Monday, 2 March 2015

Let’s Double The BBC Licence Fee!

I’d quite enjoyed Julian Barnes’ novel ‘Arthur and George’ a few years ago, so I thought I’d give the ITV adaptation a go.  The story – about Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s detective-like espousal of a lost cause in reaction both to bereavement and to Holmes’s unsupportable weight – is a fascinatingly disturbing one, and I like Martin Clunes a lot.

Well, I watched for twenty minutes (forcing myself to ignore the persistent, obtrusive, irrelevant background music and cupping my ears to try and catch, beneath the tinkling pianos and droning cellos, what the actors were actually saying).  I did quite well, and was getting quite drawn in to the story (although flashbacks to Wolf Hall and how to do it properly kept intruding), when the story went blank and (I think) four minutes of very loud adverts asserted themselves.

I say that, but to be honest I can’t be sure about the loudness or the duration of the adverts.  I went and did a bit of dishwasher loading, came back and undid the mute button, and watched a bit more.  Even more dialogue-drowning, subtlety- bludgeoning foreground music; and then, after another twenty minutes – well, you know the rest.  I switched off at ad break #3, and won’t be watching next week’s episode; which is a great shame, because I’m sure there was a pretty good drama lurking somewhere behind the crud.

When will they ever learn?  Extended drama (with or without the music!  That’s another rant, really) requires extended attention.  Just go to the cinema or, even better, the theatre to prove this.  If the only way to fund quality television is to slice it up and dump dollops of gunk into the interstices, I’d rather do without it. 

To put it another way – Advertising Is Evil! 

Thursday, 12 February 2015


There’s a lot of it around in Labour at the moment, isn’t there?*  The backdrop to Ed’s speech on the news today was pure carnation, and his tie matched it.  And of course there’s that “magenta” (pink) ‘Woman to Woman’ van, which has come in for a certain amount of derision.**

But what choices did the poor Labour spinners have?  Red was obviously out, as were blue, yellow, purple and green.  White would be invisible; besides, you only have to think about a white van at campaign HQ these days to get you the sack. 

A little lateral thinking would have helped.  I’ve done that, and I have the answer.  A white van with a big Red Cross painted over each side (the slogan artfully inserted in the blank spaces).  Think about it – it ticks boxes.  It sends subliminal messages about healthcare and humanitarianism, issues many women feel deeply about.  It could reassure potential Ukip defectors.***  And most importantly, mix the two colours together and you get a lovely girlie pink.

Just trying to help.


* Leaving politics aside, of course.

**Much of it from those whose own vans, not that long ago, were driving around flaunting a message saying ‘Don’t look too foreign, or we’ll get you and send you back somewhere nasty’, or something.

*** Not that many of those are women, I suspect.

Monday, 9 February 2015

What’s Funny?

The conversation had got round, as it so often does, to the best-ever British sitcoms; ‘Gavin and Stacey’, ‘Only Fools and Horses’, ‘Porridge’, all the usual suspects.  And so, naturally, on to the best comics (British too, these people don’t do American).  Again, no surprises – Morecombe and Wise, Tommy Cooper, Les Dawson, Ken Dodd …  They’d been to see Ken at one of his three-hour standupatons a few years ago: “And not a single swearword!”  They all agreed that swearing and comedy never mix: “Completely unnecessary.   Uncalled for.  Offensive.”  Yadayadayada.

I silently slightly disagreed.  I can think of several brilliant jokes which just wouldn’t work without the judiciously placed swearword.  (Alexei Sayle’s story of the two bee-keepers, for one.)  I couldn’t tell them (the jokes or the people), of course, but it did set me thinking.  What is it that makes us laugh?

I realise that I blogged about the philosophical underpinnings of this question a few posts ago, so I’m not going to go there again.  (I hear the relieved ‘phew’s and the unclenching of grinding teeth.)  But I still want to know.  I laugh at Buster Keaton but not at Charlie Chaplin, whereas you might do the opposite, so funniness isn’t an objective attribute.  In fact, I can find something or someone hilarious one day, and just irritating the next, so it’s not even to do with me or my relationship with the funnything, at least not in any durable sense.  It seems to be something independent, out there in its own right, like a draught.

Sorry, I said I wasn’t going to go there, and then went.  But I least I managed to stop myself before I got on to neuroplasticity.

Monday, 2 February 2015

Follow the money …!

… and overtake it!

(Haven’t had a good rant for yonks.)

  1. ‘They’ tell us ‘we’ can’t beat the global corporations because ‘they’ have the best analysts, lawyers etc.  So let’s buy those analysts and lawyers and pay them over the market rate and set them to work for ‘us’ rather than ‘them’.  Whatever they offer, offer ten per cent more.  Grab them by the wallet, their hearts and minds will follow.
  2. How to pay for that?  Easy. Step one: confiscate their untaxed hidden assets.  Obama has just made a stumble in this right direction.  If necessary, invade the Bahamas, Monaco and Jersey.
  3. The highly lucrative British arms industry pleads that mass unemployment would result from curtailing their activities.  Fine.  So let them carry on selling death and destruction to the highest bidder, but make them pay the true cost.  I don’t know how to value a human life, but let’s say $50,000?  And $100 per square metre of property?  Whatever.  But let’s make BaE and the rest submit their accounts, balance the true books and offset the true costs.  Not to mention the roads, the streetlights, the prisons, the hospital beds: I won’t go on.
  4. Similarly, ask every hedge fund, private equity company and property investor to describe exactly what is their product.  That means: something you or I could go and buy from them.  If they can’t, tax them into destruction.
  5. I realise that none of the above is going to happen, because difficulty always trumps achievability.  Perhaps we can crowdsource?  I’d dib in a K.  But we’ll need to create a Citizens’ Dictatorship first.  There’s an idea – the CD Party?  Probably too late.

Friday, 30 January 2015

Is Anything There?

Should I feel sorry for my brand-new tumble dryer?

Or my ageing car?  Or my neglected, very old lawnmower?  Or even that ancient TV I threw out without a second thought when my freshly born new one arrived last October?  What about that trusty Nokia phone I blamed for losing itself and forcing me to buy an iPhone I didn’t really want, a classic case of guilt transference if there ever was one?  Do they care?

Philosophers talk of little else at the moment – what exactly is consciousness?   Tom Stoppard, ahead of the curve as always, has written a play about it.  Some posit that as we can’t define our own, it’s impossible to be sure whether it really exists, or if it does, where its boundaries lie.  Is it likely that it can be restricted to this single biological construct we call a human being, or even to other sentient, mobile chunks of carbon and water and trace elements?  Can we be sure that our machines, made of the same chemical basics, aren’t in their own way conscious?  These ‘things’ certainly possess their own sensory apparatus, languages, nervous systems, all the attributes we assign to ourselves to prove our unique superiority.  Maybe everything is conscious in its own way.  Or maybe there’s no such thing.

Bishop George Berkeley proposed that solipsism is irrefutable, and Sam Johnson refuted him by kicking a stone – but Einstein, Heisenberg and Schrödinger's cat hadn’t even been born then.  More recently, Descartes thought that thought defined consciousness, but that kind of begs the question, doesn’t it?  Bertrand Russell and his buddies boiled it down to pure mathematics, which exists regardless of whether conscious creatures work it out or write it down – which means either the whole universe must be conscious, or nothing is.  Which doesn’t get us a whole lot further.

If there’s a single thing that demonstrates consciousness, I suggest: a sense of humour.  My car (especially its satnav) certainly has one, so did my dog.  My apple tree is cheekily poking its little buds out as I write.  On the other hand, I could name some humans who, by this test, probably aren’t conscious.  (Don’t worry, you can vote them out in May.)

A tumble dryer writes: I have 12 programmes, and you’ve only used two of them.  You don’t care about me, do you?

I reply: You might think that; I couldn’t possibly say.

Friday, 23 January 2015

More Days in a Life

Ages ago, I wrote this, and through some quirk of consciousness (see tomorrow’s post, maybe) the idea jumped out at me again, from wherever ideas lurk.  So here are five more.

It Won’t Be Long. Almost any of Lennon’s songs on ‘With the Beatles’ or ‘Hard Day’s Night’ would do for this slot.  I was a wannabe songwriter bound tightly by the musical conventions of the previous fifty years. Lennon threw a disdainful pot of musical paint at all that: wrong chords, missed or truncated bars, irony-laden Glenn Miller quotes harshly, gleefully out of context …  I wrote dozens of pastiche imitations –  all thankfully lost, but I’ll never forget the exhilaration of discovering that A major to F# major and then back to A, or B flat, or wherever, was okay: rules could be broken.  This discovery soaked through from mere music to real life over those few churning years.

Rain.  I’m basking in the garden of 17 Hutchings Walk, one weekday afternoon in June 1966, early in that coruscating summer.  I’m not at all focussed on music, my mind and my body are elsewhere entirely, wafting around various situations and one particular girl.  But then this sound drifts through the French windows, and sucks me indoors. Somebody’s got the new Beatles single, and has put the B side on first.  Something opens.

And Your Bird Can Sing.  We’d done our usual set at the Piper in Milan, and I’d struck up a conversation with the Indonesian lead guitarist of the new all-girl support band, the Honeys.  She had a genuine Gibson Les Paul, which meant I was in love with her.  We sat knee to knee while she proved to me that the jangly two-line guitar part could be played at one go, not double-tracked, if you were good enough, which she was.  Complications grew from nowhere over the next few stretched-out weeks.  She had a husband and a child back in Holland, it seemed.  In the end she fled the country.  I don’t think it was because of me, but I’ll never know, will I?  I wish I could remember her name.

Hey Jude.  This one is a sitcom moment.  Andy walks in to the pensione with a 45 in his hand.  “Rubbish new Beatles record,” he announces.  Maybe he’d only heard the B side.

I Just Don’t Understand.  Lastly, a teaser.  This was never a ‘proper’ Beatles track: it’s on the Live at the BBC compilation, recorded for Pop Go The Beatles in July 1963.  I’ve included it because I love the song (original 1961 record by Ann Margret, you can find it on YouTube), love John’s performance of it, and love how it reminds me precisely what it was like to be a teenager in love.

Tuesday, 13 January 2015

So why does it sound better?

There’s nothing like quantum physics for getting you off to sleep.  Following on from last week’s post about vinyl, I was musing on the parallel – in the twenties, until cleverclogs like Schrodinger and Dirac came along, theoretical physicists agonised over whether light was a wave or a particle.  (On Monday, Wednesday and Friday it was a wave, on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday, a particle.  On Sunday, they prayed.)

There’s never been any doubt, though, that sound is a wave.  Until thirty-five or so years ago, it stayed that way.  A bang on a drum, a pluck on a guitar, would be carried through the air to a microphone and thence to fluctuations on a magnetic tape, pushed through a few bits of technology and carved into a squiggly groove on a vinyl LP; then reverse-pushed though some more technology into a speaker which would turn it back into the sound wave it started out as, or as near as possible.  A wave, however, all the way.  The technical term for this is ‘analogue’.

Then some bright spark worked out that they could turn this analogue wave into particles, or binary digits, by snatching tiny bits of it as it entered their domain, and within a few years analogue recording was old hat, and all sound waves ended up as sampled particles.  Of course, at this stage they still had to be converted back into waves so that they could be etched onto a vinyl platter; but then the compact disc came along and even this transition wasn’t necessary.

Because the CD rapidly (and in some ways rightly) commercially forced out the cumbersome old fragile LP, it then became necessary to convert old analogue records into a digital format so that they could become CDs.  This was called ‘remastering’, a blatant euphemism if ever there was one.  And now it’s become smart to convert them back again, so that they can be resold as fashionable vinyl LPs.  (I was almost going to say ‘groovy.’)

All these transitions end up in the same place: sound waves going into your ears.  As a writer to today’s Guardian rightly observed, nobody has ever listened to digital music.

So the answer to the title question is: it doesn’t, necessarily.  The rule is: the fewer transitions it’s been through on its journey from its birth to your ears, the better it’s going to sound.  Nearly all the vinyl LPs I own conform to this rule, having stuck to being waves throughout their gestation. 

Meanwhile, I’m still working through the analogue alphabet, and have got to The Association, Insight Out (1967).  Here is a sample of the care instructions from the inner sleeve, which I rather like.  Care is a good, strong word.

The record sounds wonderful.  Shame about the music.  A bit of Chet Atkins next…