The Tube/Confessions from the Underground, Blur and Pulp live, Wired Magazine

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The Tube/Confessions from the Underground

The TubeA few weeks ago Channel 4 screened a documentary about the London Underground. It used a (slightly weird) device of getting actors to play real LU staff and tell their experiences of working on the Underground. It was strong stuff. Station staff were stressed and everyone feared for the safety of passengers. It all pointed to cut backs making the people’s jobs horrible now and leading to a terrible incident in the future.

It succeeded in making me sympathise for staff but didn’t succeed in much else. It was simply too one sided. There was little joy and lots of complaining. Given that LU has 19,000 employees, and the hatred that has been whipped up by the unions, I’m sure it would have been easy to find people who would tell horror stories and criticise.

BBC Two has just started showing a new series, The Tube, which also looks at LU through the eyes of staff. It couldn’t be more different from Channel 4’s programme. All the interviewees are upbeat and full of life. They are shown in tough situations – like dealing with the aftermath of a woman being thrown on to the tracks — but are shown taking it largely in their stride.

The BBC Two programme was made with the support of TFL. Channel 4’s programme without. Being the BBC they are keen to point out TFL did not have editorial control. Channel 4 made a point of it being ‘unauthorised’.

So, who to believe? Well, like all frontline customer service jobs, it takes a certain type of person to work at an Underground station. I also trust that TFL trains its staff to handle all sorts of difficult people and situations. I also like to believe that most people simply wouldn’t do those jobs if they couldn’t cope with the stresses.

But, in a climate of cost saving versus increasing passenger numbers I’m sure TFL managers are making decisions that will one day be criticised by an accident investigation. (Incidentally, we have to accept that accidents due to cutbacks have happened many times in the past and always will happen.) The truth is somewhere between BBC Two and Channel 4’s programme. I’d like to believe it is much closer to BBC Two’s though.

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Blur and Pulp live

Pulp at Brixton AcademyTwo years ago I got a last-minute ticket to see Blur at Hyde Park. It was an amazing gig that was helped by a lot of gin. I liked Blur back in the day but Pulp were my band. I was holding out for them to reform and play live.

Last year my wait ended and I saw them at Hyde Park. It was an amazing gig which was helped by a lot of wine but mainly my emotions at seeing them again. I then saw them at Brixton Academy and realised that this was the Pulp gig I wanted. It was longer with more ‘older’ tracks.

(At this point I should also say I’m no fan of gigs at Hyde Park. The sound, the crowd and the distance from stage are issues for me.)

Last Friday two gigs went on sale. Pulp at The Royal Albert Hall and Blur at Hyde Park. Something unexpected happened: I only wanted to buy tickets to Blur.

The reason was that after Brixton I’m too worried about diminishing returns for Pulp. I cannot see how the RAH could be better than Brixton and I don’t want to spoil them. I don’t care as much about Blur. I know it will be a good gig and two years will have passed since I’ve seen them. There just had better not be any twats near me in the audience.

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Wired Magazine

Wired MagazineI’ve already noticed my lack of interest in Wired UK’s iPad edition. Now my subscription to the print magazine is up and I’m really questioning renewing it.

Wired should speak to me in the way Smash Hits spoke to teenage girls way back when. But I find I’m just flicking through it and not caring.

If I’m honest I’ve also developed a problem reading about cool successful people who are younger than me. This isn’t really Wired’s fault.

Truth is I’ll probably renew given that is only £24 for the year.

Anecdotally I’ve heard I’m not the only who feels like this.

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Music Magpie, Radio 1’s Specialist Takeover, Bitching about the railways

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Music Magpie

Sorting CDsI’ve started a big clear-out of my flat. In particular I want to get rid of the stuff that moved in with me 6+ years ago and has barely been touched since. That, sadly, includes my CD collection and a lot of DVDs. It’s a process that started last year when I made a tidy sum selling anything of value through Amazon Marketplace but I was still left with a few hundred discs.

So on New Year’s Day I started scanning my stuff into Music Magpie which, if you don’t know, is a company that buys used CDs, DVDs and games. They’ve been going a few years and it looks like they’ve got a well developed system. When I first used it a year ago you had to type each barcode in by hand. Now they have an app to scan them.

Most of my (popular) CDs and DVDs were only worth 30p but some were a few quid. I learnt last year that the ones they offer more than a pound for can be worth selling through Amazon (or PlayTrade) but if there’s a lot of other sellers or the disc is obscure they can take a long time to sell.

Discs and cases have to be in reasonable nick. This means they cannot have plugger promotional stickers on them. So I did have to do a fair bit of recasing (something my fingernails aren’t forgiving me for).

All was looking good with Music Magpie until the courier didn’t turn up to collect my CDs on Saturday.  A phone call to them got me an apology and a time specific collection with another courier on Wednesday. After that I’ll wait for them to be processed to see how much of the promised £120 I’ll get. Not bad for things that have been in the cupboard for years. It was still sad to see them go though.

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Radio 1 Specialist Takeover

Radio 1's New Music MonsterWith the exception of Chris Moyles when I wake up, the Scott Mills Daily podcast, and the occasional Huw Stephens weekend show I’ve stopped listening to Radio 1. However last week’s specialist takeover pulled me back. For five weekdays the daytime line-up was replaced by Zane Lowe, Annie Mac, Huw Stephens and Nick Grimshaw.

I’ve always believed the main reason to listen to daytime Radio 1 was for the entertaining presenters and creative ideas but not the music. That changed this week as the music programming was a spot-on mix of ‘new’ tracks, ‘specialist’ tracks that ‘crossed over’ last year and ‘classic’ tracks. (I put all those terms in quotes as their definition is up for debate.) If Radio 1 played music like this every day I’d be pulled back from the office choice of 6 Music.

Radio 1 have started trails and TV adverts saying “New Music – It’s Our Big Thing – All Day Every Day”. I really hope it is.

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Bitching about the railways

Railway companies aren’t lucky when it comes to PR. Every year they put their fares up and get a blasting in the press. The story gets at least two cycles: the announcement in the autumn and then in January when the rise happens. The second is made worse by the lack of other news for the press to cover. Two sets of public outrage so close together means people don’t stop raging between them.

I’m actually annoyed by this raging. I’m lucky enough not to suffer peak time travel anymore but I do know what it is like. I’m not saying our transport system is perfect but it is a lot better than it was. And that’s my first pet hate: people who complain they haven’t seen anything for their increased fares. London Underground has better trains and is more reliable than it was (admittedly this took the new Victoria Line trains a while to achieve). London Overground is finally fit for purpose. Trains in South London don’t fail me. I have no complaints about Virgin, First Great Western or East Coast.

I cannot say the same for National Express East Anglia though. Its trains are old and knackered. This led to a call to arms from Walthamstow blogger radiokate. The problem is NXEA are only a small part of the issue as this comment explains. In short NXEA have to use the trains they are given and run them on tracks they don’t control.

This is my second pet hate: people’s misplaced anger. It is the whole system that is screwed. Sadly that makes us all rather powerless.

What I want to see is the press use the fare increase news cycles to highlight the deep causes and campaign to change them. Don’t just report people being angry. We know that. It doesn’t change.

Guitar bands, Streetview photography, Pricing psychology

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Guitar bands coming back in 2013

Ed SheeranOne of my annual highlights is getting free tickets to T4’s Stars of 20##. It’s a fun afternoon of drinking and watching the pop artists of the year doing their greatest hit. This year there seemed to be less pop, and the crowd were loudest for The Wanted and Ed Sheeran.

I knew Ed Sheeran had a strong fan base but I was not expecting the reaction he got. On stage, alone, playing acoustic guitar through effects pedals, he had the entire audience hanging off every note and singing along. He’s not a conventionally attractive boy but you could tell that girls loved him.

I’ve always believed that kids’ passion/obsession with pop bands when 11-16 gives them a love of music that grows into a proper appreciation when 16+. Boy/girl bands are important to this. Take That/Spice Girls led to a shift to more serious music of the mid-2000s. Now we have girls getting far too excited about One Direction.

In the past, the ‘serious’ music has been grunge, indie, rap and singer-songwriters. I’m willing to bet the influence of Ed Sheeran will lead kids to pick up guitars and in a few years we’ll have a new breed of guitar bands.

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Streetview photography

A New American PictureI’m fascinated by photographs by decaying America. Usually it is photos of closed diners or cinemas but there’s also something moving about seeing streets in the supposedly developed country that are crumbling with poverty. I always wonder about the photographer’s set-up: were their photos staged, did they take hundreds of pictures to get that one shot, did they just chance upon that location?

Via Mashable I found Doug Rickard’s A New American Picture. His photos have the poignancy and power of other photos I’ve admired, but they are just more grainy and blurred.

The reason for this low quality is they are taken from Google Street View. This puts their ‘realness’ without doubt. And the answer to how many photos were taken is millions. I suppose Doug had a good idea of what streets to look at but it is still an impressive project. It makes me want to try the same in the UK.

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Pricing psychology

Woolsey MenuThis is not new but something I saw an enlightening talk about recently. It will come as no surprise that pricing is all about psychology and making you feel comfortable about paying more.

Restaurant menus turn this into an art form. As Wired explains tricks include putting an expensive dish top to make the others look better value. Boxes draw the eyes and statistically diners are more likely to order whatever is in them. And something as simple as removing the £ signs increases spend.

For digital services it’s all about the tier pricing plans. Here the free plan needs to be just enough to tempt you in, start using the service and then find it doesn’t quite give you everything you need. Then there needs to be at least three paid-for tiers with the middle one being the feature set you know most people want.

The cheapest should do just a few things that probably don’t add much to the free offering. Price this just below the middle one, so it looks like you get everything you need for just a few pound more. Go to town on the most expensive offering features most people don’t need for a much higher cost. This makes the medium one look like great value.

The expensive one will still make money. There’s a small group of people who panic at seeing choice and always go for the full expensive package just to be sure it does what they want. There are also the corporate clients who aren’t spending their own money and don’t want to risk buying something cheap which doesn’t deliver.

Unconference/BarCamp, Fish Pie in a Pot, CloudScrob

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Unconference/BarCamp

After a summer of going to conferences that cost £50-£500 (I volunteered at the expensive one) and coming away questioning their value, I’ve been wondering if there’s a better way of doing things. I’d heard about user-generated events (unconferences) that followed BarCamp rules and last weekend I got to experience my first.

The format is straightforward. There’s no advance agenda and no booked speakers. There’s just a number of spaces/rooms and a schedule of time slots. People attending are encouraged to host a session by either giving a presentation or facilitating a discussion. At the start of the event they post cards on a schedule board with their subjects. The event’s participants then use the cards to decide which sessions to attend.

All this makes BarCamps cheap and easy to organise. You just need a location and a network of people to attend. If a sponsor can help provide coffee/lunch/beer even better.

The one I went to was ProductCamp London which brought together 150 product managers. Everybody seemed to get involved and the 32 session slots filled up. Most sessions I went to were interesting. A few didn’t live up to their titles and I found myself suffering from ‘fear of missing out’ when I could see a better-looking session through the windows.

I feel like I need to be much more picky with my paid-for conferences in future but I’d happily take a punt on the next BarCamp that looks interesting.

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Fish Pie in a Pot

Fish Pie in a PotWhen Innocent introduced its Veg Pots it must have got ready-meal makers thinking because a few months after other meals started to appear in the same pots. But these competing products offered something new: meat and fish.

I’ve tried a few and have usually being underwelmed. As their portion size is more suited to a lunchtime rather than a big tea-time (or dinner as they say down south) I don’t usually buy them. Except that is for M&S’s Fish Pie in a Pot. I get cravings for them.

The fish is haddock and salmon. It’s bulked out with potato and some peas. There’s also an unhealthy amount of creme fraiche, butter, cheddar and cream (which is probably why I like it). Add a side of peas in some mint sauce and it’s supper bliss.

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CloudScrob

OK, this one is only relevant to last.fm users who have an iPhone or iPod Touch. If that isn’t you, stop reading as it will be dull.

Since upgrading to iOS5 I’ve stopped syncing my iPhone to my Mac. The iCloud and easy application updates means I don’t have to. And when I do it takes hours (but that’s another story). This means I haven’t been scrobbling my music plays to last.fm.

I figured I couldn’t be the only person with this problem so a quick web search lead me to CloudScrob. It’s a simple 89p app that looks for tracks you’ve played since you last launched it and sends them to last.fm. There’s no buttons to press and it takes seconds.

Pan Am, Gig lighting, Flickr

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Pan Am
Christina Ricci in Pan AmPan Am must have been an American TV exec’s dream: A stylish period drama to cash-in on the success of Mad Men; Pan Am was known for only hiring beautiful people so the cast had to be glamourous. Add in international travel and a spy storyline and we are ready for take off.

The critics have not been kind. No one is saying it is terrible but no one is calling it a classic — three stars all around. After watching the first two I agreed. It was feeling a bit forced and dressing everyone in the same uniform made it impossible for me to remember who was who.

A hungover Sunday meant I ventured to episode three and it turned out to be a cracker. The spy storyline had tension, there was nice humour around Maggie’s attempts to meet JFK and, taking things down to the basics, Christina Ricci looked amazing in a black poppy-print dress. I also realised I’d started caring for the characters (something I’m finding hard to do in TV drama these days).

So I’ll be sticking with Pan Am. I hope it is worth it.

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Gig lighting

I’ve been going to gigs for many years now and I still go to many in a year. We are told live music is still booming and it is the big money spinner for the industry. I tend to go to gigs in medium sized venues (KOKO, Brixton Academy, Scala). As venues they are well fitted out and the sound is usually great but I went to a gig last week which made me realise more needs to be done on stage.

I do like a band to have personality on stage but that isn’t important as long as the music blows me away (The Horrors do nothing but play, but boy can they play). However seeing Ane Brun at Scala reminded me what can be done with lighting. I’m not going to attempt to describe it here and photos (like this and this) don’t do it justice but it made such a difference to the gig. My best memory is the back of the stage bathed in blue with the two percussionists in shadow through smoke.

At the end of the gig Ane thanked her lighting director along with band so it is obviously something she cares about. I wish more artists did.

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Flickr
Lonely Pudsey (my most popular photo on Flickr)In the past year, how and when I take photos has changed. Before I never used my camera phone and would only take photos with my point-and-shoot when I was on a trip/holiday. Then Instagram came along and, with my iPhone 4, I had a half-decent camera on my phone. The result is my trusty point-and-shoot has been confined the drawer and I’m taking photos all the time.

Instagram’s app lets me upload my best photos straight to Flickr but I don’t always use Instagram. There’s still a few photos I like to take (like the view from my hotel room) just using the camera. Problem is I never get around/cannot be bothered uploading these to Flickr.

This leaves me with a quandary about Flickr. I absolutely love to be able to look back over old photos on the site. Most importantly it means my photos don’t get abandoned on a hard drive. But looking at Flickr yesterday I realised I haven’t created a new set since May – and it is these sets I look back over. All my photos since then are in an uncollected mess.

Then there’s the $25 I pay for Flickr each year. Admittedly it isn’t much money. But I’m not a ‘power’ user. If you compare what you get for $25 on other online services I’m not getting value. Yet I’m locked into Flickr because if I stop paying I lose access to my archive.

I’m not going to quit Flickr anytime soon but I would like it to do something – anything — to adapt to my new way of taking photos. Selfish I know.

Secret DJ, Bus Countdown, Spotify adverts

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Secret DJ

Secret DJI’m far from convinced by QR codes especially as many are in places I have no interested in scanning them (eg on the tube where there’s no phone signal) but last night there was one on our bar tab card so I scanned it.  It took me to the iPhone App store where I downloaded Secret DJ.

Secret DJ is neat idea.  It’s an app that lets you pick three tracks from the venue’s ‘jukebox’.  It was quiet in the pub so our three chosen tracks played straight away to our musical (and my geeky) delight.  There’s some proper thought been put into the app.  It uses GPS to ensure you are in the venue.  You can see what is playing now, listen to previews, see who else likes the tracks and buy the tracks (there-be the business model).

There’s data-collection on registration which I guess is shared with the venue (sorry I gave false details so don’t know for sure).  And I bet it is a lot cheaper to install and run than a traditional jukebox (a bet made the assumption the music is played on a laptop application hooked up to the venue’s sound system).

It is win all around.  Except for fans of proper jukeboxes.  And those without iPhones. Maybe not such a win then.

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Bus Countdown

Bus CountdownWhen I first came to London I was very excited to see Countdown on all the bus stops fulfilling all my ‘when is the bus due’ needs.  Then for reasons I never understood the dot-matrix displays were removed from most (but not all) stops.

As a person who was excited by the bus stop displays you can imagine how I felt when I heard TFL were releasing Countdown data for developers to use in apps and the like.   The first public stage of this release has been to put them online on their website.  Said website is nifty on a desktop but fiddly on an iPhone.  Despite this we battled through in the pub after listening to our tunes and got the times of our bus.  It meant we could quickly drink up to catch the next bus.  Without it we would have drunk slower, just missed the bus and had to wait 15min for the next one.

I’ll be buying the app.

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Spotify’s Bad Adverts

SpotifyI’ve been working from home of late and listening to a lot of music while doing it.  I cannot work while listening to music I know (too distracting) so last.fm’s artist/friends radio and Spotify’s playlists have been my soundtrack.

In the past I’d never been bothered by the adverts on Spotify so never felt the need to subscribe.  But returning to it now there seems to be a lot less adverts on more regular rotation.  And those adverts are dire.  Piccadilly Institute – I’m talking about you.  They have the sort of advert we used to have on student radio.  A poor quality voiceover talking about a ‘cool new nightspot in the heart of London’.

But I wonder if these bad adverts are a subtle ploy from Spotify to boost subscriptions.  Finally on Friday I cracked and signed up for a free week’s trial.  I’ve since enjoyed the uninterrupted music.  Once the trial is up I’ll probably sign up for their £4.99 a month plan.  All because of the Piccadilly Institute’s advert.