fifteen minutes of mantra-filled oompah

February 20, 2011

Comedy Tonight

 It's been a fairly busy week.

On Tuesday, off I went to York to watch The King's Speech. Now, given the way this film has been hyped in recent weeks, one would be forgiven for not realising that, actually, it is a very, very funny film indeed. The dialogue fizzes with lots of wondrous one-liners and mordant wit.  And of course it also has Helena Bonham-Carter, who, as far as I'm concerned can do very little wrong. Both Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush are fabulous but, for me, the jaw-dropper was Guy Pearce's turn as Edward VIII: his appearances are fleeting but spell-binding. Of course, it's not a comedy. It's so much more: at turns witty, sad, angry and frustrating. It really is quite, quite spellbinding.  And I'll buy the DVD when it turns up because I think it will bear up to a lot of repeat watching and deserves the awards it's getting right now.

Interval time at Punt & Dennis
On Thursday, I went up to Middlesbrough Theatre to see Punt & Dennis' new show, "They Should Get Out More". Brian Logan's Guardian review wasn't particularly kind to them, though I suspect this has rather more to do with Logan than Punt and Dennis. And besides, he rather misses the point. Steve and Hugh are quite cosy. They've been together a long time now and have a format that largely works and plays to an audience that contains the likes of me. That said, the age spread of the audience was pretty wide, with lots of late-teen, early 20's types kicking around. Of the two, Punt is clearly the less comfortable on stage, so he leaves most of the more obvious performance elements to Dennis. Ok, it's hardly at the bleeding edge, but it is funny, which is the most important thing. The finale is a great sketch with Dennis playing a drunk wine taster on a TV wine show (think Oz Clarke after three or four bottles), a character I've seen before, but enjoyed finally seeing on stage.

And then, finally, last night, down to Scarborough to check out Count Arthur Strong. I've been listening to the radio shows for a few years now, a convert after hearing clips on various shows beforehand. I was hoping that he wouldn't prove to be a let-down. I needn't have worried, though the Spa Theatre wasn't quite as full as I'd hoped, which flattened the atmosphere just a touch. Steve Delaney's monstrous creation, on the other hand, was sensational. The two riffs on 'Michaels' (there were recurring references to Michael McIntyre through the show too) and his version of Deck of Cards alone were worth the admission fee for me. The cookery segment was something that had appeared in the radio show, but was all the nicer for having seen it done live.  Though his supporting cast are more than able, Delaney himself is a masterful character actor, and Arthur's tics and ever more spiralling rants are the real centre of proceedings.A great show, and a real coup for Coastival to have got him there: congratulations to all.

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February 15, 2011

Nokia : Death by a thousand cuts

CEO Stephen Elop's deliberately inflammatory email within Nokia last week seems designed to pave the way for justifying Nokia's decision to ditch Symbian and move the Nokia brand across to Windows Phone 7. There are so many reasons why this is a bad day for the mobile industry, so let's articulate a few:
  • Nokia have expertly managed to piss off quite a lot of its devoted developer base. Qt could have been tied into WP7 to at least allow the dev base that did exist to move stuff they were doing into the new world. As it is, those who wrote Symbian code are probably not going to run headlong at a chance to start writing for Windows. And, if we're being honest, though WP7 has now got an app base about as large as the massively superior HP WebOS, it's not exactly overrun with developer activity. This lack of traction is hurting, especially when you compare it to the Apple Store and Android Marketplace
  • It's a pity Nokia hadn't considered going in for Palm when HP picked them up. WebOS running on Nokia hardware could have been a compelling mix. Now we'll never know.
  • And, in a comical move today, Nokia have tried to claim the smartphone market is essentially a three horse race between WP7, Apple and Google. RIM, of course, took immediate umbrage, while most of the rest of us just had to sit down and hold our sides just to recover from Microsoft's belief that they're anywhere near Blackberry yet, let alone Android and iOS. Nokia might have a large slice of installed base, but their share is sliding and a lack of strong products to bolster that slide will only make things even worse.
  • Nokia's best strategy may have been to go down the Android route. While there are lots of Android phones in the market, Nokia's hardware is still a heavy plus point in their favour. Android is als oan environment that is hihly tunable and can be used across a varierty of  phone specs. WP7 is, weirdly, rather more prescriptive about its needs. Nokia's phones running Android could have managed in the top end of the market and in rhe mid range. Instead, they have WP7 which has an underwhelming feature set and has aired on fairly unremarkable phones so far. It hasn't really set the world alight.
  • And then there are tablets. Or rather, in Nokia's case, there aren't. Miscorsoft are not looking at WP7 as a tablet OS at all. Meanwhile iOS and Android Honeycomb look pretty much bedded in for the long haul. MeeGo is dead in the water, so Nokia don't have a tablet entry into that rapidly growing market. This is a worry. Meanwhile, HP's entry, the TouchPad looks like it could actually give Apple a few sleepless nights:  it looks a very polished product indeed.  In Redmond, Steve Ballmer is still trying to push Windows 7 as the tablet OS of choice, but this is starting to look just a touch desperate. Trying to port 7 to ARM is only going to make Microsoft's portfolio more confused and cluttered. While this happens, both Apple and Google have very strong offerings that look coherent and unifeid across their entire ecosystems. Throwing money at the problem isn't going to solve it, especially when both Google and Apple have just as much cash they can pour inot their projects.
  • But this is a good move for Microsoft on their terms, at least on paper. They push their OS into the market on the back of a big hardware company (more of that in a sec) and can try to gain a foothold. Unfortunately, Nokia's WP7 phones will take a while to finsh and get to market. In the meantime Android pdates are coming and we're probably only a couple of months from iPhone 5. This will make the need for Micrsoft to up their update cycle game for WP7 all the more urgent as the OS feature set and experience still lags behind the competition. Don't get me wrong, I would actually like to see WP7 gain a hold in the market, just so that there is some push for innovation and competition, but this doesn't seem like the right way to do it.
  • What does this mean for Nokia? Well, their attmepts to control the vertical integration of their products, like Apple have done so successfully, is pretty much dead in the water now. They will lose developer momentum. And all because Nokia just didn't get software. While Symbian was a great product in its time, the word has moved and, unfortunately, neither Symbian nor Nokia moved quicke enough with it. Their management fo the whole Symbian project left much to be desired, while the company culture seemed fixated on hardware. While the M8 has a lovely 12MP camera, the environment you use it in isn't so great. Not a great selling point.
In all, Nokia seem to be the ones losing out here.  They've been forced into an alliance that many inside the company probably don't really want, which will only serve to give Microsoft a toehold if it succeeds, and will burn them both badly if it fails. Time will tell which way things will go, but if I were Nokia I would be casting anxious glances over my shoulder at the past, and how previous incarnations of Windows Mobile were handled. Have Microsoft learned from their past mistakes or are they doomed to repeat them, and drag Nokia down in the process?
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January 28, 2011

Posh and Posher

I find that, in spite of myself sometimes, I like people that perhaps I might not be expected to, usually for odd reasons. One such person is Andrew Neil. IT was one of the things I ruminated on as I watched his recent BBC2 programme Posh and Posher: Why Public Schoolboys Run Britain. I missed it on broadcast but managed to catch a fair bit of it on the iPlayer.

As I was watching a couple of things struck me. First was that, despite the running jokes in Private Eye about the Brilo Pad on his head, Neil is a generally decent and thoughtful bloke, and one who clearly has given a great deal of consideration to his background and how lucky he feels to have had some of the opportunities that were offered to him. Actually, this is pretty much the cornerstone of the whole programme, wondering how those opportunities he took with both hands are less likely to come now to those with the same background. It resonated with me to, coming from where I do. Perhaps that's another reason why I like Neil: some tenuous sense of kinship.

But there was something missing from Neil's analysis, I think. As he went through the list of public schoolboys who either went to Eton or Westminster, and talked to those at Nick Clegg's old school about the advantages they enjoyed, two things struck me: the first was that there was a tacit assumption that a political career was still something aspired to by many of what used to be called the "grammar school" students, the second was the fact that many of the skills taught in the independent system are still very classical in tone.  The latter of these things was thrown into relief when Neil enjoyed a short conversation with Jacob Rees-Mogg, who was desperately trying to deflect observations about his class, ended up claiming himself, "a man of the people: vox populi, vox dei", which only served to point out the exact opposite.

In the past, the education of a gentlemen mostly focused on three areas: logic, literature and rhetoric. In essence this gave the ability to analyse argument, speak and debate, and then throw in a few well chosen bon mots from others to garnish. Oddly, these skills are exactly he skills for parliamentary debate. Another thing skirted over came when the presence of Tony Blair as Prime Minister was seen as weakening some of those arguments becasue he was a "great communicator", even though he too was a public schoolboy (at Fettes). The school is not the issue. What is the issue is that, since World War II, of the 11 men and women who have assumed the role of Prime Minister, nine of them were educated at Oxford. Only John Major, with no degree and Gordon Brown (Edinburgh) spoil the Oxonian hegemony. Oxford provides the Oxford Union, which reinforces the values learned in school, attracts influential speakers and provides a network and lauchpad for those with a political interest. An example of this is the path of the Milliband brothers, educated at their father's insistence in the state sector, but also going up Oxford

The elephant in the room for me is, however, related to the first of the issue I had with Neil's analysis: perhaps it's only really those going through the public school system who have any interest in a career in the now rather quaint and arcane Westminster system that appears, to many, to be increasingly distanced form any kind of reality. Perhaps it's not that the talented from outside the public schools can't get into those positions, but that they don't want to. It's not beyond the realms of possibility. In recent years the political system, and the politicians within it have become stained with a continuous stream of dirt and scandal. Mistrust of 'careerist' politicians has not been higher in living memory, and probably has not been as profound since the 19th Century. But the Westminster environment is an incestuous one and it seems, from outside, that there is a distinct lack of understanding at the growing levels of anger in wider society about what is seen as the pulling up of the ladder of opportunity by those for whom that opportunity is firmly entrenched.

Perhaps the question shouldn't be "Why Are Public Schoolboys Running Britain", but "Why does no one else seem to want to?"
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January 19, 2011

Welcome to Year Zero

As the late Frank Zappa once said, "there's a big difference between kneeling down and bending over." And right now, we are being bent right over. Welcome to 2011. Before Christmas, when Vince Cable talked about the colation being essentialy Maoist there was a fair amount of media scoffing and incredulity on offer. I'm not sure ther'es much to laugh at now: Cable's thesis is turning out to be pretty much on the money. We are in the midst of a time of continuous revolution. Here's a government who know, in their hearts, theat they've got one Parliament to do what they want, so they are haring around at pretty much breakneck speed, trying to force every single last bit of change through before anyone tries to stop them. The only thing Cable got wrong in the analysis was that the Coalition project hasn't modelled itself on Mao, but Pol Pot. This year is rapidly turning into Year Zero on the political calendar. Every institution or system is being ransacked:
  • The NHS : today's Bill publication sees a huge change to the way helath care is provided. At first it looks little more than an accounting practice of ditiching PCTs, then giving the cash to doctors instead. This is all very well, but theres'a rather more sinister logic behind this: GP's are not going to run their own finances; they'll see the amount of work and subcontract to a specialist medical management organisation. The big European and US players must be rubbing their hands right now as a new market opens up to them. Goody, just what we need: more private organisations bleeding money out to hand to shareholders, and more managers to do it.
  • Education : the Universities, Free Schools, the trashing of FE. How do you begin to even comprehend the coming car crash that this will be? There's not enough room here.
  • Electoral Reform : changes to the voting system? Ok. Consulation?  No, why bother, let's just bulldoze it throuh the Commons and Lords and have the referendum anyway. Still, for some in the Conservative party this is great. After using the LibDems as a human shield for a year, anything with Clegg's name on it will be toast. Then came the proposals to force 50% participation in union strike ballots. But this is also hpocrisy. Why should different rules apply to unions when elections to parliament, in parliament, or to any other public office, for example, don't have these conditions. Boris Johnson was elected Mayor of London on a turnout well under 50%, for example. But he doesn't like to talk about that. 
  • The Economy : what we have is essentially neo-Thatcherite. We have a government who are intenet on sucking money out of the economy as quickly as possible. But, of course, with rising unemployment and rising inflation, the prospect of all that private secotr growth Cameron and Osborne were optimistically predicting looks fairly dim. And that's beofre the tax rises really bite: VAT and fuel rises are going to cause a fair bit of discomfort for many. And then when interest rates start rising again. Meanwhile, the 50% tax rae is going to be removed because it is "ineffective". Lovely, so slap up indirect taxation and use the most regressive means possible to screw the public.
  • Transport : so another thing that will be rising is train fares, and once again well above inflation. And then there's the (at least) 35bn to be spent on the London-Birmingham High Speed Rail Link, for which the benefits are, at best, questionable.  I'd have thought the money would be better spent elsewhere, and not on bulldozing on of the few green areas left in the south of England. But no, it's OK, we'll plant a few tress and everything will be just peachy. Never mind that neither the rail link to the North East of the country, nor the A1 could be described as more than barely adequate, we Northern Johnnies will just have to make do. And, in rural areas, cuts to local authority funding wil have disastrous consequences for public transport, like this and this.  It's amost as if someone doesn't want the popluation to be mobile.
  • The Banks : the government claims that they cannot affect bank bonus culture, even though we, the public, own 82% of RBS, for exmaple. The mantra is that, "if we curb them, they will move elsewhere". Well, given the wonderful job they've been doing, elsewhere can have them.
  • Local Authorities : one of the results of all this cutting is that local services will suffer. The quality of life for many people, some of whom are the most vunerable, is going to get markedly worse. And the wave of reduncancies mean that those people who were in work will now be on benefits, unproductive and angry.
  • The Big Society : Cameron's BIG idea. And what a wet, resounding fart of an idea it is. Perhaps he envisioned all those people being made redundant being energised to go out and do what they were doing, but without earning a living doing it (and in some cases barely even that). Perhaps he really is that much of a blithering moon-faced imbecile. No, the Big Society is a cynical exercise in the neo-Thaterite embracing of 'charidee' and a public high-minded morality concealing the systematic rpe and pillage of much of our infrastructure, both physical and social. As an idea it is both iniquitous and hypocritical. And he can shove it.
 So far, after the New Year, the weather is just about holding but the political and social temparture is starting to rise. Already unions are expressing concern about inflation outsripping peoples ability to live, and pressure is strting to build. It's already a rocky start to Year Zero. how much worse will it get?

December 22, 2010

It's going to be a long, long winter

Back when the Comprehensive Spending Review happened earlier in the year I remarked to some friends that the one thing the coalition government should pray for was a mild winter.

Well, if they did, it didn't work. As the snow piles up, so do the problems for Moon-faced Dave. The tuition fees row is just the tip of a very, very big iceberg if some of the disquiet of the last few days is to be believed. It's also why, as far as I can see, Ed Milliband's attempts to stick the knife in and twist might be very well-timed indeed.  His nailing of Vince Cable (once a welcome voice of sanity and now little better than a clown) as craven, and the government held together by only the thinnest of threads, can't be described as anything other than accurate.

Just look at the landscape right now: concerns that the preparations for bad weather have not been managed well; unemployment rising; inflation rising; housing market basically flatlined; a stuttering economy. And that's before the 'cuts' that have been pushed through have even taken effect. Or before the VAT rise arrives in January.

Already, the public sector unions are jumpy, and the only reason this hasn't permeated the private sector is the rollback of unions from corporate Britain. Fuel prices are now, in some cases, nearly 50% higher than this time last year. Energy bills are once again rising, with concerns about the power companies using wholesale prices as a neat excuse to wring even more cash out of their customers to bolster dividends.

The optimism from Cameron and Osborne that the private sector would 'take up the slack' of public sector job losses seems ever more foolhardy and misdirected. Meanwhile, their coalition partner in the LibDems are in despair: they seem to be there to prop up the Maoist 'continual and continuous revolution' zeal of a Conservative right wing who know that one term is all the chance they'll get, all the while aware that they are being used as a human shield. Come May and the local elections and the AV referendum that they will now surely lose, the LibDems will be in meltdown. Even their own leader knows he's on borrowed time in his own constituency, stuffed as it is full of students. Their position is hopeless, both unable to distance themselves from the conservatives to be distinctive and unable to claim enough credit for any success that may arrive to convince voters they are a viable force. The wilderness awaits.

The storm clouds are gathering and the winter looks as if it will last almost for ever. Spring seems a very long way away indeed.

November 30, 2010

Winter Wonderland

When I was eight years old, in the winter of 1978-79, I remember the snow being deep enough to wade through at near enough knee height. There was a carpet of crisp, even, white snow all around where I lived in Middlesbrough. In fact, it was so bad that I remember not being able to get to school a couple of days, mostly because all the old oil heated classrooms we were in were way too cold to sit in.  It's never been like that since.

Until the last few days.

It all started for me last Thursday evening, coming home from Durham. I finally managed to get home to Whitby yesterday afternoon, after digging out the car at my parents' house in Easington. It's been a long time since I was shin dep in snow, but I was on Sunday morning. On the high ground there's probably been well over a foot; closer to eighteen inches, I'd be more likely to bet.

Worse still, I didn't get to see Katie at the weekend. The roads through from Stokesley were pretty bad, even with a Grand Vitara (my ex-father in law's). They had a try on Saturday and didn't even set off Sunday. Can't say I blame them. But at least Katie had fun sledging and playing out in the snow at home

Even though the main roads were ploughed and cleaned off, the roads up near my folks' house weren't. It meant my car was not going anywhere in a hurry. The snow was piled everywhere, almost like being in Norway or Finland. It's so weird for it to be this early.

The ride home from Whitby yesterday was, as expected, a mixed one. The main road through (the A174) wasn't that bad at all: passable with a bit of care. Thing got weird when I got home, though. I have to park at the back of my house and get up a bank to do it. I needed help from a neighbour to get the car in.

Thankfully, the snow fall overnight wasn't that bad. So I thought I'd wait a little this morning before setting off for Scarborough. However, as I got to the stretch of road on theA171 between the Ruswarp turn-off and the Flask, the snow came down again, settling on the road and being drifted by the high wind. I looked at me, and a 1.25 litre Fiesta and thought better of it, turning back.

I'm hoping that the roads will be better tomorrow. The forecast is, that's for sure.  Just have to watch for that ice!

November 26, 2010

The Curse of Half Man Half Biscuit

So, I went to see Half Man Half Biscuit last night. Before I talk about that, though, I should probably mention what happened last time I went to see them. It is relevant, trust me.

Back in April 1991 Steve, Stu and I made the trip up to Sunderland Poly (as it was then, this is pre-1992, remember, when there were still polytechnics) to watch HMHB. They'd not long since reappeared on the scene after having split up for a while. They were supported by fellow Probe Plus act Levellers 5 (who did a couple of Peel Sessions at the time. But that's by the by: HMHB were great. Eventually, we came out into spring night and made our way back to our Durham-bound train.

Except the train station was locked up. The last train had gone.

Elvet Bridge, from the Peninsula
So, there we stood and, after turning out our pockets, we realised that, between us, we didn't have enough cash to pony up for a taxi back. There was only one option: we'd have to walk home. To Durham. Fifteen miles. And so we set off, hiking along a deserted A690; no real chance of even hitching a lift either. We even found a football in the central reservation about an hour in, so played football down the carriageway for a while.  At the services on the A690 Steve had the idea of using his credit card in of the new-fangled phone that took them, to ring for a cab and then go into Durham centre and get some cash to pay him. Pity the phone didn't see it that way and wouldn't take his card. As we got to the Dragonville turn-off at Durham at around half three in the morning the fog descended and we almost got taken out by a huge Artic coming up the slip road. Anyway, at around 4am we managed to crawl into bed, stiff and tired but happy and with a 'war story' to tell our mates.

Fast forward to last night. The first time I've seen Half Man Half Biscuit since that evening in April 1991. I've been looking forward to it for months since I booked the ticket.. But of course it's been snowing. Having said that, getting up the A19 proved to be rather uneventful and I end up in Durham safe and sound. I meet up with my mate Mark and off we trundled to the Central Thai restaurant in Durham. Very nice.

Four Lads Who Shook The Wirral
Anyway, off we went to the gig in the Live Lounge. Which was stellar; even better was the fact they opened with one of my favourite songs (and song titles) ever: 99% of Gargoyles Look Like Bob Todd. And it just kept getting better. Great versions of songs like National Shite Day and A Country Practice, not to mention a fabulous Twenty Four Hour Garage People (complete with musings on Pickled Onion Monster Munch). They, and the audience, were clearly having a laugh in spite of a few sound problems, even down to the bit near the end where Nigel muses on how miserable he'll probably end up feeling at 2am at Scotch Corner in the bad weather. It was great to see them again.

Afterwards Mark and I ended up having a quick drink and chat in the Varsity on North Bailey, watching some of the rabble from the Peninsula colleges wandering down the street, having clearly been to a pirate-themed formal or bop of some kind.

So it was that at around 0030, I set off for home. A690, A1, A689 and A19. Plenty of snow around but generally a fairly easy drive. I followed the A174 down the coast, not fancying doing a trip over the moor road at that time with heavy snow falling. And everything was fine. Until I got to Loftus. As soon as I got past Loftus Bank the trouble started. No ploughing or gritting here, no sir. As I drove past my parents' house in Easington wondered if I should stop, but thought that the road may just hold up if it stayed as it was. Oh, foolish optimism!

Boulby, in the middle of the night
Boulby Bank was just about negotiated, giving some comfort to what I thought may be possible. Then, at Runswick Bay, the wheels fell off. Or stopped spinning, anyway. Pretty much the only I didn't have with me was a shovel, so digging out was not an option. I decided I had to turn back. But that meant going back up Boulby Bank. I didn't try too hard, it was clearly not going to work. So I pulled the car into Boulby Mine. After speaking to the security guard on the gate I left the car there, suited and booted up and began the walk back towards my parent's house. This is only about 1-2 mles, but involved walking back up the 1 in 7 Boulby Bank, in the middle of a snow storm in the middle of the night.

Every time I see Half Man Half Biscuit I am condemned to a long walk, it seems.