September, 2011

New Amazon Kindles and Pricing

So Amazon, as widely expected, has announced details of its new range of Kindles. There are four of them:
Kindle at $79
Kindle Touch (WiFi) at $99
Kindle Touch (WiFi + 3G) at $149
Kindle Fire (their colour tablet) at $199
Woohoo. Let me order one immediately.
Ah. But they’re mostly only available in the US. I know it’s annoying, but clearly these things are priced to go, and Amazon is going to sell bucket loads. Until they can ramp up production, they clearly want to satisfy the US market. A regional rollout of products is pretty standard. Only Apple seems to manage anything more to an extent – and even they struggle.
So we’re just getting the new version of the Kindle.
So let’s see – if I go to Google and run a currency conversion that comes out at… £50.47.
Ah. But I’ve forgotten import and sales taxes like VAT (20%). That makes it more like £60.56 (with VAT anyway).
But that’s probably still hopeful.
So I looked at the previous range of Kindles and compared the Amazon prices on the .com website in the US with the .co.uk prices which include taxes like VAT. The $139 device cost £111, and the $189 device cost £152. Note that I didn’t use their ad-supported version of the Kindle for this comparison – I compared like with like products. That equates $1 to about 80p*.
So if we multiply $79 x £0.80 and round up a bit we get £64. OK. Let’s give Amazon a little flexibilty. Apple always likes to point out that currencies fluxuate, and they have to allow for this. So £69 would be about right? That’s still a significant saving on £111.
But in fact Amazon is charging £89. The difference seems to be the “with offers” (i.e. ad-supported) nature of the US model. That seems to be worth £20 over the life of the device. Amazon’s ad sales team must be doing well.
The original Kindle “with offers” retailed at $99 while without, it retailed for $139. That’s a 40% price “hike” for the ad-free version.
My original £64 calculation + 40% = ….
£89.60.
So in fact, Amazon is spot on. They charge a 40% premium for an ad-free version, and a direct price basis, we’re getting it for precisely that price. It looks as though the basic $79 Kindle in the US simply won’t be available without ad support is one option. You can also buy a $109 version without special offers. That’s a 38% premium – very nearly the 40% premium I’ve been talking about.
I’m still a bit disappointed. And I’d particularly like to see Amazon give it’s UK Prime members some of the offers its US subscribers are getting. Perhaps that’ll happen once Amazon roll out their Kindle Fire in the UK – something I can’t now see happening before Christmas.
As for me. Am I buying one?
Not yet. The new model is £22 cheaper than the previous one. But it’s still psychologically the thick end of £100.
E&OE. Do let me know if you spot a flaw in my calculations.
[Update] I’ve corrected the availability of a “without special offers” version of the basic Kindle. It’s also worth noting that the Kindle Touch prices listed above are also the cheaper “with special offers” versions.
It is also worth mentioning as James correctly highlights in comments that if you buy a device in person in the US, you will have to pay the prevailing State sales tax. However, somewhat unfairly, most States don’t seem to force e-commerce sites like Amazon to charge that tax, giving those retailers an even bigger advantage over bricks and mortar stores.
So in this instance I can buy the same machine for £89 inclusive of all taxes that a US citizen in most States will pay $79 for.
* By way of comparison I ran the process on US and UK Apple Store iPad pricing and came to an average of $1 equating to… 80p.
I was quite surprised by this finding, having previously come to the conclusion that Apple gouged its UK customers to a much greater extent than other companies. So I ran the same process on MacBook Airs, across the four basic offering, and I came to $1 = 84p finding. In other words, iPad pricing is better than MacBook Air. Of course that might be down to issues like duty. I’d look up the relevant duty for laptops, but it seems that information is only available on subscription. That can’t be right can it?
[Update] This website informs me that to import a laptop to the UK incurs an import duty of 0%. However it’s worth noting that VAT is chargeable on shipping and any insurance. So there are additional costs involved in importing devices into the UK.

Cookie Deletion

I do wonder sometimes whether or not digital media industry is desperately trying to cause more problems to itself than is absolutely necessary.
Take cookies.
Cookies are clearly very useful. They serve many purposes for many websites, as well as advertising networks and so on. They can be very powerful. And users find them useful – when I visit a site, it already knows who I am, and cookies help me carry out tasks that I want to carry out.
And yet, and yet, and yet…
According to a recentish ComScore piece of research 26.8% of users in the UK delete their cookies in a given month, this rises to 35.0% for third party cookies (the difference seems to be do with security software settings).
So already, lots of people are deleting their cookies, but – in a given month – most won’t.
I wonder, therefore, if the digital media industry is helping itself with some of the things it’s doing.
– We have Facebook seemingly not removing (or making inactive) cookies when users logout allowing them to track usage of individuals on Facebook enabled websites even when they’ve logged out (Facebook has promised to fix this [UPDATE] They have).
– Airlines’ websites “seem” to remember whether you’ve searched for a specific flight before, and also “seem” to put the price up when you search for the same flight a little bit later. More and more savvy travellers are learning to delete cookies before searching for flights.
– The same is said to be true for some hotel groups.
I’m firmly convinced that most people do not realise quite the extent that they’re being tracked by cookies. I’m also firmly of the view that it’s their security software that is “managing” their cookies rather than users diligently going into their browsers’ settings and deleting cookies.
But moves like the above only mean cookies fall directly into the public gaze. And I’m fairly sure that the public isn’t going to like what it finds.
Then there’s the small matter of the European directive on cookies that might still be on the backburner right now, but at some point is going to be enormously unpleasant for some.
Cookies are going to be much bigger news than they have been previously – of that much I’m certain. And the news isn’t going to be good.

Postmodernism: Style and Subversion 1970-1990

Any exhibition that includes a heavy dose of Blade Runner (one of my favourite films of all time), and ends with the video of New Order’s Bizarre Love Triange (one of my favourite songs of all time), is going to be very popular with me.
And Postmodernism at the V&A is definitely a worthwhile exhibition. It’s fantastic.
They’ve just really pulled all the stops out. While it could be as simple as going to an exhibition of artifacts from popular culture – magazines, prints, furniture, costumes and design in general – what they’ve instead tried to do is fashion a whole postmodern world.
Starting with a select group of artists who were trying to do something very different, we enter a vibrantly lit staccato world. As well as design objects themselves, the ambience of the exhibition has been designed to make you feel like you’re entering the hayday of postmodernism (and I’ll let the exhibition attempt to define what exactly postmodernism is).
I recognised the sounds of Vangelis in the first gallery, where a significant proportion of Blade Runner’s opening scene is projected on a loop, alternately including or not including the sound.
Elsewhere we have Rachael’s suit and Zhora’s outfit that she’s retired wearing as she fall’s through the glass shop window as Deckard shoots her.
Another gallery begins to make you feel as though you’ve entered a strange nightclub. Surrounded by costumes from various famous videos of the eighties, we have clothes worn by David Byrne in Stop Making Sense, and the cover of Grace Jones’ album Island Life – including an indication of how it was built up in a montage format.
There are magazines from the UK and far beyond that you can only dream that you would have been cool enough to read at the time.
And all the way through there’s an acknowledgement that the movement – if that’s what it was – does so heavily rely on what went before, that it couldn’t exist without it. Was the artistic world stagnating?
I don’t know. But what I do know is that this is a fantastic exhibition and well worth visiting. It wasn’t too crowded when I saw it during the middle of the day on Saturday, and it’s open until 15 January 2012.
I even love the way that the end of the exhibition is signposted “Shop” in neon lighting. And a very good shop it is too with lots for all pockets including the accompanying book of course, but also an interesting compilation CD/DVD set.

(And yes – I really have linked to a video on MySpace).

Scheduling Queries

If like me, you’re suddenly feeling the chill, then you’ll know that autumn is well and truly here. And with it comes what was once known as the “New Season” of TV programmes.
Sunday nights are interesting. The Guardian made much of the fact that the BBC has scheduled the final series of Spooks against the second series of ITV’s blockbuster Downton Abbey.
It certainly is unusual that Spooks airs on a Sunday – it’s not a night that it’s previously been broadcast on. But then again, I don’t think it’s Downton Abbey that will suffer (In any case, ITV Player and iPlayer aside, Spooks gets a Monday night repeat, while Downton gets Sunday afternoon repeats as well as ITV1+1).
In fact, I’d suggest that it’s Sky One’s action adventure series Strike Back that has most to lose with viewers preferring Spooks over it (Strike Back also gets several repeats on both Sky 2 and Sky 1 over the week).
The really odd bit of scheduling right now is, in fact, ITV’s placement of DCI Banks on Friday nights – an unusual time for a drama of this sort that you might think would sit happier on just about any other day of the week. Friday’s are the home of comedy on BBC1 (C4 having long ceded that night), documentaries on BBC2 (before QI at 10pm), C4’s last best hope for ratings success in Million Pound Drop, and C5’s reality night. I suppose a detective series is counter programming, but I’m still uncertain about this placement.
Oh, and why is More4 slipping the new series of Curb Your Enthusiasm out at the ungodly hour of 11.05pm on Sundays?

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

Before I went to see the new film version of the Le Carré classic, I first sat down and watched – for something like the fifth time – the 1979 Alec Guinness version.
I’ve seen this at least five times over the years, and together with Smiley’s People, it makes Guinness the definitive George Smiley. There’s just nothing wrong the adaptions.
So I approached the new film version from director Tomas Alfredson with a little concern. That said, I’d also heard nothing but good things about the film – even though I tried to avoid all reviews in advance.
As a rule, there have been very few “remakes” of films that have added something to the original. Yet, that doesn’t mean that filmmakers shouldn’t be allowed to. How many versions of Dracula, Sherlock Holmes or even Hamlet have their been over the years?
So despite my love for the original, I was still eager to get to this as soon as I could. And I absolute adored Alfredson’s Let The Right One In.
And here’s the thing.
It’s also brilliant. In different ways to the TV series. But then that was a 7 x 50 minute series giving plenty of time for the novel to breath. Alfredson condenses his version into a running time of just over two hours, and yet he also allows plenty of time to breath – Gary Oldman’s Smiley doesn’t say a word for the first ten minutes or so. And he doesn’t say a great deal else during the running time of the film.
The casting is exceptional. We have a number of players all at the top of their game headed by Oldman. There are also Colin Firth, Toby Jones, Ciaron Hinds and David Dencik as the suspects, the wonderful John Hurt as “Control”, Tom Hardy as Ricki Tarr, Mark Strong as the embittered Jim Prideaux and the superb Benedict Cumberbatch as Peter Guillam, Smiley’s right hand man. They’re all absolutely pitch perfect.
The direction is a delight with some very measured performances and lots of details that will undoubtedly mean I have to rewatch the film several times.
The music from Alberto Iglesias is absolutely spot on. He also recently composed the soundtrack to The Skin I Live In – being the longtime composer for Pedro Almodovar – and his music is even better this time around.
And finally the photography and production design is so spot on it’s scary. We really feel as though we’ve been transported back to the seventies with smokey yellowing rooms. The clothes feel right and aren’t just someone’s hackneyed idea of what the seventies were like (Life on Mars could be a little guilty of that). Essentially Britain was still coming out the sixties in 1973, so it’s not just all about long hair and flared trousers.
As I say, cutting the novel down to a manageable film-length, is not an easy task without ripping out the heart of the book, but screenplay writers Bridget O’Connor and Peter Straughan have done it perfectly.
And finally, I am going to have to watch it again so that I can spot Le Carré himself in a cameo in a scene that doesn’t appear in the novel – a Christmas party – but which feels absolutely right nonetheless.
A must-see film.
A couple of side issues:
1. I’m really not sure that film companies should be handing Facebook the rights for hosting their film’s website. This isn’t some two-bit affair – it’s a major film that will undoubtedly clear up during the awards season. So I really wouldn’t let somebody else host the film’s website. OK – there’s an official website too. But that’s not what I saw on the film poster.
2. I actually quite like the new Orange ad to persuade us to turn off our mobile phones. At first it came across as cheesy – and frankly awful – as those M&M sponsored “From The Red Carpet” ads. Seriously, what’s the point of them? Insightless brief interviews in 3 second clips. Anyway, in fact, these are quite clever ads and got plenty of the audience laughing. I still spotted at least two people checking their phones during the film though…

Scooter Takes Out Cyclist

I’ve been a cyclist for years to a greater or lesser extent. And for the last 12 months or so, I’ve been regularly using a Brompton as part of my London commute, meaning that I get to avoid using the tube. Over that time, I’ve been lucky enough not to have had – or seen – any major incidents. Nor, indeed, minor incidents.
Yesterday that changed.
It was the final stage of the Tour of Britain, which took place in two parts. A time-trial in the morning, and then after a gap of a few hours (during which there were a couple of charity events), a criterium race in the afternoon. I’ve been going to see the London stage of these races since the Tour returned to our calendars. I usually bring my camera and take a lot of photos of cyclists going past me very fast.
Anyway, I’d watched the time-trial, and had gone out in search of lunch (and a top, because it’s quite chilly all of a sudden isn’t it?).
Then I cycled down The Strand on my Brompton, which I was using to get about. My plan was to drop down to Victoria Embankment where the criterium, which was due to start shortly, would lap around. The Strand was pretty snarled up. It always is, but the road closures caused by the cycling probably didn’t help.
But that’s par for the course if you’re a motorist in London. Embankment’s used for lots of events on lots of days of the year and motorists just need to avoid those days – usually Sundays.
Anyway, I was following a group of other cyclists in the bus lane of The Strand which was pretty empty. A guy in racing gear who’d taken part in the charity ride joined the lane with a friend also on a bike. At that point a motor scooter who didn’t really look and cut in from the traffic to the much emptier bus lane. Motorcycles and scooters are allowed to use bus lanes alongside cyclists as part of an experimental scheme.
There was a little alteraction between the cyclist and the scooter rider. But they got over it. The scooter driver had not looked properly before dropping into the bus lane.
Then another scooter rider decided to get in on the action for an unknown reason. He was riding very close to the aforementioned cyclist crowding him and pushing him towards the curb. The cyclist – a largish male – was rightly agrieved having already experienced one scooter coming too close to him, and he wasn’t afraid to shout at this new scooter driver to tell him not to crowd him.
The scooter driver took offence at this, and then in the most malicious piece of riding I’ve ever experienced directly, he pointed his front wheel at the back wheel of the cyclist and deliberately hit him.
With complete inevitability the bike slid from under the cyclist, and he had to leap off to avoid ending up on the tarmac – or worse – under the wheels of the scooter.
I saw all of this – aghast – from a few metres behind. I jumped off and shouted out the number plate of the scooter to ensure I didn’t forget it – LK55 EOJ.
I couldn’t get my phone out fast enough to get a photo or video of the rider. But I did record a voice memo of the number plate. I passed it on the cyclist and his friend who immediately reported the incident to the police on the phone.
Fortunately, nobody was hurt. But the rider of the dark scooter – LK55 EOJ – was criminally dangerous in deliberately attempting to knock someone off their bike.
I passed on my details in case a witness statement is needed. I trust that the police will follow this up and arrest the driver of the scooter.

Facades

I found this week’s Feedback on Radio 4 very entertaining.
A correspondent had written in to complain about the use of a particular piece of incidental music in several different drama and documentary series on Radio 4 and Radio 4 Extra across a single evening.
That piece of music in Facades by Philip Glass…

Now here’s the thing. I first became aware of it when I heard it used as the theme music for Nick Fisher’s excellent series of Julie Enfield mysteries (one of which is being repeated right now on Radio 4 Extra – the Feedback correspondent didn’t mention that one).
At the time – and this was the mid-nineties – short of knowing someone at the BBC, there was little way of finding out what the music was. I assumed that it was composed especially for the series. The Radio Times wasn’t a great deal of use either.
Kids – we didn’t use to have Shazam!
Then one day I heard it used as the bed of a report on Newsnight. I phoned the BBC helpline (not that one), but the nice lady only had more common requests. Eventually I did manage to email someone at Newsnight and a production assistant told me! It was by Philip Glass and called Facades.
Now all I had to do was track it down. I found it in the classical section of the Virgin Megastore near Tottenham Court Road station. It was on a recent compilation album called Minimalist (now sadly unavailable – at least on Amazon. However there’s a decent Glass compilation that includes it called The Essential Philip Glass).
The Julie Enfield series ran for a few more series, and I’d discovered not only a new piece of music, but a new type of music.
Incidentally, what’s Nick Fisher writing for radio – if at all – these days? Is he the same Nick Fisher who was on Saturday Live last week? And I’d love to track down The Wheel of Fortune that was broadcast in 2001 simultaneously on Radio 3 and Radio 4 over two nights, with listeners choosing which version they heard.

A Plea To Android App Developers

I own an HTC Desire. It was one of the earlier Android phones, and was the top of the range phone from HTC at the time. Overall I love the phone. I still love it. I’ve managed – touch wood – not to crack the screen, unlike so many of my iPhone owning friends. HTC Sense is actually a good addition to Android. The phone still works fast despite being chock full of apps and data.
But it is full. The major problem with the Desire is that it doesn’t have enough onboard memory. Not enough by far.
Recently James ran through a few good tips for freeing up some space. He has the similarly memory challenged Google Nexus One – which shares many traits with the Desire.
Yet they’re not enough. For the last few months, I’ve lived in fear of the “low disk space” icon. It’s not just some kind of OCD annoyance – it actually changes the way some apps behave. For example, the Gmail app won’t collect new mail. That kind of trivial annoyance.
So I’d instigated a one-on/one-off rule. You have a killer new app? Well, it’s going to have to be better and more useful to me than my current line-up. You can forget games for starters. A great podcasting app? Maybe… But I think Google Maps is more important. Sorry.
I could probably exist reasonably happily with my current line-up. But there’s another problem.
Updates.
Everyone keeps adding new features to their apps. There’s an update to Gmail, Google Plus, Facebook or whatever. If you’ve chosen to tick the automatic updates, then you’ll get them without even knowing.
Suddenly the low disk space icon is visible again without you doing anything.
You clear the cache from everything. You use fine App 2 SD card utility. Still no luck.
Even the current version of Android Market is well over 7MB which I find astonishing since it’s basically a version of the web-browser.
All this was brought home when I downloaded the newly available Guardian app. It looks great. It caches news that it downloads offline. You can read it at your leisure. And yet it can’t be installed to SD card, and there’s no choice as to where you place the data that it caches.
I played with it. Liked it. And then had to “put it back” (uninstall it).
I know that there can be issues with SD card installed apps. If you mount the phone as a disk drive, then apps don’t work. And I suspect they’re probably a tad slower on SD card. But as the comments at the foot of The Guardian’s announcement makes clear, there are lots of people on “older” Android devices that suffer this memory issue. By older, I mean fifteen months old.
I don’t really mean to single out The Guardian. They’re by no means alone. Google is just as bad.
And what’s more, you can’t trust the size of an app as stated in the Android Market. I suspect that the “size” listed is the size of the compressed installer file. Rarely if ever is an app as “small” as it’s stated on the market. That’s especially the case with an app that is built to cache data.
App developers, please remember that not everyone is using a box-fresh, top of the range device!
Hopefully I’ll put this all behind me soon, when my current contract comes to an end, and I can buy a new Android phone. Incidentally – all suggestions gratefully recieved. It needs to be fast, hard waring, loads of memory, and have a top of the range camera. I’m not sure about the Samsung Galaxy S II. If there’s truly a special edition of the HTC Sensation then I might go for that. Or do I risk an upcoming Sony Ericsson? And then there’s the forthcoming Ice Cream Sandwich and devices that run that. Maybe I should wait…?
In the meantime I need to decide whether to actually free up some space and perhaps delete something like the Facebook app. Decisions, decisions.

Passports Don’t Like Washing Machines

That’s the sad news that I learnt this week following an unfortunate incident that essentially involved me not checking the pockets of a pair of trousers.
Interestingly, if you need a replacement in a rush and you check the relevant section of the Direct.gov website, you are told that the Premium one-day service is not available for replacement passports.
In my case, a forthcoming trip meant that timescales were tight and I opted for the one-week service. But that still means an interview in a passport office. And when I phoned their hotline, the London office had no available interview slots in the period I needed to get to it.
So it was off to sunny Peterborough, where the friendly staff were very efficient, and my application was swiftly processed. Then – very surprisingly – I was asked if I wanted the same-day service. That is, the service the website said wasn’t available.
Given all the fun of having to be around when a courier delivered the new passport, I said yes. And just over three and a half hours later, I had my new passport.
I thought it was worth sharing this information in case you, dear reader, ever face something similar.
PS A certain DJ of my acquaintance tells me that he’s put his passport through the washing machine on no fewer than three separate occasions!