Monday, 26 November 2018

WORDS ARE WORKING HARD FOR YOU [137]


With almost no exception, these articles use song lyrics for a title. There are three reasons for this: it provides a moment of recognition before I plough into dry subject matter; it fulfils the need for a title; and it may come up online when someone is searching online for those very lyrics. The first reason relies on the lyrics remaining in their original context, while the second requires them to stand on its own, and the last simply needs those particular words to be in that particular order.

This time, the lyrics created the article. Tom Tom Club is a new wave band, formed by husband and wife Tina Weymouth and Chris Frantz, also members of Talking Heads. Their first self-titled album, released in 1981, led to two very different single releases: “Genius of Love,” more like of a traditional love song, while serving as a tribute to singers like Smokey Robinson, Bob Marley and James Brown; and “Wordy Rappinghood,” a torrent of words and ideas more along the lines of early rap records. The music of both songs has been sampled in kind by the likes of Public Enemy, Ice Cube, Busta Rhymes, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, Mariah Carey, The Gossip, The Ones and George Michael, but the lyrics of the original “Wordy Rappinghood” knocked me over.

“What are words worth? / What are words worth? Words / Words in papers, words in books / Words on TV, words for crooks / Words of comfort, words of peace / Words to make the fighting cease / Words to tell you what to do / Words are working hard for you / Eat your words but don't go hungry / Words have always nearly hung me”


Not many songs, and not many people, call the use of words into question, and that is when you wish it happened more often. I’m not about to break down the meaning of the lyrics here, but their effect on me was to break down how I understand the use of words, even beyond their inherent meaning: “Concrete words, abstract words / Crazy words and lying words / Hazy words and dying words / Words of faith and tell me straight.”

I always hope to create some meaning here, some factual information, a bit of informed judgement, a constructed article at least once a week. You then see people charging words with particular meaning, then applying them like a spray into people’s eyes - yes, Donald Trump, the original Don Backslide, I am talking about you. At the same time, words are cheap, words are plentiful, and words can be made to look like articles, which are supposed to be meaningful in themselves – it doesn’t matter if it has to mean anything, especially if it only has to be a diversion.

That doesn’t feel good enough somehow. With the breakdown of meaning being decried in the media, and those words themselves being decried as “fake news,” this is something I need to explore, before these words turn even further into gibberish.  

“Rap it up for the common good / Let us enlist the neighbourhood.”

Monday, 19 November 2018

IF YOU DON’T ANSWER, I’LL JUST RING IT OFF THE WALL [136]


There appears not to have been a time before the mobile phone or, if there was, it exists in an alternative reality, one where Biff Tannen did not turn the Hill Valley courthouse into a casino. More seriously, the mobile phone has changed how we live, changed our habits, and changed our infrastructure. Like with the World Wide Web, I will be one of the last, at age thirty-five, to remember a time without them.

I had to remind myself of how I used to keep in touch – I actually remember once having to wait until somebody finished using a payphone before I could make my own call, using my pre-paid BT Phonecard. That all changed in 2000 when, ahead of my seventeenth birthday, I bought my first mobile phone, just as they started becoming affordable to everyone. By that year, just over half of UK adults had one.

I’m not sure why I bought the phone I did, but I guess I recognised the name “Philips” more than “Nokia,” who made the phones everyone else had at the time. The Philips Savvy was introduced in 1999, and was a chunky black and blue brick of a basic phone. Its big buttons make it clear it has only one use – cameras were not commonplace on phones for another five years.

If I wasn’t using it to call or send an SMS message – the manual confirms SMS stands for “Short Message Service” - the other reason I had the Savvy in my hand was to unscrew and screw in its external aerial, as a way of keeping your hands busy. Unlike the black slate smartphones for today, if I broke the aerial, I could just buy a new one, and I could replace the battery with a new one, or one I charged earlier, or one with a bigger capacity, which needed its own bigger back cover. Standby time was measured in days, but you could only do so much with the Savvy.


With no information available on internal storage capacity, saving contacts, SMS messages and call history appears to be down to the SIM card only. Details of the last twenty calls you made, and the last ten you received, is the most you can have. No internet service is possible, but you do get a calculator and stopwatch. The LCD screen had space for two lines of text and an icon – the home screen displayed the time using a clock face. There is a primitive pre-emoji list of twenty-five characters you can send with SMS messages, but only an emoticon is sent if the recipient doesn’t have the same phone as you. Short pre-prepared SMS messages are provided, like “please call me back, or “I will be late” – the first such message had only been sent in 1992, over the Vodafone network, and people were not expected to take time writing long messages. The only other “app” was a “biorhythm calendar,” using your birthday and a given date to show your results for Chance, Love, Energy and Success. Amuse your friends, if you can.

In the year 2000 alone, payphone use declined by 12% in the UK – BT responded by increasing the minimum call charge for the first time since 1984, from 10p to 20p, and began charging for directory enquiry calls. BT Phonecards were withdrawn in 2002, except within the prison service. From the peak of 92,000 phone boxes in 1992, there are now only 40,000 on UK streets, with BT expecting to halve that total by 2022.

For all its limitations, I used my Philips Savvy for four years, longer than any other phone I had since. I finally joined the Nokia brigade in 2004 with a 3510i, an updated version of one of the first phones to have a colour screen, and 2007 established the two-year contract pattern to which practically everyone follows. Today, speaking as the owner of a phone that insists on using glass, it would be nice to use a phone I can drop, or throw, with abandon.

Monday, 12 November 2018

GET READY FOR THE SQUARE DANCE [135]


Watching YouTube involves a lot of understanding. You understand that the people creating the videos are most often people at home, who have turned a passion into a paying job. You understand that, to earn a living from their passion, they need to advertise, seek sponsorship, and offer subscriptions for more content. You understand the advertisements you see are what pays for your ability to watch the videos, and what contributes to the creators’ income. You understand that Google, YouTube’s owner, will take the information generated by your having watched the videos to target you with the ads that will attract your interest the most, to ensure you continue watching.

However, what I don’t understand is why YouTube is bombarding me with ads for only one company. In one evening, across six videos, five of them started with different ads for the same website, two were interrupted with another ad for that website, and when one of these videos joked that they were going to be interrupted with an ad for the new “Grinch” film, they were interrupted, but did so to repeat the same name once again: Squarespace.

With the videos I watch on YouTube – usually lots of comedy and factual pieces, film and technology reviews, documentaries, and monologues from Stephen Colbert – you will often come across introductions saying, “this video is sponsored by Squarespace,” and will end with something explaining how the creator of the video has been taking a course on Squarespace to improve their editing skills, or something like that, and you can do the same when you sign up using the discount code that sounds a bit like the channel name.


What I didn’t realise is that Squarespace, much like Google, aims to be the complete package. It was founded in 2003 by Anthony Casalena as a website builder, allowing users to create their own sites using drag-and-drop templates, without a need to know complex HTML code. Later, e-commerce functions were added, and online tutorials and classes appeared to give users greater ability to fulfil their online business. Even the name “Squarespace” gives it a more collegiate atmosphere than Google, even though both sites were founded out of college dorm rooms – just what is it about college dorm rooms?

I can see why the barrage of Squarespace ads may line up with the videos I watch – Google knows I run a website, and I write weekly articles on it, so it may be trying to be helpful. The same videos may also be sponsored by Amazon’s audiobook shop Audible, or various internet security services, and I can see why Google may not prioritise those ads. But this is it – Google knows I run a website because Google hosts it – why would they recommend someone else? Do they realise what they are doing or, at least, do their algorithms know? Should I try watching other types of videos to throw them off their scent, or should I start subscribing to YouTube’s premium service to get rid of the ads altogether? That would be very cynical indeed. Perhaps, by posting this article online, some algorithm somewhere might get the point?

Monday, 5 November 2018

YOU TAKE YOUR TIME AND TAKE MY MONEY [134]


It took me until October 2016 to subscribe to Netflix, but it didn’t take long from then for me to discover my problem with it.

I had never seen before the 1978 version of the film “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” with Donald Sutherland, Leonard Nimoy, and a very early appearance from Jeff Goldblum, and I knew I would want to watch it again... until Netflix removed it, possibly after their rights to it expired. The same was also true of “Psycho II” a film far better than that title suggests, and one that disappeared before I could get to it.

In the end, I did the obvious thing – I bought both films on Blu-Ray, so I can watch them whenever I want. From the same publisher, I now also have a copy of the 1980 Italian horror film “Incubo cilla città contaminata” (English title: Nightmare City), something Netflix was never likely to have. In fact, when I came across the interesting science fiction film “Cherry 2000” on Netflix, I made sure I had my own copy in case it also went away.


For me, it helps to remember that subscription services like Netflix, Amazon Prime, Spotify, Apple Music, Audible, Kindle, and so on, are only effective substitutes for the places you used to hire the same works from: video hire shops like Blockbuster, and libraries – my local library was especially good for foreign films, but I haven’t been there in a long time. You cannot use it as a substitute for your DVD collection, or your music collection, or even your book collection, unless you are the sort of person that lends your stuff to friends without expectation of getting them back.

A couple of weeks ago, I took my Sony Walkman out of my pocket, and my nephew had asked if I had Spotify on it, and if it was connected to the internet – in both cases, the answer was, “it is not a phone.” I had a Spotify subscription once – it came with my phone contract, but I never started paying for it once that was over. Faced with the choice of spending the cost of a CD album with access to a million tracks, I decided I would rather buy the CD I wanted.


Like my DVD collection, I have up to twenty years of carefully curated content at my command, sometimes with a story behind them. For example, Freddie Mercury’s 1985 solo album “Mr. Bad Guy” is out of print, and is quite expensive to buy as a result, unless you researched it and found a reissue as part of a compilation in 2000, and was able to find a copy that way. There is also David Bowie’s album “Never Let Me Down” – Bowie hated the song “Too Dizzy” so much that it is missing from all subsequent releases after 1987, but I am enough of a Bowie fan to find it for myself. My copy of the horrendous Raquel Welch / Mae West film “Myra Breckenridge,” out of print since 2005 and selling for upwards of £40 second-hand, was the result of a speculative bid on eBay, and being lucky with the price: £1.99. This is before I get into all the books I had to buy from the United States, because they’ll never have a Kindle release instead.

There has been much said recently about the impending closure of the arthouse film streaming site FilmStruck (known as FilmStruck Curzon in the UK), and how it reduces the curated spaces for content online. I had almost cancelled my subscription to it due to lack of use, and then its demise was announced. Be assured of this: demand drives the market, and the films will be back again. However, I already have enough stuff like “Citizen Kane,” “Grey Gardens,” “The Blob” and Harold Lloyd’s back catalogue to keep me going until then, because my content is, well, mine.