The Day We Phoned Maggie

One of the big stories in the news today is that someone somehow got through to David Cameron on the phone, and pretended to be the head of GCHQ. Cameron says that he realised that it was a hoax fairly quickly and hung up.

I suspect that a lot of people are wondering: “Surely it can’t be that easy to get put through to the Prime Minister can it?”

Well let me take you back a few years. I couldn’t put a firm date on when we did this, but I’d hazard a guess that it was sometime around 1983 or 1984. Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister and it was a school holiday – perhaps half-term.

My friend Patrick and I were around 13 or 14, and we were a bit bored. We both had ZX Spectrums which ate up a lot of our time. And that also meant we had cassette players which you didn’t have to just use for loading and saving programs. Around at my friend’s house, they were far freer with letting us use the phone; my parents counted the minutes like hawks at home.

So we had a heady mix of time, a cassette player and microphone, and free access to the phone. Who could we call?

We decided to call Maggie herself.

I can’t say that we had anything specific to say to her. Yes, the Falklands were over, no the miners’ strike probably wasn’t. But aside from having previously lived next door to a Conservative councillor, I can’t say that I was especially politically aware at that age.

How would you start if you wanted to phone the PM? Well today it might involve a bit of searching on the internet. But in those days it made sense to call Directory Enquiries. Which is what we did.

There then followed a series of calls as different people either gave us different numbers or occasionally transferred us.

I think we started with a generic Houses of Parliament number that Directory Enquiries had furnished us with. Then we moved onto a Commons specific number. Then we got put through to an internal switchboard, until we got the news that Mrs Thatcher was not in Parliament that day. Had we tried Downing Street?

Another number was given out, and before long we had got through to her office.

I don’t recall at any point, anyone asking us what we wanted her for. Just helpful people giving us helpful information. In truth, we had no idea what we’d say if we got hold of her. Patrick was doing the talking, and his tone of voice was quite authoritative. He spoke “the Queen’s English.”

Finally we got through to someone who left us on hold as he went to find her! A few moments passed.

Alas, she wasn’t available. Sorry.

And that was it. So near, and yet, so far.

Now in truth, someone might have caught onto us in the end, and humoured us by putting us on hold before politely getting rid of us. But at the time, it felt very real, and at the time, we were pretty certain that some Private Secretary had gone to look (we watched Yes Minister). What was very apparent was that if you spoke with enough conviction, people didn’t ask questions.

I think that remains true.

We played quite a few prank calls at the time, usually recording them (Though I don’t believe a tapes of any of these, including the Maggie call exist now). We pretended to be DJs on air with Capital Radio, phoning a woman at random and saying that she was live on air and had won a competition. We tried to recruit a plumber we found in the Yellow Pages into MI5 – plumbers were useful for gaining entry to plant bugs of course! We phoned a zip company telling them we had an emergency: one of their zips had got “caught” in the flies of our jeans and we needed emergency help to free it up.

But it was the Maggie calls that were the most memorable.

Refurbishment

Refurbishment

This premises on Great Portland Street is using pop-culture magazines to black out its windows while it undergoes refurbishment.

I can’t decide if it’s cool or sacrilegious!

The naive person within me thinks that they found some magazines under some stairs somewhere and decided to use them to cover up the windows.

The realist in me knows that they bought these magazines on eBay specifically for this purpose.

I spotted Wham, Elvis, Paula Yates, Genesis, Bananarama and Cliff Richard. There are plenty more in the window.

Taken with a particularly average phone camera.

On a Canal in a Canoe – Secret Adventures

Secret Adventures Canoe at Night-18

It being the middle of January, and therefore getting quite cold, what better way of spending a Monday evening could there be than paddling a canoe around London?

This was an organised trip via “Secret Adventures“, an internet Meetup group. We set off from Moo Canoes’ base in Limehouse, heading up Limehouse Cut heading in the direction of Stratford, before passing 3 Mills Studios, continuing up the Lee Navigation, ignoring turn-offs that are still closed due to post-Olympic development until we reached the lock just adjacent to the back of the Olympic stadium near Fish Island, before continuing a little further up to Crate Brewery & Pizzeria.

It was good fun, and not too hard on the upper body! The well organised event did a good job pairing people up for the boats and ensuring we had the basics before hitting the water. I did manage to fairly soak my legs however – something to do with being 6’2″ and not being able to canoe with my legs flat. And although I kept the camera dry, I fear the Lee Navigation must now have a Lowe Pro camera case (thankfully otherwise empty) to add to its disturbingly large collection of junk.

The pictures I took tended to look better on the back of my camera than they did on a 23″ monitor. Using ISO 6400 quite a lot, a certain amount of noise reduction has needed to be applied.

Anyway, as well as these photos, there are more over on Flickr.

Highly recommended!

Secret Adventures Canoe at Night-19

Secret Adventures Canoe at Night-5

Secret Adventures Canoe at Night-9

Secret Adventures Canoe at Night-13

Amazon’s App Notifications

As I buy a reasonable amount of stuff from Amazon, I use their mobile app a bit. It’s a relatively convenient way to manage my Amazon transactions.

It also usefully sends you updates, using Android’s notifications system, to let you know when your items have been shipped, or if they’re available for collection should you use Amazon Lockers.

In other words, if you see the tell-tale lowercase “a” on your device, it’s worth checking out.

Speaking of which, they’ve just sent me an alert. Let’s see what’s happening…

Screenshot_2015-01-08-16-01-53

Um thanks, but no thanks Amazon. I didn’t order that, and nor do I want it. And that’s apparently a “personalised” recommendation!

Note: In your app go to Notifications and switch Personalised Notifications off. Then you just get the more useful ones should you need them.

A Portable Music Player

When I was thinking about my future options for a home for my digital music library once I’ve breached Google’s 20,000 song limit, I also mentioned in passing the sad death of the iPod Classic – i.e. the iPod. If reports are to be believed, the remaining iPod Classics in the retail system were swiftly snapped up post news of Apple ceasing production. Indeed some devices were said to be changing hands for £600 or more.

But unlike the death of the classic cassette Sony Walkman (when I did nip out to Argos to pick up one of the final cheap models, since I still have some cassettes in my loft that I may at some point digitise), I wasn’t about to try to pick up a model while I could.

Yet it did get me thinking about the what options there are out there for getting a replacement. At CES in Las Vegas, Sony has just announced a new high-end Walkman – the Sinclair-sounding ZX2, with a non-Sinclair-sounding pricetag of £949 in the UK. This is serious high-end kit. It looks gorgeous, and I’ve no doubt it’ll sound pretty decent as well, with support for all the high-end audio codecs including lossless ones like FLAC. It does come with 128GB of memory on-board, and with a microSD slot, I would anticipate that you could double that with the addition of a 128GB card. That would take it into truly “decent” levels of space. But if you’re going to encode all your music in lossless formats, or buy higher-than-CD quality of music, then you’re going to need a lot of space. However good it is, that’s just too expensive.

Then there’s the curious PonoPlayer from Neil Young no less, being promoted at CES and arriving any day now for about $400. This comes with 128GB in the form of 64GB on-board, and a 64GB microSD card. The specs suggest that it’ll support up to 64GB, although I suspect that with firmware improvements, 128GB should be doable. The shape is very odd, being triangular rather than flat, so I’m not sure how well it’ll sit in your pocket. The price of the high-definition audio has been noted by some, and if I was more suspicious, I’d suggest that the music industry is again trying to tap its most loyal consumers – these people are buying music, and probably quite a lot given their investment in high-end hardware. A premium seems fair, but I don’t want to return to the early days of CDs when catalogue albums regularly sold for £15 (those are late eighties pounds too!).

The other serious option seems to be the Fiio X5. Like the others, it supports the major lossless music formats as well as lower quality mp3s. But at £289, you have to budget for microSD cards as well. It seems to currently support 128GB cards. So a pair of those would give you 256GB space. Once 256GB cards are available, the plan is that a firmware update would support them too. Getting 0.5TB of audio into my pocket is beginning to sound very nice. But 128GB cards currently cost about £75-85, so that’s another £150-170 to budget on top.

There’s also the Cowan P1. But that’s £740 for a device with 128GB on-board and space for another 128GB via a microSD card. I’m sure it sounds awesome. But like the Sony, I think I’ll put it to one side.

Truth be told, I’ll be sitting tight for a while. I suspect that in due course 128GB cards – even 256GB cards – will drop significantly in price, and then I might be in the market once more.

Incidentally, the more I think about it, the more essential a microSD card slot on my next phone/tablet will be.

Why I’m Abandoning Google Inbox

There was much excitement last autumn when Google launched Inbox, it’s revolutionary new email program. It came with accompanying mobile apps, and the company implored you to fully immerse yourself with it. Like any new product, it required invites to get in and try it. It’s the cool new thing.

But having given it a few months, I’m going to have to abandon it – at least for the time being. I’ll probably check it out every so often to see if they’ve fixed some of my issues. Some of them are still unaddressed from my initial thoughts previously.

But it’s not all bad.

[Note: I’ll use a capitalised “Inbox” to talk about the Google product, and a lowercase “inbox” to talk about where my mail goes generically.]

Good Points

It’s a Google Now experience for your email. And that’s good. The program is pretty smart at identifying certain kinds of emails and dealing with them swiftly.

Signing up for a mailing list that uses MailChimp? It saves you even opening your email to confirm your subscription.

Bought something from Amazon? It embeds a little picture of your order from the confirmation email and delivers you an easy route to tracking your purchase.

There are loads of these little things where somebody has smartly identified a specific kind of email notification and provided you with a shortcut to dealing with it.

Bad Points

Sadly there are many more of these.

As I mentioned previously, it uses too much white space.

You can change the layout of Gmail to suit your purposes. For example, my work laptop’s screen is only 15″ and so I prefer “cozy” for the density of information. Not too busy, but not too much white space. Inbox uses acres of space, which is fine on a 22″ monitor, but terrible on smaller laptops (or Chromebooks!).

Labels, labels, labels.

I use labels. It’s one of the most powerful things in Gmail for organising your email. I use an extensive set of rules to categorise mail as it comes in. It takes a certain amount of work to do this, but it keeps your inbox in check to a much greater extent.

Certainly Gmail does a good job on its own identifying emails generated by your social media platforms – Twitter, Facebook, Flickr etc. But I can use labels to gather together less important emails into one place. Then I can check them out at my leisure. Inbox really doesn’t like that. It prefers that you undo all that “skip inbox” stuff and read your emails that way. Certainly it gathers them together well, but suddenly a relatively clean inbox gets busier again.

Mark as Read.

You just can’t do this. You have to open and close each individual email. Much marketing email falls into the category of “worth having, but rarely reading,” in the sense that occasionally there’s a useful sounding email from a business that you want to read. I’m perfectly capable of unsubscribing from those I don’t want at all.

And if you use labels, then marking emails unread becomes more important, because if you click on a label and find unread emails in there, you spend time looking at them again to see if you missed something important.

No notification for emails that skip your inbox.

This is another problem related to using labels. I tend to have interesting but essentially unimportant emails skip my inbox and put themselves neatly into what are effectively sub-folders. I do this because I know that the emails are essentially unimportant, but they’re interesting enough that I’ll go and read them from time to time. Some email lists and social media notifications fall into this category. But of course if you use this functionality, then you have no knowledge of the emails ever arriving. I don’t want a full notification on my mobile, but I would like a hint that a label contains unread email. Google has set Inbox up to cater for these emails, but it prefers to bunch them altogether as “Social” or whatever. I’ve got finer control and can better group similar emails.

Invitations just don’t seem to work properly.

This is a really bad one, and I just don’t understand what they’re doing. Inbox tries to be very smart. If you order some train tickets online for example, when the confirmation comes through, before you know it, Inbox has added the trip to my calendar. I’ve no problem with this. But one of my breaking points came earlier in the week when a friend sent me an email invitation via his corporate Outlook account. Here it is as it appeared to me in Outlook.

Inbox

The email appeared to me in Inbox as a completely blank email. I genuinely thought he must have done something wrong to be sending me these empty emails. But when I looked at my calendar, I discovered that the details had been dropped straight in. I hadn’t been given a choice – did I want to attend or not – it had just gone in.

Here’s that same email in regular Gmail.

Gmail

A date, time, place (yes – we’re really going there), and I’ve cropped it, but a Yes/No/Maybe option for accepting the invitation. I can’t for the life of me understand why this doesn’t work.

Links from emails – reset the email to the top.

This is harder to explain, but it’s incredibly annoying and someone must have purposefully programmed Inbox to do this.

If you get an email containing a number of links – from a news organisation for example – you can of course click a link and open it in a new tab. However when you return to your original email in Inbox, no matter how far through the email you’d got to before clicking the link, the email has returned to the top. For longer emails with editorial and links, that becomes ridiculous, and you waste ages scrolling back down to where you got to.

It’s completely pointless, and I don’t know why it does it.

It hides your spam.

Spam’s not good obviously, so why would this be a problem? Well it’s because Google’s spam filters aren’t perfect – they tend to be a little over-zealous if anything. So I tend to have a quick look at my recent spam every few days, just to make sure that something I wanted to see hasn’t been spam-trapped. It regularly misidentifies marketing emails that I’ve signed up for – not essential, but irritating. And curiously, some Facebook notifications get caught up too. Very occasionally, something more important finds its way in. I always “teach” Gmail that these are not spam emails, but it does mean that my vigilance is warranted.

You can’t find your contacts.

OK – this is pretty dreadful in Gmail anyway. For some reason Google makes it incredibly hard to get a page listing your email contacts. It’s there, but it’s hidden. In Gmail you have to click on the little down arrow next to the word Gmail in the top left of the screen. Contacts and Tasks are hidden underneath. With Inbox, I can find no way of getting to them. Tasks don’t really exist there either, with instead timings being associated with emails.

Summary

Look, this is a beta product. But I’m afraid it doesn’t work for me. Despite all that white space, it does look lovely. But the functionality means that I can’t stick with it.

I suspect I’m not the only one. Although Google implored me to jump fully in, I found myself having to go back and forth to regular Gmail. So Google started doing things to persuade me to stick with Inbox:

– “Let me turn off Gmail notifications that duplicate Inbox. You only need Inbox ones.”
– If you open Gmail in desktop browser, a little prompt reminds you that you’e activated Inbox and wouldn’t you prefer to go there?

Many of my problems with Inbox are because I’ve carefully tuned Gmail to my needs. I’ve used its filters and labels to carefully personalise it to meet my needs. But the “average” user probably doesn’t do that. They let Gmail sift email into the three or four generic bowls, and don’t do much beyond. They don’t care about read/unread/spam email. And I need to face the fact that I prefer order to chaos.

Only when Inbox has power-user controls to let me take more command over my email will it be ready for me.

I will give it a while, and come back regularly to see what’s happening. But for the time being, it’s back to Gmail full-time for me.

Is Golf Becoming as Invisible as Cricket?

According to a report in the Telegraph, the Royal & Ancient is considering whether or not they extend their 50 year broadcasting agreement with the BBC for future coverage of golf, or whether some or all rights go to Sky.

In reality, I suspect that this is a negotiating tactic to try to squeeze a bit more cash out of the BBC in the next rights round. But across the Atlantic, these rights go for eye-watering sums, and I dare-say there are some envious looks.

Let’s see. Most televised golf is already salted away on Sky Sports. Is the R&A suggesting that somehow, by losing free-to-air coverage of The Open, uptake of golf will improve?

Here are the figures from Sport England’s Active People survey:

I would suggest that golf isn’t exactly in the rosiest of health.

Look at the Ryder Cup. Yes there are free-to-air highlights, but it’s fair to say that live coverage is probably one of the jewels in Sky Sports crown. They throw everything at it. Rory McIlroy was one of the stars of Europe’s winning team in 2014.

And yet, when it comes to the public voting for Sports Personality of the Year, the much more deserving McIlroy gets outvoted by F1’s Lewis Hamilton. McIlroy may have won over one weekend live on BBC TV, but Hamilton was seen free-to-air over many weekends – many of them live. I’m not saying that’s the only reason Hamilton won (F1 fans ae probably more engaged in picking up their phones to vote than golf fans), but I suspect that most people’s affinity for McIlroy comes from his in-no-way-awkward Santander adverts, whereas they might have actually seen Hamilton driving a car.

This discussion comes in the week that the ECB renewed its current exclusive cricket deal with Sky for another two years. This is great news for Sky, but terrible news for cricket. The sport is becoming incidental. Tennis, Cycling, Swimming, Athletics, Snooker, NFL, and Darts even, get more exposure on free-to-air TV than cricket.

An hour of highlights on Channel 5 isn’t going to get any 12 year old off the sofa to knock a ball about with his or her friends in the park. Indeed with the slug-fest that is IPL disappearing from ITV4 off to Sky Sports from this season, I don’t think that there’ll be any live cricket coverage of any sort on any free-to-air TV channel anywhere.

Yes that chart above shows a slight blip in cricket uptake, but it’s still lower than it was just after Channel 4 lost cricket rights to Sky.

I’m always amazed at how short-termist some sports bodies are with regards to this sort of thing. Yes, there’s a big cheque on the table today. But how easy do you think it will be tomorrow when a new generation of fans hasn’t been brought up with the game? And you might find sponsors aren’t writing quite as big cheques either.

Radio Radio

A couple of interesting stories today with news that finally there’s a signed agreement to rollout local DAB coverage to 91.2% of FM equivalence. This has been a little while coming – to say the least – but now it’s here and the first of 182 new transmitters should be built in March.

Why 91.2% of FM equivalence? Well it’s a very nuanced balancing act with hundreds of transmitters required to cover every nook and cranny of the country. And the closer you get to 100% the gains disappear quickly. You might have to spend thousands of pounds on a transmitter that will only reach tens of people.

And the good news is that on many of those local transmitters, there is space for new services. While it’s an expensive way to reach a national audience, it becomes more achievable if you want to reach a local audience (And yes, I appreciate that cost is in the eye of the beholder – for some smaller ILRs or community stations, local DAB remains beyond their means).

The other interesting news is that UTV is reported to be considering selling its portfolio of English local services to concentrate on Talksport and its TV services including the just-launched Ireland Live, which has snaffled many of TV3’s ITV shows.

Media Guardian speculates that UKRD or Orion might be interested. I think it’s less likely that Bauer or Global will be rushing out because there are probably some ownership issues with either group snapping them up. And following Global’s tortuous negotiations over its GMG acquisition and subsequent sale, they’re probably not up for the fight. Bauer already has a position of strength in the north of England, and while it could strip costs out of the

What’s perhaps more interesting is who ends up selling the services, and do they do a licencing deal and re-brand? The former is especially important because Bauer and Global have the radio marketplace sewn up between them. The stations would instantly have improved revenues if either sales house represented them. If Communicorp bought them, then expect the services to quickly adopt Global brands and for Global to sell their national advertising.

The irony is that a sale to a group that hands the national sales contract to Global or Bauer, will only make life a little more difficult for Talksport who effectively stands alone in the radio marketplace. They have a strong proposition, but share deals mean that no matter how good that might be, they’re left with a diminished share to fight for.