Posted in entertainment, music

When your heart grows cold and old

I was listening to a (back catalogue episode of) Roderick on the Line today, and he said an interesting thing about music and nostalgia.

We, he said, meaning people in their 40s and 50s, are the first generation who can listen to the music of our parents’ generation as easily as we can listen to our own. Can this be true? I’ll explain.

My parents were born in the 1930s, and the music collection they had when I was growing up came mostly from the 1950s and on. In other words, came from the era that they’d have been in their later teens and twenties. A collection of brittle 78s, a mostly-disappointing collection of vinyl LPs (with the notable exception of Sinatra), and some other stuff from the early 1960s that I’ve always assumed belonged in some sense to my older siblings.

But my father’s father, who was dead long before I was aware of anything: what was his music? No records survived. Even if he was in his 20s in the 1930s, that era of economic hard times, would he have even owned a record player? Or had the luxury of even being into music, in the modern sense? No records survive.

Similarly, I don’t recall ever seeing or hearing any music at my maternal grandmother’s house. My grandad had an old broken reel-to-reel tape recorder, but who knows what it was ever for?

Just now, I could hear my kid upstairs playing Buddy Holly, which is something I passed onto her. It’s interesting to hear her playing (over several days), Jonathan Richman, then the Velvet Underground, then Buddy Holly or the Everly Brothers. You can trace the line, you can hear the musical DNA. I listened to Buddy Holly myself because I wanted to know where the Beatles had come from, and because “Words of Love” was on Beatles for Sale, which was the Beatles album in our house.

When I listen to Sinatra, it’s also because there were a load of albums in the house when I was growing up (but, really, only two or three of them were of the right vintage, the rest were from the Reprise era, not the kind of thing I still listen to). So the Sinatra DNA was passed on, but I had to do my own work to obtain/discover the best material. My mother had Songs for Swingin’ Lovers and Come Fly With Me, but I never heard the superior A Swingin’ Affair until much later on.

So the kid upstairs, you might say, represents a third generation, who can listen both to the music of her parents, but also her grandparents. Does she have Sinatra on her iPhone? I think she does. How weird is that?

 

Posted in musings

Detox yer box

grapefruitwaterWhen people talk about detoxing, they’re usually referring to the idea of cleaning out your system by abstaining from something for a period of time, or by only eating one genre of food for a weekend or so. So a weekend drinking nothing but fruit juice, for example, or a (first two weeks of) January without alcohol.

Well, I’m here to tell you…

When I was investigating possible causes of my eczema (now confirmed by biopsy as such), I came across a reference to the idea that gluten intolerance might cause such a rash. Huh. So I gave up the gluten for two days. Ha ha! Classic detoxing.

No effect, so I went back to the wheat and carried on (literally) scratching my head as to the cause of me having to scratch my head.

But the doctor who performed the biopsy suggested that giving up gluten needed to happen over several weeks, and I later found a website which mentioned that it could take up to six months for any positive effects of giving up gluten to be felt.

Six months. Not six days, or a weekend, or even a whole January.

In the event, it took precisely 5 weeks for my near-constant itching to diminish and disappear, once I gave up gluten. And, six weeks into the experiment, I’ve been advised to continue it for another six weeks before cautiously reintroducing gluten-containing foods to see if the rash comes back.

In short, if you want to detoxify your body of Substance X, you have to detoxify it for an extended period of time before every last molecule of X leaves your system. This is most clear in the case of drug addiction. Giving up cigarettes for a day or two is easy. Giving them up forever is much harder, because the cravings can be present for weeks, or months. So juice purges or whatever dietary fad you’re following aren’t really achieving anything. As to what’s really going on inside, there’s an argument that says your liver, which is designed to naturally detox your body – that being its function – is working at peak efficiency when it is given something to work with. In other words, drinking (alcohol) moderately is better for you than not drinking at all.

Posted in Baking

Breakfast at Teffany’s?

gf-pizz-1I’ve been (trying to be) gluten free (GF) for four weeks now, and I’ve spent three weekends in a row experimenting with various ingredients to make baked goods and other things. I’ve also raided the supermarket shelves for GF items with mixed success.

Although some of the seeded breads are okay in small quantities, and as long as you toast them, I’ve been struggling to find something that hits the spot when it comes to spreading butter on it. I’ve thrown away one failed so-called bread and found that most of the shop-bought stuff has to be heavily adulterated to make it palatable. I tried a Warburton’s sliced brown loaf, for example, which I could only eat in the form of an egg/bacon sandwich or crisped up in olive oil as croutons, or smothered in (GF) welsh rarebit.

gf-cook-1This weekend it was the turn of Teff flour. Sainsbury’s sell a tiny (125g) pot of it in their GF section (Doves brand), which is barely enough to use in a single recipe. So I ordered some of this stuff, and used it this weekend to make the following:

  • Chocolate chip cookies
  • Pizza base
  • Crumpets/pikelets

I used the Doves teff flour last weekend to make the same cookies, but their recipe had water in it, which was bizarre. As with so many of these things, a lot of recipes and pre-packaged goods try to take into account multiple dietary needs. In this case, I guess they were avoiding egg as well as gluten. Well, this weekend, I made the recipe with an egg instead of 4 tbsp of water, and it was much better. The cookies held their shape well and were less crumbly. Teff flour (even this “wholegrain white”) has something of the texture of wholemeal wheat bread flour, so everything I make with it reminds me of some of the vegetarian recipes I’ve followed, which always include wholemeal flour when they could just as easily include white or sauce flour. So the cookies are pretty good, like standard cookies made with wholemeal, which makes me wonder about making digestive biscuits.

For the pizza base, I used 125g teff topped up to 150g with cornmeal for added crunch. The dough was very soft (softer than a cookie dough, looser than pastry) and nothing like traditional dough. So you have to push it into a tin by hand. I lined the tin with baking parchment because I’ve learned the hard way that gluten free stuff tends to stick more. After about two hours, I topped the base with the usual pizza toppings, and I baked it in a hot oven for about 15 minutes. The result was much better than my previous attempts (and those I’d bought in supermarkets). A crunchy crust that was quite palatable – you could convince yourself that you were eating a regular pizza made with wholemeal flour.

Onto the crumpets. Last weekend, I tried crumpets with Doves GF flour, but they ended up stodgy, without the right kind of texture. Disappointing, because Warburton’s GF crumpets are among the few bread products I’ve tried that are okay (if expensive, which is why I wanted to make my own). So I made the same recipe again, but swapping out half of the flour for teff. I also tweaked it by adding a bit more salt, more bicarbonate of soda and a hair more yeast. This time, the batter fermented very well, and the resulting crumpets taste good and have a good, aerated texture. In colour, they look yellower than regular crumpets.

After two batches of four, I was a bit fed up of the crumpets sticking to the rings (hard to get out because they were so hot), so I just cooked the rest of the batter as pikelets, which was perfect. In the future, I’ll not bother with the rings and I’ll just make batches of pikelets. These are great when warmed in the toaster and spread with butter. Nirvana!

gf-cook-1-1Other successes over the past couple of weeks:

  • Cake au jambon – a French style savory cake made with a jar of green olives and some bacon or ham. Works perfectly well with GF flour, and because it’s an enriched dough, it’s fairly indistinguishable from the original.
  • GF naan bread – while not as puffed up as regular naans, these were pretty good really, and went down well with a chicken curry.
  • GF dumplings – these were nothing like dumplings, but fairly close in nature to scones, or what the Americans call biscuits. We had something similar at school, and they called it beef cobbler.

gf-cook-2After all this, I think I can go forward, though I’m still obviously hoping that my possible gluten intolerance is not a thing, and I can go back to eating wheat. In terms of my eczema, the itching continues, four weeks into the experiment.

Posted in music, musings

Some of me Music

The Proper Stranger. My future brother-in-law got a 4-track cassette recorder, so we started meeting up on Wednesday evenings and recording songs that I’d written. The more we recorded, the more I wrote. It was me and my then best-friend at first, but after a while he gave up on it, probably feeling he was contributing nothing. He was the first one to even write a song, which started me off. Once you realise you can do it yourself: oh. But then he didn’t write any more at all, and I was coming up with a new one (or more) every week. It turned out that, on tape, we sounded very similar anyway.

There’s a drum machine, Curly (Mark Ridout) on backing vocals and guitar, and Pete Austin on on bass. I think I’m just singing on this one. We didn’t have access to Curly very often. We put his amp in the bath for the rhythm part.

Is It Any Wonder? My first song, which was recorded for the 1984 cassette release Mr Mystery/The Proper Stranger, and then for our 1985 EP, Welcome to Weston-Super-Mare. This was recorded onto an 8-track, then pressed onto 500 vinyl 45 rpms. We had to speed up the tempo so we could fit all the songs we wanted on. Thinking back, my major influence at the time was probably Jonathan Richman. The idea was a kind of cool detached, pastiche/homage to old rock ’n’ roll, singing with a smile on my face. That cool detachment is the central characteristic. No real emotion, except that which might be evoked by the lyrics, if you cared. I hated the drum machine sound, and when we played live we had a real drummer (Olivier, who was half French), but we didn’t have the facilities to record a real drum kit. That’s Curly on lead guitar and Pete on bass again.

Sway. About five years after we started the recording project, I ended up with a lot of Pete’s equipment in my back bedroom. By this time it was an 8-track reel-to-reel and a mixing desk. I wrote this one about a girl I was seeing, Sarah, and recorded it just on acoustic guitar in that back room. A few years later, when I was experimenting with computer recording for work purposes (which is how I ended up getting back into it), I got hold of an Adrenalinn, a kind of drum machine, with guitar delay effects. You plugged your guitar in, and it created textures and rhythms based on the drum pattern. So I played “Sway” through it, and then my work friend Simon played some whale sounds on his guitar.

Latest News. I’d started teaching Media Studies, and I wrote this song, which wasn’t based on anything real, just all the different media I was thinking about. It takes you through from news and the BBC and the internet through radio and magazine articles, and then a film. And I recorded it with a selection of the instruments I’d begun to accumulate, and Roy played some guitar on it. His is the laid back rhythm in the left channel. At the time I had a Variax, which had the banjo sound on it, and I had an Ovation mandolin which was pretty cool.

You Don’t Belong. When I was in my early 20s, songs were like diary entries. I would take real emotional stuff that was happening and turn it into simple little songs that didn’t sound like anything much (emotional detachment being my watchword). When I went back to writing songs in my 30s and 40s, I had to dig down deep into memories. This was written about my ex-best friend, and his habit of creating legends about his life, the kind of bullshit I eventually tired of. I saw him from my car once, filling up his motorbike at a petrol station on the A5. It was about 15 years after he’d bored my tits off with his fantasies about emigrating to Australia. And there he was in Northampton, with his characteristic sloped shoulders and his motorbike. Went home and wrote this. Some of the recordings are so vivid I can remember recording every instrument.

The Conversation. In the 80s, I wrote a short story, and then I turned it into a kind of epic poem, which I turned into a song. I used to perform it at poetry readings. It was long and full of detail, quite funny. And then about 15 years later, the original long forgotten, I wrote a 3-minute version of it, what I could remember of it. I still like the guitar on this, and the flow of the lyrics. And every time he repeats. “the one I’d always loved” the meaning changes, until you know he’s singing about how he always picks on unavailable women. Story of my life.

And Then You Fall. This and “You Don’t Belong” were my first experiments with piano sounds. I’d got some kind of amazing plug-in software piano that sounded great. So I started programming one chord at a time into the software and then building on them. I’m also pleased with this because what sounds like some kind of mandolin solo is actually a guitar solo recorded at half-speed and then played back at normal speed. Pete plays bass on this. And then there’s an actual mandolin on there somewhere. I’d edit this to make it shorter if I did it again.

Outside My Window. In my teens, I was kind of in love with my then best-friend’s girlfriend, Linda. I was eaten up with jealousy, which I would never admit to myself of course. I was horrible to her and ended up deliberately cutting her out of my life, hoping all the time that she would say something and we could have it out. But before I did that, we were very close. When I left home and lived in Kent for a while, she wrote to me at least once a week. And she came down to stay one weekend, and we spent a couple of precious days together without him around. I wrote this song about that weekend, and the rest of it. I piled too many instruments into the mix, but it kind of fits because of all the emotions I piled into that relationship. I would get snippets of news about her from him, when I could casually ask without making it seem obvious that I really wanted to know. But he lost touch with her himself in the end, so I lost that lifeline. I regret this almost as much as not being able to whistle with my fingers.

Saturday Night. This has a lazy tempo, but I like it, especially the line, “All those eight o’clock girls, trying to straighten their curls…” Another song aimed at my introverted younger self, for whom Saturday nights in the Saracen’s Head in Dunstable were a form of torture. Fake it for fuck’s sake.

Walking Shoes. I was just playing with song arrangements on this, copying that of a record I liked. This is another “digging deep” one, written about a girl I liked when we worked together in Bejam in Dunstable. She really did used to frighten old men, Juliet. This is a phase when I was capable of some decent guitar because I’d been playing so much.

Everything. You can tell all the ones recorded about the same time: had my Orange guitar amp, and was just recording the sound straight from it. Play with some chords, make up some words. Whoever this was about? Lost in the mists.

Without You. I think I aimed this at my younger self, and the stupid games I used to play when trying to get women interested (qv “Outside My Window”, above). One of the last times I recorded with the mandolin, which I was too rubbish to play properly.

Yours Faithfully. One of the last things I ever did was February Album Writing Month (FAWM), in 2009, maybe? You write 14 songs in 28 days. Easy! Except I never did much justice to the recordings, focusing too much on working quickly. Also, most of my good software wasn’t working anymore, so I had a much more limited set of sounds. But this one I liked, because of the bits about, “There is no ex in loneliness, etc.” It’s about being dumped by text, which people were doing by then, it says here. I used pitch-changing software to add the backing vocal.

Tell Me a Movie. This is another one kind of based on a short story I wrote. This was a FAWM song. Again, I didn’t do the recording justice, and the vocal is not the best. I’m embarrassed by it really, but I still like the idea behind the song. Always thought there were too many verses but couldn’t bear to cut one.

Little Red Riding Hood. As best I can remember, this was the last one I wrote and recorded. Just messing around with different sounds by this stage. One of a series written about my younger, hopeless self. Sold the amp after this, and the electric guitar, which about two years later the kids were really annoyed about.

Posted in Books, musings, Publishing, Review, Writing

Last Year by Robert Charles Wilson

bdd04d_9e31b247d83045dca8fa43475cbff922While not ever quite reaching the heights of his very best work, RCW has been putting out a book every year or so that is readable, interesting, and entertaining. If you offered me, say, something of the quality of Spin or The Chronoliths every two or three years; or something decent like The Affinities or Burning Paradise  on a more regular basis, I’d have to think hard. Wilson’s stock in trade is the technological sublime: a technology that humans do not quite understand that nevertheless has profound influence on human culture. In Last Year, the technology is The Mirror, a kind of time portal that allows you to visit the past of a world that is similar to your own, but not the same world (so that any changes you introduce do not affect your own time line).

What’s it about?  The attempted assassination of Ulysses S. Grant, transtemporal gun smuggling, horses and helicopters, tasers and tong wars, the luxury resort industry, two Gilded Ages in a violent confrontation, and the nature of time itself.

This allows Wilson to take us into Julian Comstock territory, with a protagonist who is an 1870s drifter, whilst mixing in 21st century types  such as a security chief who is both a US army veteran and a woman; or an Elon Musk (or is it Donald Trump) type leader who seems okay at first but later reveals his true nature.

The City of Futurity appears in the mid-western 1870s, offering locals a tour of the attractions in the world to come (amid tight security preventing actual time travel) and visitors from the 21st century a vacation in the Gilded Age, the post civil war United States, a country on the eve of electricity, the phonograph, radio, and moving pictures. Except, spoilers: anything the 19th Century can produce pales into insignificance next to the wonders on display in Tower Two.

Some locals are hired to work security, including Jesse Cullum, a man on the run from his violent and traumatic past in San Francisco. Cullum inadvertently comes to the attention of his bosses as being especially competent, and he’s given additional duties: tracking down smuggled contraband (Glock handguns, iPhones and solar chargers) and chasing runners: people from the 21st who decide they want to live in the land of no indoor plumbing and no antibiotics.

Jesse is partnered with Elizabeth DePaul, former soldier, single mother, and they explore each other’s worlds, cautiously but earnestly, knowing there’s no future in it. She comes from a different timeline; he’s got a past.

Someone goes missing; someone starts sending messages to downtrodden groups, informing them of the shitty deal they’re about to get from history, and it all kicks off.

Is there a metaphor here? Twin towers representing the future and commerce, aligned against forces of superstition, bigotry and ignorance. Is there hope in the future? Can we overcome our own histories and find a better world?

Probably.

Hard to put down, I finished it too quickly (as usual), and now I guess I’m waiting for something coming out in 2018

Posted in bastards, musings

Shut down, log off, fade away

Mini DV TapeWe are surrounded by digital ephemera.

A while ago now, I reactivated the Facebook account (total of friends = 1), just so there would be one place on the internet where you could find me by my actual name. My timeline consisted almost entirely of my Instagram feed. But I hate Facebook, always have, and as Zuck appears to be preparing to run for office (as a Republican, according to one thing I read), it’s time to kill it. So that’s gone.

I still use Instagram. Although owned by Facebook, it’s fairly harmless, and since I stopped using Flickr (destroyed by Yahoo), it’s the only place I upload photos. But my finger does hover over the button sometimes.

I was attempting to put together a Photos book for 2016 the other day, and I had an enormous number of those red warning triangles, because the “original image could not be found”. Massive database corruption in my Photos library – perhaps caused by my use of CleanMyMac. The photos are there – I can export them and re-import them and fix the triangle issue – but the application doesn’t know they’re there. So that is a massive pain in the arse, and brings to stark relief the eternal problem of what is going to become of all our digital photos in 5–10 years. Apart from low-resolution uploads on early Flickr, I’ve got whole clusters of photos missing.

This came up again when I was rewatching my kids’ childhood DVDs a while ago. A couple of years have gone missing, and one of the DVDs wouldn’t play (though I managed to rip the file off it). I noticed an old MiniDV camcorder at work the other day, which nobody (probably) is ever going to use, and it reminded me that I have a case full of MiniDV tapes with my kids’ (unedited) childhoods on, and I have nothing to play them on.

Digital ephemera. We live in a streaming world. Timelines flick by, news churns 24 hours a day, people are up in arms about one thing after another, ricocheting between issues of import and issues of no import as if it were all the same.

I spent half an hour this morning unfollowing a bunch more people on Twitter. People I like and respect, even admire, but I cannot bear to read their political and news tweets, because they make me feel impotent with outrage, powerless, depressed. Muting keywords doesn’t work because things always leak through, and in the end I came to the conclusion that, for the foreseeable future and for my own sanity, I’ll probably end up unfollowing most of the Americans on my feed, and many more besides.

I’ve said it before: complaining on Twitter achieves nothing; the people you need to reach are not on there; it’s not a substitute for activism. Twitter is for jokes, for people-watching, for aphorisms, art, wit, photos, videos, all of that digital ephemera. But it’s not for politics or climate change, or bringing down capitalism or fighting nazis. People get mad about stuff, sure, but never so mad that they put down their phones and do anything.

 

Posted in bastards, movies, Review

Swallows and Amazons (2016)

photoThis 2016 adaptation of Arthur Ransome’s first S&A book sank without trace as far as I was concerned. I remember reading about the pointless name change from Titty to Tatty, which smacked of the kind of asinine decision that gets made when there are six separate production companies involved. How anything gets made with so many captains on deck, I don’t know.

I rented it on iTunes, and watched with a kind of fascinated horror – mixed with tearful nostalgia for the books I read as a boy and the 1974 film adaptation (which, for the record, had one production company and one distributor). That version featured my schoolboy crush, Kit Seymour, as the “Ruthless” Nancy Blackett, an actress who appears to have been plucked from obscurity, immortalised on celluloid, and then forgotten by posterity. The children in the 1974 film were, for the most part, cast for their ability to handle a boat rather than their training at some stage school. They were clearly non-actors and yet, for all that, were natural enough in their parts. The magic of film is that you only have to capture that one good take.

To be fair to 2016 Swallows and Amazons, then, it couldn’t hope to compare to that slice of my childhood, even if it had stuck to the fucking plot. But these charlatans, these bunglers, couldn’t even do that. Alarm bells begin to ring almost immediately, in the sequence featuring the children travelling up to the Lake District. There’s some nonsense involving men chasing each other around on the train. It’s as if a drunk editor was editing this film and The 39 Steps at the same time, and got mixed up.

Sure, Arthur Ransome was a spy and adventurer who witnessed the Russian Revolution, but we don’t need that biographical nonsense in the film. Its presence is a clear sign that the producers had nothing but contempt for the material and the audience: what could we do to make this shit interesting? The spy crap continues throughout, taking up valuable screen time that should be devoted to the children and their story, which at times seems so neglected it’s reduced to the status of a sub-plot.

And after all this indulgent espionage peril is spooned into the film, like so much thin gruel, it doesn’t manage to whet the appetite. As one reviewer pointed out, the sequence in which the kids lose their picnic hamper overboard is more gripping, by far, than the attempted kidnap by Russian spies of the Captain Flint character – who could so easily have been left as grumpy uncle novelist trying to finish a book instead of indulging his nieces’ pirate fantasies. The food the children manage to procure, in the hungry 1930s, is such an important part of the story that the loss of the picnic hamper is as devastatingly dramatic as this film manages to be.

Still, there are moments. Or, there is one moment. The discovery of the Swallow in the boathouse had an emotional impact that was squandered by the lack of attention that the film paid to the actual sailing. The shame of it all is that, what you really want out of this is the chance to make some of the other books into films: Swallowdale, Winter Holiday, We Didn’t Mean to Go to Sea, Pigeon Post, The Picts and the Martyrs… there are some really good storylines to be had, and all of the books had really strong female characters baked in, with no retrofitting required.

And it’s with the female characters that this film falls tragically short. Nancy and Peggy get precious little screen time, about which I have mixed feelings. The actress cast as Nancy just seemed completely wrong to me. Wrong colouring, wrong age (in year 11 doing GCSE drama, when picked). In a way, it was a mercy, but Nancy is supposed to be the heart and soul of the stories, so it really matters that they go it so wrong. I don’t blame the actors at all. This was clearly a scrambled mess of a production, made by people with no feel for the stories and no understanding of their appeal.

All I want to do now is watch the ’74, to restore my memories.

 

Posted in Baking, musings

Going off the gluten

img_7427I’m not really the kind of person who would give up something like wheat just because, under my 21st century clothes, I’m still a caveman who didn’t evolve to eat refined white flour. I’m aware of course of the one percent of the population who have a genuine health reason (coeliac disease) not to eat gluten, but I’ve also been peripherally aware of a number of people who have taken to a gluten-free diet for unspecific lifestyle related reasons, in much the same way as one might give up red meat, or go organic.

But, see, I’ve had this eczema-like itchy rash for several months now, and I was at the hospital for a biopsy, and the doctor asked if I had tried giving up gluten.

Well, I said, I cut it out for a couple of days in the summer (because I’d been reading widely about possible causes for my mystery rash), but it made no difference.

A couple of days isn’t enough, she said. You have to go for several weeks at least.

Urgh.

So, okay. I’m giving it a go. It has been a week and a bit, and no change is yet perceptible in the itching. It tends to be worse when my brain’s processor is idle; it’s almost like restless feet in that respect. So I’ve been sitting here thinking, two, three more weeks, maybe. And then I read this:

It is important to appreciate that a gluten free diet may have no effect on the rash for approximately six months and sometimes, even longer.

That sound you hear, like water going down the plughole, is my life draining away. I’ve spent 30 years of my life, for example, perfecting my home-made pizza(s) recipe. I’ve got a 25kg bag of Italian 00 pizza flour in the cupboard and home-made sweet fennel sausage (containing gluten) in the freezer. And I want to cry. Obviously, I can still make it for other people, but not to be able to eat it myself is like (*reaches for grandiose comparison*) Moses not being able to enter the promised land or Jonny Ive not being able to use an iPhone.

The supermarkets are making a lot of money out of the gluten-free crowd. It’s kinda criminal. A teeny tiny loaf of urky bread full of holes costs more than a full-sized standard loaf. A ciabatta roll costing twice as much as a standard one is also half the size. If something costs a couple of quid, the gluten-free version is £1.50 more, and has a weird texture and tastes worse.

So here’s hoping my biopsy result is negative for that thing, that dermatitis herpetiformis thing.

Anyway, I’ve tried quite a lot of gluten free food over the past week or so. Oats for breakfast, and oat biscuits: acceptable. Almost every variety of bread: glop. Pizza: cardboard*. On the plus side: Pieminster chicken pie: good; quiche: also decent. Tesco carrot cake: actually pretty similar to the real thing. So it seems that cakes, biscuits and pastry can be replicated, but anything bread-based is a big fat nope.

*The pre-packed pizza problem is not aided by the fact that I KEEP FORGETTING the damn things are in the oven. They don’t cook like a normal pizza. They seem to use weird cheese that doesn’t MELT, which means I usually end up carbonising it, like the one above.

Posted in bastards, Television

So, Farewell then, Amazon Prime

amazon-prime-video-1-800x420

I’ve got a few months to run, since I pay annually, but I’ve cancelled my Amazon Prime subscription. It’s a protest against Britain’s involvement in the Nigeria-Biafra thing, against our support of America in Vietnam and against ‘Cold Turkey’ slipping down the charts. Not really. But it is a kind of protest. Here’s why I’m cancelling.

I’ll start with the most concrete reason why: although I’ve had a lot (too much!) of use of the free delivery side of things, I’ve not really accessed the video content much lately. Partly, that’s because it’s not very convenient. I’ve got an Apple TV, which I quite like. It’s got a good interface, it’s reliable and stable, and most of the things I now watch can be accessed through it. But Amazon have dug in their heels and refused to develop an Apple TV app. They’ve got apps for the iPhone and iPad, and you can watch on your MacBook, but they’ve arbitrarily picked on this one device not to support.

I can still throw stuff from my phone onto the Apple TV using Airplay, which works fairly reliably. Problem is, when I do that, I can’t use my phone for anything else. My other way of watching Amazon content is via the shonky app on my (old) Sony Blu-Ray player. The interface on that is terrible, and finding content is painful and slow.

So reason number one is this: Amazon are playing stupid games with Apple and their lack of support for AppleTV is nothing short of malicious.

Will I miss the actual content? Not really. Some of their stuff is okay, but none of it has that hooky, addictive quality that makes you care if you miss it. The show I enjoyed the most, Bosch, is pretty decent, and beautifully made, but it’s not so wondrous that I’d continue to pay for the service, as inconvenient as it is.

In fact, decent and beautifully made is a good descriptor of quite a lot of Amazon’s content. The Man in the High Castle looks incredible, but as far as character and story go, it’s just not that compelling. Red Oaks is pretty good, but I didn’t find season 2 as charming as the first. Then there’s Mr Robot, which is brilliant, and which is must-see TV, but since it’s not actually an Amazon production, I should be able to get it on DVD.

Which brings me to my most petty and childish reason for cancelling my subscription. The biggest ballyhoo Amazon has ever made about its content concerns The Grand Tour, Clarkson and co’s self-indulgent money pit show. Now, I’m sure many people over the years threatened not to pay their TV Licence because of various things Clarkson said or did. I wasn’t one of them, but I came to hate everything Top Gear stood for, so now I’m taking the opportunity to cancel my Amazon TV licence, because I don’t want to contribute one more penny to Clarkson’s lavish Chipping Norton libertarian lifestyle.

This last reason is petty, and if Amazon were to suddenly about turn and produce an AppleTV app, I might think again. But I’ve waited long enough, so the cancellation is in.

Posted in bastards, musings

Kill All Humans

proxima-stephen-baxter-gollanczI’ve been reading Stephen Baxter’s novel Proxima and its sequel Ultima. I’d been prevaricating about these for a while. I always quite like Baxter when I read him, but I don’t quite trust his prolificacy. Let’s take a chunk of time:

  • In 2006, he published Emperor, the first in the Time’s Tapestry sequence, following it with two sequels in 2007 and a third in 2008. Emperor came in at 368 pages, the first sequel 320, and the final two 336 pages each. So that’s 1360 pages in three years.
  • In 2007, he also published Firstborn, the third volume in the Time Odyssey trilogy, a collaboration with Arthur C Clarke, which was 388 pages. And a YA novel, H Bomb Girl, which was a mere 288 pages.
  • In 2008, he also published Flood, which was the first of two books dealing with catastrophic flooding caused by climate change. 548 pages.
  • In other words, between 2006 and 2008, he published works totalling over 2500 pages, and this period of time is not unusual; it’s fairly typical, in fact.

So I didn’t quite trust that these two novels would be any good, coming as they do amidst his multi-volume collaboration with the late Terry Pratchett, the Long Earth series, which was concerned with the multiverse, or the idea that we live alongside multiple parallel universes.

At first, Proxima seems like it’s going to be a space colonisation narrative, with the twist that all the colonists have been press-ganged into participation. But there is a parallel narrative about a mysterious source of power (“kernels”) that appear on Mercury, which turns into a story about a mysterious Hatch that appears; and then all of a sudden we’re into Long Earth territory and alternate histories. Huh. Oh, and there are artificial intelligences, some of them robotic.

And it’s all perfectly readable and it rolls along, but it’s a bit of a mess, thematically, and you kind of get disappointed that the characters you invested in at the beginning never really get a chance to develop satisfactorily, or that other characters just appear and then disappear without really doing much.

So in the end, I was probably right to feel wary, but these were library loans, so never mind. This isn’t even a review, not really, but it made me think about some things.

Those robots, those AIs.

There’s a Cory Doctorow story that pokes fun at the idea that you would risk actual humans in human bodies in space exploration rather than constructing robot explorers or using AIs. Imagine: instead of having to develop cryogenics to enable human bodies to travel long distances, you send off a ship and then later on transmit (at the speed of light) an uploaded intelligence into an artificial body or robot in time for the exploration to take place.

Because it seems obvious by now that, where humans can be replaced by robots, they will be. Robots don’t need tea breaks, holidays, sleep, maternity leave, or regular pay rises in line with inflation.

So if you’re a human, and I’m assuming you are, you probably want to be in a profession in which you can’t possibly be replaced by a robot. But what is that, exactly? In Proxima, the colonists are aided by a robot/AI that can make soil, produce genetically engineered crops, offer medical treatments and assist in births. So it’s a farmer, a scientist, a doctor and a midwife. Oh, and it could teach children as well.

I’m a teacher. One of the key pieces of jargon in the profession these days is the word consistency. We all need to be doing the same thing. Managing behaviour in the same ways. Following the same classroom routines, setting homework on the same days, issuing sanctions and rewards. It’s easy to dismiss all this as Emerson’s “foolish consistency” that is “the hobgoblin of little minds”, but of course the agenda is far more sinister.

The latest aspect of the hobgoblin is the idea that, within departments, we should all be teaching the same stuff at the same time. A manager on a tour should be able to visit the classrooms while, say, Year 9 are being taught, and find the same lesson being taught by all the teachers. So as well as following the marking policy and the behaviour policy, we’re all expected to subsume our individuality as teachers and just follow the scheme of work… or the textbook… or whatever piece of courseware the corporate education publishers produce.

The first step is, can we replace expensive qualified teachers with cheap unqualified teachers? That’s easier to do if you have a bunch of pre-made lesson plans and schemes of work. But of course, the end game is, can we replace the warm body in the room with a robot and some software?

Bang.

So: raise a glass to inconsistency, to unpredictability, to not planning, to winging it, to charisma, to the messy, disorganised, impossible to programme, human being in the room.