Sekrit Project X

I’ve kept this quiet for nearly four years now, and this post has gone through a thousand revisions in my head in that time.  But I’ve been keeping something from a lot of people and it is time to ‘fess up.

I’ve been told enough times over my life that I’m a pretty smart guy but the truth is, I don’t have any qualifications past the eight GCSEs I got when I was at school.  For a lot of reasons, I never went on to further education, or to University.  To be honest, I’d have made a bad student – I was always was one of those who would exasperate the teacher by doing just enough to come near the top of the class despite never really putting the effort in. Not that I was lazy, I would always be reading some book or other, spending time in libraries pouring over encyclopaedias or maps.  I was just so bored with sitting there listening to a teacher droning on about stuff that seemed, to my mind, either staggeringly obvious or totally uninteresting.  I couldn’t wait to get out into the world and do stuff.  So I walked out of high school with eight GCSEs, got a job (via the notorious YTS) which got me a day a week at Burnley College, but I ended up skipping half of the classes due to feeling patronised and quit after less than a year to go full time.

Anyway, fast forward 12 years or so.  I’m  working, but beginning to notice the need for a degree on job applications.  Hmm… don’t have one.  Then I become a contractor, self-employed, self-reliant.  The degree thing is beginning to be a bit of an itch, if only to prove to myself that I’m capable of it.  My other half brings home a BSc Computer Science syllabus from Manchester University – I leaf through it and realise I can do about three quarters of it without breaking sweat.  The idea of doing a degree seems attractive, but again, I know I would get about two years into it and get bored.

Fast forward again, to just about four years ago.  My other half sends me a link, a company called Laureate Education.  They offer Masters degrees through the University of Liverpool and one of them is in IT.  It looks interesting and more importantly, challenging.  The itch to prove to myself that I’m good enough is getting worse.  I’m not going to give up work to do it, but the course is designed for people who are working, in that it is part-time, completely online.   I agree to enquire for more information, thinking the lack of A-levels or degree would mean it was unlikely i would be accepted.  I have a good chat with Laureate, who agree that the lack of formal qualifications is offset by 15 years of actually doing relevant work, and with the help of my employer (who wrote a supporting letter) I was formally accepted to study for a Master of Science in Information Technology.

The course is split into eight modules, plus a Dissertation.  Each class of students could be from anywhere in the world and we would gather online via forums.  The tutor would be anywhere in the world as well (in reality, I would usually be the only one from the UK).  I would get work on a Thursday, need to answer two Discussion Questions by Sunday, then contribute to the discussions with the other students and complete an assignment by the Wednesday.  Repeat for eight weeks, so basically each module was about two hours a day for 56 days straight with no breaks, no rest and no chance to miss deadlines.  Intense, especially when all you want to do after working all day is just sit and watch the telly.

Even when I was in Ireland I would be working on this – it helped focus and not worry about my other half back home.  It can’t have been much fun, our time together was limited as it was even before I had to spend a lot of it head down in research.  I’ve kept it quiet from most people because… well, I kind of figured it would be better than way.  Those for whom we had to visit for social stuff, they know because we couldn’t hide it from them.  But I’ve had to effectively disappear for long periods of time to get this stuff done.  It will also explain why C and I would just head off somewhere, just to get some space and time and not have much of a social life otherwise.

Why am I telling you all this now?  Because I need your help.  I have to come clean because I am doing a survey for my Dissertation.  It is on Social Networking and Privacy.  I need people to answer some questions. It will take about 15 minutes of your time.  If you have a Facebook or Twitter account, please take the survey.  It is anonymous anyway.  Also spread the word to friends and colleagues.  I really do need as many responses as possible.

I hope to make it and earn an MSc.  At least I’ll have given it a shot and learned a lot in the process.

The survey is here at http://bit.ly/mikesmscsurvey.

Twenty years ago today…

This happened.

I was working at Microcheck, a small company in Trawden dealing with motor insurance for clients.  My boss, Mark, was a Claret and we had travelled to many games in that memorable season.  The Clarets travelled for the game in York and the tailback must have started in Colne.  It was crazy, as 7,500 people headed to Bootham Crescent for the match, hoping to see the Clarets get the one point needed for promotion, or the three points to become only the second club to win all four divisions of the League

Burnley fans took over three sides of the ground.  You could see the party atmosphere forming, an evening of jubiliation and relief even though not a single ball had been kicked.  In the traffic jam, I remember a Mexican Wave passing down the lines of traffic.  One van full of fans got out for a roadside pee on against the rear wheel of a Transit, some bloke running sideways trying to hit the wheel with piss as it moved forward in the jam. More Mexican Waves in the queues to enter the ground and then once inside, it was utterly packed.  And when John Francis scored the injury time winner, mayhem was unleashed.

A pitch invasion started early.  There was no fence in front of where we were – only a short policewoman assigned crowd control. I know she was short because I was barely five and a half foot at the time and I was taller than her.  She held us back when the goal went in.  A minute later, the final whistle and we once again streamed onto the pitch.  I ran by her, as she squeaked “Stay back, stay back! Ah, fuck it, just watch yerselves.”

It was a night that gave fresh impetus to the club, having survived the Orient Game four years earlier, this was the moment when the club finally managed to get itself into gear and begin the climb up through the Divisions.  I hate the idea that a club is “too big for its Division”, having long believed that until you accept the reality of your situation, you will continue to fall.  Ask Leeds, Manchester City, either Sheffield club.  Burnley had done the same thing until the day when it could have gone out of existence.  Since that moment, it accepted that history, a big stadium and big crowds didn’t give you any additional points in the League table.

Things could have stalled – nearly did in fact – but that season the club and fans got fresh impetus.  Two years later we were in Division 1 (or the old Two) having beaten Stockport in a playoff final.  But that was too far, too fast and the club dropped down after only one season.  Only in 2000, under the helm of Stan Ternent and chairman Barry Kilby did the Clarets make it into the second tier of English football.  And there they have stayed, aside from one season in the money pit that is the Premier League.  Clarets have punched above their weight, watching teams like Leeds, Nottingham Forest, Leicester, Sheffields United and Wednesday and all manner of so-called bigger clubs swing up and down past them.

Kilby today stepped down as Chairman to concentrate on his own personal fight against cancer.  I wish him all the best.  He brought a quiet dignity to the role of Chairman, never getting too down, never getting too carried away.  Burnley were hanging by a thread when he took over, and he leaves the club debt free and safe for a few years at least.  Every other club in the League would want a Chairman like him, a fan who funded his team but didn’t jeopardise its future.

But I’ve just looked at the clock.  As I type, at this exact moment, precisely two decades ago, I was dancing and smiling and jumping and crying in the middle of a football pitch in York.  I remember it like it was yesterday, and I always will.

Brick, Leveson and trolls

Nastassja Kinski
Not Samantha Brick, yesterday

You’ve got to hand it to the Mail Online, with the story of Samantha Brick they have truly surpassed themselves.  Writing in the paper Brick complained that

‘There are downsides to looking this pretty. Women hate me for being beautiful’.

The entire piece is a mixture of smug superiority and putdowns for fellow women, illustrated by pictures of Brick who – and this isn’t going to be a surprise – ain’t all that and a bucket of spuds.  Sure, she hasn’t been hit in the face several times by the ugly stick but we’re not talking the new Nastassja Kinski here.

Predictably, Twitter went all ballistic over it.  The page hits went up, Samantha Brick and Mail Online got trending.  There were spoof pieces in Vice and The Guardian.  The Mail Online and Brick followed it up, not least with a second piece entitled “I wrote a piece where I come across as a narcissistic self-absorbed bitch, why is the Internet calling me a narcissistic self-absorbed bitch?”  (Possibly not its real title.)  Everybody wins, the Mail gets hits, Twitter gets to indulge in a mobbing and Brick neatly positions herself as the perfect Mail columnist – that elusive mix of being hopelessly self-absorbed, a hater of your own gender and most vitally, at least three-quarters of the way to utterly batshit insane.

(It is an oddity that the most hate-filled pieces in the Daily Heil are written by women.  Liz Jones, Jan Moir, Allison Pearson and now Samantha Brick.  A thousand spiteful, nasty, vicious words get the most hits and the most revenue.  It brings a whole new meaning to the phrase Cash Cow.)

The approach of the Mail Online is highly successful – it recently passed the New York Times in becoming the most visited newspaper site in the world.  There is a rather good article by Lauren Collins in the NYT about the newspaper and the website.   Basically, rather than relying on concepts such as journalism, the Mail Online got to be number one via the method of trolling, putting up any number of car crash WTF articles, misleading headlines, unfounded scare stories and pictures of half nekkid women. A hit counter raised to the status of a Demi-God, fed a daily sacrifice of hate pieces, WTF opinion, outright lies and all helped by the right hand sidebar of shame, row upon row of pictures of women without many clothes on, either admiring them for looking good or castigating them for looking less than angelic.

We are not gonna die. You know why? Because we are so… very… pretty. We are just too pretty for God to let us die. Huh? Look at that chiseled jaw!

I’ve said before that everyone on the Mail Online, editors, journalists and commenters exists purely to troll each other.  The journalists troll the readers, the editors troll the journalists for better copy and the readers add their comments below the line.  And if you thought the writers were mini-Hitlers without the rational side, wait until you get to the commenters.
Not Samanthat Brick, either
Not Samantha Brick, either

The key thing that makes the site so successful is that everyone is trolling, while simultaneously thinking everyone else is being serious.  A virtuous circle without much virtue.  The ultimate goal is to ramp up the page hits, which keeps the revenue flowing from advertising.  Bit odd to have your revenue hanging on people stopping to see a car crash and mentally associating your brand with the worst excesses of journalism, but what do I know?

It operates on exactly the same level as the old Melissa/I Love You/Anna Kournikova viruses – where the user would be fooled into clicking a link which installed a virus/malware/porn onto their machine.  Obviously the Mail Online doesn’t download porn onto your machine, merely gives you the sidebar of shame of women with few clothes on.  The idea is the same, hook peoples eyeballs in and gather hits by pretty much any means possible.  To make it virtually impossible for you to get your way out of it and for you to pass on your outrage with a single click.
Twitter makes it so easy to do, as well.  One click, push or press and your Two Second Hate is retweeted to a hundred followers (in my case.  I’m rubbish at Twitter.)  If only 10% of those follow the link, you can see the exponential growth in hits.
This man judges whether a woman is attractive.

And here is the rub.  The Leveson enquiry into phone hacking has been going on for a while and has been spectacular entertainment.  Many people have queued up to say how they have had their lives ruined by the press.  Most of the people, Steve Coogan, Sienna Miller have been targeted simply because they do a job that means they are in the public eye.   The Press themselves, led by the Daily Mails’ Chief Cunt In Charge Paul Dacre (again, possibly not his real job title) have harrumphed and said a free Press is necessary to expose corruption in high places.  This argument has been taken up from the likes of Paul McMullan all the way down to Fleet Street Fox.

(Aside.  Fleet Street Fox is an anonymous blog written by a current national newspaper hack.  It is a great read and I thoroughly recommend you subscribe to her blog.  But she does have a massive blind spot when it comes to the ills of her profession, perhaps best illustrated when she appeared on Charlie Brookers Newswipe complaining about anonymity granted to footballers who were having affairs while being filmed in silhouette...)

Back to the free Press argument – I actually agree with it.  A free Press is essential in a democracy. Those in power should fear that their criminal misdeeds and patronage and favours are exposed.

If only that were the case.

What the Mail Online shows us, and the Samantha Brick episode puts a lovely little bow on, is that Fleet Street aren’t interested in all that journalism stuff.  It is all well and good saying you need to be left alone to expose skulduggery if you are in the business of exposing skulduggery.  And pointing at a footballer for sleeping around is not exposing skulduggery.  Neither is devoting acres of space to plugging Simon Cowells latest record deal or whatever the fuck vapid bint is filling the current heavily scripted “reality” show.  That isn’t journalism.  The sidebar of shame, featuring paparazzi snaps isn’t journalism.

Of course, a 64 page newspaper full of investigative journalism is going to be deathly dull and boring without a few bits of sugar and icing on top.  The thing is, most newspapers are all icing and no cake. I read The Guardian and even that can’t resist going downmarket – although always with a detached sense of superiority which at least pretends to be ironic.  And with the likes of Max Gogarty and Bidisha, it isn’t invulnerable to trolling the readership either.

Mail Online is the ultimate logical conclusion of where newspapers are at the moment.  Desperate for attention, missing the entire point of its existence and thinking completely short term.  It is a cynical exercise in manipulating everyone.  I actually admire its ruthlessness, there is a purity to its sense of purpose that you have to respect. But in the end, it is the website of someone slowly but surely self-immolating in the middle of the High Street.  “I’m popular, look at me, I’m popular” while not realising that the crowd at laughing at them, not with them.

So when Leveson reaches his conclusion and Fleet Street wails on about the curtailment of its freedom, remember what they are arguing to continue to be able to do.  It isn’t to investigate stories, to root out corruption or correct injustice, it is to keep paying the likes of Samantha Brick to provoke you into clicking for ad revenue.

Channel 5 and Castle

I’ve written before about my liking for Castle and Season 4 is currently running on Alibi.  As part of the large number of people who refuse to give a penny more to Rupert Murdoch than I have to, I’ve been watching Season 2 on Five (Fridays, 10pm).  Except Five is run by Richard Desmond, who is the kind of idiot who will stop at nothing to make a quick buck.  (Just for info, he also owns the Daily Star, The Express, OK! and… a whole bunch of porn magazines.  Five isn’t is only TV channel, either, as he owns Television X, Red Hot TV and other porn channels.)

To draw a crude difference, Murdoch loves power, Desmond loves money.

Most of the adverts on Five are for other Desmond causes, the afore-mentioned Star or Express or the Health Lottery, his competitor to the National Lottery which gives to good causes like its Camelot equivalent, but in much lesser quantities.

Castle is broadcast from 10pm to 11pm and a full episode without adverts is about 43 minutes long.  Except that 17 minutes of ads isnt enough – they actually chop the ending scene from each episode of Castle in order to run one of those “answer this easy trivia question for a chance to win £10,000” competition.  Not delay the scene, actually cut it out altogether.  This was most noticeable last night at the end of episode 2×05 “When The Bough Breaks”.  The subplot of the episode was that Castle had completed the Nikki Heat novel, it was launched and he to look for a new project.  He had received a lucrative offer to write for a “certain British secret agent” and seeing as no-one had any idea whether the Nikki Heat book would be a success, he needed the work.  Throughout the episode, the amiable duo had been at crossed purposes and intentions, he conflicted about getting his dream writing gig, but realising he didn’t want it because he liked Beckett, her thinking she is finally rid of the cocky pain in the backside hanging around her job but realising she actually likes him.  It all builds up to the episode ending where they are about to part company, culminating the plot not just for the preceding 40 odd minutes, but the preceding 20 episodes.

An ending which was totally removed by Five.  A pivotal scene in the entire series just hacked out.  And not particularly subtly either – as the opening “Thankyou” was broadcast and then the scissors came down with all the delicacy of a brick to the nads.

17 minutes available for advertising, and they still had to remove another two and a half minutes for a pisspoor trivia “competition”.

Why is every branch of the media industry seemingly run by clueless fuckwits?

I wouldn’t mind, but I’m really busy right now, I’m really tired and Castle is one of the few moments in the week when I get some time to stop and enjoy something light and fluffy.  Bastards.

Death of a Superhero

I’m in Dublin for a weekend, primarily to see Rammstein do their first ever concert in Ireland.  This visit coincided with the end of the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival (JDIFF) and when my better half looked at the listings, she suggested going to the Closing Gala Film in town called “Death of a Superhero“.

The film is about Donald, a 14 years South Dublin boy growing up with all the problems of adolescence.  His parents don’t understand him, he rages against the world.  He has found he has a talent for drawing comics and fills them with sketches featuring his strong, silent hero battling against The Glove, a supervillain with syringes for fingers.  Donald is confused about the opposite sex and is afraid he will die a virgin.

And he will die, because Donald is terminally ill with cancer. He doesn’t have long left and appears to be a on a cycle of destruction.  Skipping school, drawing his artwork on buildings, standing in front of trains.  Exasperated, he is taken to a series of psychologists, until eventually he forms a bond with Dr Adrian King and his true reasons for his anger start to come out.  In the meantime, he meets Shelly, a streetwise spirit at school and the pair begin to fall for each other.

I’ll not go into things too far, as I’m rubbish at revewing films. (Here is one from the Toronto International Film Festival.)  Suffice to say that “Death of a Superhero” is a wonderful, wonderful film.  It mixes the awkwardness of adolescence like the best John Hughes movie, with the down to earth realism of Dublin. The performances are top notch, Thomas Brodie-Sangster as Donald is superb (you will recognise him from Love Actually, or the Doctor Who Family of Blood two-parter), Aisling Loftus as Shelly and Andy Serkis for once without CGI as Dr King.  There are moments of absolute hilarity and absolute heartbreak and the film does a superb job of walking the line between tragedy and comedy.  The audience was in floods of tears, alternately at the tragic situation of cancer and the hilarious antics of Donalds idiot brothers, who’ll do anything to get him laid.

“Death of a Superhero” is doing the rounds of film festivals at the moment and hopefully it will pick up a wider distribution deal.  It deserves to be seen by as wide an audience as possible.

Jenny Powells Left Breast

Now there is a title to interest the search engines. This happened as a one-off in 2003, so some of the details might be off and the rest hazy, but I figure it is an interesting story.

I was clearing out my computer room today and among the bits and pieces I found was a piece of breast padding.  I don’t know the proper technical term, because I’m a bloke, but the sort of thing that women shove inside their bra in order to give themselves a bit of an uplift.

The thing about this one is, it belonged to – and I am 100%, totally, completely genuine about this – ex-Wheel of Fortune hostess, and all round TV presenter Jenny Powell.  Her, on the right.  Now I fully admit to having a bit of a crush on her when she presented a show called No Limits on BBC2 in the mid-80s, just as I was 14 years old, getting into music.

Anyway, fast forward a number of years and I’m doing stand-up around Manchester.  The Comedy Store had a monthly Gong Show called King Gong – standard Gong Show format, get up, try to last five minutes against the audience who could vote you off at any second.  It was sometimes a bearpit, sometimes a car crash.  I won once, got kicked off a few times, sometimes unfairly.  It wasn’t much in the way of fun but anyway that is by the by.

Powell was filming a TV show called “Stand Up Jenny”, where she would attempt to – with the help of professional standups – become a standup and do five minutes at the Comedy Store King Gong.  Normally I would have had great respect for someone having a crack at standup, especially at something like King Gong and it seemed an interesting idea.  However, Powell or the producers, I don’t care who, began to rile the various comics with some of the pre-publicity.  Quotes like “I was on a beach on holiday and I thought “I know, I can try being a standup comedian.’  So I rang up the producers at Granada and they agreed it would be a great thing to film.”

If only it were so fucking easy for the rest of us to get a telly gig.

Anyway with sufficient publicity from the TV show the crowd was going to be quite large at the Store, swelled by a number of comics who were there to see the potential car crash.  (By the way, any comedian who says they aren’t interested in watching another comic die is a liar.  I’m not saying that comics want other comics to die and are completely unsupportive but there is a certain “there but for the grace of God go I” interest in proceedings.)

Aside: I never died much, but one night I had an horrific time.  It was the Circle Club and at the time my material consisted of 20 minutes of taking the piss out of Z-list celebrities.  Problem A was the crowd largely consisted of Z-list celebrities and their mates.  Problem B was that when I realised this, I also realised I had no backup material to switch to.  I struggled in front of the lights and felt the loathing and walked off stage early, just wanting to curl up in a ball.  I got back to the Green Room where the great Justin Moorhouse who was MCing the night and I had a brief exchange.

Me: Sorry about that Justin.  I was supposed to do 20, but I came off early.
Justin: No worries mate, it happens to us all
Me: Yeah…
Justin: Besides… it felt like 20

Still makes me laugh now.

Back to the story.  Normally at a Gong Show the participants sit in the audience, as befitting the idea where anyone can get up and have a go.  However, being a TV star, Miss Powell was in the dressing room with the pro acts. Powell had brought a sparkly dress with her.  Seymour Mace was one of the warmup acts and bet Powell £20 that he should do his set wearing the dress.  So the crowd were treated to the sight of an unkempt Geordie in a sparkly dress who shuffled up to the microphone and said “Helloooo…. my name is Beyonce.”

Local legend Neil “Spider” Smith was on – I seem to recall him deliberately trying to get Gonged off as fast as possible.  I went on, lasted about three minutes.  Normally the running order was fairly random, but it was arranged that Powell would get a sort of warm-up, as the reliably funny Dave Ingram was to go on before her – he was a very good comic and could easily win a crowd over.  Ingram did his bit – don’t think he lasted the five and then from backstage came Ms Powell.

Her opening gag wasn’t actually all that bad.  Some telly personality had been in the news for some sex scandal.  Powell had been this blokes ex, so her opening line was “I know what you are thinking – I bet [TV Personality X] has ripped the fucking arse off of that” which I thought was nicely self deprecating.  Then she had a couple of gags and then a terribly pre-planned moment.  She pretended to respond to a heckle from the crowd “You what? Get your tits out?  OK then.”  At which point she put her hand down her top, pulled out the breast pads and threw then into the crowd.

They landed right next to where Spider and I were sitting.  We immediately grabbed them and two thoughts went through my head – 1.  “Fuckin’ EBay!”  2.  “Still warm…”  Spider offered to take my one and make the pair but I refused.  Powell continued, I seem to remember her doing some material about working in telly which was supposed to sound like just a chat down the pub, but the problem is the crowd don’t all work in telly so they couldn’t relate.  The heckling grew louder and eventually she was Gonged off.

The rest of the show happened, we did the usual post-match pint and a laugh and then home with my prize.  For some reason, my better half wasn’t impressed.  I put it on a shelf and there it has stayed for eight and a bit years.  The opportunity for EBaying is long past, besides I can’t prove its provenance as I can’t even find the clip on YouTube.  And yet I still can’t decide whether to chuck it away.

After all, most people would have to settle for a photo on a mobile phone.

iTunes UK gets so near and yet so far

A few months ago, I got tremendously addicted to Castle, a crime series that has been broadcasting for four seasons on ABC in the States.

Castle poster
Diagnosis: Author

The show itself is a sort of Murder He Wrote.  Nathan Fillion plays Richard Castle, a successful writer of crime novels.  After killing off his hero character, he is searching for a new muse.  Due to the sort of plot contrivance that only happens in telly, Castle ends up working with Detective Kate Beckett (Stana Katic) as a consultant on the Murder of the Week.  Shakespeare it is not, but the show succeeds due to the sheer sense of fun that exudes from everyone involved.  Fillion and Katic spark off each other as the relationship between Castle and Beckett grows, and the supporting cast flesh out their characters.  It is fluffy stuff, but perfect for watching on a train journey to or from work, as the cast mix wisecracking dialogue with some fun plots as they pinball around figuring out whodunnit.  (Never the most taxing of questions, Poirot would usually have found the killer in three seconds flat.)

Anyway, I’ve often complained that due to the stupidity of the music, film and TV industry, that fans of a show sometimes have to jump through in order to watch the shows they love.  In fact, if you want to watch a show here in the UK, it is sometimes easier to turn to torrents and illegitimate means to keep up with the broadcasts.

It is precisely this sort of hoop jumping which led to me getting an iTunes US account.  Not a difficult thing, but even though I’m paying real money for iTunes US cards, it is probably technically illegal.  I did this, among other things, in order to buy episodes of Castle and catch up.  The US is currently on Season 4, yet the show has not really been shown properly in the UK.  Season 1 was broadcast on Five last summer and I think the show pops up on Alibi or one of the other channels in the less popular regions of the Sky EPG.  I’m not going to shell out for a Sky subscription… well ever, so I happily forked over some money and watched them on my iPod.

However, some bright spark has done the thing that I’ve been pleading for for a long time – put episodes of a show on iTunes UK at the same time as they appear on iTunes US and preferably immediately after broadcast.  All episodes of Castle, up to and including Season 4 are now available for download on iTunes UK.  Not only are they available, they are ready for download immediately after broadcast in the US.  This is brilliant news and I can only hope that the trend continues.  It is the sensible thing, because fans of a show are happy to pay real money to watch it and only turn to the high seas when they can’t get their fix.

But there is a catch.  There is always a catch.

The price for Castle on iTunes US and iTunes UK

That table is the price for each season of Castle on iTunes US and iTunes UK.  The US prices show a progression as you travel down the timeline.  The UK starts off comparatively sensible for the season already broadcast here but starts going bananas for the unaired (on terrestrial) episodes.

The important thing is to take the exchange rate into account.  So, after a quick visit to xe.com

Prices adjusted for exchange rate

We can see that for the older seasons, UK fans are paying either almost 60% or 125% more for the same episodes of the same show.  The pricing settles down a bit for the later series but on pure exchange rate alone the UK is paying at a minimum a quarter more for the same thing than the US.

The usual excuse is VAT, which runs at 20% and that is only if the US version is untaxed – because the price quoted for the the US Season Pass is the price paid – the receipt doesn’t add sales tax on top.  (I assume that the US transaction isn’t untaxed in some way shape or form.)  There is no real argument for higher distribution costs – the shows are likely to be hosted on the same servers no matter where you purchased them from.

This puts me in a bit of a quandry.  I’ve long argued that customers shouldn’t be able to dictate price or use it as an excuse.  (The oft-heard cry of the pirate – “But if it wasn’t so expensive, I would buy it”.  Because the simple fact is that for these people, the price point at which they would buy the product is usually zero.)  But here we have a case where people in the UK are getting stung for, as far as I can see, no reason other than “because they can”.

I want to buy my TV shows through the iTunes Store.  For convenience there is nothing to match it – I rarely watch broadcast TV these days and the one click and download system works perfectly.  But what I do object to is being gouged for the privilege.  Economies of scale should have kicked in and made the download version cheaper no matter where we are in the world.  Rights issues with broadcasters must have been hammered out or else it wouldn’t be available – and if Alibi or others are taking a slice for losing viewers on broadcast, I’d ask why the hell should they?

I’ve enthused about Castle to friends, and because they are excellent and correct people, they have heeded my advice and taken the plunge – so why should they get punished for catching up?  I’m not arguing for discount, I’m asking for equivalence.

Hopefully Castle will get a Season Five.  But I’d have to have a real think whether I want to buy it from iTunes UK or iTunes US.  Someone out there hasn’t noticed that even on iTunes customers can have a choice. This is yet another missed opportunity from an industry that has missed so many in the past that it seems deliberate and wilful.

The plot of Pirates of the Caribbean

I’ve just finished watching Pirates of the Caribbean 3: At Worlds End.  Yeah, look at me, on the cutting edge.  The reason it has taken me so long is that after loving the first film, the second was so bloody dull I couldn’t be bothered to see how it all ended.  The second film is a holding pattern, an exercise is spending time getting from point A to point A.

Anyway, this post contains spoilers if you haven’t seen the films.

The entire trilogy is 463 minutes long  (143 + 151 + 169).  That is 7 hours, 43 minutes.  And at the end nothing has changed.

At the start of POTC1, Jack Sparrow is looking for the Black Pearl, his ship which has been stolen from him by Captain Barbossa.  Barbossa is risen from the dead and is leading the crew in a search for a magical item which will allow them to live forever.  Sparrow, however, has a magical compass which shows him the way to where the item is.

Meanwhile Orloondo Bland is pining after Ikea Knightley, whom he is in love with by due to class divide cannot actually be with.

At the end of POTC3, Jack Sparrow is chasing after the Black Pearl, which has just been stolen from him by Captain Barbossa.  Barbossa has risen from the dead for a second time and is leading the crew in a search for the Fountain of Youth, which will allow them to live forever.  Sparrow, however, has a magical map which shows him the way to where the Fountain of Youth is.

Meanwhile, Orloondo Bland and Ikea Knightley are pining after each other, because they are in love but they cannot actually be with due to him only being allowed to step ashore for one day in 10 years.

7 hours, 43 minutes of explosions, coincidences, deaths, rebirths, fights, yo ho hos, all to get back to precisely where they started.

Terrorvision on Television

My love for Terrorvision is well known and to those of a wrong-headed nature, inexplicable.  Anyway, whoever runs their Twitter account posted that the entirety of Fired Up and Lairy, Terrorvision on Television was on YouTube.  And lo and behold, so it was, in all four parts.

It features a sort of spoof documentary type thing, linking all their videos from Formaldehyde and How to Win Friends And Influence People, plus a fair bit of live stuff from the latter filmed at the Astoria.  (I really must find a copy of that somewhere. And also who that was doing live backing vocals on Discotheque Wreck.  I assume Josephine Ellul but it doesn’t look like her.)

So clicky the linky and watch.  If only for the gag about where Shutty was born.

Sean Yseult and White Zombie

Finally got around to getting hold of a book by a member of one of my favourite bands ever.  “I’m in the Band: Backstage Notes From the Chick In White Zombie” by Sean Yseult.

I'm In The Band cover

To give a potted history, Yseult was the bass playing founder along with singer Rob Cummings (aka Rob Straker, aka Rob Zombie) of White Zombie.  Initially a sort of hardcore noise punk band, White Zombie slogged it round New York and the rest of the States building a following.  Eventually their sound settled down into a industrial mix of heavy as hell metal and samples from movies and TV.  Your average White Zombie song  has riffs so powerful it makes you feel that your head is being ripped off and slammed repeatedly into the nearest wall.

In a good way.

When I first heard their second and final album, Astro-Creep:2000: Songs of Love, Destruction And Other Synthetic Delusions From The Electric Head, it completely blew me away.  It is a metal classic, especially More Human Than Human. It still sounds fresh and powerful now – if you want to try some speakers, then throw on Super-Charger Heaven and see how good they really are.

The band went from nothing to mid-level stardom, with the aid of hard work, determination and a timely boost from Beavis and Butthead, who showed Zombie and Yseult on their show and said “it is the chick from White Zombie. She’s cool.”  Not in a sexist way, because Yseult is a remarkable bass player and with drummer Johnny Tempesta and guitarist J Yuenger, crafted the music.  She held her own in a macho scene without either being patronised or coming out with a chip on her shoulder about her gender – which cuold not have been easy in a genre that was both on and off stage 99% male dominated.

However, as the band got bigger and bigger, Rob Zombie succumbed to self-confessed LSD – Lead Singer Disease – and after a pretty dysfunctional tour in support of Astro Creep, dissolved the band.  Not that he actually told the other band members that.  He then embarked on a successful solo career doing, well, much the same thing.  Except a bit more cartoony and without the sheer muscle that Yseult, Yeunger and Tempesta provided.  Didn’t help that he isn’t a great singer, especially live where he misses more words than he sings.

Anyway, Yseult charts all this in what is effectively a scrapbook – ticket stubs, flyers, notes and photos.  There is some explanatory text but the main point of the book is to present this entire thing in a timeline from the first gig at CBGBs, appearing way down the bill behind the likes of The Bags and Ed Geins Car and then all the way to the final gigs with Pantera.  As a document of life in a band, it is a unique approach and one that shows not only the fun side of things, but the sheer hard work that the band put into the music and making it big.

Scattered occasionally are notes from agents, or the rest of White Zombie past and… more past.  Rob Zombie himself is notable by his absence, appearing only in photos or the odd reproduced paper cutting.  Yseult, to her credit, doesn’t spend much time on him. They were not only bandmates for thirteen years, but an item for seven of them.   She could have been pretty bitter about a guy who, as soon as the band started making it big, decided he was off and God knows he gave her enough ammunition.  She sums the contact as “Zero. He hasn’t spoken to any of us in the band since the day we broke up . . . As soon as you’re not in his world, you’re out of his world. He just kind of moves on. No hard feelings at all, but that’s just how he is.”

Instead she comes across as chirpy, confident and proud of her achievements.  And they were achievements – when WZ appeared at Donington in 1995, Yseult became only the second woman to walk on that stage in the entire history of the gig.  The book title is self-deprecating, not only does the subtitle come from Beavis and Buttheads assessment of her, but the main title is a reflection of the many occasions when she was prevented from getting to the stage by people who didn’t believe she was actually in the group.  It must have been tough, yet the issue is done and dusted with a few chirpy quips.  Reading the book brought to mind a proud parent showing the kids what they used to do, a scrapbook of memories assembled and watched over with great care.

As a documentary about a very influential group, “I’m In The Band” doesn’t really do a great job of explaining the politics or  relationships within White Zombie.  That book, especially with regard to the lead singer, would be extremely interesting, although I suspect it will never be written.

What this book does do is perhaps give White Zombie a more fitting send-off.  Since the breakup in 1998, there has been this and the Let Sleeping Corpses Lie boxset.  I’ve toyed with the idea of getting the latter, but I’ve never really shook off the idea that it is a cash-in – for all his refusal to talk about the past, Rob Zombie has never been unwilling to trade on it for a while.  The album Icon (his third Greatest Hits collection) features six White Zombie tracks, including The One, which has only ever appeared on the Escape From LA soundtrack.  This comparatively rare track is clearly there for the White Zombie completists who have to buy the other stuff just to get to it.

I couldn’t help but warm to Yseult over the course of the book, the sheer love for what she did and how it all came about and I respect the hard work and circumstances that she fought through to get her dream.  In summary then, this is not an essential book for White Zombie fans, nor is it for those who aren’t familiar with their music, but if you have a bit of money to spare and an interest in a great 90s band, this is an informative, entertaining book that I completely recommend.

Amazon link.