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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Beth Jeans Houghton, Work and Personal email, The Kelvedon Hatch Secret Nuclear Bunker

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Beth Jeans Houghton

Beth Jeans HoughtonBeth Jeans Houghton has just released her debut album with her band ‘The Hooves of Destiny’. There’s every chance you haven’t heard of her. I first saw her at Swn in 2009 where she appeared in a tall white wig and had big problems getting her instruments to work. I instantly loved her music (which I’d not heard before) and was charmed by her Geordie stage banter. I’ve seen her several times since and each time she’s changed.

She started off being a new folk hero (the second time I saw her she was supporting Stornaway). Then for a while it felt like she might be the next Lady Gaga as she immersed herself into LA culture while recording the album and was rumoured to be dating Anthony Kiedis (from Red Hot Chili Peppers). Her album took a long time to come.

In December I saw her play a Christmas party gig. It wasn’t the best of crowds as a lot of people had come to see the, very different, Canadian band on before her. The gig worried me. Beth was, well, narky on stage and the new songs lacked the sparkle of the ones I knew.

And now her album is out. And I very much like it. But there’s a problem. I think she is going to sink without much of a trace. The few reviews I’ve read have been positive but they struggle to define what her music is — generally they’ve described her as folk. BBC 6 Music have supported her with sessions and interviews but outside of them I cannot see anyone else getting behind her.

I really wanted Beth to be the next big thing. She’s got the personality. If I’m honest I wanted this so I could say I saw her three years ago before she was famous. Oh well.

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Work and Personal email

Sparrow iPhoneNow I’m working for two different companies I have three email addresses to attend to during office hours (the third being my personal one). I prefer to use different email addresses as it keeps projects separate and I can avoid my work ones when I’m not on the clock.

This is easy on my laptop where I use the superb Sparrow mail app during working hours. It makes it easy to swap between any of my inboxes and one that amalgamates all my new mail.

This is less easy on my iPhone where the single mail app does an OK job at managing my different emails but it is on 24/7. This means I get alerted to new work emails at the weekend and my slight OCD means I cannot stand to see the little red number telling me I have unread emails. So, I have to open them.

What I need is a second email client on my iPhone. Apple used to say they would not approve apps which repeated functionality already on the phone — i.e. not allow other email clients. Happily they’ve relaxed this rule. Sadly the Google’s Gmail application isn’t great (yet).

The good news is Sparrow are working on an iPhone version. I hope it is good, I’m counting on it.

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The Kelvedon Hatch Secret Nuclear Bunker

Bad mannequinIf you are looking for a geeky day out then visit the National Museum of Computing at Bletchley Park. But if that is too far and you fancy a drive up the M11 then head to The Kelvedon Hatch Secret Nuclear Bunker.

It is a decommissioned bunker that was originally built in the 50s as part of Britain’s air defences. Hidden underground it was home to one of those large maps you see in the movies with ladies pushing planes around while male commanders look on.

In the 60s it was upgraded to be an emergency regional government defence site. If south east England was hit by a nuclear bomb, key politicians and public servants would be locked inside to run the country. It was maintained for this purpose through to the 90s. Now it is back in the hands of the family who originally owned the land in the 50s and they’ve opened it to the public.

It is fabulous on many levels. It shows the level of planning for nuclear war, is packed full of outdated equipment and bad mannequins, and it illustrates the absurdity of the advice given to the public (you should hide in a cupboard boarded up with doors and mattresses for two weeks but, basically, you are going to die a horrible death).

The fact it is a family owned museum really shows through. While it is brilliant they have taken the time to open it to the public, you can see they lack the finer points of museum management. In particular there’s all the hand-written signs that bark commands at you, and “that means you”.

It is only £7 and for that you get a headset tour. Sadly they don’t let you take photos without a £5 permit (something many signs warn you about). It would have been a great advert if I’d been able share what I saw.

Emails lost as spam, Personal documents on Kindle/GoodReader, Reading Trainer app

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Emails lost as spam

GmailIn the past week I’ve had three emails sent from my Gmail caught in the spam filter of the receiver. This really worries me. There could well be more.

The really scary thing is they were all to people I’d previously exchanged email with and some very recently.

As a freelance contractor I rely on email to set up new relationships with people. The first I knew that one of my emails hadn’t gone through was when I received a text from a new employer postponing a kick-off meeting because he hadn’t received my confirmation. That’s not the image I want to project.

You just trust that an email will get to its destination. Without this trust, email breaks down as a communication system.

Gmail’s spam filtering is so good I rarely see spam in my inbox. But I think I’d rather see more spam and know the filter is letting through email I count on.

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Personal documents on Kindle/Good Reader

kindleAs part of the fun of taking on a new project I’ve had to read a few long reports. Back when I had access to a free office printer I’d ignore the environment and think nothing of printing 80 sides. As my home printer is one of those cheap ones that uses expensive ink cartridges I now think twice (and about the environment).

My iPad has been great for reading such documents. In particular the GoodReader app opens all sorts of files. It can download them from Dropbox or direct from my Gmail. However, GoodReader was obviously created by a developer who hasn’t got the user interface skills to make loading and accessing documents simple. I’m not saying GoodReader is bad – in fact, I recommend it – but it isn’t one for the mainstream audience.

Kindle is very much for the mainstream audience and it’s come through with a simple way to read your own documents on its device or one of its apps. Simply email your Word, Text, HTML, image or pdf file to your @kindle.com address. After a few minutes it will be ready to download to your device.

Setting this up does need a bit of work. Amazon will automatically give you an address (I think mine was something like andrewbarron42@kindle.com) but you can change it. Then, to prevent spam, you have to give it email addresses to accept documents from. All this is hidden away in ‘Personal Document Settings’ under ‘Your Kindle Account’ on the ‘Manage Your Kindle’ page of Amazon. (You see what I mean about it needing a bit of work.)

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Reading Trainer app

Reading TrainerSomewhere along the way in my life I’ve lost the ability to read well. I think it happened at university where I started skimming set texts. It’s then been made worse by speed-reading text on screens. Last year I started reading fiction books again in an attempt to improve things but I still find I could ‘read’ a few pages and not take a single word in.

A few weeks ago a Reading Trainer app appearing in the iTunes App Store for a discount price so I thought I’d give it a go. Sadly it doesn’t seem to be working for me. Admittedly I was sceptical that it would be brain-training-esq and just made you better at doing the tasks in the game. Having done several units I don’t think it is even doing that.

The problem is that I get no sense of how the tasks are improving my reading (if they are). Tasks like finding words in a grid of letters and spotting which pair of words don’t match are helping me concentrate. But others, like reading a passage and answering questions about it, seem like more of a test of my existing knowledge. There are also anagram tasks, which I fail simply because I cannot do anagrams.

It shows me graphs that are going up, but without context. I now have a reading power of 52 (cue the bit in Harry Hill’s TV Burp where he looks to side and shrugs his shoulders).

Maybe I need to do it more. Maybe I’ve not reached the breakthrough moment. Lots of reviewers on the iTunes Store are impressed by their achievements.

Pies, Pizza at the Gowlett, Instagram photos of food

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Pies

My pieI love pies. But until last week I’d never made one. While pies seem simple — pastry and some filling — the thought of making pastry and cooking up some filling seemed like too much work. I guess I also knew deep down that pies were unhealthy. The pie I made certainly was.

It came from the Pieminister book a friend kindly gave me. Like many cookery spin-off books it is beautifully produced, everything looks wonderful but takes a pile of ingredients the likes of me doesn’t keep around the house. However hidden at the back was the Hunter Chicken Pie which didn’t call for something I wouldn’t buy on a normal shop.

Admittedly I did cheat and use ready-rolled puff pastry. But the chopping of onions, cooking with rosemary then adding tomato, Worcester sauce and balsamic vinegar was me. Then cooking up the chicken, bacon and 150ml of double cream was me. I did get a bit of help laying out the pastry.

The result was gorgeous. I’m pleased I’d had my blood cholesterol test earlier in the week before eating it.

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Pizza at The Gowlett

Gowlett's pizzaI should love pizza but I have an on-off relationship with it, mainly because pizzas disappoint me too much. I’d given up hope on shop bought pizzas. Pizza Express’ efforts do nothing for me. The occasional delivery pizza is OK but only it if has BBQ sauce on it.

I’m down to two places that do pizza really well. One is Yard in Shoreditch which sells pizza by the yard with different toppings to share. I’ve only been there three times and it hasn’t failed me. But the best place I’ve ever found for pizza is The Gowlett in Peckham.

It often tops charts of best pizza in (South) London and deservedly so. What I cannot work out is why. It is a backstreet boozer that’s purposely been kept plain. Although it tries to make a virtue out of its beer selection it is average. But their pizzas stand out. The base is perfect and the toppings tasty and inventive.

Not skimping on the quality of the toppings is certainly a factor. Last night’s chef’s special featured a runny egg that tasted better than most I’ve made.

Their pizzas come from a hidden kitchen out back so you cannot even see how they are prepared. The only clue was a sign I once saw that said they are made by Polish chefs.

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Instagram photos of food

The face of cruditésInstagram photos seem to fall into three types. Cool photos made even cooler with the filters, pets and home cooked food. Lacking a pet my photos fall into the first and third categories (although I’d accept the criticism they aren’t that cool).

This is nothing new. In the early days of Flickr people would take photos of what they were about to eat but the fashion fell away. Now it is back on Instragram and I think I know why.

For a lot of people Instragram is about showcasing artistic creativity. The filters make this easy to do. Most people I know don’t have the time to create nice things but they do cook. I was very proud of the pie I made and my breadmaker produced its best ever loaf. I wanted to share those ‘achievements’ and Instagram made that quick and easy.

I find myself taking fewer Instagram photos as I feel like they have to be good. In the winter there are less opportunities to find interesting things to photograph. But I’m cooking more. The food pictures will continue.

Apple Marketplaces, Tiger Stores, Walthamstow Stadium

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Apple Marketplaces

Last week Jean-Louis Gassée wrote a blog post on The Guardian asking Apple to provide a comprehensive editorialised guide for its App Store. His point was the current store is a small shop window with little context that does a poor job of selling the thousands of useful apps out there:

…ask developers and, most important, users. For all its demonstrable success, the App Store feels broken. It’s too big and confusing, the app reviews are dry and the ratings are unreliable, search is primitive..

Using the Michelin Guides as a template he suggested Apple invest in reviewers who highlight what is best over a wide selection of users and uses. As a regular visitor to the App Store I’d love more than an icon and name to sell me apps.

The launch of iTunesU as an app really highlights the need for Apple to improve its marketplace. If you don’t know, iTunesU collects learning video and audio from a range of colleges and universities (like the Open University and Stanford). There’s good stuff in there, but it is buried under the Apple’s category-driven marketplace. Advance courses are mixed in with introductory ones, with only the title to distinguish them.

An editorialised shopfront based where the user can navigate by level and interest to find helpful reviews would open up iTunesU (and the App Store and iBooks).

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Tiger Stores

Tiger Stores in StratfordIf you are the sort of person who likes wandering around Ikea’s Marketplace, picking up competitively priced utensils and designer knick-knaks you didn’t know you wanted, then Tiger Stores is the shop for you.

It’s a (currently) small franchise chain which started in Copenhagen, has 100+ stores in Europe and 13 in England. My closest one is in Stratford’s Shopping Centre (the old knackered one, not Westfield). Last week’s visit included the purchase of envelopes, bearnaise sauce mix, small containers for travel toiletries and some wooden tongs (for getting bread out of the toaster).

In a shop the size a large corner shop it piles high well-designed goods. Trade is always brisk. If I was more of a businessman/shopkeeper with money to invest I’d open my own franchise.

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Walthamstow Stadium

Walthamstow Stadium by dgI drove past the disused dog track in Walthamstow at the weekend. It was a depressing sight. It is still there looking resplendent in white and red. For those who don’t know, it closed  in August 2008 after the owner sold it to a property developer who planned to turn it into flats, offices and shops. There’s an ongoing fight to stop it happening.

The previous owner said the track was losing money. I have no evidence or reason to doubt this. But I do think they could have done more with it. Race nights were packed. However the site was empty outside of races (and the occasional video shoot). It could have hosted a car boot sale on Sunday mornings, opened a cafe with view of the site, ran fitness classes during the day, held festivals (beer and music) and more.

Yes, we have a housing shortage. But I’ve seen several new developments opening with nothing more than a Tesco Express for community. People need more than houses. Dog racing at Walthamstow was great (even though I always lost).

The Artist, LetterMpress, State of Play

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The Artist

The ArtistSo, everyone is raving about the film The Artist. A modern silent film that is styled like and set in the era of old silent films. I saw it over a week ago and still find myself asking if I thought it was good. Robert Elms didn’t think it was and has blogged his objections:

…I found this was laboured, hammy, uninvolving, clever beyond tolerance and thoroughly pointless…by setting it in the time of silent films and so obviously playing on those techniques, it simply became an exercise in stylised French retro chic.

Seeing Robert’s thoughts made me realise I agreed. Now, I didn’t hate The Artist, in fact I rather enjoyed it, but it didn’t blow me away. I’m wondering if people are getting over excited because it is different and they felt special at seeing something so retro. I did find myself wondering if I would have enjoyed a ‘classic’ silent comedy more.

Further proof that people have been caught in a whirlwind is the number of awards nominations it has. Why is it up for best sound at the BAFTAs? Best score maybe but The Artist’s sound design is nothing special (for obvious reasons).

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LetterMpress

LetterMpressLetterMpress is an iPad and Mac application that recreates an old fashioned letter press and lets you make your own prints. It beautifully captures the look and actions of a real large letterpress.

You create prints by dragging individual letters or graphics on to the press. This is where you first realise how much effort goes into letter pressing. It isn’t just a case of dropping the letter where you want it because they don’t stick the press, they slide around as you knock other letters into it. To keep things fixed and straight you have to add magnets. Then you need to set up each colour separately and print them on top of each other. And you have to do everything reversed like looking in a mirror. Suddenly getting the multi-coloured print you want takes time and practice.

It is a fun challenge and the app will let you cheat (for example showing you the letters the correct way around). Graphic blocks are limited so you can only really produce text prints but it is a cool way to make cards and posters.

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State of Play

State of PlayThis is actually one from last month. In fact State of Play was the best thing I watched on TV last year — not bad for a series made in 2003.

It is a six-part conspiracy thriller written by Paul Abbott and staring David Morrissey, John Simm, Bill Nighy, Kelly MacDonald and James McAvoy. Starting with a young man being shot by a hit-man, and then quickly introducing the death of an aide to a high-profile MP, it shows a world where the press, government and the police interact.

It was particularly interesting to watch in light of the phone-hacking revelations of 2011. The story is driven by a bunch of broadsheet journalists who use all sorts of nefarious methods to get information. Their relationship with the police is particularly interesting – they don’t pay but they trade information and withhold facts to protect their story.

It feels strange to say this but if one of your TV highlights of last year was The Killing with its mix of investigation, politics and human consequences then this early 2000s series is for you. And you can get it second hand on play.com for a few quid.

Supporting local shops, Appifier, More or Less

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Supporting local shops

Stylish local shopkeeperTesco has opened an Express store near me. And it is a good one. It has a wide range and seems to be cheaper than the central London Tesco Metros and Sainsburys Locals. It is probably a ten minute walk from my flat but it will relatively easy for me to visit on the way home for the tube.

So, I now find myself with middle-class guilt over my local convenience store. I hate the way our high streets have become identical collections of the same brands. There’s been plenty of fights against these small big chain supermarkets moving into neighbourhoods where locals have come out to support their shopkeepers.

My problems is my local shop isn’t run by a friendly shopkeeper — they don’t even make eye contact. Their range is poor and expensive. And if I buy milk in the summer it will go off before the use-by date. Yet the family that run it are there 13 hours a day every day, I suspect they don’t take a day off and have never had a holiday. Plus they are conveniently at the top of my street so I can pop there to get milk before breakfast.

I guess the best I can do is only use the lovely Tesco Express for things I usually buy for my local shop. And I have to hope they aren’t driven out of business.

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Appifier

AppifierAppifier is a new product that promises to turn your WordPress blogs into iPhone apps with ease. I tried it last week and it was easy. Install a plugin on your blog, upload an icon and loading screen png to Appifier and your app is ready. You can see it on your iPhone using its Sandbox app.

Appifier submit your app to Apple but you need your own developer account ($99 a year). The ongoing cost of Appifier is $39.99 a month or $499.99 a lifetime. The Appifier cost includes push notifications and you can monetise it with AdMob or Adsense without paying Appifier a cut.

So far, so simple, so a-little-pricey.

The first problem is the resulting app is as simple as setup process. It shows the latest seven posts as simple image and text. You navigate to older posts via their categories and search. That’s it. No comments or commenting.

This leads on to the second problem — what is the point? It doesn’t make a compelling app. You’d have to have a pretty loyal readership to get a decent number of iPhone users. And the sort of bloggers this simple approach will appeal to will not.

I’m sure Appifier have bigger plans and more features on the way but I cannot see how it will justify its cost and bring in enough app traffic.

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More or Less

More or LessI’ve been gorging on podcasts lately. For the first time in a long time I’m up to date on the Scott Mills Daily and I’ve listened to the latest series of Radio 4’s More or Less. Presented by The FT’s Tim Hartford, it is a 30 minute looks at maths, statistics and numbers in the news.

Now, I understand that this might not sound interesting. However it does a great job of explaining and debunking things. In particular I like how it takes figures in the news and checks their validity (a bit like Channel 4’s Fact Check).

In the last episode it checked if the projected benefits of High Speed 2 are realistic and if executive pay has really risen by 70%. It presented both sides of the argument while explaining how complicated these things are to get right.

(It does look like the High Speed 2 benefits were calculated in good faith but it is hard to predict travel in 2070. Executive pay hasn’t risen by so much across the board.)

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