Sunday, August 26, 2012

Neil Armstrong, 1930 – 2012



Modern methods of news delivery are rough on the sensibilities. At around eightish last night a notification surfaced on my iPhone from the NYT app; At 82, Neil Armstrong, first man on the moon, dead. Then that odd sense of personal loss when the death occurs of someone who you didn't really know, had never met, but very much admired.

For people my age the loss of Armstrong closes a chapter strongly associated with the wonder of childhood and the sense of burgeoning possibility, that you too might be an astronaut and Space generally was going to be ours for the sampling. Remember that game around in the seventies, Careers? The best one was being an astronaut. Later you found out that actually this wasn't a job choice for you, but really for an elite within an elite, the very best pilots who were also tremendous scientists and analytical thinkers. It helped to be an American, or a Russian, or at least from a country that got on with them very well.

The original Gemini and Apollo astronauts were great fliers, but the factor that recommended Armstrong and his kin to NASA, and to the rest of us, was nerve. The Saturn V, and I have stood next to one lying flat on its side like a stricken white dinosaur, does not look safe. It is not safe. It is the nearest a vehicle can come to a controlled explosion. There was an escape system - you can see the handle on the schematics and it's featured in the film Apollo 13, but pulling it was unthinkable, I would guess. It wasn’t done. Nobody did it.

Armstrong and his brethren were the steely concentrated point of a spear thrown by a rattled superpower; Kennedy recognised that it was unacceptable for the Russians to pootle around space unchallenged with their spunky sputniks. He needed a Grand Slam to re-establish the proper order of things, ie with the USA at the top of the interstellar food chain. Hence the space programme, target: The Moon, developed at breakneck speed, with casualties along the way.

Armstrong had nerve, but was of the breed or maybe the generation of people who don’t bother speaking of it. Nothing much about NASA was safe. The training was particularly dangerous; NASA’s attempt to simulate the Lunar landing module was to build a kind of bedstead with a rocket in the middle and thrusters on the side; a pure deathtrap which Armstrong had to eject out of as it turned over and exploded. Most people would go home at that point, but not him, he just shrugged and got on with it. 

Did going to the Moon matter? I don’t think the Moon in itself matters a jot. Not to them at the time, or to us now. There was an audit of moon rock recently, the stuff dragged home in plastic bags at awe inspiring expense; some of it has gone missing. Nobody cares. It’s just geology. That’s what the astronauts did when they got there; bounced around with hammers examining the dust. And once they’d got there, and done this for a while, nobody cared to go back.

The shelved Space Programme illustrates how supremely self interested we are as a species; humans just wanted to know that they could get to such a place. The place itself was not important, the achievement of the journey was the thing. It was the madness of it that gripped. Images persist - at the end, out of fuel, hundreds of feet above the deadly lunar surface, far from rescue, the tiny computer going wonky, Armstrong standing at the window looking for a place to just put the Eagle down. He didn’t go on about it afterwards, leaving us to marvel at it all.

Armstrong and his colleagues dissatisfied in a modern way; having been a locked down individual, married to the mission, its challenges listed by countless dry checklists, he and the others found it problematic to communicate the wonder of it to those of us left down on the ground. Military men, trained to the nth degree, often find it tricky to emote in the right way for the media. He refused to be a trained seal, went off, lectured at a University and farmed. Others in the NASA astronaut office found it harder to come back to earth; divorces, drugs and other hazy questionable stuff sometimes ensued. You could see that making an alteration in our perspective was tricky for the people doing the altering.
Now it’s us that need to alter our perspectives once more; Armstrong and his generation are slowly leaving us. Must his kind of adventure be a thing of the past? It seems unthinkable but when you look at the bill for a manned Mars mission reality kicks in. If humans care to go to Mars ourselves, rather than sending clever cars with cameras (truly that planet is crying out for street view) it can’t be as a national mission done by one power or another for prestige; it must be a joint enterprise, because the cost and risk will be prohibitive. To pick up Armstrong’s gauntlet, national self-interest must be put aside. That would be some legacy.      

Friday, August 10, 2012

My Olympics, or How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Learned to Love the Games

Here's where I have to admit that I called the Olympics wrong. In common with a few others I saw them approaching with a real sense of dread. That was for a number of reasons; the triumph that was Beijing (how could we compete with all those drummers?), the rickety nature of London's public transport (it can't even get Londoners home on a bad day, never mind millions of Olympic extras), the well known elitism of the IOC - an organisation that seems to be able to take over cities with more facility than the average armoured division.

I suspected I was wrong when I sat in front of the telly and saw the Geese at the opening ceremony. At that point I realised that something was up, and when the Queen parachuted in with Bond, well that was unforgettable, a work of utter genius. This was going not to be awful. It was going to be great.

As Keynes once remarked, when the facts change, I change my mind. So it was a case of banging the LOCOG website for tickets in common with half the UK population. People slagged off the site but really it stood up pretty well considering the millions of hits it must have been taking. We went to the Volleyball and wonder of wonder, bagged tickets for the Athletics by doing something deeply unpleasant to my Credit Card one evening.

The trick that LOCOG pulled off was to make the Games work on both levels, the big stuff like the venues, well designed and delivered on time, and also on the human scale - the volunteer staff, the catering and all the rest of the things that make a spectator event worth attending. The coverage was revolutionary in nature. Make no mistake the digital streaming of up to seventeen simultaneous events to mobile devices is a massive achievement and points the way to an exciting future for sports broadcasting.

Bolt in action on the Tuesday   credit:me
I wondered if I'd enjoy watching sports I don't normally pay to see. But instead I found I liked them more than the sport I normally pay to see. This was down to lots of things, but factors like the military doing the security was great - really two minutes from start to finish - the volunteers, who were everywhere and did a great job, and the enthusiasm of punters in the venues just lifted everything several notches above, say City v Stoke on a wet Wednesday evening.

People have been comparing footballers to the Olympic athletes and the country's most overpaid sportsmen are not coming out well. It's a bit facile to put the Olympic sporting festival next to football, which is in reality a fully fledged industry in our country, and one that pays its own way rather than relying on Lottery funding. But the spoilt and violent nature of some of the characters in the Premier League is in sharp contrast to the way the GB and other team members came over during the Games. The stark lesson for football players here, if they choose to absorb it, is that these are changed times and top footballers need to give more back - in the way they behave on and off the field. Some players, like Craig Bellamy, run charities that do great work but lets face it, he's very much an exception. The PR people who work with their pampered clients need to get a grip, because it may well be that the wind changed for football this summer.

Sunday, August 05, 2012

Apple's Challenge




I've had an iphone for a few years now and bought an ipad on the first day they came out. Apple changed the game for phones, effectively invented the tablet market and I've been a huge fan; I'm on my second ipad and will probably get an iphone 5. Yet I don't really entertain any notion that the new iphone will be much of an improvement on the iphone 4, which pretty much ticks all my boxes. I think the android/ios device arms race is now in stalemate; beyond incremental improvements in memory and chip speed there's probably not too much they can do to these things to make one vastly superior to the other. One of my friends has got himself a Nexus; while I'm yet to ambush him to get my fingers on it, I'm sure he's right that the Nexus is an excellent device at a brilliant price.

But one side is going to lose this race eventually and I think it will be Apple. Someone on one of the tech blogs was writing that Google's mastery of systems will eventually see it win through and I reckon that's right. We're getting to the point that the device is almost irrelevant, it's all about the OS, the user-experience and the content - and the Google cloud experience is immeasurably superior to Apple's. I have quite a fast PC and it really struggles with itunes. The icloud seems to resent me intruding to alter things; the Chrome browser by contrast is immeasurably better written and unites your internet self with your real self pretty effortlessly. I expect android is much the same.

The App store has been a big help to Apple, but now I wonder if the App Explosion is over. So many are just gimmicks; I install one, play with a bit, throw it out, rinse and repeat. Maps,twitter, instagaram - Android has the essentials that Ios has. There' s the fracturing of android which some say is an issue, and some issues with app quality on android, but few people say that's a massive problem.

This may well be the last iphone I buy because really Apple are selling a pair of devices to me now, a partnership of phone and tablet, and a cloud experience to unite them. If Google start to nudge seriously ahead - the Nexus won't be their last tablet - and their cloud experience continues to improve, and nothing radical happens to itunes, then I may well desert the Jobs temple and I won't be on my own. This Nexus is a real declaration of intent; cheap and effective. The next one will have more memory and probably pack 3G. By contrast Apple's rumoured change to the charger, which makes a number of devices in my house partially redundant, is aggravating and Apple no longer enjoys the tech-lead which would have allowed them to inflict this change painlessly. There is an arrogance there which doesn't fit with the tough spending decisions many people in their target markets are having to make. Apple executives are rich with their options and may not have heard about double dip recessions. This may be a problem, over time.

The iphone 5 is a real defining point. It has to be something great that puts it ahead of Samsung's brilliantly received Galaxy II, and by some margin. The future for me as a consumer is lightweight computing that allows me to unite with my content, work and fun wherever I am , whichever of my gadgets I have, and with a minimum of fuss. Apple gets there but I'm starting to wonder if Google and Android aren't starting to do it better, and crucially, cheaper.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

JoJo's in Whitstable

Take your hands off my small potato creamy thingies
Ms T's birthday saw the clouds clear, and joy of joys, the rain stop. So it was off to Whitstable on the Kentish coast to walk the dogs, squint through the sunlight at the boats, smell the sea - and to check out JoJo's which is a place with great and growing 'word of mouth'. 


The problem with guide dogs, or at least the two I seem to spend time with, is that when prone they occupy space roughly the size of a small continent. Fortunately this is not an issue for the staff here who not only let them in but gave us a table in an area where the noble beasts could sprawl contentedly while their four hungry adults got stuck into the food.


JoJo's is a tapas place, albeit with a kind of coffee place at the front which looked to be doing a roaring trade with burgers when we went in. The idea in the restaurant proper is that each plate feeds two people, and you order lots and try things. They encourage you to bring your own bottle although it does have a cellar with the basics. The margin is all on the food brought forth from the huge open-plan kitchen at the back of the single floor dining area; pretty brave policy, because from what I know of restaurants they tend to rely on the booze mark-up to stay in business. Fortunately JoJo's pull off the gamble with friendly, efficient service and some great offerings.


My favourite was the Calamari which was done to perfection, but our crew raved about the pig cheeks and the Patatas Bravas which have to be the best I've ever had, even in Spain. (Patatas Bravas. That means 'Brave Potatoes'. Doesn't it?). There was even flat bread which they made in the oven there and then.



We stuffed ourselves. A DC3 from the Battle of Britain memorial flight flew over and everyone piled out to wave. Perfect. If you're going I strongly suggest booking; it was rammed when we went with piles of families who looked as if they were having as good a time as we were. 


Jo-Jo's Meze Meat and Fish Restaurant

2 Herne Bay Road
Tankerton
Whiststable
Kent
CT5 2LQ

£25 a head (more if you don't BYO booze)
01227 274591










        

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Number 22

It's the animals I feel sorry for. Anything with fur suffers madly in this heat. My cats cower in the shade or patrol the house looking for cool surfaces to stretch themselves out on. There is no point in exercising the retired guide dog, indeed it might actually be cruel to give him a run in the park with the sun blasting down. Like the pets, we too slow up and seek lazy options. Fortunately there is a restaurant in Herne Hill which caters for just such an eventually, the tapas eaterie Number 22.

Reports of the Asparagus shortage are exaggerated
It's been opened a few years and we haven't been for ages, but after last night I think we'll be back more frequently. Good informal service with - heavens be praised - actually enough staff for the number of tables (that enrages me about some places, the ones that increase their margin by flogging a solitary waitress to death over fifty covers). Tables out the back in the cooling evening air.

The warm weather begged for Rose and we had the last two bottles of Vinas Del Vero in the place. The party  was Ms T with whom I shared ribs and a tasty octopus salad, and Helen who's a long standing veggie. She went for creamy Croqetas, tasty aubergine slices and seared tuna, which was done rare, which is how I like it.

£40 a head, which is a bit top edge for Herne Hill but we did get stuck into the wine.  The talk was of Leveson and the thing they call 'Grexit'. It often is these days.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Acid Test


To Lords, on a whim. Well, on the Jubilee Line. Clutching my M&S sandwiches I weave my way through the crowds on the Friday of England’s first Test against the West Indies. Big queues outside the entrances because the security measures now include a pat down and a thorough bag-search, incase someone tries to hijack the Mound stand, or something.  I haven’t got a ticket, but a nice lady at Lords ticket office sorts me out with a brilliant seat just underneath the media commentary position and behind the bowlers arm.  The price? £60.  This is now the price for a view of a premier sporting event, it seems.

God, but it’s cold. Mid May, but it may as well be February. I huddle in to my anorak and queue for twenty minutes for a coffee.Windies field with their hands in the pockets, body language radiating defeat as Strauss nervously picks his way to a century. I have a little radio that lets me hear the BBC Test Match Special commentators; it’s like going to the cricket with a bunch of knowledgeable friends. Henry Blofeld in classic form. Pigeon counting, silly nicknames for the players and loads of Boycott-teasing.

The first Test I ever went to was at Old Trafford in the eighties. Big crowd of Windies supporters with steel drums made for a brilliant atmosphere. Today at Lords there’s an interested buzz, but the gut adrenaline from a hard fought contest is absent. The crowd is attentive, but it’s politeness not a passionate response to the events on the pitch. That said, we rise as one to applaud the skipper’s hundred.  

Have one of the newsdesk tellies tuned to Sky Sports as England wrap it up on the Monday. Pleased that there’s a piece on the BBC Six O Clock News - but a Test victory now feels like business as usual for a side of real quality. I also think the fact that the game isn’t on free to air TV has removed it some way from the country’s radar.  The sport has lots of money now, and the team looks totally professional – but do people really care the way they used to? 

Monday, May 14, 2012

Witness



City fans are a tough breed. We have long since, in the words of Kipling, learned to treat triumph and disaster as imposters, and we are very well acquainted with the latter. Nevertheless an arrogance had crept in by the end of the season. City had beaten Newcastle away and the final fixture at home versus QPR looked like a formality. Well, more than a formality. A goal party.

By incredible good fortune and through an impossibly good friend I got a ticket on the morning of the match itself. I was in Manchester anyway and was out walking Russ the retired guide dog when the phone rang with the good news; man and labrador danced all the way home.

Then it was off to the place they used to call Eastlands, but which we now must call the Etihad. It is a superb stadium and Chris and I arrived two hours early to savour the atmosphere. The club has embarked on a programme of massive construction around the ground as well as rebuilding the team inside it. There is a huge plaza of bars and spaces where fans get together to watch goals on big screens. Spaces in the once run down area of Beswick have been bought and now have development marked out for them; this is a club that recognises UEFA's fair play rules as an opportunity to give something back to the community in which it bases its business.

We wandered about. City's players arrived in a coach with smoked glass windows. Atmosphere moved up a notch. We met our friends in a crowded pub, then took our comfy padded seats with the marvellous view now afforded to everyone who has a ticket. As I sat down I remembered the Kippax, marvellous character, yes, but really an old shed where you couldn't really see what was going on, either because of the pillars or other taller people. It was a place constructed for a bunker mentality. But this stadium is football for this century, not the early 1900's.

The rest is history. QPR two one up. Collective despair around the ground. People crying, shouting madly or just sat silent. Some people sat in front of us actually left. Could we really have come this far only to concede defeat once more? Barton's insane and disgraceful violence reducing QPR to ten men; I'd have loved to hear what Mark Hughes - a terrific manager who graces the Premier League with his passion and belief - had to say to him after his sending off. Then Mancini's substitutions. Dzeko; I'll never slag him off again. And Aguero; the desperate majesty of that last-gasp goal. Wonderment and joyous disbelief all around me; and oh so sweet to have deprived the red neighbours of a championship they must have thought they'd won when we lost against Arsenal.

A thought hit me as the roof blew off; this last chance saloon stuff is what Man U used to do. Then the celebrations; these will reverberate for the next forty four years. I'm hoarse after singing and shouting. This was football history, and I'm so proud to have been a witness.

video

Saturday, May 05, 2012

#Picoftheday

HMS Ocean sails up the Thames from Gravesend to Greenwich, where she will be berthed as the maritime logistic hub and helicopter launch platform for the Games
HMS Ocean in the Thames (Pic Eddie Mulholland of the Daily Telegraph)

For a while now I've been doing #tomorrowspaperstoday on twitter with the World At One editor Nick Sutton (@suttonnick). It's Nick's free form and highly informal paper review which happens on twitter as the pdf's arrive in our email in-boxes from national newsdesks. People chime in with comment, and it's surprisingly popular given that newspapers are supposed to be 'yesterday's media'.


Photojournalism is such a vital branch of the art of newspaper production, and yet it's so often overlooked. Harold Evans's excellent book on the subject 'Pictures on a Page' turned me on to it - get hold of a copy if you're interested in why and how great news pictures work in a paper.

Anyway twitter seems a good way to celebrate the work of picture desks, so from Monday we're launching #picoftheday as an informal little photo competition on twitter.

The rules are as follows.

- The picture must be appearing in the paper edition of a paper.

- Any picture desk may nominate a snap, which may be sent to Nick or myself as a pdf of the page it will appear in the paper, our e-mail addresses to be available on request. But other un-nominated pictures may also be considered if we see them in time.

- Nick or I  will decide around 11 which has won and tweet it as #picoftheday - part of the #tomorrowspaperstoday tweets. If we know the snapper they will get a namecheck along with a plug for the paper in which it is appearing.

- Our decision is not final. Coercion or other entreaties will be taken into account.

- Correspondence about our decision will be entered into on twitter, possibly, until bedtime.  





Sunday, April 22, 2012

Serious TV




My friends have a fifteen month old child and for various reasons, mainly to do with sleep deprivation, are only now getting some serious TV viewing done after a period of years. Flatteringly they've asked me to point them at some boxed sets, hence this blog post. TV drama is going through a golden age; there is simply so much exciting work out there, much of it (though by no means all) from the US which has married its film industry to cable TV. But the Europeans have much to shout about. Now there's almost too much top drawer drama to comfortably watch. But I've had a go!

Here is my advice, and it's published here on the basis that I fully accept its subjectivity. I've missed out Downton, The Wire, and the Mad Men type of offering - they're mainstream and everyone knows they're great.  I'm trying to ski a bit off-piste. Humour me.

Justified

One of the great silent scandals of modern TV is the way this series made by the American cable outfit FX has been so widely overlooked here in the UK. That could be because it's set largely in the backwoods of Kentucky and concerns the dealings of a sheriff (played by the dismayingly handsome Timothy Olyphant) and a collection of meph brewing backwoodsmen. Or it could be that it aired on Five US or some similar channel ghetto. That's a shame because its just finished its third season of taut and interesting scripts accompanied by great performances from actors like the aforementioned Olyphant and Wayne Goggins, who starred in the Shield. The highlight so far has been Margo Martindale's outing in Season 2 as a crime matriach for which she won an Emmy.  This was unmissable TV and the US critics loved it.

Fringe

Another show hardly anyone here in the UK has seen, this is a sort of a canny blend of CSI and the X Files. A strange series of paranormal events emerges in the US, which the FBI begin to investigate and christen 'the pattern'. Key to its unravelling is a mad professor (played by Aussie thesp veteran John Noble) who has, let's say, a chequered past and an enthusiasm for drug abuse. Noble proceeds to steal the show, despite a solid effort from Anna Torv who plays the FBI's lead investigator - who has a few surprises of her own. She ends up in a love affair that literally spans universes, but the writers produce sly scripts which boast enough humour and insight to stop the project sliding into silliness. Bravely imaginative, highly confusing and always in danger of shark jumping, this show is a rollercoaster ride into the imagination of its creators led by the fabulous JJ Abrams. An acquired taste, certainly. But addictive once acquired.

Homeland

Statistic of the week. 2.3 million are watching Homeland on Channel 4 in the UK, which like the Killing became cult viewing among the twitterati. This audience is bigger than the one that watched it in the States on its home channel, Showtime. The lead character, a soldier who returns from Afghanistan after a period of captivity, is played by the former RSC actor Damian Lewis who many viewers will recognise from Band of Brothers. He's investigated by the rather bonkers CIA agent Claire Danes. This tale of modern espionage manners is conducted against a classy jazz based score and great support from Mandy Patinkin who plays Danes's stressed boss.  Apparently this is an effort from two of '24's former producers but there's none of the thoughtless gung ho nonsense of the former series, rather a dark seriousness with flares of persuasive well-directed action. It's based on an earlier Israeli series, which I have so far failed to unearth but I'd certainly be keen to see.

Spiral (Engrenages)


This French offering from Son et Lumiere features a unit of hard bitten and somewhat corrupt Parisian cops who in the first season take on a serial killer. So far so procedural, except the premise is really a starting point for exploring the diseased relationship between police, the judiciary and politicians. Mirroring this official chaos is the anarchic private life of the police captain played by Caroline Proust, who can't keep a man to save her life. She's the central character but in fact all the performances are strong and the plots are wickedly smart. A fourth season is about to be screened this year, which is excellent news because so far each of the seasons have been stronger than the previous one. It helps the producers that the backdrop is Paris which is classy or seedy on demand; naturally I thought all the sexual and financial shenannigans had to be fictional, until the arrest of Dominque Strauss Khan which showed the programme makers had, if anything, under egged the pudding.

Walking Dead  


Attracting very little attention over here by contrast to its hit status in the US,  AMC's Walking Dead is an adaptation of a graphic novel series featuring the take over of the earth by zombies. Only a few survivors are left, led by former sheriff Andrew Lincoln who everyone here will remember as Egg from This Life, another case of a Brit actor doing brilliantly in the US (UK producers look to your laurels) There is a stark difference between Season One, which is essential and Season Two, which frankly is not. This is because producer Frank Darabont, who's idea this was, left in a huff when Mad Men appropriated a large part of the second run's budget. Still - both efforts are taut and terrifying pieces of television.

So that's my list for my TV-exiled mates.  I've missed out contenders like Breaking Bad, which is stunning, but I'm going for range here. Thoughts?