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17 Thoughts on Software, Humans and Facebook

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I’ve spent a great deal of my life writing software and the thing that’s always interested me the most are not clever algorithms, cutting edge tools, slick user interfaces, super-clever frameworks, professional icons, neat layouts and design and well worded documentation – it’s not the actual software itself. What’s interested me is the people who use that software and how they use it.

My goal when writing any piece of software that ends up in the hands of a human being has always been: “make it software they don’t even notice they’re using”. I’ve worked with plenty of developers who take an incredible amount of pride in what they do and spend hours tweaking the tiniest of details as though they were carving a masterpiece from a block of marble (some of them have been, effectively). Agonising over pixels. Button placement. Colours. Every tiny detail. But that doesn’t matter a jot if the software they’ve built gets in the way of the person using it.

Cameras are wonderful and as a photographer I love the technology behind them: their lenses, the use of filters and a host of other things I’ve written about before. But a camera isn’t the end result, a camera is a tool to take a photograph and the photograph is the end product. A photographer doesn’t want the camera to get in the way of taking a beautiful photo. If you need to take a quick snap you don’t want to spend ages clicking buttons and going through menus, you want to point and shoot. If you want a landscape photo with a digital SLR you want to take a meter reading, pick your shutter speed and aperture – concentrating on the details of the exposure – and take the photo. You don’t want anything slowing you down. You want to concentrate on what you’re doing – composing and taking the perfect photo.

John's Background SwitcherSoftware, for me, is exactly the same.

John’s Background Switcher is, by some margin, the most widely used piece of software I’ve built. I designed it to sit in the background, be easy to set up and then stay completely out of the way. Most people can install it, set it up without thinking about it – they know what they want to do and it helps them to do that. Next they leave it alone, giving it no thought again. It’s taken years for it to get to that stage and hundreds of users telling me what they loved and what they hated. I’ve learned a hell of a lot more about human psychology building JBS than I have about algorithms and elegant coding practises.

The best way to demonstrate how things have changed is via my uninstall feedback page. When you remove JBS you can opt to leave feedback as to why. It’s the single smartest thing I ever did as I learned very quickly why people who’d bothered to install it then later removed it. Early on they’d complain about finding it confusing, not being able to do X (even though JBS did actually let you do X, it’s just the person hadn’t worked out how) and a host of other minor things that made JBS “not good enough” in my eyes. When someone is confused or can’t figure out how to use any aspect of software I’ve written it’s not a failure of that person, it’s a failure of me not making it simple and obvious enough to use and I learned a great deal, gradually evolving JBS and my software design philosophy over time.

The difference is that nowadays I’d say 99% of people uninstalling JBS who leave me feedback start by saying that they “love” JBS and are removing it because they’re changing jobs, or their computer is misbehaving and they’re removing all software, or their son is going to college and they’re giving them their laptop so cleaning it up first or even their wife doesn’t like it. They tend not to say they can’t figure out how it works any more and given the cross-section of people using JBS (see the Facebook user demographics below) I must be doing something right:

JBS Facebook Demographics

People don’t usually email me telling me how great the user interface is or how good the photo choices are – they tell me how they hate their job but when they’ve had enough they minimise their windows and see montages of photos of a family holiday with their kids and that gets them through their day. It’s not about the software, it’s about what the people who use it want to do and for software to be something people can care about and even declare that they love, it’s not the software they emotionally connect to, it’s what that software lets them do without getting in their way.

Which brings me onto Facebook. Facebook is brilliant. No really, it is. It’s brilliant in the way it manages to replicate real-world social interactions.

Say you and a friend are sat at a table in a bar talking about your Star Wars figure collection (you’re obsessed with them). A mutual friend spots you, saunters over and sits with you, joining in the conversation and you catch up – you’ve not seen each other since Comic-Con. You  take out some polaroids you took of your new Jabba the Hutt figurine to show around and your friends all laugh at you as you flip through them. Next your ex-girlfriend (or ex-boyfriend) appears and comes over with her hunk of a new boyfriend / girlfriend who is definitely not into Star Wars figures. You ignore them and they go away. Or maybe you and your friends have a go at their new partner (in a funny way) and they go away. Or maybe they join in the banter and sit down. A couple more friends turn up and you have a good old catch up, take some polaroids and share them around to remember your fun night of drinking and talk. You then go home and write up in your diary some of your experiences of the day, sticking some of those polaroids in place to remember for years to come or look at them and laugh the next time those friends are round at your house. Or maybe you’ll show them to another friend who couldn’t make it.

In the real world this sort of social experience is effortless but prior to Facebook trying to replicate that situation “virtually” was always a compromise. Facebook eloquently lets you do all of the above (except the drinking) with the fact that you have a wall. You can look at the wall, the walls of your friends or a stream of posts on walls of you and your friends all at onces. This is what I find brilliant. The wall is you sat at a table. You add memories to it by uploading pictures, making posts, other people commenting and so on. If you want to know what your friends have been up to lately, or maybe just the friends from your previous company have been up to, then you can find out on Facebook arguably faster than you could do in the real world (assuming they use Facebook).

I know, Facebook didn’t invent the wall, MySpace was using a similar approach and I’m sure plenty of other sites were. It’s just that Facebook refined the idea, concentrated on what it is us humans want to do – interact with each other in a variety of human ways like we do in the real world – and created software that gets out of the way and lets you get on with it. I barely even think about Facebook when I use it and never have – instead I’m thinking about the people I’m interacting with and what I want to do in terms of interacting with them. The friends who’ll see a video of bull frog playing ant crusher I came across. Perusing photos of my brother and what he’s up to. New baby announcements. Videos of friends cats. It’s a great way to stay in touch with people I’d rarely see otherwise.

However there’s a problem. It may be a little too good. I’ve spent the past year or so posting frequently to Facebook. I’d post photos, talk about what I’ve been up to, things going through my head, things I’ve read and pretty much all the things I’d normally do with people in the real world. I’d also take an active part in what my friends were up to, commenting freely. Whenever I’d meet friends for real they’d point out that I was always the most prolific poster and would cut me off telling a story saying they already knew it. So it was working. There was no two ways about it, my friends would stay in touch with me whether they liked it or not (well, unless they unsubscribed).

But did I feel as close to those people through Facebook as in the real world? I’d have to say “no”. It’s all a bit too superficial.

It’s like being a movie star at one of those Hollywood parties where everybody air kisses saying “darling, you look fabulous!” but nobody has a meaningful conversation about anything. Facebook enables a lot more communication and it’s easy to get sucked into that constant craving to see what’s new and if someone’s replied to your post or vice versa. Like that Hollywood party set. But what it doesn’t do is replace sitting around a table just talking to each other. It’s no substitute for the real world and if anything I feel I’ve drifted further away from my real friends as a result. It’s not a substitute for sitting around a table in a bar just talking. More communication doesn’t necessarily mean better.

Don’t get me wrong, I still think Facebook is brilliant. You can interact with people without even thinking about it and it can feel like it’s just the same as the real thing. It’s my ideal software – focussing on the human and allowing them to use it effortlessly to interact with other people. But it’s still missing a more meaningful way to stay in touch. I remember when my brother lived in San Francisco and thanks to Skype it made the world seem a lot smaller. In fact I probably spoke to him more then than when he was living in Edinburgh!

Google+ has a feature called “hangouts” that lets you have group video chats. I never really saw the point of it until I saw this ad:

Hangouts are actually very cool, particularly on a phone which is the place I use social software like Facebook 99.9% of the time. Facebook does have video calling, but that’s one to one and you can’t have group conversations which sort of defeats the whole point of it. If Facebook had a slick way to turn a multi-person written conversation or chat into a video conversation that was as effortless as using the rest of its user interface then they’d have an absolute killer feature. Yeah I know Google+ has hangouts and I should switch to Google+ but Facebook has already crossed the generation divide (in that both the parents and children of my friends use it) and I just don’t have room in my life for another social network!

I never normally do New Year Resolutions but this year I’ve decided to spend a lot less time “interacting” on Facebook and a lot more time “interacting” with friends in the real world instead. It may mean less communication and not knowing what everybody is up to at any given time. But it’ll be less communication with a lot more meaning. Unless of course Facebook follows my advice! 😉

P.S. There aren’t 17 thoughts here, I just like the number 17. And making you keep count!

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Why Depressing Music Cheers Me Up

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I’d never really noticed it before but I love listening to depressing music. Actually, let me clarify that a bit. I love listening to music that you probably find depressing. Or you may not. Perhaps if I list some of the albums that have a high play count in iTunes you can decide which side of the line you stand on:

  • Radiohead – OK Computer (’nuff said)
  • The Stills – Logic Will Break Your Heart (one of my favourites – all melancholy gold)
  • Mogwai – Young Team (particularly ‘R U Still in 2 It?’ – which is somewhat dark)
  • Beck – Odelay (and ‘Jack-Ass’ is by far and away the most played track)
  • Board Of Canada – Music Has The Right To Children
  • The Supernaturals – A Tune A Day (an album entirely filled with break-up songs)
  • Doves – The Last Broadcast (I don’t think it’s depressing – but ‘others’ do)
  • Eels – End Times (he was in a grim place when he wrote this one)
  • Fleetwood Mac – Rumours (probably started the whole thing for me)

My perfect song formula (and the kind of music I’d record if I could play the guitar and sing – think yourself lucky I can do neither) is quite often just a guy and his guitar. He’s probably singing about being in dark place where he’s looking back on when things were good. When he was happy. When he fell asleep in the arms of his lover. How he and his girl danced across poppy fields laughing all the way. How life was great, everything flowed and he was a different man. He was riding on the crest of a wave, the summit of a mountain. And then he’ll reflect on how those days are gone. How he’s a shadow of his former self. How he knows those days will never come back. How life is pointless. How he’s at the end of his tether and he can’t see a way out. How he wished he could turn the clock back. Wondering how it all went wrong and realising it was – perhaps inevitably – his fault for not knowing when he had it good.

Hmmm, ok, I’ll admit, that does sound pretty depressing. But the funny thing is that when I hear a song like that it makes me smile. Even when I’ve been in the depths of despair in my own life, listening to this sort of music never fails to cheer me up. And I think it’s all about my optimistic outlook on life. The way I see it, these songs aren’t about the depression and down times, but more looking at the happier times from a place of darkness. And if you’re in a dark room and someone shines a torch in your eyes it seems pretty frickin’ bright. Shine a torch in your eyes in daylight and you won’t bat an eyelid. For me the same rule applies with this sort of melancholy music.

I learned about my ‘depressing’ musical tastes from my long suffering wife. Whenever we drive anywhere I like to put a mix tape together (well, strictly speaking it’s a CD, but ‘mix tape’ is more old school) or create a playlist on my iPhone and plug that in. In the early days of creating these mixes I’d fill them with bands like those listed above combined with a few singalong classics that I can murder as we cruise along the motorway. The wife’s a tolerant wee thing on the whole but she kept criticising my choice of ‘depressing’ music and could I put something on that didn’t make her want to jump out of the car at high speed? I assumed she was just being negative, but have had it confirmed by an independent panel of judges (other people I know) that no, it’s me. But it never depresses me.

Many years ago my father told me that I’d only ever understand love songs when I’ve been in love. That I’d know when I’d listen to the lyrics and magically they’d make sense. He was right. Maybe you only understand melancholy music when you’ve been melancholy yourself. And listening to music that reminds me of the lows I’ve been through reminds me that I’m not the only one and that I’m not in that place now. That things can always get worse so I should make the most of right now. Plus when I remember the lows the first thing that springs to mind is the highs – the happy times before the broken heart.

I put together a playlist on Spotify of all the songs that ever meant anything to me – it’s pretty much the soundtrack to my life. While listening through it I was struck by two things. Firstly the memories they stir up are mostly associated with women (those loved and lost) or cars (usually breaking down in the middle of nowhere). And secondly, the most memorable parts of my life are inevitably the ones with the strongest emotions – the negative ones. So when I listen to those sad songs they remind me of times when I was down, which then reminds me of the happy times I was looking back on at the time. And that cheers me up.

My wife on the other hand listens to melancholy music and after a short time wants to burst into tears, probably dwelling on the negatives. Perhaps it’s a glass half full thing. Or maybe it’s just be a man / woman thing. I’m sure someone’ll have written a song or two about that…

Oh, if you want to hear the sort of depressing mix tapes I put together, here’s a Spotify playlist that gives you the idea. Enjoy!

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Beating Those Crafty Television Advertisers

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One of the great things about Sky+ is that you no longer have to watch tedious adverts about sofa sales, cheap LCD TVs, car insurance, van insurance, travel insurance, pet insurance, private health care, debt consolidation (fortunately they’re few and far between these days), the dangers of taking recreational drugs, computer games, holidays in Dubai, holidays in Malaysia, holidays in Greece, trailers for programmes showing British holiday makers making idiots of themselves in Greece and a whole bunch of other things I’ll never be interested in.

Shortly after acquiring Sky+ we got into the habit of using the ‘series link’ feature to record all episodes of everything we’re likely to watch then watch them at our leisure while gleefully skipping the ad breaks every 15 minutes (except for the wonderful BBC with no ads at all). We now very rarely watch ‘live’ TV (other than sporting events or the odd BBC show) and virtually never see adverts at all. The trouble is that advertisers know this and they know that the number of people who have personal recorders like Sky+ is growing. And I notice they’ve started employing sneaky tactics to try to get some ads in your face even when you skip them.

For a long time, once an ad break started I could fast forward at x30 speed for the count of 10, press play and be right at the point where the programme starts again. I could do it with my eyes closed. Then I found to my dismay that some channels started to mix things up a bit. They started by throwing in the odd short break, this meant I had to keep my eye on the screen and quickly back up if things over-ran, but didn’t cause too many problems.

Then I noticed that some channels got even sneakier. Instead of simply varying the ad break length they’d throw in the ‘cover screen’ mid-way through the adverts. By ‘cover screen’ I mean the screen they show at the start and end of ad breaks, usually with the title of the show, such as “THE PROFESSIONALS”, “THE UNIT” or “LOST”. When you’re skipping through the ads you look out for the cover screen so you don’t go too far and have to rewind – your trigger finger is ready for them. And the advertisers know it. So they put it mid-way through the ads, you instinctively click ‘Play’ and you end up actually watching a few seconds of some advert for carpet cleaner until you start fast forwarding again. Damn those evil ad men (and women)!

Thanks to the current world recession (or is it depression?) television advertising revenues are dropping and independent channels like ITV and Channel 4 are starting to struggle to make ends meet. While I wouldn’t shed a tear if I never saw a TV ad again it would be a shame if these independent channels went under because they’ve based their revenues so heavily on advertising. Surely there has to be a better way to fund a channel than making people sit through endless ads telling you what kitchen cleaner or drain blocker to use. I thought these TV executives were supposed to be creative!

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The State Of The British Economy

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An oft-noted observation people like myself make when they spend time in the USA is the myopic nature of the news on TV. A 30 minute news show will typically have about 12 minutes of national news from around the US, 5 minutes of local news, 2 minutes of weather, 47 minutes of adverts and 13 seconds of ‘world’ news detailing the world outside the US borders. Okay, those numbers don’t quite add up but you get my point – very little of ‘interest’ happens outside the US. You can watch BBC World instead but that seems to show you world news for everywhere except the UK.

However the current economic crisis affecting the UK (and rest of the world of course) is completely taking over the news coverage, particularly of the BBC, and it’s non-stop and as though there’s nothing else happening in the world. Or at least that’s how it feels.

They’re tracking every single layoff in every geographic region of the UK, tracking companies that might be laying people off soon, interviewing people about how worried they are about their jobs, how they’re coping with being laid off, how getting laid off was the worst thing to happen to them, how getting laid off was the best thing to happen to them, how the banks are in trouble, how the shops in the high street are going under, how the pound is incredibly weak, how car manufacturing is in trouble, how us tax payers are bailing out the banks, and on and on and on. I’m getting recession overload and if another Labour politician comes on and starts deflecting questions about how it’s not their fault and that it’s a “global problem” I think I’ll scream. But personally I take everything I see on the news with a pinch of salt now.

The pound falling against the dollar

You see, I heard a very interesting interview on the radio with an American economist who was asked the simple question: “Why is the pound so weak against the dollar?”. His answer surprised the presenters to such an extent that they were lost for words.

He said that investing in UK government bonds is considered just as risky as investing in the Royal Bank of Scotland – a bank that was in such a bad state that it had to be bailed out by the government in December. UK government bonds are supposed to be rock-solid, safe investments that you can depend upon. To compare them to a British bank run into the ground by greedy men in suits doesn’t say a lot for the opinion of the outside world on the UK government. He also went on to say that outside the UK there’s a real belief that the UK government itself could go bankrupt. Since our current Prime Minister was the Chancellor for 10 years and used to exclaim that “the days of boom and bust are over”, it’s particularly ironic that he was in fact setting himself up for a fall. Instead of saving in the good times, the government appears to have spent like billionaire bankers and left the economy in such a fragile state that the credit crunch could well finish us. And yet until then I’d never heard this point of view – a point of view originating outside the UK – mentioned.

A lost lambI know that “no news is good news” and ultimately they’re trying to get as high ratings as possible, but the 24 hour news culture and US-style approach to sensationalist, on-demand, instant-coverage, soundbite-based reporting just makes me want to switch off. Whatever happened to one or two news shows a night where there was actual analysis of what was happening instead of a constant drone of uninformed, knee-jerk, twitter-style noise? All noise does is confuse people and if you need people to act sensibly and behave in a way that might help a country out of recession the last thing you need is more confusion. Individually people are pretty smart but collectively they tend to act like sheep, and sheep confuse easily. Baaaaa! 😉

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Life On Mars (Better Late Than Never)

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Typically for me I missed the hype of the BBC series Life On Mars a few years back but managed to acquire the first series on DVD last Christmas (that’s not the Christmas just passed, it’s the one a year ago). I have a pile of books to read as long as your arm and a pile of as-yet unwatched DVDs as long as your leg so I finally got around to watching Life On Mars this Christmas and wow, it’s brilliant!

For those like me who are several years out of date with everything (for example generally I wait until a band has broken up or died before I become a fan, not by choice, it’s just the way it seems to pan out) then the premise is that a police officer from the modern day – Sam Tyler – is involved in a car accident and wakes up in 1973 somewhat confused and still a copper. He’s not sure if he’s in a coma imagining the whole thing or has travelled back in time and his boss – DCI Gene Hunt – is a classic 70’s Sweeney-style copper who’s happy to fit someone up or beat a confession out of them just to get a result – quite contrary the current 21st century methodical approach to policing.

What made the show such a success was the way it approached the problems of racism, sexism, homophobia, police corruption and other issues of the day and showed how they came to be and why life was like that back then. By having a politically correct 21st century metrosexual thrown into that world he was a fish out of water feeling like he was on another planet and the contrasts between the attitudes in our world and that of the 70’s made me feel like I’d stick out a mile then. However what was even more clever was the way it demonstrated how nowadays crime is out of control, the police are caught up in red tape and politics, any sense of community is lost, and for all our freedoms, high technology and enlightened thinking, the world of the 70’s has its merits. By the end of the second and final season he’s become more at home in the world of the 70’s than the 21st century (I’ll leave it at that and not spoil the ending). The acting was excellent, the story-lines compelling, the music the pick of the 70’s (most of which reminded me of my early childhood) and Gene Hunt was a fantastic character with classic exchanges like this:

SAM TYLER: You’re an overweight, over-the-hill, nicotine-stained, borderline-alcoholic homophobe with a superiority complex and an unhealthy obsession with male bonding.

GENE HUNT: You say that like it’s a bad thing!

We watched season one over a couple days (having stayed up until 2.30am the first night) and immediately ordered season two which we consumed with similar gusto. It was entertaining, sad, thought-provoking and in a way made me long for the world I grew up in where a hoodie was a type of jumper, not a teenage, uneducated hooligan with no work ethic and a fondness of drinking and violence. A world where you could go out without locking your door and you knew all your neighbours. Having said that the 70’s had more than its fair share of problems like football hooliganism, women treated as second class citizens and a host of other social ills. But it’s sad that while in a lot of ways we’ve become more tolerant, understanding, technologically advanced and supposedly civilised, when I look around and read the news I can’t help but feel that in my lifetime society has never been more fractured, terrified, lawless, selfish and politically correct to the point of madness.

My Dad Aged 32 And Me Aged 34 (I must do something about that ghostly glow I have)

I often wonder what would happen if I went back in time to the early 70’s, met my father and told him what life was going to be like by the time I was his age. What would he think? Would he believe me? And would I want to go back to it? I’m not sure I would. If nothing else with my fondness for flowery shirts I’d fit right in!

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From Joe Average To Premiership Football In One Year?

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While out in my garage doing a weights session to get over my latest footballing injury (it’s official, I now have two dodgy knees) I heard an interesting article on Radio 5 live. A 23 year old lad called Arton Baleci was doing an experiment to see if he can turn himself (a self confessed ‘average’ footballer) into a professional footballer good enough to play in the English Premier league (arguably the best league in the world).

Being a professional footballer is the dream of many a young lad but as anybody who’s played football to a decent level knows, the difference between someone who can stand out at Sunday league or top amateur level and a professional who plays in the Conference (the lowest of the professional leagues) can be vast.

My friend Stu used to play semi-pro and when he was a youngster he went to an England schoolboys training camp (or something like that). He said some of the kids there were amazingly talented and he felt they were a level up from himself (he’s modest though so I take it with a pinch of salt). And yet how many of these kids made it in the game, even in the lower leagues? Not one. To play in the Premier league which is filled with world class players you can’t just be a decent footballer, you have to be a great footballer.

So how can a 23 year old recent graduate think he’s got a chance of going from being out of breath running for a bus, having not played competitive football in years to being able to get a pro contract for a team in the top football league in the world in a year? Well, perhaps not surprisingly, he’s got a plan.

The Beautiful Aim

He’s surrounding himself with top coaches so that he can get himself to the standard of fitness required of a professional footballer (which at 23 and looking at his physique I don’t think will be a problem so long as he keeps his determination). He’ll be using the latest scientific techniques to speed up his ability to learn the footballing skills he’ll need to make it as a player. He’ll be analysing the attributes of what makes a top player and using the latest techniques (both physical and psychological) to get into the right mindset and make those attributes his own. He’ll be using the latest sports science combined with his determination to see if it’s possible. He’s the guinea pig in his own experiment to see how much we understand what “that something special” is that separates Wayne Rooney from his classmates at school and see if it’s possible to learn how to do what came naturally to him.

It’s definitely possible to make a good player into a great player through the right type of training and sheer hard work over many years as real-life lower league professional footballer – Gavin Strachan – talks about here. But to take a non-professional footballer right to the top in such a short space of time sounds like a bridge too far. Had he set his target on just getting a professional contract then I’d say he’s got a pretty good chance since more often than not it’s the mental strength and determination that separates the lads who get dropped by clubs from those who get pro contracts. But the Premier league, I suspect, will be beyond him in such a short space of time.

Having said that, he’d never get the publicity if he wasn’t setting his sights high and frankly I’d love to be proven wrong. Not only would it give hope to a lot of kids who’ve not made it and want a second chance, but it could take football and other sports to a higher level in the future. Just imagine what the training techniques that can take a regular guy to the top could do for someone with natural talent and exceptional pace as a result of lucky genetics!

Anyway, I’ll certainly be following his progress over the coming year and if like me you wish you’d been the next Paul Scholes then you should too. He’s documenting his journey at The Beautiful Aim and has a YouTube channel too. Good luck Arton! 🙂

Update (3rd August 2012): Well looking at the fact that the site is now dead I’d say that his mission failed. Perhaps not surprising given how hard it is to make it as a professional footballer and to make it late to the party requires something special. Still, good to have seen him give it a try – nothing ventured, nothing gained!

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Mamma Mia – The Movie

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You may recall last year that I had the pleasure of seeing Mamma Mia – The Musical and despite wondering beforehand how on earth they were going to make a decent musical out of ABBA I loved it. So with the recent release of the cinematic version I thought it only fair that I take one for the team, go and see it, and let you – my long suffering reader – know what it’s like. So that’s exactly what I’ve done.

It had all the makings of a truly terrible film. First of all, it’s a musical – a genre I’ve never really understood on the big screen. It has Pierce Brosnan in it singing – something the former James Bond actor has never looked likely to do – plus I’d read reviews of people saying you can see the pain etched on his face when he’s banging out the songs. My brother – who would make a good film critic as he sees more films than Mark Kermode – said he “hated it with a passion”. I’d heard it described like a massive amateur dramatics production with movie stars. By all accounts I was expecting to go and see Mamma Mia and loath every minute of it. But you know what?

I ABSOLUTELY LOVED IT!! 🙂

I think when watching it you have to give yourself over to the complete madness of it, the absurdity, the fact that tongues were firmly in cheeks all the way through filming. It does feel like it was shot in quite a rush with minimal rehearsals but the effort everybody puts into their performances and the mad semi-choreographed dancing just adds to the magic. It was pure comedy all the way through but to be honest I was sitting there waiting to hear Brosnan sing and I wasn’t disappointed. I rate the cinematic experience of Brosnan singing his first solo right up there with realising who Keyser Söze was in The Usual Suspects or that Bruce Willis was dead all along in The Sixth Sense! It was immediately clear that he’s not a natural singer but to be fair he gave it his best shot and his voice wasn’t bad at all – it’s worth seeing the film just for his version of S.O.S. Reruns of Brosnan’s 007 films will never be the same again…

Meryl Streep, however, really steals the show with not only some excellent singing but a really good all-round performance. Her best scene is definitely the one before the wedding singing ‘The Winner Takes It All’ – pure class (when you see it you’ll know why). I think without her strong performance Mamma Mia wouldn’t be half the film it is. I suspect it’s the sort of film that polarises people’s opinions but the big surprise for me is that mine has fallen on the side of thinking it’s great.

So the John Conners film recommendation of the week is to see Mamma Mia at your local cinema. Just don’t take it seriously and I’m sure you’ll love it! Either that or I’ve finally gone crazy… Quite possible I suppose after all these years… No, it’s not me, it’s just a great film for all the wrong reasons!

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Ploughing My Way Through The Discworld Books

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The First 22 Discworld Books That I've Read So FarI mentioned before that I have an all-or-nothing approach to reading books where if I read the first in a series I’ll become obsessed and read them all. So way back in September of 2007 I was on holiday and picked up the first Discworld book by Terry Pratchett – a series of (currently) 36 books. I’d heard for years that they were pretty good but was always daunted by the fact that he’d been writing two of them a year for over 15 years so it would be a lot of work reading them all. No sooner had I read the first book – The Colour Of Magic – than I started the second and knew I was hooked.

So here I am 10 months later and I’ve just finished the 22nd book in the series! As you can see from the picture that’s quite a lot of books. I’ve been buying them from Amazon Marketplace for a pound and have really enjoyed them.

I’ve not been much of a fan of fantasy novels but the thing that appeals to me about the Discworld books – apart from the humour which has made me laugh out loud many times – is the way Pratchett uses the fantasy world he’s created as a way of making you think about our world and the things we accept and consider normal. In a reality where the world sits on the back of four elephants standing on top of a giant space turtle, where magic, a Guild of Assassins, witches, flying carpets, a scythe carrying Death with a dark sense of humour and the Death of rats is normal, he manages to show how chaotic and senseless our world often is.

For instance any member of the Guild of Thieves who robs you makes sure to leave you a receipt (which you can present to another member to ensure you don’t get robbed too frequently) but anybody committing a robbery who’s not a guild member or breaks the guild rules can be assured of an early “retirement” at the hands of the guild. Where crime is organised and self-governing people know where they stand and don’t have to live in fear. It’s crazy, but not as crazy as the world in which we live.

Pratchett is very good at making observations about the belief system of us humans, how we make sense of the world and how our imagination is what brings things into existence. In Hogfather he talks about how as children we have to believe in little lies like the Toothfairy and the Hogfather (a somewhat rougher version of Father Christmas) so that when we grow up we can believe in the big lies like justice and mercy. If we don’t believe in them – despite not being able to show any evidence that they exist – then how do we make them come to be? Once you get past the magic, the trolls, the elves (who’re evil in his world), etc. you realise that Pratchett is a keen observer of the human condition.

The books centre on the city of Ankh Morpork and the people who live in and around it. While you don’t have to read the books in sequence you do feel some progression of the various characters as they come in and out of the story lines. Death – probably the most interesting character – starts off as the cold grim reaper but as he watches humans he starts to grow fond of them, tries to better understand them and changes through the series (I was going to say he ‘warms to them’ but that wouldn’t really fit the image of a tall skeleton in a black robe!).

How Pratchett manages to come up with fresh and interesting stories for each book I don’t know – it’s an incredible feat of writing. But I’m still enjoying them and looking forward to catching up to him in the next year. He may be able to write two books a year but I can read a lot more than that!

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Stephen Fry’s Thoughts On The BBC

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I subscribe to Stephen Fry’s infrequent but fascinating podgrams (which are podcasts of the essays on his blog) and his most recent edition (episode 4) was called ‘The BBC and the future of broadcasting’. It’s easy to take for granted a public broadcasting service like the BBC and resent having to pay the subscription fee but Stephen’s thoughts on the value and importance of the BBC makes for great reading – and if you listen to the podcast version it makes for great listening. If I were one tenth as good a writer as Stephen Fry I’d be one hell of a writer: The BBC and the future of broadcasting.

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My Glastonbury Festival Memories

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Way back in 1999 my friend Scott phoned me up and told me he’d managed to win a couple of free tickets to the full weekend of the Glastonbury Festival and would I like to go along with him. It took me all of 2 seconds to say yes and before I knew it I was driving from Yorkshire down to Bristol (where Scott lived at the time) and on towards the festival!

I’d never been before but often had Radio 1 on over the weekend listening to the great lineup of bands. The previous year had been memorable for the torrential rain and mud although at the time I agreed to go along the thought of spending the weekend knee-deep in mud hadn’t occurred to me…

When we got near the venue we found ourselves driving at walking speed and enormous queues of traffic heading into the distance. Everybody seemed to be in cars packed full of camping equipment, quilts, deck chairs, cans of cheap lager and people with happy smiling faces. We eventually managed to get in to park, grabbed our gear and headed into the venue itself. As we got nearer we could hear very loud music rumbling in the distance and the vastness of the area became clear. I’d been to outdoor raves before in my younger days (I should probably write about that some time) but the scale of Glastonbury was enormous. When we got through the gates we were presented with tents as far as the eye could see:

Scott and a seas of tents at Glastonbury

We pitched our tent and then headed over to the main stage to see REM – who were awesome! After that it was getting dark and we thought we’d have a wander around the place to get the feel of it. Having done that we decided to head back to the tent and get some sleep – and then we realised we couldn’t find it! After a couple of hours of aimlessly wandering around in the dark thinking we might have to give up on finding it we eventually did, rolled into our sleeping backs and fell asleep.

The next morning we were greeted with scorching sunshine! Looking at the line-up in the information booklet we got on arrival we realised just what an awesome list of bands were there. We knew we wouldn’t be able to see all we wanted as a lot of them clashed but we made a good go of it. The full line-up is handily reproduced here and if you’re about my age you’ll agree it was great. I’ll always remember sitting in the sunshine watching Beth Orton play, my only worries being not getting sun-burnt! Speaking of the weather the only time it rained was a short shower right at the time Travis played their classic song “Why does it always rain on me?” – which I swear happened!

So we watched the likes of Travis (great live and a lot of banter – oh, and they’re Scottish of course), The Cardigans (great songs but Nina, the lead singer, had absolutely no stage presence or charisma at all), Super Furry Animals (fantastic show), a bit of Cast (not bad) and then we shifted over to see the Manic Street Preachers who were absolutely brilliant. They gave one of the best performances I’ve ever seen (and I’ve seen many many bands since). I’d never been much of a fan before but from that set onwards I’ve loved them!

Following a day of superb entertainment we headed off to get some sleep for the final day (finding the tent first time). And what a day it was! We watched the likes of Dogstar (not an interesting band apart from the fact that Keanu Reeves played bass for them, quite well I believe), The Corrs (I fell in love with Andrea Corr on that day and would leave my good lady in a heartbeat if I had a chance with her – so nothing to worry about there then!), Lenny Kravitz (who was surrounded by some very talented musicians and gave a surprisingly good show) and The Fun Loving Criminals (who were rather entertaining).

My good self at Glastonbury

It was all over in a flash and we saw a lot of great bands and met some interesting people. It was a fantastic experience, although if I’m honest it was nice to get away from it all, back to the real world and away from so many people in a confined space. I’d never seen so many people with dreadlocks, tattoos, clothes made from hemp and other “alternative lifestyle” indicators in one place!

I gather though that Glastonbury has changed quite a lot since I went. Tickets back then cost about £80 for the weekend and are now double that, which I’m sure has priced a lot of people out of it. It’s a lot more commercialised than it used to be and is targeted at a different type of person than 10 years ago – it was the student set and now it’s overrun by the prawn sandwich brigade. I suppose that’s the way of the world these days, which is a shame, but if people go along and have a great time then who am I to say it’s a bad thing? You won’t catch me going again (unless someone comes up with free tickets), but I’ll still be tuning in on the radio and TV to hear the bands and reminiscing about a weekend in the sunshine in a field in Somerset. Happy days. 🙂