Thursday, June 25, 2015

There's no privacy in the ice cream business, is there?

The other day we were walking along the sea front of a small town on the Northumbrian coast. My brother-in-law, an inveterate taker of photographs, snapped one of an ice cream van. "Did you just take a photograph?" demanded a woman's voice from inside the van. He went over and spoke to her. It turned out that she objected to having her picture taken. "This is my place of work. You wouldn't like it if I came into your place of work and took a photograph of you, would you?" My brother in law walked away, shaking his head.

People are, of course, entitled to a reasonable degree of privacy but every aspect of daily life involves some sort of trade-off between publicity and confidentaility. People in ice cream vans should know this better than most. After all, they occupy an almost unique place in British life. if you carry your produce into a public place in an attractively-painted vehicle covered in slogans describing that product and imploring any passer-by to stop you and try it, and furthermore if you equip said vehicle with electronic chimes to ensure that nobody in the immediate area can remain unaware of your presence, you could fairly be said to be not so much a privacy-seeking citizen as the occupant of an actual advertisement on wheels and you are therefore entitled to the same freedom from public scrutiny as a bloke wandering up and down Oxford Street carrying a placard pointing out that the end of the world is nigh. Or a town crier.  None.

Now give me a ninety-nine. Unless, that is, you don't wish to be disturbed.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Father's Day

The second of Richard Ford's Rules For Writers is "don't have children". This is interesting since so many of his books turn on the subject of father-son relationships.

I've never written any fiction. If I did I think I'd have difficulty writing about anything but my children. Well, not them in particular so much as the the experience of having them, of watching them turn into adults and realising that nature is an awful lot stronger than nurture.

The thought of what they could write but dare not for fear of being misunderstood by their nearest and dearest must torture the writers of fiction.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

There's nothing new; just old stuff you weren't previously familiar with

Catching up with David Kynaston's history of Britain since the war with Modernity Britain: Opening the Box, 1957-1959I was struck that politicians were just as concerned about the likely impact of TV on the outcome of the 1959 election as today's politicians were about the possible impact of social media on the last one. "Don't let the telly keep you from the poll," said Hugh Gaitskell in a speech immediately before polling day. "Leave the kids at home to watch Rawhide. They can tell you what's happened when you get back."

Re-reading The Leopard, which I first read years ago when on holiday in Italy. We don't get much sun, which tends to make us glorify it. For the Sicilian, on the other hand, it's an everyday curse and here it's described brilliantly.

Can't stop playing "My Foolish Heart" by the Bill Evans Trio, a live recording which is, if anything, enhanced by the fact you can also hear the hum of conversation and the occasional sound of coffee spoon, smokers' cough or swizzle stick from the back bar of the Village Vanguard in 1961. Matter of fact, this very weekend in 1961.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

The white rhythm and blues star who "self-identified as black" sixty years ago

The story of Rachel Dolezal, who "self-identifies" as black, made me think of the bandleader Johnny Otis.

He did something similar back in the 1950s. This is how it's explained in his biography Midnight at the Barrelhouse: The Johnny Otis Story:

In those days if a white man was going to play music with black musicians, work in black clubs and stay in "coloured" motels it would be easier to pass himself off as black.

Sometimes it was temporary. When drummer Louie Bellson joined the Duke Ellington band in 1951 he was told "we're going down South so we're making you a Haitian."

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

If only there was a form of media where the advertising was valued as much as the editorial. There is.

Newly-published piece of research from the Tow Centre for Digital Journalism says almost 50% of people are already using ad-blockers while browsing newspaper websites.

The only reason the other 50% haven't done the same thing is they haven't yet realised they can.

The same report says they're not over-keen on banner advertising being replaced by native advertising either.

This is a big problem for the advertising industry.

Now if only there was some form of media where the advertising content was valued as much as the editorial.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

I'd rather take musical recommendations from a machine than a DJ

If I hit the Discover tab on my Spotify page it lists "Top Recommendations" for me.

On the top line at the moment (above) are Mice Parade, Markley, Yusuf Lateef, Can, Bill Frisell, ESKA, Wizz Jones, James Yorkston, Les Ambassadeurs Du Motel De Bamako, David Lang, Quentin Sirjacq, Greg Foat, M. Ward, John Fahey and Land Of Kush.

I've heard of only seven of those names and of those I have consciously listened to just four.

Further down the same page Spotify lists albums by artists it thinks I might like based, more specifically, on my listening to Max Richter, Judee Sill, Jamie X, Led Zeppelin and the English Chamber Orchestra.

Then there are some people I might like based on my listening to people I'm not aware of having listened to at all, artists such as Tsegue-Maryam Guebro and Akira Kosemura. 

If I scroll down the entire page, which contains over 300 recommendations, I would guess I have heard about twenty of them. And I've heard a lot of music.

I'm assuming that somewhere in Spotify is a digital genie, tracking the things I listen to, noting the ones that I switch away from as well as the ones I return to, until it builds up some cloud-like picture of my tolerance. In which case it seems to be doing quite a good job.

Previous experience with recommendation engines has tended to result in a menu of records either so obviously in my taste cloud that I could have thought of them myself or so popular that the only explanation for why I hadn't chosen them myself was prejudice (which is, let's not forget, always a huge part of what people do and don't listen to.) The introduction of science into the serendipitous business of musical taste has tended in the past to come up with results too broad to tempt anyone. I might like Joni Mitchell. No kidding. These Spotify results have avoided that by proffering stuff I haven't heard and taking cues from the things I listen to on Spotify, as opposed to the far broader church of things I happen to like.

Apple's competing foray into the world of streaming, announced last week, makes much of their investment in "curation" by real DJs like Zane Lowe. I'm not sure about this. Disc jockeys are the very last people I would seek recommendations from. That's because they are required by their professional code and inclined by their temperaments to pretend that there's lots of new and exciting music coming along every single week. There isn't.

The music business, together with that part of the music media that aligns itself so closely with the business that it may as well be part of it, spends all of its energies on the new, new thing. The public, on the other hand, doesn't.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

The Ron Moody I didn't know

The death of Ron Moody has been announced. He was ninety-one.

Ron lived at the bottom of my road and I used to see him from time to time, returning from the shops or ferrying his kids around.

I always wanted to say something to him. I'm quite good at casual interactions with legends. Pick your place and time, don't do it when people are watching, shake the hand, say a few well-chosen words and make it clear that you'll be gone in less than a minute. In my experience the legend never minds and is every bit as much in need of bucking up as anyone else.

The problem with talking to Ron is that I knew I could never get my tribute beyond Fagin in "Oliver!", which was one of the greatest turns in the history of show business in these islands. Obviously I'd seen him in other things over the years but the memory of them would be bound to be over-shadowed by that one great role.  If you had one minute with Geoff Hurst you'd be talking to him about that hat-trick, wouldn't you?

But then Geoff is probably quite happy to be remembered for his exploits on that one particular sunny afternoon. Actors, in my experience, are a bit less happy to be defined by their performance in one part. But then, most of them never get to be this good and have cameras around to record the fact.

Tuesday, June 09, 2015

A few things worth reading

The most important story I read recently was The Economist's "Men Adrift", which is about the fact that nobody has much use for badly-educated males in advanced industrial societies these days. It seems of a piece with the most frightening story I read recently, the New Yorker's account of how a Belgian teenager ran off to join ISIS. This one paragraph captures his chilling combination of cluelessness and determination.

On the music front Steve Albini is interesting as ever on copyright and the foolishness of trying to restore the old certainties of the music business.

Then there's this short Adam Gopnik item about the right and wrong way to appreciate Frank Sinatra.

Five things War and Peace taught me about football

Inspired by the BBC's radio version of "War and Peace", I bought a copy of Tolstoy's book, which is almost fourteen hundred pages long. I finished it the other day. It made me think. It made me think about football.
  1. Much as sports journalists might wish it so, the outcome of football matches isn't as a result of the managers' planning any more than the outcome of history is decided by the generals. Wise leaders simply find a parade and march in front of it. 
  2. There is no guarantee that what worked in the past will continue to work in the future. Napoleon did the same things at Borodino as he did at Austerlitz, "yet the terrible stroke of his arm had supernaturally become impotent".
  3. If anyone makes history it's the supporters. They are the life-force of a club. "Kings are the slaves of history. History, that is, the unconscious swarm-like life of mankind, uses every moment of a king's life as an instrument for its purposes."
  4. Players, like soldiers, do nothing most of the time, which is irritating but it's the way things have to be. "The chief attraction of military service lies in compulsory and irreproachable idleness." 
  5. For the overwhelming majority of clubs each new season will be much like the last one. "Every action, that seems to them an act of their own free will, is in a historical sense not free at all, but in bondage to the whole course of previous history, and predestined from all eternity. This particularly applies to Spurs."

Thursday, June 04, 2015

Brian Case's lovely little book about jazz, film and crime fiction

On the Snap: Three Decades of Snapshots from the World of Jazz, Film & Crime Fiction is a slim volume of reflections from Brian Case, whose speciality is writing about jazz, crime fiction and anything else he finds stirring. You could read it in an hour. Then you could read it again.

Whenever I sent a hack to interview somebody I used to ask them to make sure they included the little details they told  everyone in the office the minute they got back. A lot of the time they didn't. The transcript takes over and you lose some of that gossipy human interest. This has got lots of those details, the kind you tell the family. Jack Nicholson has got short legs. Dexter Gordon was six foot five. Michael Caine had liposuction to lose weight for "Shirley Valentine". I'm not sure I'd take all of it as gospel but that doesn't matter.

And at the back it's got three lists of things he likes. There are some films, some crime novels and twenty jazz albums. He's not trying to be definitive, not saying "these are the ones you've got to hear before you die" or anything similarly bombastic. He's honest about the fact that by the time he got to encounter the likes of Duke Ellington they were past their best. He stopped liking Miles Davis when he went electronic. He only likes Tom Waits because of one line. Case reminds me of Joe Bussard, the man who collects 78s of early jazz and blues. Both know when to say "there's nothing for me here". I find that liberating. It's Case's impatience with the commonplace that awakens you to his ear for the remarkable.