Chromecast Audio – Initial Thoughts


At Google’s recent devices launch, they announced a new version of the Google Chromecast – a £30/$35 device that plugs into an HDMI socket and lets you stream video via WiFi, using a phone/tablet/laptop as controller. It’s a neat device.

They also announced Chromecast Audio – essentially doing the same for audio for your existing speakers. Why go out and replace your perfectly good audio set-up with something bespoke like Sonos, when for £30/$35, you can stream directly?

Amazon is behaving like a stroppy teenager right now, and has taken away its ball and refuses to sell the new Chromecast devices. They say that it’s to avoid confusion with its customers who might expect to be able to watch Amazon Prime with them. The fact that there are dozens of no-brand streaming devices still available for sale on Amazon, and in any case, Amazon could easily add Chromecast to its Android app, is seemingly neither here nor there. In fact you can currently buy the older version of Chromecast – but I assume that’s while stocks last. The only real improvement I can see with the new version is multi-band WiFi meaning that you might get a better signal if you had problems before.

And despite Chromecast Audio not competing at all with Amazon Prime, I can’t find it on the UK site.

However, the good news for UK customers is that PC World seems to have loads of new Chromecasts. I popped by the Tottenham Court Road store yesterday and found them stacked up all over the place. Furthermore, they had an equal number of the Chromecast Audio devices. The devices can also be bought direct from Google, and I note that Argos also stocks the regular Chromecast, but seemingly not the Audio version.

I bought one and thought I’d write about my initial experiences. Inside the smart box is the device itself, circular and designed to look a bit like a vinyl record, with grooves around the outside. There’s also a very short and very yellow 3.5mm-3.5mm jack lead, and a micro-USB charger.

The Chromecast on my TV is able to power itself from a USB socket negating the need for a charger, but my ancient JVC mini-system (20 years old and still sounding great) obviously doesn’t have a USB socket, so I needed to use the charger. Since I was replacing a perfectly serviceable Logitech Bluetooth adaptor, this didn’t prove a problem, switching out one power adapter for another.

The device obviously has a 3.5mm jack socket, but it also has an optical out, but you’ll need to supply your own mini-TOSLINK to TOSLINK optical cable for connection to an AV receiver or amplifier. I used an existing 3.5mm to RCA cable.

The only slight issue I have with the design is that the device wont’ lie flat. Broadly speaking Chromecast devices are designed to be hidden away behind TV’s and audio devices, the new TV adaptor coming with a short length of flexible connector to ensure it can safely “hang” from any recessed HDMI port. However, I suspect that Aux sockets of audio devices are even more variable in positioning, and being able to pop it someone it won’t move would be useful.

Hooking it up to your WiFi is easy. You open the Chromecast app on your phone (or do it from the web), let it have your WiFi network and password, update software as necessary and you’re away. Unlike the TV device, you obviously have no screen to make sure that everything is working properly, but it took me about two minutes to get set-up, and it’ll play an audio test signal to ensure you’re connecting it correctly. You can also enable a guest mode to allow visitors who may not have access to your home WiFi network, to stream from their devices.

Once up and running you have the new Chromecast app to help you both discover Chromecast compatible apps, and direct you to ones you already have.

Now unlike my Bluetooth adaptor, which essentially sent all my phone’s audio to the speakers, Chromecast does only work properly with apps that have embedded its functionality. In audio terms for me, the key two are Google Music and PocketCasts for podcasts. Aside from live radio, the vast majority of my listening comes via these apps, and they’re completely compatible.

Obviously the key difference is that streams come direct from your router to the Chromecast device rather than router to phone, and then onwards via Bluetooth to the speakers.

That’s one fewer places for the audio to fall down, and it should also mean that the audio will sound better, not being passed through potentially lossy Bluetooth compression. I should say that I’ve been pretty happy with recent iterations of Bluetooth though, but then I wouldn’t classify myself as having “golden ears.”

This system also means that your phone’s notifications don’t come through and interrupt your audio. That’s handy if your phone is regularly pinging away with email and social media updates. On the other hand, you do have to pro-actively send you audio to Chromecast, whereas you may have a set-up currently where your phone automatically latches onto Bluetooth without any assistance on your part (I tend to turn that off, since my phone ringing in the bedroom while I’m in the lounge actually with my phone isn’t all that helpful).

The key part of Chromecast Audio is really the apps. Spotify, which I rarely use, has recently had Chromecast added, but it’s not yet included in iPlayer Radio. It is in TuneIn, but not in Audible (owned by Amazon of course).

You can “mirror” your phone’s audio, as you can with its screen with the regular Chromecast, and that allows you to stream audio from those apps currently without Chromecast support, but that obviously eats battery and processing power of your device. Whether that’s worse than Bluetooth streaming I couldn’t say as I’ve not run comparative tests.

We’re promised that multi-room is coming soon – allowing you to synchronised audio across multiple Chromecast Audio devices. That would lead it to competing head-on with the likes of Sonos, at a significantly cheaper price.

Overall I’m pretty happy. I’d certainly like to see Chromecast support in more apps, but I appreciate that adding lots of bespoke systems to apps like Sonos and Chromecast, is an expensive proposition. You really can’t complain for the price, although it’s possible for some people a Bluetooth adaptor might remain a simpler solution. But if you already have a perfectly good audio system, then I’d certainly suggest giving it a go for such a low price.

The NFL in London

This Sunday sees the first of this year’s International Series NFL games at Wembley – the New York Jets play the Miami Dolphins. This year there are once again three games, all regular season fixtures, meaning they’re not friendlies, and they count for the teams involved who want to reach the playoffs.

I went to one of the first regular games at Wembley and had a good time. I enjoy watching a bit of NFL on Sunday evenings on Sky Sports – either the live games of the week, or via Redzone which flips around all the games happening at once.

I’m also aware of the serious medical concerns about the way the game is played – the repeated concussions that seems to be linked to some early deaths. (The same is probably also true of rugby)

But I do get increasingly uncomfortable about the International Series, and I don’t go any longer because I don’t think it’s fair on the local fans. The regular season of NFL is actually a pretty tight 16 fixtures over a 17 week season. Compare and contrast with a 38 match season – 19 matches home and away – for a Premier League team. NFL teams normally have one “bye” week, and for teams that travel across the Atlantic, that’s scheduled for the week after an International Series game to allow players to properly get over any issues with jet-lag.

16 fixtures a season means only 8 home games a season before the playoffs. So a team that plays a fixture abroad is denying local fans a live opportunity to see one eighth of their games. This season that means fans in Miami, Jacksonville and Kansas City lose out on the opportunity of seeing a home game.

The NFL has to carefully balance the games they choose to send abroad by perhaps choosing less well supported teams against the need to have attractive fixtures to sell the game internationally. Because that’s what this is about. The NFL is the pre-eminent sport in the US bar none, yet it doesn’t have the international appeal that they would like it to have. The NBA is probably the most popular US domestic sport internationally. And it’s notable that they too play games around the world to build on that.

The NFL will no doubt be shouting loudly about how the games at Wembley are sold out, and yet you get the feeling that demand and supply are reasonably evenly matched.

One way to achieve a wider international appeal might be to have a UK franchise (Yes – pretty much like a Subway “franchise.” That’s the way US sports work.) And for some reason George Osborne was today entertaining NFL representatives:

So what’s my problem with all of this?

Well first of all, it’s this kind of thing that gives the Premier League big ideas. Remember the 39th game? That ideas was shut down at the time, but you wouldn’t bet against it coming back, despite the inequality of some clubs playing others three times in the course of a season (“We get to play Man City a THIRD time?”). And it’s not as though the Premier League isn’t perfectly successful already. While the NFL is still more profitable, due in large part to the size and value of the US domestic TV market, the Premier League is the next biggest, and is probably the most popular domestic league around the world. Fans who’ve never missed a game in their lives suddenly can’t get along to the 39th game of the season – because it’s in Bangkok or Los Angeles!

But my other issue is the way US sports expect local governments to support them. Teams in the US seem to shift around the country at will – normally because they’ve decided they need a bigger newer stadium, and somewhere else is willing to give over the land, provide large tax-breaks or basically pay for the building of their new home. Clubs are all (well, nearly all) privately owned, and those businessmen didn’t get where they are today worrying too much about local fans. That basically explains why a city as large as Los Angeles doesn’t have an NFL team.

So in a week when Transport for London decided that the capital couldn’t afford to host the Tour de France in 2017 (a decision that I tend to think was probably right, but handled utterly ineptly), I’d like to know what kind of demands the incredibly wealthy NFL would make on London to find a permanent home for an NFL team.

If the NFL wants to have a London-based team, and the backing comes from private money, then that’s fine by me. But I don’t expect to see a penny of tax-payer funding, in cash or tax-breaks, going on such an enterprise.

Lunar Eclipse


I saw a Tweet yesterday that essentially blamed a continuous stream of “once-in-a-lifetime” astronomical events as all being Brian Cox’s fault. An amusing conceit. I suspect it’s really that we’re a little more aware of our surroundings in the solar system these days.

Anyway, last night was a lunar eclipse that coincided with a so-called supermoon. Although the moon is up to 14% bigger than normal, you’re a better person that I if you can tell the difference.

Unfortunately for us in the UK, the eclipse proper wasn’t due to start until just after 3am on Monday morning. I did look out at around 1am when the eclipse is supposed to become first visible, but it really looked like a normal moon. So I went to sleep, setting my alarm for two hours later.

I managed to sleep through some of the alarm – deep sleep I guess – but I pulled myself out of bed at about 4am, just after the eclipse was greatest. The photo above, and then afterwards, below, represent what I saw.

The moon is actually quite dark during the eclipse. Yes, it turns red, but the reduced light makes it actually quite hard to photograph. I had to boost my ISO quite a bit, but on closer inspection on the computer 6400 ISO was too much noise to easily deal with in Lightroom. On my A77 MKII 3200 ISO was better.

For the record, I was using my Sigma 70-200 2.8 lens, with a 1.4x teleconverter. Add in the fact that I was using a crop-sensor, that means an equivalent of roughly a 420mm lens. That still means plenty of cropping. Exposure lengths were variable, but the best images seemed to come around 1/10 and 1/6 second. Obviously the camera was tripod mounted, and I used manual focus, using focus peaking to determine the infinity setting on my lens.

While I didn’t do anything smart like take a photo of the moon over a mountain range (London is short of mountain ranges), overall I’m pretty happy with things, but the photos could be better.



Channel Scheduling

In a couple of weeks’ time BBC Three is going to be showing the new third season of Orphan Black. The programme comes from BBC America, and although not a massive ratings hit, garners a lot of critical acclaim, particularly for its star Tatiana Maslany.

The show actually aired in the US between April and June this year, which means BBC Three has taken its time in showing the new series. But what’s really odd is its upcoming scheduling. Despite BBC Three commissioning having been wound down to a certain extent in the expectation that the channel would be “online only” a little earlier than it’s now likely to be and leaving schedules fairly full of repeats, BBC Three is seemingly only initially airing the programme in a graveyard slot.

And by that I mean nightly, sometime between 1am and 3am, in double episodes, stripped across a week. In this way, they’ll burn through the entire series in five days.

What this says to me is one of two things:

– BBC Three really doesn’t care about the programme. Although it must cost a relatively minimal amount (Although the machinations of a BBC Worldwide channel, now co-owned by AMC, licencing a show to a BBC national channel are beyond me), even the US version of The Apprentice, which nobody in this country cares about, and is full of hard-to-edit-out blatant product placement, gets better slots on BBC Three than that. And it’s not as though Orphan Black doesn’t have its fans.

or, much likelier,

– BBC Three is trying a bit of an experiment in binge viewing. The BBC introduced “series stacking” or “series catchup” in 2008. For BBC-made programmes, it meant that viewers could watch every of episode of, say, Doctor Who, while it was still on-air. It wasn’t available for every series due to rights restrictions, but it meant that at the end of a series’ run, for a single week, every episode was available to watch in one go. The reason it was only there for a single week was because 7 day iPlayer catch-up prevailed at the time. Last year, the BBC changed this around, and made everything available for 30 days. You had longer to catch-up, but the quid pro quo was that full series stacking was no longer available. Early episodes of a series dropped off the iPlayer as later ones became available. At no point would a full series of more than four weekly episodes be available to binge. Until the BBC amends its rights agreements, this is likely to remain the case. But by stripping double episodes across weekday nights, BBC Three effectively makes the whole new series of Orphan Black available to binge from the Saturday onwards for around 25 days. I suspect that this is what they’re going to try. Promoting watching it via iPlayer and perhaps running the show on a more usual weekly basis at that point.

Binge viewing definitely seems to be the “thing” of the moment, and I’ve found myself doing it more and more. If it’s not House of Cards, Daredevil or Narcos, it’s a box-set on Sky, storing up series on a PVR (Hands up if, like me, you now have two series of Peaky Blinders awaiting a viewing?) or an actual box-set of shiny discs.

As BBC Director General Tony Hall said only last week in a major speech about Charter Renewal:

“And I now want to experiment with the BBC issuing bigger and bolder series all at once on iPlayer, so viewers have the option of ‘binge watching’.”

Could this be another attempt at experimenting with this? The BBC notably introduced Car Share with Peter Kay earlier this year on a similar basis, although that didn’t require a nocturnal airing before it emerged initially as an iPlayer. We’ve seen Sky too play with the idea, carving the final series of Strike Back (A John Whittingdale favourite according to the speech linked below!) into two binge-able parts, as well as making series like Veep and documentary series The Jinx available to binge watch. Everyone is experimenting with the idea.

And while I’m writing about scheduling, it’s worth mentioning the element of new Culture Secretary John Whittingdale’s speech at the RTS Conference that has been widely picked up upon. Yes, the Terms of Trade section of his speech was more important, but it was this that got everyone’s attention:

“It is also important to look at the impact that the BBC has on its commercial rivals and – again to give just one example – whether it is sensible for its main evening news bulletin to go out at the same time as ITV’s.”

What a strange thing to highlight. It’s clearly completely out of remit for a minister to be worrying about how programmes are scheduled, beyond ensuring that PSBs broadcast news within primetime.

He’s talking about the BBC’s Ten O’Clock News going out at the same time as ITV’s News at Ten. Except that five seconds’ worth of searching might remind him that the reason the BBC switched to 10pm was because ITV had essentially vacated the slot in 1999 as it moved to first 11pm before then becoming the “News at When.” It ran entertainment programmes at 10pm first every night of the week, and later just some nights. It was again ITV who moved the programme back to 10pm where it by now competed with the BBC.

As with other scheduling decisions, is the BBC expected to wait to see where ITV deigns to put a programme and then schedule around it? For the most part schedulers do avoid obvious clashes because if you run two programmes aimed at the same audience simultaneously then you’re not going to get as good viewing figures as you might. But it’s a rare person who feels the need to watch both the BBC’s Ten O’Clock News and ITV’s News at Ten. And let’s not forget that Newsnight clashes too!

But all of this becomes ever more irrelevant in an age where we choose ourselves what we’re going to watch at the time of our choosing rather than a scheduler’s. And for news, there are of course multiple 24 hour services available around the clock, as well as numerous online options.

With enormous irony, on the very evening when Whittingdale was speaking, ITV had shifted its main news bulletin to 11pm for no other reason than because they wanted maximise the audience for their Champions’ League highlights at 10pm, a scheduling decision that one imagines will continue for subsequent rounds of the competition.

Tour of Britain 2015 – Stage 8

Tour of Britain 2015 - Stage 8-22

The Tour of Britain ended this year as it usually does, with a circuit race around central London. But there was a new circuit this year, with the race heading more into the West End than it has previously. The crowds looked good, and although it was hard to follow the race, I later learned that the reason Team Wiggins were on the front so much to start with was to enable Owain Doull to take the two seconds he needed to get on the podium in the first sprint.

In the later part of the race, a breakaway swept up any more intermediate time bonuses, so Doull got his podium spot. But there was more controversy in the final sprint as Sky’s Elia Viviani was edged into the barriers by Lotto Soudal’s Andre Greipel. There are a couple of photos further down that show the two crossing the finish line and having some words.

Many more photos on Flickr.

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Tour of Britain 2015 – Stage 7

Tour of Britain 2015 - Stage 7-2

This year’s Tour of Britain is spread out quite a lot compared to some recent editions. It started north Wales, heading into Lancashire, then Cumbria, Scotland, Northumberland and the Peak District. Today’s stage started in Fakenham, Norfolk and would end in Ipswich in Suffolk. The profile showed the route to be effectively pan flat, and it therefore counted as a sprint stage. Sadly Mark Cavendish hit a car yesterday and although he doesn’t seem to be too badly injured, he’s now recovering ahead of the World Championships in the US next week.

Because the stage didn’t have an obviously exciting place to visit, I decided to head to the most convenient location for me, Thetford. Not that it was that convenient. Although I could catch a train all the way there, it seemed like a nicer idea if I travelled to Ely and then cycled the rest of the way. I’m familiar with some of those fen roads, and although the wind would either help or hinder, it seemed a sensible option.

I tend to use a combination of online route planning sites such as Strava or Garmin Connect, alongside looking at Google Maps. Then when I’ve settled on a route, I upload it to my Garmin 1000 which has full mapping, and then follow the route. I’m afraid that I didn’t spend quite enough time route planning this time around and faced a couple of issues as a result.

Leaving Ely, I quickly found the drove road I wanted and was flying. Although the forecast had showed rain early on, I had seemed to have just missed it. The road was damp, but it was now sunny. The main reason for my early speed was that I had quite a strong tailwind meaning that I could comfortably reach 40 km/h. My route directed me to take a right hand turning and this was the start of me questioning the route that I’d planned. The road looked rough. While it wasn’t a gravel track, farm vehicles had left a lot of gravel and mud on the tarmac. I gingerly followed the route until the inevitable happened. A sudden hiss and I’d punctured.

I was in a remote and exposed part of the country, and in no danger of any other traffic bothering me. I flipped my bike over and set about replacing the inner tube. I was nearly finished when another cyclist emerged from nowhere. He checked I was OK and we compared notes on how to get to Thetford since he too was planning to catch the Tour. I told him the way I was going in vague terms and he headed off. Unfortunately I had a problem with the valve of my new tube, and I had to use my second (and last) CO2 tube to reinflate the tyre. I carry a mini-pump too, so while I’m sure I hadn’t got anywhere near 100 psi, I was satisfied and headed off again. It was all a bit unnecessary because I’d been routed via a quiet road when the main road wasn’t actually that busy, was clear of gravel, and was exactly the same distance.

But now I’d changed direction and was experiencing quite a heavy crosswind. I ploughed on, beginning to worry that I’d not left enough time to get to Thetford before the race arrived.

My Garmin showed me that I should turn left onto a smaller drove road towards Little Ouse. I relented and followed the road, relieved to be experiencing the tailwind again. However 5km later, as I reached the village, I realised that this was road was rapidly deteriorating. While you could continue with a mountain bike, or something with tougher tyres, my 25mm Continentals weren’t up to the job. I didn’t want another puncture. So I turned around and retraced my steps, into the headwind, and back to the main road.

I crossed the railway at one of the more remote stations in this part of the world, Shippea Hill (there really isn’t a hill anywhere about), and headed on to Lakenheath. With the double backing on myself adding roughly 10km to my trip, and the slow puncture repair, I was worried that I mightn’t make it in time. While I was consulting my phone to check what time riders were expected into Thetford, an elderly gentleman on a touring bike pulled over and wanted to check on routes. He had a couple of OS maps, since this area fell along the border, and wasn’t sure of the best way to the race route. He’d seen the race come through in Lancashire and said that there’d been marked road closures everywhere. Out here in Suffolk, I’d not seen a single sign warning of the race coming through. That said, I was sure that the police would be operating rolling road closures, meaning that the traffic might have to wait a maximum of 20 minutes before roads were re-opened.

I was keen to get Thetford, and was going to head north around the forest to Brandon and then on to my destination. He said he was going to head south to Mildenhall before heading northeast to the village of Elvedon. We parted company, me using my Garmin to direct me to Thetford. I must admit that I diverted from the route when I saw a traffic sign to Brandon. This in turn took me along the northern edge of RAF Lakenheath. I then joined a familiar road north to Brandon – this forming part of a route I’ve often driven to my parents in Norfolk.

I turned off the road as the GPS indicated and headed through a vaguely hilly section in the middle of Thetford Forest Park. I didn’t realise it at the time, but I was heading southeast now, and I passed the entrance to the local Centre Parc. I crossed the busy A11 and found myself entering the village of Elveden – the same place I’d discussed with the gentleman I’d met.

I doubled back up the route towards Thetford. Local villagers were sitting on the roadside awaiting the riders. I’d made it in time.

Tour of Britain 2015 - Stage 7-1

I found a spot on a corner and set-up to take some photos. A car ahead of the race informed us that three riders – all British – were about 6 minutes clear of the race. Very soon they were upon us, Movistar’s Alex Dowsett being the only rider I could instantly identify.

We waited another 6 minutes before the main peleton arrived. They were clearly in chase mode with Lotto Soudal and Sky chasing hard. The peleton was basically together, and although they’d just been through a feedzone, they were not noticeably slowing, and there were still over 100km of the stage left!

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As I was packing up my camera and getting ready to head off, the chap I’d met earlier arrived. “Have I missed the race?” he asked. Yes, he had.

I felt awful. It turned out that he’d not gone south as he’d said he would, but headed out towards Brandon as I had. If he’d been behind me, I hadn’t realised at the time as I was cycling hard to get to Thetford in time. But he’d taken a wrong turning in Brandon and headed all the way into the centre of Thetford before heading south, using a horrible stretch of the A11. Ironically, I’d planned on going that way into Thetford myself, but my GPS had navigated me away onto quieter roads. He’d now arrived late and missed the race. If I’d known, I’d happily have ridden with him.

I now tried my best to help him find the café he believed was nearby. Although I would have quite liked to get a snack there myself, I felt so guilty at “abandoning” him, I decided to head off.

The thought of retracing my steps as I’d originally planned wasn’t filling me with excitement, so I decided to follow the race and head on to Bury St Edmunds. There, I’d be able to get a train back to Cambridge and then on home. I started along the race route, now fully re-opened to traffic.

Ahead of me I noticed another cyclist doubling back on himself and then grabbing something from the grass. He slung a Team Sky musette over his shoulder.

Damn! I fancied one of those. Part of the reason I’d headed to this location was because I knew it came after the feedzone, and that there was an increased chance of finding abandoned goodies. But when the race had come past, I’d only noticed a couple of riders still in possession of musettes.

I soon caught him up, because now I could see that this wasn’t pure luck. He was slowly cycling the route looking for discarded freebies in the grassy verges.

I overtook him since he was going so slowly, but now my eyes were more on the grass verge than they were on the road. Ahead of me, a car suddenly pulled over, and a man jumped out. He grabbed a discarded water bottle, hopped back in his car, and carried on. Another missed opportunity!

I was annoyed now. In all the time I’ve spent watching cycling at the roadside, the only thing I’ve ever got was a water bottle with a completely broken top. Given the number of bottles that riders get through this seemed like a poor return.

Then suddenly I saw something bright blue in the verge, with a water bottle alongside. I screeched to a halt and doubled back. Here was another Team Sky musette, still containing a few uneaten gels and a foil-wrapped piece of cake. And alongside it was a seemingly fresh Team Wiggins bidon. Excellent! I didn’t think much of it at the time, but I did notice that the musette was inside out. But looking at my photos later, I realised that this was because it was probably a Team Wiggins musette. Rapha who provide both Team Sky and Team Wiggins with their kit, don’t seem to have made Team Wiggins ones yet, so someone had simply turned a Sky one inside out to prevent the wrong team name showing, even though Sky also sponsors Team Wiggins!

Tour of Britain 2015 - Stage 7-16

(You can see a black washing instructions tag on the outside of the musette in the above photo. I suspect it was this very bag I collected!)

Now the other cyclist overtook me. Even though he was cycling slowly again, I thought it’d be bad manners to overtake him again just to get first dibs on scouting the verge. So I dropped back and kept looking. And there, in the grass was a bright green bidon – a Cannondale-Garmin one. I knew this because I was given a new one last week. at the Garmin Ride Out. Still, they use Camelbak as their supplier, and I like the openings that Camelbak use on their bottles. A keen eye is very useful!

Interestingly, both bidons were marked by soigneurs, I assume to ensure the right riders got the right bottles. Team Sky seemed to use Tippex, while someone had used a red Sharpie on the Garmin-Cannondale bottle.

Soon my GPS took me off the main road, and the race route, keeping me off main roads to the best of its ability, and I was in rolling countryside before I crossed the A14 and headed into Bury St Edmunds, somehow timing it perfectly for the hourly service back to Cambridge. On the train I compared notes with another cyclist who’d headed out from Cambridge to Bury St Edmunds to watch the race. We were both looking forward to seeing the highlights this evening to find out who won the stage (Lotto Soudal’s Andre Greipel), and whether Tom Dumoulin could hang on in the Vuelta (sadly he couldn’t. As he said on Twitter, it was one stage too far for him). Who says cycling isn’t social?

A few more photos on Flickr.

Tour of Britain 2015 - Stage 7-13


When I heard that Channel 4 had commissioned a new series where people attempt to go “on the run” and outwit a crack team of trained hunters, I knew I’d have to watch. I’ve always been a sucker for these shows. Although not all quite the same, this follows in the footsteps of programmes such as Treasure Hunt, The Interceptor (not the recent BBC1 series), Wanted (with Richard Littlejohn), Mantracker (can you escape a Canadian cowboy?), Born Survivor, and Lost (not that one but the Channel 4 gameshow in which sometimes incredibly annoying contestants had to race to get back to London from somewhere in the world).

What all these shows have is the randomness of going anywhere in an artificially constrained grid, and a level of artifice that television demands. The show has to be a format, and it has to come in on budget and with a set number of episodes.

I think the aims of Hunted are quite lofty – explaining the level to which we have become a surveillance state with CCTV, automatic number plate recognition, and just ourselves essentially agreeing to being tracked by our mobile phone operators or the operating systems themselves.

The difficulty is that in reality, only the state truly has access to this kind of data. Sure, some tabloid reporters hacked some mobile phones, and I’ve no doubt “social engineering” has been used to find out who a car numberplate is registered to or whatever, but we know that when a TV show tries to replicate things, they have to basically make things up.

In Hunted, 14 contestants are spread across six episodes, either individually or in pairs. They go on the run at an hour’s notice, although they’ve obviously applied to be on the show and presumably don’t have employers expecting them in work when they’re told the starting gun has been fired. Instantly then, they’re in a rush, packing rucksacks with belongings and grabbing the provisions that they think they’ll need. They’re each accompanied by a camera operator, although additional camera teams do seem to be around to shoot different angles. Their “grid” is limited to the British Isles.

But we know there must be compromises. Their phones are supposedly monitored – but that must mean that information is volunteered when they’re called. We know that the production company doesn’t have CCTV access, so in the first episode the CCTV was simply replicated by a camera crew who obviously knew the contestants’ whereabouts. (The programme’s website notes that this is what they’ve done). Presumably too, the production team feed the team of hunters the locations of vehicles for number plate tracking. The website explains that a second ex-policeman sits between the production team and the hunters deciding what information they would have available. So it’s all a fiction really.

The hunters themselves are all supposedly world class experts. They’re introduced to sound very important with lots of them tangentially involved in things like the 7/7 bombings or Al Qaeda. I don’t doubt that they do have those skills, but it always feels like we’re being oversold on them. They’re available to make a TV series rather than track terrorists after all. Then there are the pick-up teams driving around completely inconspicuous black SUVs. They always seem to be remarkably close by even though there aren’t all that many of them and the country is quite big. I strongly suspect that editing makes some supposed close calls look a lot closer than they might be.

Contestants seem to have agreed to having their computers, tablets and social media hacked. But they don’t seem to use two factor authentication on their accounts, and end up leaving obvious clues in their search histories. Incognito browsing anybody? And in the first episode, everyone seemed to decide that going “up north” was the best thing to do, often going to places that they know even though surely anyone could work out if you’ve lived somewhere in the past. (I’m not saying I wouldn’t have headed north myself, but I’m aware you can get lost in a city too.)

They also seem to have agreed to having homes “broken into,” although I did wonder if I spotted a night-for-day shot, and I assume that in reality back doors were left open and they might as well have switched on the lights and let the intruders not mess around pretending people were sleeping upstairs.

There’s lots of pacing around and gruff “police talk” in the “undisclosed location” where everything is being handled from. I assume that the “undisclosed location” is either an office for hire, or a TV studio dressed to look like an office. I strongly suspect that it’s not in Gherkin as all the exterior shots led us to believe.

I’m probably being a little unfair on the series, as it entertained me enough. The trouble is that many of us understand how television works and its constructed. Even if we’ve not worked in it ourselves, the veil has been lifted. And in something like this, we need a real understanding of how it was produced. You can’t just claim that you’re tapping a phone just because you’re making a so-called factual TV series.

I do however like the fact that the kind of surveillance we live under every day is getting a public airing. At the start, the chief hunter, Brett Lovegrove, former Head of Counter Terrorism for the City of London Police, explained why the information authorities collected was essential. While the first contestant, a doctor, explained that he was doing this because he hated the surveillance state so much.

I’ll stick with the series, although I could do with less of Emily who keeps undermining her team-mate by making phone calls home that instantly mean they have to go on the move again.

And finally, did C4’s deputy head of documentaries really get credited as a “Bourne Specialist”?

Garmin Ride Out 2015

Garmin Ride Out 2015-9

Last Thursday was National Cycle to Work Day, an attempt to get more people to discover the benefits – both financial and to their health – of riding to work instead of driving or using public transport. I use a Brompton as part of my daily commute, but last Thursday I rode the full distance into work because I would be taking my bike down to the New Forest afterwards for an early start on Friday.

Garmin are co-sponsors of the Cannondale-Garmin World Tour professional cycling team, and suppliers to others including the Pro Continental British team, Madison Genesis. Because I own a Garmin device (more than one in fact), I was invited to apply to join their annual Ride Out – an event where some of the professional cyclists join amateurs for a ‘leisurely’ (ie not at full professional pace) ride. 6,000 applied and I was one of 500 or so riders who got in.

But it’d make for an early start on Friday. I calculated that I’d need to leave home at 4am to make the first train down to the New Forest to meet them for an 8am start. Not all of us own cars, and that was a bit too much even for me. So I booked myself into a Premier Inn in nearby Christchurch and planned to ride to the start the following morning from my hotel.

After a comfortable train ride down to Christchurch I headed over to the hotel and told the receptionist my name. Did I have my reservation number?

This was worrying. Premier Inns are pretty efficient – they want you to spend minimal time with their reception desks to speed the passage of guests in and out.

I took out my phone and searched for the confirmation email. I had a horrible fear that there might be a problem. And as I double checked my confirmed, non-refundable, booking dates, I realised that I’d manage to book the following Thursday!

This was embarrassing. Yes – she had my booking for the following week. OK, was there anything I could do to pay extra and change my booking.

“I’m sorry sir, we’re full tonight.”

What? Why would a Premier Inn be full on a random Thursday night? She said that there was space in nearby Bournemouth, and there was also a Travelodge nearby as well as a B&B. It was by now gone 9pm.

I walked away, mobile phone in hand and instantly brought up the Travelodge site. A few taps later, and I discovered that they were full too. Furthermore, the Premier Inn in Bournemouth had a single room left, and the price had bumped up to £100. Quite a price for a stupid mistake (How I made the mistake I’m not sure, since when making the booking earlier in the week, I’d repeatedly entered the correct dates into a number of sites’ booking engines).

Then I opened TripAdvisor. Bournemouth was only ten minutes away by train, and there was a train due. So I hurried to the station and on the platform, via a combination of TripAdvisor and, managed to book myself into a cheaper, and actually very nice looking hotel quite near the station in Bournemouth but tucked away a little. The receptionist instantly found my reservation and had me into a very pleasant room.

Not a great start to my ride.

The following morning I took the train back from Bournemouth towards the New Milton in the New Forest, where I found another rider heading out to the event. We rode the short distance to the holiday site where the ride was being organised from.

Garmin Ride Out 2015-5

There I was quite surprised to discover how large the event was. There was a big field with a large marquee at one end, a series of tents to allow you to register in, and a number of trade stands. A food tent was serving breakfast, and there were some tables and chairs laid out. I duly registered and received an actually pretty smart sponsored jersey and goody bag. Although there had been a donation to charity (the very worthy Action Medical Research), everything laid on, including the cycling jersey and food was completely free.

Garmin Ride Out 2015-6

Then the professional teams arrived. The Tour of Britain was starting in North Wales on Sunday, which explained the timing of this event, but first stop for them was their promotional duties with us. Madison-Genesis had a decent sized vehicle with a rider area towards the front and a kind of portable workshop towards the back. Cannondale-Garmin has a full-sized bus. Although they have a big presence in Spain at the Vuelta, most of the World Tour teams have at least two buses to cater for being in multiple races at the same time. Indeed it’s not uncommon for teams to have representation at three races simultaneously.

Garmin Ride Out 2015-1

We gathered in the marquee where Daniel Lloyd was to be master of ceremonies. An ex-pro himself, these days you mostly hear him doing commentary and interview duty on television, and as one part of the really excellent GCN team on YouTube. The GCN guys were there for the Ride Out and I saw them shooting at least one video while they were there. Then we had Q&A sessions with both the Tour of Britain teams who proved decent interviewees. Lloyd was well-prepared and had questions for each of them. Then there was a charity auction. I’d bought a couple of tickets. But I didn’t come away with a new Cannondale bike or anything else in the draw.

Garmin Ride Out 2015-3

Garmin Ride Out 2015-4

Finally it was time for the ride. We would be going out in groups, and each group would be accompanied by a couple of riders. The groups weren’t organised by any particular categorisation, and I headed for an earlyish group if only to give myself a decent opportunity to get around the 47 miles without ending too late.

Garmin Ride Out 2015-7

At the start I was safely in my group, but the pace was fast for me, and I found myself towards the rear of it. At one point I was dangling off the back a fair bit with a couple of others. I worked hard to get back on, but just after I finally had, a major road intersection got in the way, and I was no longer with the larger group. The group wasn’t a formal train and throughout the event, people were riding at their own pace. As such I wasn’t with a pro rider for any significant amount of time. I later learnt that this wasn’t just the case for me. Lionel Birnie of The Cycling Podcast related how he hadn’t stayed with the pros either.

Although I’d applied individually, it was clear that a decent number of others were riding in groups with their clubs. I guess that if a lot of them applied, a handful had got in. But there were solo riders like me as well. It’s one of the issues you face when you join a ride like this that’s been over-subscribed.

We’d been told the course was essentially flat, with the only significant hill just before a drinks area about mid-way around the route. But that didn’t take account of some long, quite exposed heathland drags. I found myself slogging through this area, often alone.

This was the first ride on my new Ultegra cranks. The Giant Defy 0 I’ve had for a couple of years was mostly an Ultegra groupset, but my cranks and bottom bracket were FSA – I assume to save a bit of money to meet a price-point. Recently however my bottom bracket had been making noises when I put it under force riding up a hill or something. On a sportive in Norfolk this had finally ended with a fatal popping of the bottom bracket that caused me to withdraw completely from the event. I decided that I was going to go fully Ultegra, and with a deal on at Evans on Shimano cranks, I replaced my FSA set with Shimano ones at the same time as replacing the bottom bracket. This was my first big ride on the new combination, and things were going well.

Garmin Ride Out 2015-8

The drinks stop was just beyond halfway and was well-stocked with energy gels, bananas and other treats. I didn’t hang around too long as it was clouding over ominously. Although the app on my phone said we’d get around dry, I wasn’t so sure looking at some of the clouds. So I was keen to get things over quickly if possible.

I headed out with a handful of others, and having drafted for a little while behind one guy, I decided to take my turn at the front. Somehow I dropped him though, and so I found myself alone again – or rather separated from others. I headed onwards, and kept up a better speed. Those gels were kicking in.

The last part of the ride went fairly quickly and we were soon back at the base where lunch was being served. A good day’s riding, and nice to see a part of the country I’ve managed to never visit my entire life!

I headed back to the small local station, aware that the trains back to London were infrequent and only carried six bikes officially. I stood with the bike one stop before we reached Southampton and I found a permanent space. Carrying bikes on trains is always “fun.” Some operators make you book which at least guarantees a spot. But others run on a first-come first-served basis. Fine if you get on at the start of the line, but not so great otherwise. Back in London I heard a guard tell another one that she’d stopped two bikes getting on at one point.

It was only 4:30pm in London and my next problem was that I’d not be able to take my bike on a train home until 7pm. I wasn’t going to hang around that long, so even though I had a rucksack full of work clothes and shoes, I rode the 14 miles or so home through London traffic. I chose the less hilly but much busier route home, because I was pretty knackered. I’d managed to the Ride Out at a fast speed for me, and now I was feeling it in my legs.

Still, a fun event, and I’ll definitely try to do it again.

Super-serving Men 20-44

Today we finally heard a few details* about the relaunch of Xfm as Radio X. The much mooted re-branding sees Chris Moyles take over breakfast, with Vernon Kay on mid-mornings and Johnny Vaughan on drive.

Jon Holmes will move to weekend breakfast, when Ricky Wilson from the Kaiser Chiefs (and The Voice) will have a show. While I’ve not seen the full schedule, it’s clear that some people will be staying and others going – Eddie Temple Morris will be taking his long-running The Remix show to Soho Radio for example.

The station will also be going onto the national D1 DAB platform – albeit another mono station – where it’s replacing Teamrock.

Re-brands are never easy, since audiences hate change. A quick glance at Xfm’s Facebook page shows that. But Global know what to expect – they’ve re-branded much of the UK’s commercial radio output over the last few years, as they built the Heart and Capital networks.

But sad though it is for those who love the station as it is now, something really had to be done with Xfm. Essentially it has been a bit of a basket case for a while, not getting to a million listeners in a while, and suffering especially in the London marketplace. And it’s notable that the small Paisley FM licence has been handed back to Ofcom.

That’s not to say that those that listen don’t love it. They don’t want changes as they like it as it is. But with lack of investment and a resurgent 6 Music becoming the “cool” station, it couldn’t easily carry on as it was.

One place that Xfm has actually always done well in is the advertising community. Advertisers love being involved in cool brands. And over the years, despite poor listening figures, Xfm was able to captialise on that. The audience may be small, but it was passionate and otherwise hard to reach. So like those strange magazines that seem like bastard children of Nathan Barley’s Sugar Ape, selling virtually no copies but being very profitable, so was Xfm able to get by. But following its threatened closure, it was 6 Music that had the kudos. And that’s what Global needs to get back.

It’s been reported that Moyles want’s to double Xfm’s audience. To be honest, that should be achievable considering the starting point. And it doesn’t actually have to do as well as 6 Music in audience terms to be a success. The BBC can’t take advertising, but Radio X can.

The wider question is what this means for its target audience. The press release for Radio X says that it will be “a completely new national music and entertainment property for 25-44 year old men.”

Well that’s essentially the same demographic that Absolute Radio is already targeting and has been for many years.

And there’s there the forthcoming version of Virgin Radio, from UTV and the Virgin Group in the new year. We are again promised a service that will target 25-44 year olds.

That’s suddenly a lot of stations all targeting the same people.

But just because you’re targeting the same audience, it doesn’t mean that the music will be the same. The Radio X press release says they’ll be playing: “Florence And The Machine, Mumford And Sons, Blur, Arctic Monkeys, Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds, The Maccabees, Radiohead, Nirvana, The Smiths, Royal Blood, Kasabian, Catfish And The Bottlemen and Kings Of Leon.”

Except that all bar five of those artists appear in the top 40 most played artists on Absolute Radio according to Comparemyradio. And of the remaining five:

– Absolute Radio plays Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds more than any other service on Comparemyradio
– Absolute Radio is the third biggest player of The Maccabees and Royal Blood
– Absolute Radio is the fifth biggest player of Nirvana after stablemates Absolute Radio 90s, Absolute Classic Rock, Kerrang! and Planet Rock

Only Catfish and the Bottlemen haven’t been on Absolute Radio is the last 30 days. But then, of the stations Comparemyradio measures, they’ve only had a handful of plays on TCR and Radio 1 period. (Note that Xfm isn’t currently monitored by Comparemyradio).

In other words, this isn’t going to be an entirely unique sound.

And as a commenter on Digital Spy noted, there is some disparity between the a station who’s character of service claims its targeting 15-34 year olds, and one who’s commercial aim is to target men 25-44.

So Global is starting over. From the characters of the presenters in the key drive slots, you’d imagine that speech will be as important as the music they play – and that’s ever more true amongst an audience that is perfectly able to find music on its own without the help of a radio station.

To go for a full rebrand would suggest that they feel the need to leave the Xfm brand behind. It just isn’t cool and can’t regain that coolness. I think what’ll be important is how they market the station. Global isn’t scared to spend a lot of money on marketing and we’ve seen big and bold commercials for the Heart and Capital brands. Radio X will be harder. For example few stations truly advertise nationally on television, even if they’re national brands like Global’s because it’s very expensive to do that. I would imagine that much of the Radio X budget will go towards its FM sites in London and Manchester. While both are highly competitive radio markets, it’s the obvious starting point (and the ad agencies are in London which is important). But digital marketing will also be key for this audience.

Anyone looking for Moyles to repeat what he did at Radio 1 would be foolish. That audience has moved on. I wouldn’t expect to see anyone too worried at Radio 1. But it will be interesting to see what Bauer does to combat the threat, particularly to Absolute Radio. It does have its successful Absolute Radio Network to support it, but this probably represents the biggest direct competition the station has had in its history. I wonder if there will be any marketing budget released to compete a bit.

* Incidentally, Global really needs to redesign its corporate site. It’s just dreadful for navigation, and not remotely responsive in design.

Not Watching Gogglebox

I’m couldn’t really tell you why the subhead of this week’s Other Side by Felipa Jodelka in the Guardian Guide annoyed me so much. Well I can. It’s the supposed phenomenom of Googlebox.

Within two years Gogglebox has become on those shows that everyone loves without exception.“*

Er. No.

As HTW Central noted on Twitter, it’d have 12 million viewers (as Bake Off gets for its final) if that were the case.

In fact, I believe that 4m is closer to the mark – undoubtedly excellent ratings for Channel 4.

Let me be very clear up front. I’ve never seen Gogglebox, and I have no intention of ever doing so.

I’ve no doubt that the programme is very well made, with smart casting, and is cleverly put together to engage a wide variety of viewers. But that’s not enough to make the programme appeal a single iota to me.

For the uninitiated Wikipedia describes the show as featuring, “Recurring couples, families and friends from around England sitting in their living rooms watching weekly British television shows.”

Essentially, the producers have “cast” people to appear on the show. I’m not sure whether anyone truly thinks that this is giving us anything insightful. Many business use small focus groups to discuss new products or ideas. But you don’t “cast” a focus group to entertain you. You put a group together to give you insight and inform your decisions.

So if I want to hear discussion about the prevailing medium of our time, then I need to know that I’m hearing something intelligent with people who know the medium, understand some of its history, and can put things into context. I want some insight, from someone who can tell me something I don’t know. I don’t need conversation that I could otherwise get on the top deck of a bus, or at the proverbial pub with a random stranger. This is also why I need named, specialist critics for films, books, music, radio, theatre and, of course, television. It’s why you know that if a film poster is using very obscure people or publications to sell their film, I’m already suspicious.

I particularly don’t need people “cast” for a television series to make us have some kind of visceral reaction towards them. Make no mistake, casting is a critical part of any “reality” show.

And then there’s the importance of the edit. Like most reality television, the hours of footage have to be carefully corralled together in an edit suite somewhere, where storylines are constructed and some kind of sense is supposedly made of raw footage. (Seriously: try watching UnREAL for an albeit fictional and ramped up to 11 view of a reality show.)

And if this all sounds snobbish, then it’s really not meant to. I enjoy television a lot, and I enjoy enlightening discussion about television a good deal too. For example, there was an excellent interview with Jed Mercurio on Radio 4’s Front Row the other night. Primarily it was about his version of Lady Chatterly’s Lover airing this weekend on BBC1, but he had some very interesting things to say about how US premium cable channels operate.

Look: I was someone who never missed Harry Hill’s TV Burp. But I very much knew what I was getting – a skilled comedian who understands how the TV industry works, putting a satirical spin on things.

Gogglebox, on the other hand, features well remunerated members of the public – carefully cast – who surely have to deliver the goods if they want to stay with the programme. I know I won’t like it. Similarly, I don’t need to watch The Only Way is Essex, or essentially anything on ITVBe, to know that they won’t be up my street.

Worryingly, Channel 4 looks like it’s getting overly reliant on the programme. When the Guardian piece mentioned six series in two years, I was quite shocked. I know that the show has shifted into peak, now dominating the channel’s Friday night schedule. But it’s true that around 26 episodes a year are now being churned out (over three years in fact). I’d guess that the programme is relatively cheap to produce, and my fear is that Channel 4 is getting overly addicted on it – if not to the extent that they did previously with Big Brother – then certainly at the expense of other light entertainment programmes. (I’ve written previously about how bad an idea it is to be bringing back TFI Friday. That too shows a lack of imagination on the part of schedulers.)

* At time of writing, I couldn’t find an online link to the article on The Guardian’s website.