Appearances

28th February 2014

Posh AndroidAnother year, another Nexus and it is time for another round-up of Android apps. Despite having had the Nexus 5 since its launch a few months ago, I have only just flashed CyanogenMod 11. With each consecutive release of stock Android there seem to be fewer reasons to switch to a custom ROM. The major features for me are the built-in equaliser and the recent addition of WhisperPush for encrypted SMS.

Hello is my new preferred SMS app. It takes some design cues from Google Hangouts (into which Google merged its text messaging app) but its tabs are more usable and it is beautifully minimalist.

Google Play Music unexpectedly became my default music player because of their exceptional cloud mirroring service. It will mirror your entire music collection (up 20,000 songs) irrespective of where you obtained the music and make it available to stream anywhere via the app or desktop browsers. If the song is already in Google's library, you do not even have to upload it first. The app makes great use of full-screen album artwork, and losing Poweramp's impressive equaliser was alleviated by CyanogenMod's in-built option.

SolCalendar and Cal are both vying for the position of default calendar app. Cal may be the prettier with its animations and integration with the Any.do To-do List, but SolCalendar's clean UI offers better usability. Or at least it will as soon as addresses are clickable to launch mapping/navigation, which is a major drawback at present.

Feedly became most popular replacement feed reader when Google shelved Reader last year to much consternation from users. Fortunately Feedly's qulity on the desktop is matched by a great mobile app for swiping through subscriptions and then putting the text of stories front and centre.

Timely is a stunningly beautiful alarm clock app, with the usual extras like a stopwatch, but also cloud synchronisation of alarms. Its "smart rise" feature was an interesting idea with gradually increasing volume over an extended period of time but as a light sleeper I found it woke me almost instantly.

Muzei is an simple live wallpaper from Google employee Roman Nurik who became prominent for producing the Dashclock lock screen widget.  Muzei cycles artwork on your home screen with a gaussian blur applied until double-tapped to prevent it being distracting. Like Dashclock it supports extensions and a dozens emerged within days (such as National Geographic and Flickr).

Otherwise things remain largely unchanged:

Utilities — It can be assumed I use pretty much all of the Google suite of apps, with their acquisition of Quickoffice making it my default document viewer. SwiftKey has not been challenged as my keyboard of choice. Tasker is still at the centre of automating phone functionality. Despite Chrome's prominence and briefly trying Mercury, Dolphin remains my browser of choice. ES File Explorer is my preferred file manager, particularly for easy access to shared network content. Evernote remains one of my most-used apps for storing and retrieving information, although I also use Pocket for reading web content later. Light Flow allows for granular customisation of notification lights. For cloud storage I now use Google Drive, Dropbox and Box for different aspects. SMS Backup+ syncs my text messages with GMail and now boasts WhatsApp support.

MediaDoggCatcher remains my podcast aggregator with DICE Player for video playback of nearly anything (along with the YouTube and Vimeo apps). Google Play Music has removed the need for other streaming apps for music I own but I still use SoundCloud. Meanwhile I have switched to Yatse as an XBMC remote which has provided a smoother experience.

Misc — I am split between the overhauled official Twitter app and newcomer Talon. BeWeather still provides both a weather app and the integrated clock widget on my home screen. Whilst I have always enjoyed its attractive weather animations, what keeps it on top is the at-a-glance hour by hour graph for the day that shows you exactly when it is likely to rain.

Equally Engaged

18th February 2014

Engagement RingRecently the subject of engagement rings came up with colleagues and I found myself once more evaluating their place in a society that is striding slowly but confidently towards gender equality. It is certainly a custom worth putting under a magnifying glass. Given my many married and engaged friends, I should make it clear that I make no judgements about anyone who partakes in what is currently a social custom, nor would I presume to dictate what jewellery anyone should wear. Indeed I am generally resigned to the fact that, should I get married, I am likely to be buying a diamond ring in the future.

There are two distinct issues which are best not conflated: (a) the diamond scam; and (b) inequality.

The former has been explored in detail by others so I will only summarise. Whilst people consider diamond rings traditional, it is a custom that dates back as far as… the late 1930s. Prior to that it was restricted to the upper class and nobility (stemming perhaps from Archduke Maximilian of Austria's use of a diamond ring in 1477). Engagement or betrothal rings were still a common custom, but they tended to be simpler, like gimmel rings or posy rings.

De Beers AdvertisementThe diamond "requirement" stemmed from an unfathomably successful De Beers marketing campaign in the late 1930s when the price of diamonds collapsed during the Great Depression — over the course of a decade they sought to educate the public that a diamond was the only acceptable stone for an engagement ring. In 1939 10% of engagement rings in the USA had diamonds. By 1990, that had risen to 80%. And that authoritative traditional "rule" that the ring ought to cost two months' salary? Also from a De Beers advert. Worse still, that was a rise from their originally advertised suggestion of one month to boost declining profits. The cost might not be a problem if diamonds held intrinsic value but (whilst I am certain most women love diamonds for their many industrial applications) they are a terrible investment because they are plentiful and, unlike — say — gold, they have limited resale value.

So the value proposition is terrible. Fine, but that is true of most commercialised aspects of love, albeit generally with a lower price tag. The real problem, and perhaps the reason diamonds have been so easy to foist, is one of reinforcing hugely detrimental ideas of gender inequality which are rarely questioned:

  • The woman wears a ring from the moment she accepts the man's proposal, a sign to the world that she is "off the market" whilst the man typically roams unbranded until the wedding. Territorial marking does not always smell bad.
  • The high cost of the ring, by reference to and demonstrating the man's income, reinforces the notion that he is or should be the primary earner to provide for his wife and family. Reinforcing this at the start of a marriage is particularly dangerous when it later comes to decisions about prioritising one partner's career and/or child care.
  • As the woman is the recipient of the only ring, it forces a passive role in the proposal. This seems to be one of the primary concerns amongst otherwise emancipated women regarding why they feel uncomfortable with proposing.

So what would I like to see as a solution? I do not think engagement rings are inherently bad but parity and simplicity would solve these issues. I would certainly like to see it become customary that either party felt comfortable and free to propose*. Either the proposer beforehand or the couple subsequently could purchase a pair of bands, one worn by each of them, with engraved inscriptions on the inside. The "value" would come from these personalised sentiments, invisible to others, although the bands could be patterned or set with stones to satisfy personal tastes in jewellery. Sure, the diamond industry might collapse. But then if you like diamonds, that just means you can afford to have more of them.

*Some women have suggested they want a man to propose as a gesture to demonstrate he is committed and ready to settle down, fearing that they would not get the same signal simply by him accepting a proposal. I can see a logic to this. However, having been in relationships where the woman was the one with commitment issues, this no longer seems to be a gender issue. Perhaps we would be best served by a default position that The One With Commitment Issues proposes, whoever that happened to be…

4000 Reasons to Watch Netflix

16th January 2014

This year's Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas was a largely predictable affair: everyone jumped on the "wearable tech" bandwagon but with limited innovation and a lot of Fitbit clones, the Oculus Rift headset wowed even more than last year but remains a prototype with a nebulous future, Valve's Steamboxes have become a reality and they look like… PCs.

Meanwhile, as signalled last year, television manufacturers have thankfully dropped their push for 3D, accepting that most people do not really care about it in the living room environment (if at all). They are instead moving towards affordable 4K or "Ultra HD". At four times the number of pixels in "Full HD" 1080p, this allows for substantially larger and more immersive screens whilst retaining visual fidelity when sitting at the same distance away. The problem is the immediately obvious lack of content: I think it is safe to assume that last year's $1,750 REDRAY player will not be appearing in the average consumer home any time soon.

NetflixGreat as 4K TVs may look, content is what drives adoption. Broadcast content is years away, as is a new standard for home content that would be incompatible with current blu-ray players. This is where Netflix's announcement could herald one of the biggest shake-ups from this year's CES. It announced that future Netflix Original series (including the forthcoming second season of House of Cards) will be shot in 4K, and they will be remastering Breaking Bad in 4K. By the end of the week LG, Sony, Samsung and Vizio had all announced Netflix support on their new 4K TVs.

That essentially makes Netflix the de facto destination for 4K adopters, which should worry the rest of the content industry. The only serious competitor seems to be Amazon in the US, but in Europe they have done little to impress since their acquisition of LoveFilm and its streaming service. Given Netflix's latest UI shifts towards a presenting a personalised channel of on-demand content, I can think of many worse companies to be at the head of the pack.

Thirty-One Point Five Million

2nd January 2014

Turkey I was a little apprehensive about this year's decision that my cousins and I would be cooking Christmas dinner for the family (not my idea). Fortunately it all went smoothly and, beyond the logistics of juggling limited oven space, it is hard to understand all the fuss if the work is shared a little. And if you have home-made chef's hats. I remain utterly sceptical about celebrating anything with turkey — there is a reason we do not eat the blandest bird in existence the rest of the year — but the secret to a great Christmas meal seems to be coating absolutely everything in goose fat.

CousinsThe best new tradition that emerged under our watch was using The Final Countdown as the soundtrack to lighting the Christmas pudding, of which no doubt G.O.B. would have heartily approved. My uncle Rajan's absence was keenly felt even when not addressed directly, but it was good to have the family together and it was strangely comforting to know a similar feeling was shared by my family overseas with their own empty chair.

Whilst I enjoy the real world parties, New Year's Eve may be my least favourite day on social networks. I think there is a lot to be said for using the arbitrary calendar marker as a time of reflection over the previous year, but most of the myriad potted life summaries that litter facebook that day tend to be irritating works of fiction because: (a) capturing 31.5 million seconds of human experience in a couple of paragraphs is an exercise in futility; and (b) writing for public consumption has an understandably self-serving goal entirely to different to one's deeper personal reflections. Were I to write my own "2013 in review" it would probably be something like this:

I spent this year on a rock that feels increasingly small, hurtling around a gigantic ball of fire at 30km/s.

Inexplicably, I somehow managed to hold on.

Actually, that sounds rather apt.

Christmas 2013

25th December 2013

Christmas 2013

Manel Traylor, 1954-2013

20th November 2013

ManelWhilst I have continued to write Shards (and thank you for all the comments they have received), I have avoided regular updates for some time, in part because it has been a difficult few months. The biggest jolt came at the end of September when Manel, my aunt in the States, died unexpectedly and without warning at the age of 59. Although there were some things I might have said here, my immediate focus was taking care of my family over there (and I was lucky that those with whom I work were so good about letting me do so). Growing up, my family would travel to Louisiana to see the Traylors every other year, for two or three weeks at a time. It led to the incredibly close ties which mean that in the last ten years I have visited the States about as many times. I often talk about the months I worked in Louisiana before university, but most people do not know that I also spent a summer living with Manel and her family after my GCSEs.

Her children's words at the funeral captured her perfectly: the teacher, the mother, the animal-lover, the rebel, and — at least in passing — the personal neuroses that gave her the unique character that we all grew to love. There is little I could usefully have added but I did have some thoughts at the time that I would still like to share.

Every trip, the five children from our two families would all await one inevitable occurrence: Manel chewing out a service industry worker for some shortcoming or perceived sleight. Mostly it was warranted, if not the viciousness with which she took to the role. We would typically shy away embarrassed whilst secretly enjoying the spectacle.

For Manel, I knew, one's chosen work was a vital part of life and laziness was anathema to her. She held others to the high standard she held herself. Jenna mentioned her slight jealousy of all those pupils whose foibles Manel knew almost as well as her own children, and a sadness that Manel's grandchildren would miss out on that personal attention. She immersed herself in her work and, as she saw it, so should everyone else.

But there was more to it that I did not realise for many years. On a trip to Las Vegas, my family and I returned to our room after breakfast on the day of check-out, only to have an irate cleaner burst in and tell us we should not be there. She had, presumably, seen no luggage and assumed we had already left so she could begin work early, only for us to return and (minimally) undo her efforts. Puzzled, we tried to explain but she decided to pick up the phone and call security. We only heard her half of the conversation but I remember the end vividly, "Do they speak English? Yeah, a little." Being British, I could only find the hopelessly faulty attempt at derision laughable and, bemused, we related the bizarre event to the rest of the family later. Manel was not amused. She was furious.

CoralI visited alone a year later and one day Manel went digging through papers and returned proudly with a letter that she presented to me for inspection. It was from the hotel manager, in response to a complaint she had sent, apologising for the incident and — rather ominously given Vegas' history — stating that "the employee in question has been terminated". "Terminated," Manel repeated with her mischievous cackle, and I began to realise this was not simply glee at the firing of an unforgivably rude employee (nor her potential mafia-style burial somewhere in the desert). She wanted me to understand how important we were to her and this letter was her proof. She was always incredibly protective over those she loved (to a fault, her children might argue, if they ever wished to swim while the sun was out) and, for the few weeks we spent with her at a time, she wanted to guarantee things were perfect.

It took years of being embarrassed to realise someone just wanted to protect me and to show me I was important to them. And in that, I suppose, she really was a mother to everyone for whom she cared.

Shards

7th August 2013

I stopped writing poetry around the middle of university, essentially upon leaving my teenage years, and most of the writing in the Artist section is actually now over a decade old. Whilst that particular vein of raw emotion seemed to have been mined, it did not mean I stopped writing  (obviously, given that you are reading this), but most of the subsequent fiction was never shared beyond a handful of people.

ShardMuch of the fictional prose I write tends not be fully formed short stories, but rather isolated scenes and slivers of dialogue. At one stage my intention was to collect them so that they might later be expanded into something more substantial or joined together to form a larger whole. Over time, I came to appreciate them more in their current form: loose sequences that allude to the worlds from which they are plucked, to other stories with details for the reader to fill, open to interpretation and more universal as a result.

I think of these pieces as "Shards", shattered fragments that reflect their world and whose shapes offer hints at the stories from which they came. As a new project, rather than having them gather digital dust (static, white noise?), I plan to post one of these Shards each week in the Artist section, which has now been reorganised appropriately. Shard I is available immediately. Expect considerable variety in length, style and content, but I am interested to receive feedback and to see what people particularly enjoy; there is every chance I may choose to return to some worlds or characters in the future.

Alex and Suzi's wedding

1st July 2013

Alex's SpeechI avoided writing about Alex and Suzi's stunning wedding in mid-May until the photographs were ready. Now that I have shared them with the bride and groom, they are available for your perusal. They are an unusual set for me in that it is the first time I have shot with the intention of supplementing someone else's work. Their official photographer was the excellent Jeff Ascough, who is so good at his craft that many barely noticed his presence at all, particularly during the ceremony. I took on the role of official unofficial photographer, or perhaps unofficial official photographer, I am not sure which. They key is "unofficial" — many of you know this is a rule as, whilst I will inevitably take many photographs at friends' weddings and I am happy to share them, I simply cannot guarantee that I will nail each of the key moments and you only get one chance to do so.

As Ascough would be photographing the bridal party prior to the ceremony, Alex specifically requested that I shoot the chaps over the morning, and in this I was happy to oblige. As an usher, I did not shoot the ceremony at all and broadly sought to stay out of Ascough's way during the day's main set pieces. Between these Alex and Suzi largely circulated separately amongst the guests, with the unusual result that I ended up with virtually no photos of the two of them together.

Hard RockThe day began at the RAF Club, some of the ushers nursing their heads in the bright sunlight after two successive nights out with the bridesmaids and family. Corks were swiftly popped on two medicinal bottles of champagne. We had allowed plenty of time to get ready but, being men, required virtually none of it. As an usher, one's key role before the ceremony is essentially to stop the groom from doing anything dangerous. Like thinking. So we set off to find him a drink. Unfortunately, in the morning before the pubs had opened, the only available option was the Hard Rock Café around the corner — not the most natural venue for a dozen men in full morning dress. The tourists peered at us in bemusement, not entirely sure whether we were preparing for some event or whether this was simply how the British dress for the weekend. We chose not to dispel their confusion.

The ChurchAfter a short ride in two gleaming white taxis, the next stop was The Windmill, a pub round the back of St. George's Church. Given the proximity, it gradually filled up with wedding guests over the next hour, after which we adjourned to the church. Ascough had arrived already and, upon our enquiry about the bridal party, made a slightly cryptic comment. The ceremony itself was a lovely, simple affair inside a beautiful church. It was only afterwards, aboard the routemaster buses that took us on a winding trip around London before returning us nearby at the Lansdowne Club, that one of the bridesmaids spilled their morning's events to which Ascough had alluded.

SuziSuzi, having awoken early that morning, had decided in preparation for the impending nuptials to transfer her engagement ring. Unfortunately the fingers of her right hand turned out to be slightly larger than the left. Being a determined sort, she was disinclined to back down and it became hopelessly stuck with her finger swelling up. As it began to turn purple she decided it should probably be sorted out and so she found herself in A&E having the ring cut off. Typically calm, she was the one telling her bridesmaids not to freak out as she explained the situation from hospital.

The remainder of the day went far more smoothly, the Lansdowne providing a wonderful suite of rooms as the backdrop for the reception. I caught up with Sarah and Frankie, as well as Amy whose band provided background music. The wedding breakfast boasted a delightfully multinational menu, accompanied by Swedish snaps for toasting and wedding favour bottles of Tuscan olive oil.

CakeI was slightly concerned that Peter, my boss, would be joining for the evening reception, after I had indulged in a full day of drinking. Photography duties slowed my intake slightly and he was on great form, so I need not have worried! The night wound on with much dancing, frivolity and it was the only wedding at which I can remember the bride's garter being tossed in traditional fashion as well as the bouquet.

As we sent the bride and groom on their way (to the Ritz no less) it was time to recover my top hat and relinquish the morning suit. Whilst I avoid hats because they inevitably destroy my hair, I was disappointed to part with the well-fitting top hat and found myself purchasing a great old-style brown trilby for a film noir themed night a few weeks later. Any wedding that can alter your fashion tastes must be considered a resounding success.

Joining the Dots

27th June 2013

The House of Burlesque are back at the London Wonderground on the Southbank this summer with fantastic new show. Last year I caught the very last show of their run so it was too late to offer you a recommendation. This time, I am pleased to say you have no fewer than four dates left from which to choose. If you don't see them, that's on you. Whilst the Spiegeltent is undoubtedly less intimate a venue than many of London's cabaret spots, it is a stunning environment to showcase the performers, with the space alone allowing the circus acts in particular to shine. Lauren and I both came away impressed.

Sxip ShireyHanging out after the show I bumped into Sxip Shirey who is here as the composer for Limbo, the Wonderground's headline circus show, which has been receiving great reviews. I have not seen Sxip since he toured with Brian Viglione and Elyas Khan as Gentlemen & Assassins a little over two years ago. As we chatted over a couple of drinks, I was reminded of just how great that Icelandic volcanic ash cloud in 2010 really was. Of course it massively disrupted everyone's travel plans at the time and left people stranded in all sorts of places but, if not for that volcano which actually prevented me from seeing Sxip for the first time, we would not be sharing these drinks together.

In 2010, Amanda Palmer and Jason Webley had a two-person show as Evelyn Evelyn, which was hosted by Sxip. Amanda was already in Europe but the ash cloud unexpectedly prevented  the other two from flying, so the gig morphed into a solo show supported by a flurry of bands that Amanda had met who were having similar difficulties as a result of the transport nightmare. Melissa Auf der Maur captured it succinctly, "A volcano and Twitter brought me to you. Do you realise how beautiful that is?" Well sure, but it turned out I would never get to see Evelyn Evelyn.

Sxip ShireyOne of the other support acts that night was a duo called Bitter Ruin. You have seen me rave about (and photograph) Georgia and Ben repeatedly, of course, but my sister and I stumbled upon them entirely by accident at this show. We followed them closely whenever they played in London, which is how we discovered that one night in the March of 2011 they were supporting the newly formed Gentlemen & Assassins. We attended this magical, intimate first gig together for Sxip, Brian and Elyas full of raw energy and a unique spirit as these three musicians crafted something that kept them all centre-stage without any of them slipping into a supporting role. To illustrate this post I have dug up some never-before-seen photos from that gig.

And so, sipping a drink in the Wonderground last night, I instantly recognised a distinctive wild tangle of hair and headed over to greet Sxip. We drank and chatted into the early hours, railing against the shift from state to corporate control, and the socially dangerous results of cutting arts funding ("You fund the arts to stop people being assholes," says Sxip, "otherwise that's what happens."). None of which would have happened without a belligerent volcano that brought European air traffic to a standstill several years ago.

Sxip ShireyThere's probably some platitude here about "recognising hidden blessings". But really my point is that sometimes you can only tell just how well something worked out when you look back later and join the dots. People will tell you always to look to the future or to live only in the present. They are wrong. Look back, join the dots, reclaim those moments that seemed awful, now that you know where they were taking you. The past is, of course, the key to understanding who you are now: it may be as simple as plotting the course that led to you having a drink with someone, but it expands to why you are surrounded by the people you are, how your friendship group is constructed through gains and losses, and you just might find something more fundamental that defines you. But I'm not sharing that…

Arrested Redevelopment

7th June 2013

Arrested DevelopmentWith Netflix, a service about whose value proposition I was sceptical, offering a free one month trial, effective timing seemed at least prudent, if not essential. I restrained myself as their first slice of original programming, House of Cards remade in America's image, received high praise, because I knew the future held something altogether sweeter, a dysfunctional family whose tantalising promise I could not hope to resist: the Bluths. Following the now all-too-common mould of a not particularly successful TV show whose genius earns it a cult following once it is gone, an Arrested Development film was talked about for at least half a decade. Eventually its saviour proved to be Netflix, embarking on a "semi-original" programming endeavour.

Whilst the nostalgia hit was instantly appreciated, I felt the new season got off to a slightly rocky start due to its approach of focusing on a single family member in each episode. Not all characters are born equal and not all of them can carry an episode. With several years to catch up on, the less interwoven plotlines seemed reasonable but the result was also less of the sharp interaction between all of the family together. However, from around the halfway point, things picked up dramatically. Not only was it clear that the story threads were all still densely layered over the season as a whole, but once these strands were mostly laid, the focus could shift from the story to the characters and dialogue where the show excels. The meticulous detail, with numerous Easter eggs and subtle jokes littering the sets, shines through as the highlight. Whether its future ultimately lies in Ron Howard's intended film or a further series, things are finally looking up for the Bluths. And for all those who binged on the new season a little too fast, I recommend taking my approach and filling the void with Archer (also on Netflix) as I have for the past few years.

House of CardsHouse of Cards, a tough sell for fans of the BBC original, is exquisite. Translating the political thriller to modern American politics works seamlessly and Kevin Spacey's Frank Underwood is ruthlessly compelling, his drawl somehow increasing his sense of Machiavellian menace. The production values are excellent and if this is the level of programming Netflix are able to produce on a consistent basis, I'm inclined to keep this subscription up.

The Netflix brand of freedom suggests you should be able to devour TV however you like, so every episode of its shows are made available at once and the viewer can choose to dip in and out or to binge, and its apps run on virtually every entertainment device. I initially approached it via Xbox 360 but, although I am a Gold subscriber of Xbox Live, this restriction proved a serious flaw. With my Internet connection flaking briefly in a manner that did not affect the buffered stream, it did sign me out of Xbox Live and immediately cease playback. By comparison the PS3 add-on sailed effortlessly through such blips. Better yet, the mobile apps detected that I was signed in on another device and allowed me to browse, search and select shows on a mobile or tablet before streaming them to the PS3.

With two high-quality shows in the first half of the year, if Netflix can manage a third that attracts my attention it would justify the monthly fee even without access to a range of older shows and films. And I can always spend the rest of my trial period catching up on Justified whilst I decide…

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"Good night, my love. I offered you the world." | (CC) BY-NC 2005-2011 Priyan Meewella