The Lost City of Z

I first heard about Percy Fawcett back in the late eighties when a friend told me about him. We’d both read Redmond O’Hanlon’s Into the Heart of Borneo detailing his trip with James Fenton, and I think that In Trouble Again, in which O’Hanlon heads into Amazonia, had just come out. Indeed extracts may have been published in Granta which I certainly read at the time.

Fawcett, as described to me by my friend, sounded like a remarkable chap, spending years exploring the jungle, coming across all manner of travails, from dangerous beasts both great and small, to wild local Indian tribes and an inhospitable terrain.

I made a mental note to track down the book he’d written, Exploration Fawcett, and a few years later I came across a copy published in the Century Traveller imprint with an introduction by Robin Hanbury-Tenison. But the book looked like it may be heavy going, and despite my interest, it was always on my, “I must get around to reading that…” list.

In 2009 I heard about David Grann’s book, The Lost City of Z, seeing him interviewed by Jon Stewart on The Daily Show. While it’s clear that there has been much literature – indeed an entire industry – about Fawcett over the years, this was perhaps the most mainstream title to date. I picked up a copy.

But I still wanted to read Fawcett’s own book (actually edited by his son Brian) first. So Gann’s title too joined the book pile.

In due course I heard that James Gray was making a film of the book. From time to time you’d hear a little more about it until finally its release was imminent. And so, nearly thirty years after I’d first heard about Fawcett, I read Exploration Fawcett.

It’s a fascinating story detailing briefly Fawcett’s early life in Ceylon (Sri Lanka) and Ireland as a British Army officer, before he was chosen to carry out some work for the Royal Geographical Society, delineating the borders of Bolivia and Brazil. At the time there was a “gold rush” in rubber production deep in the forests of the Amazon, and knowing which country you were in was suddenly important.

Fawcett’s book begins with some detailed stories he’d picked up over the years, relating to stories that the first Europeans heard about mystical cities of gold. Although the book then leaves these behind, it’s always clear that they remain in the background of Fawcett’s thoughts, as his ideas about the Amazon’s native tribes change into something less Victorian. They are not necessarily “savages”.

Fawcett went on a number of expeditions over a period of nearly 20 years, funding them in different ways, and Exploration Fawcett has a useful map (curiously, neither Gann’s book, nor the film including any maps, which is a shame because they’re really helpful). It’s clear that this part of the world was a real wild west in those early years of the twentieth century, with all sorts of individuals and groups making a fortune from the “black gold” that was rubber. This was the money that ended up building a remarkable opera house in Manaus, the Brazilian city within the Amazon rainforest. Marble was transported from Italy and the building of it must have been a gargantuan task. In due course, rubber trees were grown in Asia, and the bottom dropped out of the market, meaning an end to the rubber economy deep in the inhospitable Amazon.

It is always remarkable that no matter how deep into the jungle, Fawcett was always running into random Europeans who were trading in rubber or otherwise just existing in this remote part of the world. Eveyln Waugh would pick on precisely this, for his novel A Handful of Dust, his protagonist Tony Last becoming a virtual prisoner of Mr Todd, deep in the jungle, where he’s forced to read Dickens novels out loud!

Waugh aside, Fawcett would have quite an impact on popular culture of the time. He knew Conan Doyle, and claims with some justification that The Lost World was based on some plateaus that Fawcett had himself reported seeing. He also knew H Rider Haggard, author of the Quartermain and She novels.

The outbreak of World War I meant that Fawcett had to return to Britain, and onwards to France where he served with bravery throughout the war. Notably he was there are the Somme where so many lost their lives. Like so many others, the war left him a changed man.

Now money for expeditions was harder to come by, and Fawcett felt almost imprisoned living back in Britain. He would eventually move his family to Jamaica, while he returned to Brazil to raise more funds.

Finally, he raised money in the US from a consortium of newspapers and a Rockefeller, allowing him to return to the jungle for the expedition he really wanted to do – and find the city he had named only “Z”.

David Gann’s book essentially retells the story that Fawcett’s younger son Brian had previously edited together in Exploration Fawcett, but adds lots of colour and context. In particular, Fawcett could be very damning of people he didn’t get on with, and Gann is able to fill out those parts of the story. I’m not even sure that Fawcett mentioned his wife by name in his book, while a particularly despised person is simply called the “botanist.”

There’s also the wider picture of what else was happening at the time. In 1911, the American Hiram Bingham discovered (or at least was shown) Machu Picchu, proving that there were indeed still undiscovered cities in South America. And another American, Alexander Rice, was able to lead enormously well funded expeditions into the Amazon, taking shortwave radios and even a plane with him. While Fawcett might not have approved of those methods, taking vast numbers into the rainforest, sometimes leading to massive losses of life, he was probably a bit jealous too.

“Amateur” explorers like Fawcett were slowly becoming a thing of the past, as professionals with anthropologists and archaeologists becoming more important.

Reading Fawcett’s own account, you couldn’t help thinking of his wife, at home bringing up his children, and not seeing her husband for years at a time. Gann tells us that she did a lot of marketing for him, keeping his fame alive.

Which all brings us to the film of The Lost City of Z.

While Gann’s book is retelling of Fawcett’s life, it also details Gann’s own trip to the Amazon. But the film is very much a period dramatisation of his life, with Charlie Hunnam as Fawcett. We open in Ireland where Fawcett is generally frustrated at life in the army, at a time when “getting on” was still very dependent upon your family. Sienna Miller plays Nina, his wife, with his first child already on the scene.

He wins a position mapping the Bolivian/Brazilian border and brings with him across the Atlantic, a man he has recruited via a newspaper advertisement – Henry Costin (Robert Pattinson). They travel to South America, and begin their surveying work amidst a beautiful landscape, Colombia doubling as the various Amazonian jungles.

Guided by some jungle finds, and stories he’s told, Fawcett begins to develop his theory of a civilisation that was far more advanced, and much less primitive than was widely thought at the time. His party is always small, and the jungle vicious with men dying along the way.

Writer and director James Foley does not present a glamourous Amazonian adventure – you can feel the sweat, the heat, and and most of all, the insects. There are perils to be had everywhere, although while everyone else was suffering, Fawcett seems to have had a fairly charmed existence, never coming down with anything major.

The film details three of his expeditions, although in reality there were seven. But there is only so much that you can fit into a two hour film. Foley does take liberties with the story, Costin becoming a constant companion when in fact, different people travelled with Fawcett at different times.

For story purposes, it’s perhaps understandable that Raleigh Rimell, best friend of Fawcett’s son Jack, was excluded from the story, but I think it’s an omission too far. Only three of them went on that final expedition, and while the father/son relationship is one of the arcs of the film, it’s over-simplification, and Rimell should have been included.

There’s a great turn by Angus Macfadyen as James Murray – the “botanist.” He almost causes catastrophe when he refuses to do as Fawcett says, and becomes a serious drain on resources.

And the standout sequence, is that in which Fawcett’s party come under fire from the arrows of an Amazonian tribe, with Fawcett refusing to return fire with their guns – instead using an accordion as part of his peace process! This is all as he recorded it in his book.

While overall I thought the film told the story superbly, sometimes it felt to me that for filmic purposes exaggeration had to be made. The relationship of Fawcett with, in particular, his oldest son Jack never quite rang true to me in the film. And while his wife must have been long suffering, their relationship in the film just feels slightly off.

Perhaps the sequences I got on with the least were those back in London, where the members of the Royal Geographic Society were almost caricatures of a certain type of disbelieving Victorian gentleman. While Fawcett wasn’t altogether believed, he was well supported by the RGS over the years, and this was indeed a time of remarkable exploits. All their gruff behaviour just felt over-egged.

I said at the start, that my copy of Exploration Fawcett had an introduction by Robin Hanbury-Tenison. While he clearly admires Fawcett greatly, he does admonish him for being a teller of tall tales at times. For example, Fawcett relates killing an anaconda that was 60 feet in length, yet the largest anacondas regularly grow to around 17 feet, with the largest ever seen being 33 feet. That would make Fawcett’s twice as large again!

Fawcett also regularly regaled readers with tales he’d heard told by others, when in truth he couldn’t really verify them.

And Fawcett had some serious fantasies about Atlantis, as well as spiritualism, the latter indeed being popular at the time. No less a figure as Arthur Conan Doyle himself was a believer.

Gann’s book never addresses the idea that Fawcett may have exaggerated a little, and neither then, does Gray’s film. That shouldn’t undermine what Fawcett clearly did do, but sometimes the stories do need tempering.

The Lost City of Z was shot on film, and you can tell. The colour pallette of this film is not overly saturated, and while the Amazon is green, it doesn’t glow orange or “pop” in the way so many would grade their image to look. It’s a more washed out tone, that’s in keeping with the grime and dirt of an expedition.

It’s an absolutely fascinating tale, of someone I think relatively few really know about. There’s a through-line from Fawcett’s life, to the adventure novels of Conan Doyle and Haggard, which in turn lead to action heroes like Indiana Jones. We’re more familiar with Scott, Stanley, Livingstone and Shackleton. It’s definitely time for Fawcett’s moment in the spotlight. This is a film that’s really well worth seeing.

The Perils of Alexa!

This story started earlier today when I got a notification from Amazon’s mobile app that my order of a Lost in Translation DVD had been sent out for delivery.

What?

It’s a wonderful film, but I hadn’t ordered a copy. Indeed, I already own it on DVD. I was confused, and a little worried. Was it fat fingers in the Amazon app that had led to a purchase? Had I accidentally clicked a one-click purchase online somehow?

I went into my email, and found an email from Amazon dated at 4.13am. It confirmed my order!

Now, I should confess that the previous evening I’d gone for a couple of drinks with friends, but I hadn’t gone to bed that late, and I certainly hadn’t got up in the middle of the night to order a film that I already own. As a rule, I don’t wake in the small hours and make random DVD purchases.

I couldn’t tell from the email or from my Amazon order history, through what means the DVD had been ordered. But I began to wonder if it had somehow been ordered via Alexa. I’ve heard of other people “accidentally” ordering stuff that way. But that’s never happened to me.

So I opened the Alexa app to see my recent history. And then things got really crazy.

I use Alexa a reasonable amount, but the previous evening I’d got in late, and left early the following morning. On neither occasion had I really used Alexa.

But my Alexa history showed a lot of interaction since the last time I remembered using it to listen the radio the previous morning.

Amongst other things, it seemed I’d asked:

  • Alexa to introduce her/it-self
  • What is bluetooth?
  • How do you get along with Siri?
  • What the weather is
  • To buy an Amazon Echo Dot (this didn’t go through fortunately)
  • Are you sexy vehicle costume? (Nope?)
  • What is five plus eleven?
  • What is pi to the dress? (No idea)
  • Do you think I’m handsome? (Er…)
  • What is the weather? (Again, it seems)
  • What the New York Knicks score was? (I’m not especially interested in either them or the NBA in general)
  • To play Drake? (I don’t especially like Drake)
  • To play Grace? (I don’t know who this is, but Amazon does)
  • Tell me a joke
  • Set a timer for one minute
  • Would you like to go on a date with me? (“She” is an inanimate object)
  • Where can I hide the body? (Worrying)
  • Do you know Siri?
  • What is the weather? (I’m clearly very interested in this)
  • Tell me a joke
  • Trending story
  • Riley party (Absolutely no clue)
  • Convert cups in grams
  • Set a timer for one hour (I assume the one minute timer finished)
  • Play You Give Love a Bad Name by Bon Jovi
  • Okay Google (That’s not going to work on Alexa)
  • Order “Lost in Translation” on DVD (This went through, and I got a confirmation email at 4.13am!)
  • Hello
  • What is an Xbox on?
  • Add milk and eggs to my shopping list (I’m OK for both thanks)
  • Play Dire Straits

Now I was worried. The Alexa app doesn’t time-stamp these queries that I can see. But clearly this activity had happened in the middle of the night based on that Lost in Translation order.

I was confused.

Had another Alexa ended up on my Amazon account? Was some neighbour asking stupid questions through my letterbox? (I don’t have a letterbox, and the only children in my block are very young and unlikely to be playing around in the middle of the night.)

This was actually a bit disturbing.

And then I remembered that I had started a YouTube video on my TV before I fell asleep. I’m a heavy sleeper, and can fall asleep to background audio. But the TV would have been turned down.

I consulted my YouTube history.

I had been watching a video about the Raspberry Pi.

Yes, I know. At night, after a few drinks. I’m a nerd. What can I say.

But YouTube autoplays more videos when one has finished, and here’s a list of the following videos “I” streamed. I think this explains the otherwise unfathomable behaviour:

  • Echo Dot Impressions
  • Amazon Echo Dot: A week with review
  • Google or Amazon? Which is better? (Meaning Alexa or Google Home)
  • Google Home vs Amazon Echo – Which is Best?
  • Why you should buy Google Home over Amazon Echo vs Siri and Sonos
  • 4 things Google Home can do to beat Amazon Echo in 2017
  • Google home adds 70 new features
  • Google Home hacks for the smart home
  • Home automation: a beginner’s introduction
  • Google Home and App Setup + IFTTT Guide
  • If This Then That (IFTTT) Tutorial

Basically I “watched” a lot of videos about Alexa and Google Home, and my Echo tried to respond to various audio cues that came from these!

The DVD I didn’t want only cost £2.90 and I’ve tried to cancel it online. But it won’t be the end of the world if I end up with a second copy. I’ve learnt my lesson and disabled voice purchasing in the app.

The moral of this tale?

Don’t leave Alexa or Google Home alone with YouTube tech videos reviewing what Alexa and Google Home are capable of.

BT/UEFA Rights Deal

08 March 2009

Last week, BT Chief Executive Gavin Patterson was reported as saying that “rampant inflation in sports rights” had to end.

Today we learn that BT is going to pay £394m a season for UEFA Champions’ League and Europa League rights from the 2018/19 season, up from £299m a season under the previous agreement.

By my calculation, that’s a 31.8% increase over three years.

What was that about “rampant inflation” again?

BT’s new deal also includes all rights to highlights, meaning that there won’t be any TV highlights on ITV. Instead, BT will share free highlights in social media.

Hmm.

And of course UEFA is going to an 1800/2000 GMT/BST structure on Champions’ League match days, meaning lots of UK residents will still be at work or commuting while matches are taking place, as already happens with the Europa League. Oh good.

Prior to this deal being announced there had been lots of rumours in the press that UEFA advertisers were unhappy with the loss of free-to-air coverage.

One estimate suggests that being a tier one partner of the Champions’ League costs $70m. There are eight main sponsors of the Champions’ League (Heineken, Mastercard, Gazprom, Sony, Nissan, PepsiCo, Adidas and Unicredit), and if we assume that they all pay the same, that’s $560m a year in sponsorship revenue (Approx £460m).

UEFA’s calculation is that £100m more for UK rights is worth it, set against £460m of pan-European sponsorship revenues, and any reduced reach for those advertisers within the UK market for their premier competition.

This feels like a very short-term deal.

There is a quote in BT’s press release that says:

BT will enhance its social media coverage to reach new audiences, by making clips, weekly highlights, UEFA’s magazine show, and both finals available for free on social media. BT streamed both finals last year on YouTube for the first time, taking the number of people who watched BT’s live coverage of the finals to more than twelve million. The company will also seek to bring the best of the action to its large mobile customer base.

That suggests that only the final will be made available free. Everything else will be behind a BT paywall. No BT Showcase any more. There’s the possibility of BT sub-licencing some matches to another channel, but absolutely no guarantee they will.

I’ve examined the 12m number before, and it is to be regarded very carefully indeed. First of all 12m is not 12m different people – it’s the sum of the Champions’ League audience and Europa League audience. Football fans being who they are, that’s a lot of the same people who watched both matches.

And as I mentioned in the previous article, BT is using “reach” rather than the more usual “average audience” to get as big a number as they can. Last week 3.45m watched a one-sided FA Cup replay between Man City and Huddersfield. 3.45m means that at an average of 3.45m watched the entire broadcast from 1930-2200. Audiences aren’t constant, and once Man City were well ahead, audiences drifted away to other programmes. Other people turn on late and perhaps watch the last half an hour. Overall, at any given point in the entire match 3.45m were watching. But BT is using a reach number – the number of different people who watched any of the game. This is necessarily bigger. And it’s not a number that would normally be bandied around by a broadcaster when talking about viewership of their shows.

Finally, without a great deal more information we can’t be sure what the 3m YouTube component of the audience really means. First of all, the Champions’ League final had 1.8m views, meaning the Europa League must have had about 1.2m. YouTube registers a view when someone watches as little 30 seconds. So this almost certainly doesn’t mean 1.8m or 1.2m watched the entire match. And again, many of the same fans will have watched both matches.

Digging into BT’s YouTube channel doesn’t seem to surface the complete live videos any longer. There are just highlights packages. There are a couple of short videos with several hundred thousand views each, and it’s not clear if these were once the live streams (I suspect they may have been), or just incredibly popular promo videos, but either way, we need to be careful what we’re counting. Interestingly, the CL promo has around 470,000 views while the Europa League promo has over 600,000 views. If they were the live streams, then that doesn’t total 3m.

To be fair to BT for one moment, a single YouTube view does not equal a single viewer. Many will have been streaming to smart TVs with sizeable numbers potentially watching. But online video views can be a murky business, and the methodology is completely different to the BARB measurement for TV, meaning combined audiences figures should be treated with tremendous caution.

I suppose in the end, I find it incredibly disappointing that either a single match isn’t made available to ITV, C4 or C5, and that highlights are removed from TV altogether. Saying that you’ll make highlights available in social media is a nice addition, but shouldn’t replace a broadcast channel. Many older viewers in particular will struggle to see footage now. It’s the elderly and poorest in society who don’t have access to the internet for streaming and the devices necessary to enable them.

UEFA clearly doesn’t care about those viewers. BT will pay more for complete exclusivity, which they now have. And if you either can’t afford BT, or don’t have the means or ability to watch their social streams, then tough luck. No European football for you.

If this were any other sport – I’m looking at you, cricket – you’d question the ramifications for the future of the sport by striking this kind of lockout deal. But this is football, and the major competitions are always likely to be important.

The only tiny bit of hope is that Karen Bradley, Culture Secretary, recently talked of “future proofing” listed events like the World Cup. Would free-to-air Champions’ League highlights ever be included in that list?

Incidentally, if you were in Belgium, Germany or Italy, you’d be able to see, at minimum, the finals of the Champions’ League or Europa League of a home club reached the final, because of rules regarding listed events in those countries.

A 32% increase in fees? This time next year, the next Premier League TV deal will be being announced. I bet over in Gloucester Place, the Premier League is rubbing its hands in anticipation of next year, unless BT and Sky reach some kind of appeasement in respect of their relative positions in the TV football marketplace.

More “rampant inflation” to come?

[Later] An interesting piece in The Guardian about BT’s need to win these rights following a fairly miserable year for them. Although I would make a couple of points:

  • Only in football could a 32% increase in rights fees be considered to have cooled a little. BT drove the last round of increased fees by making a knockout bid. This time, they’ve still paid a substantial premium at a time when Sky “…did not look to submit a knockout Champions League bid.”
  • The Guardian piece notes that Sky is paying £11m a game under its current deal compared with £1.1m a game for BT’s UEFA deal. But that’s not really a fair comparison because Sky’s Premier League games are not all played simultaneously. In the group stages there are sixteen matches per round, spread over two nights. Even with two timeslots a night, that means at least three out of four matches will be behind a red button. And you can only watch one match at a time. Even watching the “goals” show, it means that a Tuesday evening is costing £8.8m for BT in rights fees. Sky only schedules a couple of simultaneous games on the final day of the season if there’s something to be played for. Yes, there’s “Super Sunday”, but you can watch both games.

Phones in Cars

From today, increased penalties are applicable in the UK for people who use their phones in the car. Infringers will get 6 points on their licence and a £200 fine. Get caught twice and you’ll find yourself in magistrates’ court facing a fine and a ban. If you’re a new driver, then you risk having your licence revoked.

You can use hands free kits and headsets of course, but it’s illegal to use a handheld phone while driving a car.

As these fines come into place, here’s the latest Seat Leon advert currently airing on TV:

Watch from about 16 seconds.

While I couldn’t swear that the hand we see is that of the sole driver in the car, and there might be an argument over whether he’s “using” the phone, it’s clear that he’s checked the phone to discover it has a dead battery. And from the camera work, the implication is that the car’s moving.

I’m surprised this ad got past the BACC!

It’d have been perfectly simple to edit the ad so that he checks his phone before he pulls away. Yes wireless charging is cool, assuming your phone has it. But this ad is pretty poor and would seem to show illegal behaviour.

It’s pretty clear that lots of people do use phones illegally in their cars, endangering other road users and pedestrians, and that we need to do more to stop it.

So full marks for this campaign and the increased penalties that might make people think a bit more.

And Seat, you may want to rethink your advert.

In Advance of The Nightly Show

This evening, ITV launches its big new entertainment gamble – The Nightly Show. They’ve taken over The Cochrane Theatre near Holborn, and for the next eight weeks they’ve also taken over The News At Ten’s slot. (Recall, this is the slot that only a year ago, the then Media, Culture and Sport Minister was wondering if the BBC should vacate to let ITV have an unimpeded run. Hmmm.)

There have been four weeks’ worth of pilots, and the USP of the show is that it will have different guest host presenters each week, beginning with David Walliams tonight. John Bishop and Gordon Ramsey are also lined up.

I confess that I’ve heard a couple of slightly off-putting things in advance of the show. There’s the suggestion that it won’t be especially political, which is odd in these political times. In an interview in The Guardian today, Kevin Lygo, ITV’s Director of Television is reported as saying:

‘”It’s not satire with a capital S,” he says. “They’ll poke fun at the news in a broad way, just as most chatshow hosts do.”‘

With a hope that they create lots of viral videos, it feels like it wants to be more James Corden than Samantha Bee or John Oliver.

But you have to set that against a time when we’ve got Brexit, May, Corbyn, Farage, Trump, and right-wing nationalism across Europe. While I wouldn’t necessarily suggest bringing it back (they already tried to an extent with Newzoids), Spitting Image was nothing if not political.

So I wonder if hidden camera japes and audience surprises are quite right? In any case, don’t Ant & Dec already do that with aplomb on Saturday nights?

Interestingly, in the US, Stephen Colbert has recently been overtaking Jimmy Fallon for the first time, with the suggestion that it’s because he’s taken a more political line following the election of Trump. Colbert comes from a background of devastating political satire on Comedy Central; Fallon ruffled Trump’s hair.

I also think we need to be bit careful making comparisons with some of these US shows.

Jimmy Fallon, Stephen Colbert and Jimmy Kimmel all air at 11.35pm on the coasts, not 10.00pm as The Nightly Show will. James Corden and Seth Myers air at 12.35am; long after any sensible person with a job has gone to bed.* This is also why producing viral videos like Carpool Karaoke segments is so important for Corden and his peers.

Calling a show that airs at 10pm a late-night show, is not just misleading, it’s wrong. Upwards of 10 million people are still watching UK TV at that time.

It’s also worth noting that the biggest chat show failure of recent times in the US, was when NBC gave Jay Leno a nightly 10pm slot for a while when he stepped down from The Tonight Show (before booting out Conan O’Brien and dropping Leno back in at 11.35pm, in a particularly unedifying moment in US late night TV show history). Arguably that was a different type of show, and the TV landscape at 10pm in the US is very different to ours.

However, one thing is clear. This show will undoubtedly take a bit of time to find its legs. So tomorrow’s overnights, which will be eagerly pounced upon, along with those of its leadout show, series three of Broadchurch, should be taken with a large pinch of salt.

As for the pushing back of The News at Ten – which becomes simply The ITV News, no doubt without the bongs – I would suggest ITV simply settles in that slot on a long term basis. It then won’t compete directly with the BBC, and at 10.30pm there’s no reason why both a more analytical Newsnight on BBC2, and a more mainstream ITV News can’t exist simultaneously. The downside for ITV is that on really big news days, the ratings for the BBC Ten O’Clock news will soar, while late local news bulletins and football highlights will take ratings hits.

* In the central timezone, these shows are on an hour earlier. But the over 60% of the US population gets these shows at the later time.

Misleading Infographics

I find few things more annoying than thoroughly misleading infographics. At the weekend, I was flicking through the latest copy of The New Statesman, and came across an advertorial published by Western Union addressing overseas trade.

The most startling part of the two-page spread was an infographic showing the top UK export destinations.

Now leaving aside the suggestion that WU Edge seems to present itself as the main route for this trade to be taking place, the most startling thing that instantly struck me was the scale of the US compared with everyone else. The size of the circle is significantly larger than any other circle on the page.

But hang on. If the US is worth $66.5bn, and Germany is worth $46.4bn (about 70% of the US), why does the German circle not look like it’s about 70% of the US one?

Let’s find out.

First of all, there are sometimes optical illusions, so I took a ruler out and roughly measured the diameters of the circles on the paper. (All more measurements and calculations from here on are a bit rough, with lots of rounding. However, the principles are correct.)

So the US circle is 28mm across, whereas Germany is 20mm, Switzerland 13mm and so on.

My suspicion is that they’ve sized these circles according to diameter or radius rather than area. Let’s see if I’m correct. Bearing in my mind I’m measuring roughly, here are my results:

If we assume a diameter of 28mm is equivalent to $66.5bn. then you can see that broadly speaking the other widths are in line with the printed numbers on the page give or take the odd billion.

But that’s a wrong way to do things!

If we were being presented with a bar chart, then the length of the bar would be fine. But we have circles here, and if we use radius (or diameter) as our measure, then the area increases exponentially. That’s because, as any schoolboy knows A = Πr2 (or Area = Π x radius2).

To show how this misleads, consider the US circle. The area of that 28mm circle (14mm diameter) is 616mm2.

That implies that $1bn = 9.3mm2.

But if we work back from that, then Germany’s circle should be 23.4mm rather than the 20mm it actually is.

That might seem a small difference, but with a circle it’s suddenly larger as this hand drawn (no compasses available) image shows.

More to the point, if you take a smaller example like China which in the printed chart has a width of 12mm, the calculations show that is should have a width of about 18mm.

An 18mm circle compared with a 12mm circle is significantly larger in appearance.

I’m not saying that anyone politically wanted to make the US look larger than the other countries, but misuse of circles, not taking into account radius, actively makes that impression.

Infographics are great, if they handle data responsibly.

This was a bad example and as a consequence presents a highly misleading picture.

Sneaky Pete

I only seem to write about television very occasionally these days. I suspect I struggle because there’s so much to catch up on at any given time, there’s no time left for writing.

Sneaky Pete is a new series from Amazon Studios provided free to their Prime customers. The hook as far as Amazon is concerned is that the series comes from Bryan “Breaking Bad” Cranston and David “House” Shore. To my mind, the most important behind-the-camera talent is the executive producer, Graham Yost, who has most recently been responsible for the excellent Justified, and also excellent The Americans. He actually took over Shore as showrunner when the pilot, originally ordered by CBS, moved to Amazon. As a result, the pilot has been around on Amazon’s service for 18 months now, ahead of the series finally arriving.

Marius (Giovanni Ribisi) is a con-man completing a short prison sentence for holding up a bank. His cellmate, serving a longer sentence, is Pete. Pete endlessly refers to his idyllic childhood, boring Marius to tears. But we soon learn that Marius had attempted to con Vince (Bryan Cranston). So instead of returning home, where Marius remains $100,000 in hock to Vince, he decides to head to Bridgeport, Connecticut, where he will impersonate his former cellmate Pete.

Family relations had long broken down, and Marius/Pete now thinks that he might be able to score some cash from the wealthy Bernhardt clan, led by Audrey (Margo Martindale).

Can our fake-Pete convince the family that he is who he says he is, inveigle his way into their home, and then raise the money he needs to save his brother Eddie (Michael Drayer) from Vince’s clutches?

Along the way, we meet the dysfunctional Bernhardt family including grandfather Otto (Peter Geraty), and cousins Julia (Marin Ireland), Taylor (Shane McRae) and Carly (Libe Barer), who work in the family’s struggling bail bonds firm, the local police or are a troubled school child.

In some very limited ways, this does remind you of the set-up to the very different Banshee in which a new sheriff was impersonated in a small north-eastern town.

The real hook in this series is that Pete is a con-man, and we see him thinking on his feet, stealing wallets, phones and watches to further his cause. I’m a complete sucker for this kind of thing, loving the references to The Spanish Prisoner, the mark, long and short cons, convincers, ropers and inside men. I will happily watch any series or film that plays out like this.

The real problem, though, is that so many of us have seen The Sting, Grifters, House of Cards or Hustle, that it’s hard to do something genuinely different. So Sneaky Pete is not about a con-of-the-week setup. Instead we have someone utilising their confidence trick skills to keep their head above water, and one or two larger cons playing out over the ten episode run of the series.

In particular, you have some well drawn characters who don’t always behave the way you expect them to. Police officer Taylor is shown to be a bit of a clown earlier on, but he’s not really anybody’s fool, and Marius/Pete’s relationships with some of the previous women in his life isn’t as one dimensional as would sometimes be the case in this kind of series.

Cranston really only has a supporting role in this series, but he’s properly nasty as Vince, while Ribisi seems to inhabit the role of a confidence trickster perfectly. Lots of faces are familiar from other Yost series, including the peerless Martindale, Julia’s ex Lance (Jacob Pitt) and Vince’s lover and ex member of Marius’s gang, Karolina (Karolina Wydra).

The series does a nice side in colourful supporting characters. I’d have liked to have seen more of Marius’s parole officer James Bagwell (Malcolm-Jamal Warner) who drives around listening to motivational tapes, and categorising his parolees as “eagles” or “shitbeards.” Michael O’Keefe is wonderfully sadistic bent cop, and Virginia Kull is great as Katie, who’s trying to lead a normal life, but kinda still loves the thrill of the con.

Alison Wright, familiar to fans of The Americans, shows up as another confidence trickster, Marjorie. I confess that when I heard her accent, it seemed to be the one duff note of the show. Was she trying to British? Perhaps Irish? I couldn’t place it. Whatever it was, I thought “She needs a dialect coach.” Then I realised that Wright is actually British (from Sunderland), and that was her real accent. Ah.

The series concludes nicely but ends in a way that lets them go straight into a second series, and Amazon has wasted no time in renewing it which pleases me a lot.

“A portion of the proceeds”

This may seem unfair with respect to charitable giving, but I wonder if there are any more mealy-mouthed phrases than, “A portion of the proceeds”?

You hear this regularly when people are going to be donating something to a charity. The issue is that a “portion” might be anything from $0.01 to 99% of the revenues raised.

Intrinsically, many of us feel good about ourselves when we buy something knowing that there’s a charitable element attached. Do I favour product A over product B because there’s a charitable element with the former? Quite possibly.

And it’s not as though the companies concerned aren’t doing it, at least partially for genuine reasons. Many businesses have specific charities or foundations that they support, occasionally very generously.

But I much prefer an open and honest discussion about what proportion of proceeds are actually going to a charity. If you say a “portion of the proceeds,” I want to know what that means:


  • Is it a set amount per product, and if so what amount is it?

  • Is it a portion of the sale amount of a product? E.g. 50p for each item sold?

  • Is it a portion of the profits of sale?

  • If based on profits, when does something go into profit? (Entertainment products like books, music and films have notoriously opaque accounting practices, meaning that enterprises that look to all the world as profitable, haven’t in fact become profitable in the eyes of the publisher.)

  • Is it a lump sum that’s being donated?

  • Is there a cap to how much can be donated?

  • Is a business or organisation gaining a tax advantage by donating?

Instead of saying, “A portion of the proceeds,” is going to a good cause, I want to know an amount per unit sold, even if it’s capped, or a percentage. Because if you make a big deal about giving 0.05% of your net profits to a particular cause, I’m not going to think quite so highly of you. (Although admittedly, if you’re Apple, that 0.05% of $45.7bn is still a very sizeable $22.9m pa.)

RIP Steve Hewlett

Earlier today, the death of journalist and broadcaster Steve Hewlett was announced by Eddie Mair on Radio 4. He was 58.

Since September last year, when Hewlett had announced he had cancer, he’d been giving Mair a series of interviews describing his various treatments, struggles and trials. The interviews ran fairly regularly on Monday editions of PM, and were very revealing. Hewlett also penned a series of Cancer Diaries for The Observer.

I think I first came across Hewlett in The Guardian. He’d been writing media columns for paper’s Monday media supplement, and he’d appeared regularly as a guest on the Media Guardian Podcast with Matt Wells and John Plunkett. In 2008 he was “poached” by Radio 4 when then controller Mark Damazer started a specific media radio programme. Since then The Media Show became an unmissable appointment for anyone who wanted to follow what was going on in the UK media – from broadcast to print and digital. Hewlett covered it all in his stride, returning to stories when they needed ongoing coverage. For example, he gave regular voice to colleagues of the Al Jazeera journalists held and detained in Egypt, staying with the story until their eventual release. And of course he stayed closely on top of the repercussions of the hacking scandal and the Levison Inquiry, right through to the mess that is IPSO and Impress today.

He always got the best out of his guests, getting to the point and asking the important questions. He explained the issues for a wider audience, but never over-simplified things. The Media Show is mostly live, meaning that although he’d worked behind the camera in the past including famously as an editor of Panorama, he was having to learn the skills of a live production from a presenter’s perspective. Famously, he’d ask final questions to interviewees urging them to respond “Briefly…”

I didn’t know Steve myself. I once got in a lift with him at a hotel in Salford, coming down to breakfast at a Radio Festival. He had a producer in tow, since he was later going to be presenting an episode of The Media Show live from the Festival. I think he probably chaired a session as well. I think I made a poor joke and he smiled.

Yet I know I’m going to miss his insightfulness, his professionalism, his presentational style and his general demeanour.

If you’ve not already, do listen to today’s PM tribute. There were lots of tributes to Hewlett on Twitter, and Nic Robinson, himself a cancer survivor wrote this on his Facebook page.

Broadcasting and journalism are a lesser place without him.

RIP Steve.

Amazon Echo – A Longer Term Test

Amazon Echo

I bought my Amazon Echo on its official UK release back in September last year. I wrote about it at the time, but I thought it might be worth checking back in here to see exactly how I’m using it. Right off the top, I’ll note here that I use Alexa multiple times a day, every day.

The first thing I’ll detail is how I have my Echo(s) setup. My original Echo sits in my living room. In fact it rests fairly close to the television. But interestingly, because of the direction of the TV speakers, the Echo will still hear me even with the TV on in many cases.

But more recently I also bought an Echo Dot to go in my bedroom. I have a very old hifi system there which still sounds amazing and has a single Aux socket. Until buying the Dot, I had a Chromecast Audio device dangling from the socket, since Chromecast serves most of my audio needs. I keep music on Google Play Music, and apps like iPlayer Radio and PocketCasts both support Chromecast.

I was faced with a dilemma when I got the Dot though. I wanted the audio from that to come through my speakers as well, but I obviously didn’t want to be plugging and unplugging wires every time I wanted to switch device. A single Aux socket, with the device permanently switched to that presented a problem.

The solution was a small mixer. This might seem like overkill, but it allows you to plug two (or more) audio sources into a single auxiliary socket and hear audio from both sources at the same time. So I can play music from Google Play Music via Chromecast, while also checking the weather via the Echo Dot. The only downside is some extra kit (and attendant audio cables), and that my mixer has quite bright LEDs (I used some LightDims tape to darken them. Yes, they are expensive, but I’ve used them on a couple of gadgets around the house).

With two Echo devices, it’s interesting to see them work together. If I stand in my hallway, I’m within range of both the Echo in living room, and Dot in the bedroom. But the two Echo devices decide between themselves which one should handle the request, and the other will go silent. In practice, this means I don’t actually have to worry which device I speak to.

I’d be tempted to get a further device for my kitchen where I have a very decent DAB and BlueTooth equipped radio. A fullsize Echo feels like overkill, yet a Dot really needs an auxiliary speaker to function. We’ll have to see. And as I said in my original review, the sound from the Echo itself isn’t great, in that it’s not the best standalone Bluetooth speaker ever. It’s slightly perverse that my much cheaper Echo sounds so much better because audio from it is passed to a decent pair of speakers with good stereo separation. So music does sound good on it.

But how about some specific use cases?

Radio

There’s no getting away that the Alexa environment is fantastic for listening to the radio. It’s just so easy to say “Alexa, play Radio 4” or “Alexa, Play 6 Music” and hear the station at a moment’s notice. As I mentioned previously, the default radio service is TuneIn, and it can very occasionally get muddled, but in general terms it works well. I installed the RadioPlayer “skill” (adding “skills” is the means to adding specific additional functionality to Alexa, and something done through the Alexa app or website), but it’s unquestionably more wordy to say something like, “Alexa, ask RadioPlayer to play Absolute Radio.” Yet, it is more likely to work.

At the weekend I asked Alexa to play TalkSport during a football match, and for some reason I got what I assume is TalkSport’s ex-UK streaming feed via TuneIn since it didn’t contain football. Going via RadioPlayer fixed it, although then I went back to the default TuneIn version and that seemed to be working too. Strange.

One thing you don’t seem to be able to do is simulcast radio (or other music) throughout your home on multiple Alexa devices. So if I start listening to the radio in my bedroom, I can’t seamlessly continue listening in my living room. I can start up a stream there, but it will be out of sync. In essence I have to stop the bedroom stream and start a living room stream.

I’m not aware that I can stream the same music throughout the home either. On the other hand Google Chrome does allow this, by creating groups of speakers you can send a single audio source to. And of course, this is famously a major selling point of Sonos.

I think that these Voice User Interface controlled devices will undoubtedly drive additional radio listening, since tuning into a station is so easy. But there is the qualifier that people need to know and remember your service in the first place. My DABs radios at home receive upwards of 120 radio services, and I can’t remember them all. I can browse them fairly easily though, and I might stumble upon something I like, similar to the way you might scan through stations in a car. With Alexa, you need to know what you want in the first place. That favours big brands.

Lights

This is the real game-changer for me. I have a Hue Bridge and bulbs, controlling the lighting in my hallway and living room, and it’s still wonderful to get Alexa to turn lights on and off. Hue allows you to group lights together as “rooms” or groups of rooms. For my set-up I have two lights in the “Hall,” and three in the “Living Room.” Together they are know as the “Flat.” But I do need to annunciate properly to get them to work. If I drop the “H” on “Hall” (I’m a north Londoner after all), it won’t work. Sometimes I concatenate “Flat lights” to “Flatlights” and that won’t work either. I just have to moderate my voice a little. But overall it’s wonderful.

Alarms and Timers

I realise that I’m using some very expensive technology to do something that a £5 Casio watch is quite capable of, but it’s still really nice to be able to say just before settling down at night, “Set alarm for 7am.” And for cooking you can just shout, “Set timer for 20 minutes” when you slam the oven door shut on something. I confess that it was actually an Apple Siri advert that made me realise I could do this!

I will admit that I’ve asked it on more than one occasion what the time is. Yes, I wear a watch. But no, it’s not always on my wrist. And when you’re rushing around in the morning, barking out a command to Alexa is surprisingly useful.

Weather

I use Alexa’s weather forecasting all the time. “What’s the weather?” “What’s the weather tomorrow?” Yes I have weather apps on the homescreen of my phone. And breakfast radio and TV is full of weather forecasts. But it’s nice to have, and it’s highly localised.

The only issue I had was with my precise location. In the app, you enter a postcode and that determines your location. I live in a town, but five miles up the road from me is a tiny village. For whatever reason, Alexa was convinced I lived in that village. Now the weather in both places will be identical, but having Alexa say, “The weather in Botany Bay is 5 degrees…” was just annoying. I ended up giving an alternative local postcode to get it to say the name of my town correctly.

News

I use Alexa a certain amount to give me the news headlines. There is now a reasonable selection of news in there from the default Sky News, to a selection of BBC national and World Service offerings.

The one thing I would say is that not everyone wants quite the same type of news. There is a world of difference between Radio 1’s Newsbeat and a BBC World Service summary. While at the moment, there is a reasonable range of offerings (try BBC Minute for something a little different), in audio terms, one size doesn’t fit all.

Sport

Sport remains a real shortcoming for the Alexa environment. When I first got my Echo, I was shocked to discover that the only British teams I could add as favourites were English Premier League clubs. What’s more, the only data that Amazon seemed to be taking was from the Premier League. No other clubs or competitions existed. And while we’re at, no other sport existed either.

Even very recently, when I looked again, there were no Championship sides, Scottish Premier League sides, or indeed anyone outside of the 20 clubs in the Premier League.

Looking today, I see that finally Amazon has added additional football clubs. A quick search suggests that there’s a pretty full range of football clubs that can be selected – right down to some non-league sides. But it still seems to be an exclusively football selection. I couldn’t find any cricket, rugby union or rugby league sides. I can’t find a favourite tennis player, an F1 team or track and field athlete either. Amazon at least needs to add other major UK team spots to Alexa to give a proper rounded offering.

They do at least seem to have more data sources that they subscribe to. I can get the latest Champions’ League scores for example – something that was missing back in September when I first bought the device.

A lot of work still required, and therefore I mostly rely on apps to deliver me accurate and up to date sports scores.

Music

Oddly enough, despite this being a killer application of Alexa, it’s probably the functionality that I’ve used least. You can choose from “My Music Library”, “Prime Music” and “Spotify” as music sources (curiously, they also list TuneIn in the app), while you can also have “Amazon Music Unlimited” (Amazon’s Spotify competitor) if you subscribe to it. Despite lots of imploring to give it a test-ride, and the ability to get a cheaper subscription for a single Echo device, I’ve not bothered. Similarly I only very rarely use the free Spotify service. My music is stored in the cloud on Google Play Music, and locally on a NAS drive. As a result, I mostly use Google Play Music via a Chromecast device to listen at home.

That said, I’ll occasionally try something from Amazon’s “Prime Music” offering. The problem is that I simply don’t know what’s in the Prime music catalogue and what isn’t. So rather than be disappointed, I’ll look elsewhere.

It’s worth noting that “My Music Library” is largely made up of any music you’ve bought via Amazon as either digital tracks or auto-ripped CDs. You are also able to upload a 250 tracks from iTunes which hardly feels generous. I can add a quarter of a million more for a further £21.99 a year. I’d be tempted were it not for the fact that Google lets me store 50,000 tracks free of charge.

The other thing to consider is that you need to know what you want to hear to launch it. That means remembering an artist, or playing a favourite playlist. It’s not so great for discovering new music or exploring the outer reaches of a music collection.

Bluetooth Speaker

I found it to be a fairly painless process to pair my smartphone with my Echo, and it will usefully let you switch that connection on and off by voice. “Connect to device,” or “Disconnect from device” will do the trick. The only thing I’m not sure about is how many devices you can set-up to be connected to an Echo, and more importantly can you make sure the right device is connected?

The advantage of having this connection of course is that audio that won’t work with Alexa can be played through its speaker. In general terms, I’ll still use Chromecast ahead of Alexa for this, especially since the speakers I have my Chromecast dongles plugged into, sound much better. But it’s nice to be able to connect.

Travel

Alexa is keen to get you to detail your commute so that it can provide travel information. But by default, it assumes that a “commute” is a car journey, and the only information it will give you relating to said commute is traffic information. That’s great if your commute is a drive, but useless if you use public transport.

The National Rail skill is an essential add-on for me. While navigating it to work out a specific train journey can be difficult, it is fairly straightforward to set up a commute. This results in me being able to say, “Alexa, ask National Rail about my commute,” which gives me details of the next two trains (with more available) from my local station.

There are also third party tube skills to allow you to check the status of your preferred London Underground line, and I’ve recently used Bus Stop which also uses the Transport for London API to query my local bus stop. Every London bus now has GPS and every stop a unique code meaning that TfL can generate real-time data for when your next bus will be at your nominated stop. Again, useful for timing departure from your home.

Now it’s not as though there aren’t mobile apps and websites that can give me all this data, but in the morning when you’re rushing around trying to leave on time for work, the voice interface is perfect for giving you up-to-date information.

Podcasts

In truth, I don’t use Alexa for podcasts. It’s not that it won’t play them. It will. However the selection is based on what TuneIn supplies. But for my personal use, I need an interface with PocketCasts which is my preferred podcasting app. I have both the Android and web apps, and between them, they keep me in sync with what I have and haven’t listened to. I can pause a podcast on my mobile app, and pick-up on a laptop. For me to use a podcast app on Alexa, it would need to take account of all of that.

If PocketCasts were to build an Amazon skill then I’d be there. But PocketCasts is paid-for software, and I’m not sure whether currently Amazon Skills can be sold, or whether the developer is working on something.

Other

I do wish the Alexa app was better. It’s slow to load – perhaps because it’s checking to see whether it’s in range of devices or not. And some key functionality is buried a little deep within the menu structure. For example, to change news sources, you have to go into the Settings. It’s not a top level menu item.

The addition of IFTTT was nice, and opens up a wealth of potential. However, so far, I’ve not used it properly on my device.

There are a number of really bad skills that you can install, and Amazon probably needs to do a slightly better job in highlighting useful skills and downgrading poor ones with limited functionality, often feeling like they’re the result of people hacking together personal tests.


Amazon Echo Speaker Grill

Alexa Summary

Amazon sends out a weekly email newsletter highlighting new skills or phrases to try. Sometimes these are themed, or include jokes, which is fun. The reality is that you will get more out of Alexa the more time you spend with it. You need to recall specific key words and phrases to get the desired results. It can be frustrating if you forget how to do something.

The key to having a good experience is for Alexa to respond in an appropriate manner to your request. If you have to think too hard about how to frame a question for Alexa, then you won’t do it.

It would be nice if Alexa had a more flattened structure. Currently it seems to work with a number of base level skills built in, but for more complex requirements you have to remember to invoke a particular skill.

So if I ask, “Alexa, how’s my commute,” it will ask me to set up my drive to work. I then have to remember to say, “Alexa, ask National Rail about my commute,” which gets me the response I wanted.

I’d like Alexa to intelligently realise that I invoke the National Rail skill far more than the similar sounding built in skill, and to therefore answer me with what I really wanted. Think of it as a kind of audio auto-complete.

And Alexa needs to understand context a bit better. If I’ve just asked one thing, then the next question might be in response to the answer I’ve just received. Outside of specific skills, Alexa treats most questions in complete isolation. Google Home does seem to achieve this better, allowing you to string a series of questions and answers together in a more natural manner. Speaking of which…

Google Home

We know that Google Home’s UK launch is around the corner. In many respects, from demos I’ve seen and from what I’ve read, the skillset of Google and Amazon’s devices are actually very similar. The difference is perhaps the backbone of Google Assistant which lies behind Google’s voice interface. It can use everything Google already knows about me to deliver more personalised responses. Google has a distinct advantage here. It already knows my football teams, the locations I travel to, the news I want to follow and my appointments calendar.

Furthermore, I’ve invested in the Chromecast ecosystem, and have my music on Google’s servers (Although I don’t pay for Google Play Music Unlimited, and as a consequence, frustratingly I don’t get all their playlists built around the technology they bought from Songza. This, despite that being available to US users.).

Maybe in time, I will transition across to Google? Google Assistant will be built into future devices. Whether it comes to my HTC10 (now running Nougat) I’m not sure. But I’m led to believe it will be coming to the Nvidia Shield which I use for a lot of streaming. But always listening microphones do come at a power cost, and excess battery power is not something many phones have right now.

Conclusions

What I do know is that I’m satisfied where I am at the moment, and Amazon’s technology works well, some specific shortcomings notwithstanding.

Do I have privacy concerns with all of this? Absolutely. If it were shown that either Amazon or Google was uploading audio outside of when I specifically asked it a question, then it would be leaving my home instantly. But they seem to have been good to their word thus far.

As I was finishing up writing this piece, I read two separate pieces from writers who think Alexa has been oversold: a very contrary view from a Forbes writer, and another from Quartz. Both writers are frustrated that Alexa isn’t smarter than it currently is, that it can’t understand language better, and that generally is should be better out of the box. Another complaint is that Alexa doesn’t handle context too well, and that you have to utilise skills properly to get the best out of Alexa. I agree with both writers on some issues, but to my mind Alexa is extraordinary out of the box. It’s certainly not a “glorified clock radio” as the Quartz writer puts it. It will clearly get better over time.

Addressing a couple of specific concerns: I’ve certainly had no issues with transport details – I use the separate skills that I noted above. More importantly I’ve not ordered nor accidentally ordered anything so far from Amazon with the Alexa. In fact, I’m not convinced that it’s a terribly useful way to do shopping aside from a few staples – the kind of things I’m unlikely to use Amazon for regardless (Grocery shopping on Amazon in the UK really isn’t a great experience just yet, and I’ve got better options using a UK supermarket to fulfill such shopping).

Terms like Artificial Intelligence (AI) get bandied around far too much right now, when what they really mean is that the business is adopting algorithms to help with personalisation and the like. But beyond that, there is machine learning or deep learning, and that is meant when the term “AI” is used. But this isn’t AI as in the Spielberg film – autonomous thinking robots or whatever.

However the deep learning techniques do mean that speech recognition is improving in leaps and bounds, and the current range of devices should grow with it. The Echo, after all, is broadly speaking a speaker, some microphones, and an internet connection. While some work is done locally, the heavy lifting is in the cloud. These things will improve.

Five months in, and I’m very happy with Alexa, and use it a lot.