for which you’re in.

Counting against this second season, however, was the nitpicking detail brought to the case by the team of lawyers, which dragged the narrative into the weeds of 24 episodes. It turns out that 8-10 episodes is a sound length for a pod-umentary. Very few people can stick the course for the full 24.

Which brings us to what might have been Serial Season 3, but which instead has been spun off into its own brand: S-Town, or Shit Town. All seven episodes dropped at once.

It’s focused on the petty jealousies and rivalries of a small town in… Alabama. At the beginning, it seems to focus on a possible murder and possible miscarriage of justice (in the form of a cover-up). It features a colourful, larger-than-life character who is flamboyantly (probably) gay in a redneck community, not unlike the missing Richard Simmons had been when he was young. So it seemed to be a mash-up of the original Serial, the second season of Undisclosed, and even Missing Richard Simmons.

But then things take a turn.

At first, as I listened, I thought this was going to be a meditation upon what you might call Broken America, the Deep South of grinding poverty, not just in economic terms, but cultural and aspirational poverty, which manifests itself in racism, sexism, Trumpism. What would it be, the show seemed to be asking, to be an intelligent, educated, liberal in a small town to the south and west of Birmingham, Alabama? And are there corrupt police, and senseless violence and cover-ups and favours and sexual assaults, and a disproportionate number of child abusers?

Then came the turn, and the show became instead about the death by suicide of an individual who seemed complex and strange, a puzzle of a man whose contradictory personality seemed to be embodied in the hedge maze he’d created on his land, a labyrinth with multiple solutions. Who was this man? Was he a millionaire, or was he broke? Did he have gold buried on his land? Did he leave a will? If he hated tattoos, why did he have so many of them? Who are all these people who claim ownership of his stuff?

So then it was about that: a still-interesting, but perhaps smaller story of a life lived in a small town, of a man so depressed at the state of the world that he couldn’t bear it any more, and all the people whose lives he touched.

And then, I think, as I listened to the sixth and then seventh episodes, I came full circle, and decided that the show was about Broken America, and that the central metaphor of the podcast was not this man, or his maze, or his gold, but his profession: clock restorer.

The show’s opening episode talks about the marks left on old clocks by the people who make and repair them: witness marks. And by the end, you understand that this “deep dive” into the intimate life of a lonely and depressed middle-aged man is all about looking for the witness marks of a well-lived life, but also about thinking back to the lost time that is not found again. And then there’s the lost America, the great democratic experiment, which has descended into a mere sketch of the country of Benjamin Franklin and Frederick Douglass.

As America sinks into its swamp of wilful ignorance and denial of reality, here is the story of a man, a modern-day Ben Franklin, an inventive polymath and raconteur, who tried to face up to the truth but who gave in to despair. And, at this time, at this precise moment, we are all facing this choice. Whether you consider climate change, which is being officially denied by America’s new buffoon of a president; or Brexit; or the erosion of the tax base and the end of social cohesion: there are a great many reasons to despair. And here is a show about a man who got lost in the maze of that despair and then gave into it and killed himself. And the question is, what do we do? How do we bear witness to our times and also live through them?

Some Podcasts worth a listen

The Guardian, in typical, desperate old-media fashion, have published an article entitled 50 Podcasts You Need to Hear, which is just inviting a punch to the face. So here are some podcasts you might find interesting if you like that sort of thing.

  • 2 Dope Queens (WNYC) – Phoebe Robinson and Jessica Williams host standup which is more inclusive of women and minorities than you get from the mainstream. Funny.
  • Afoot! (Incomparable) – a mystery genre focused podcast hosted by the affable Glenn Fleishmann with a roster of guests. So far, the team have discussed Marple, classic radio mysteries, Sherlock Holmes – and the latest episode is about Veronica Mars.
  • The Eddie Mair Interview – the only thing I miss about listening to Radio 4 live is Eddie Mair on PM. This programme features him interviewing one guest – and you get a longer slice than you do on the radio.
  • Sophomore Lit (Incomparable) – a discussion show hosted by John McCoy with a roster of guests which is focused on those books you had to read at school or college.
  • TV Talk Machine (Incomparable) – in these times of confusion™ of too much TV™, how do you sort through the merely okay for the stuff that’s really worth watching? How do you keep up with the unbelievable quantity of scripted TV that is now in the world (and who would have seen that coming when ITV shares were down at 37 pence?). TV Talk Machine is the answer. Hollywood Reporter critic and Jason Snell will keep you up to date.
  • Here’s The Thing with Alec Baldwin (WNYC) – another interview show, with a single guest per episode, hosted by the gravel-voiced Baldwin. He does tend to ask a second question before his guest has answered the first, but that’s only because he’d so interested.
  • The Incomparable Game Show – my second favourite podcast, this. A rotating series of different games, from panel and quiz shows to family parlour games and tabletop adventure games, the usual Incomparable suspects play ’em all. They often *cough* borrow *cough* show formats from times gone by. Whatever your opinion of the original shows, the podcast version is guaranteed funnier. My favourite is the nerd quiz Inconceivable, which could surely find a spot in the mainstream, but they’re all very enjoyable.
  • My Favourite Album with Jeremy Dylan – documentary maker and music industry insider speaks to a variety of musicians about their favourite record. Not always going to be your cup of tea, but most of the time, an interesting interview.
  • Reconcilable Differences (Relay FM) – My favourite in the ‘two blokes talking about stuff’ genre, the chalk-and-cheese combination of the friendly, easygoing Merlin Mann and the hypercritical and uptight John Siracusa is an excellent listen. Starting from the premise of answer the question, How did we come to be this way? this show takes in a wide range of topics, from family and film to drugs and cars, and really digs into them. This is the podcast I would make if I made a podcast. Long.
  • Robot or Not? (Incomparable) – the antidote to long podcasts, the same John Siracusa sits with Jason Snell and delivers a verdict on the most vexed question of our times: is it a robot, or not? Short.

Sneerial: Season 2

nn_01_jmi_berghdahl_140602I deliberately didn’t post an instant response when Serial Season 2 started. Those who listened to Season 1 from the very beginning were obviously hanging on the release of the new season, and the temptation to react hotly, instantly, and disappointedly (Prometheus style) was strong. I wanted to give it a chance.

On its own terms, Season 2, about Private First Class Bowe Bergdahl, was okay. It’s a high quality production from the same team and it’s not doing anything wrong, per se. But it doesn’t hold the fascination that the miscarriage of justice featured in Season 1 does. Bergdahl deserted his US Army military post in Afghanistan, got captured by the Taliban, and was held captive for five years, but his story didn’t chime with me. He’s certainly a bit of an odd character, but I don’t care about him, nor about the Americans’ misadventures in war.

While the Adnan Syed case was unknown to almost everyone outside Greater Baltimore, the Bowe Bergdahl case was more notorious – at least to some. To be honest, it was as new a story to me as the Season 1 story was, but I’m aware by now that it has been widely discussed in the media, and certain presidential candidates have weighed in with their opinions. I don’t know what other choices they had, but it seems odd to have gone for this.

So there’s that: the sense that Season 2 was raking over ground already ploughed by Big Media, which made it less gripping. Season 1 worked because it shone a spotlight onto a single murder case in a city that sees a couple of hundred homicides a year. In other words, there had been another 2800 homicide cases in that city alone since Syed was jailed. Picking his case out of thousands and making it such compelling listening was a great feat of journalistic detective work, and made you, the listener, feel part of something special. Bowe Bergdahl’s case doesn’t have the same obscure fascination.

Then there’s what happened as Serial started to broadcast. Just as it was building up a head of steam, with weekly episodes at least being listenable and the details of the case starting to get a grip, they decided to swap to a fortnightly release schedule. Obviously, they had their reasons, but any momentum that Season 2 had gained was lost. And we’re up to 9 episodes now (the 10th is out this week), which means it must be nearing the end, but I just don’t feel the same level of anticipation. In fact, I barely notice its releases among all the podcasts I consume.

One interesting side effect of the slightly subdued reaction to Serial 2 has been that the ancillary podcasts that came into being around the original are struggling for relevance. Some, like Crimewriters on Serial just spun off and started to do more of their own thing (such as talking about Making a Murderer instead). The Bowe Bergdahl case didn’t really fit with the Crimewriters On theme, and anything else they discussed was of less interest to me (I didn’t think much of Making a Murderer), so I’ve unsubscribed. Meanwhile, Undisclosed has clearly come into its own when it comes to the Syed case, and has put forward more new evidence in its run than Serial ever managed. With the recent PCR hearing in Baltimore, Undisclosed remained on top of its detail-oriented game, while the Serial updates from the first few days of the PCR seemed detached and superficial.

Meanwhile Season 2 seems to meander around, poking into Bergdahl’s case in sometimes interesting ways, without ever feeling like it’s going anywhere important. While they could have gone for the military and foreign policy jugular, it feels to me like they’ve back pedalled, taking care not to offend the military industrial complex and their supporters.

So it’s a shame, but in retrospect, Serial 1 was something of a black swan, impossible to reproduce, and should have been left in its own unique category. In the meantime, its parent podcast, This American Life has lost a lot of its mojo and really misses those standalone episodes that Sarah Koenig used to produce.

After this showing, I’d be really surprised if Serial spawned a third season. It’s a shame, because now it will be remembered for a failure, which is neither fair nor just. Still, if it means Sarah Koenig is let loose on a wider variety of stories, it will be a blessing.

Mimi Music

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Mimi

I saw this app featured on the iOS App Store, and because I’m always on the look out for a viable alternative to the horrible Apple Music app, I downloaded it for a trial (it was free)

The premise of Mimi Music is that you also download the Mimi Hearing Test app, and then link your results to the app, which will tweak the EQ (I guess) of your music so that it sounds clearer to your ears without increasing the volume.

It seemed like a good idea, though some might see it as a bit of a gimmick. I’ve known for a long time that I’ve lost the highest frequencies from my hearing, so I was curious to both try the hearing test and then listen to the result. What the ‘gimmick’ crowd probably don’t get is that being able to listen at a medium volume rather than turning it up loud is better for long-term listening, likely to lead to less fatigue.

You need to be in a fairly quiet environment for testing your ears. Your headphones will only be on 50% and some of the sounds are very quiet, so if you’re sitting next to a washing machine on a cycle or a television set, the test won’t work.

I ran through both the mini test (which takes a couple of minutes) and then the longer one (which takes around ten), and then gave the phone permission to link the results to the Mimi Music app. The test consists of a series of tones played at various amplitudes and you respond by touching your phone’s screen when you (think) you can hear the tone. The highest frequency tested is only 8kHz, so you’re probably not going to hear anything beyond your range unless you have severe hearing loss. In terms of music, 8kHz is an extremely high pitched whine – the highest note on a piano/piccolo is around 4kHz. The lowest tone I remember hearing was around 200Hz, but I might be wrong about that. So when you’re talking about frequencies over 4kHz, it’s the harmonic overtones you might be missing, and I guess it’s the volume of these that Mimi Music might tweak to make music sound ‘brighter’ and ‘clearer’ (the usual caveats about visual metaphors applied to sound notwithstanding).

Anyway, the results surprised me. The test gave me ‘hearing age’ of 39, about 15 better than my actual age, with my right ear at around 98% (of perfect I assume) and my left at 91%. So I’m not as badly off as I thought. Where I do have issues is in the ‘conversational range’ which is somewhere between 1-3kHz, and there’s a distinct scoop in my graph at that point, explaining why I have problems hearing people speak against background noise (a common problem).

So then you listen back to your music through the app, adjust the slider to different levels of the ‘Mimi” effect, and see what you think.

It might be a gimmick, but through headphones my music definitely sounded clearer and brighter at the same volume. The headphones I used were an AKG on-ear model, but the app does warn you that the test is optimised either for the Apple earbuds or a pair of Sennheiser ‘phones. In my view, my AKGs were probably a match for the Sennheisers in terms of frequency response.

But I do have a number of quibbles with the Mimi Music app.

I don’t listen to all my music through headphones – in fact, I rarely do. Through speakers (a Bluetooth one in the house, or the ones in the car), the music does sound brighter, but you can also hear the tiny distortions caused by the algorithm. It’s not a deal-breaker, but this does seem to be an app that assumes you’re wearing headphones.

My second quibble is that, over time, your ears get used to the effect (of course) so it quickly becomes the new normal. You’re not really noticing it, but other people in the house or car (listening over the same speakers), might well be irritated by it, especially if they have much younger ears.

Thirdly, and more importantly, I found that playing music back from existing playlists was problematic. The app refused to play anything until it was added to the Mimi playlist, which is odd behaviour. It also showed a ‘locked’ icon next to any tracks bought before 2009 and couldn’t play them because of the DRM. Thanks, Apple. I also found that selecting songs was just as much of a pain in Mimi as it is in Apple music – its behaviours seem just as pointlessly malicious, not to mention that the playback controls were too fucking small and hidden down at the bottom of my huge iPhone screen. There’s also a distinct lag when you start the app and press Play – so much of a lag that you think you have mis-touched, and then hit the (tiny) Play button again, and again, until the music suddenly starts, then stops immediately, then starts etc.

Finally, here’s the current dealbreaker. The app uses a lot of battery power, even when running in the background with the screen off. I was using it just last night to play during dinner because we had a guest in the house and weren’t watching telly. And by the end of the evening, my phone was down to 30%, and 71% of the daily usage was down to Mimi’s background processing.

Sure, it’s doing maths on the music as it plays it back, but so is the built-in EQ in Apple Music. And so is Marco Arment’s Overcast podccatcher, which does both voice enhancement and ‘smart speed’, which strips out lengthy silences.

So on those very rare occasions when I do go out for a day and carry headphones to listen to music, I’m not going to be able to walk around with music playing through Mimi because my phone’s battery (which usually ends the day on 40% or higher) won’t last the day.

To be fair to the Mimi people, they did contact me on Twitter and say they’re working on the battery issue. But there are around 20 of them, whereas there’s just one of Marco, so c’mon! Priorities, people.

Anyway, your mileage, as they say, may differ, but if you do suffer from some kind of hearing difficulty, give it a go.