IP Contributions on the Radio

This morning I Tweeted this, and it got more than a few likes:

(NB. I apologise for the misplaced apostrophe in end’s – it should have been ends’. And using both today and this morning was tautological.)

This came after I heard two interviews on Radio 4’s Today programme, and a third on Five Live, all of which had to be abandoned earlier than planned when the IP audio delivery with the remote contributor started to break down.

Now, I realise that in all of these cases, someone on the production will have probably given the contributors advice about how to sound good, ideally using wired internet connections, or at least being in a good WiFi area. They’ll have told the contributors to make sure that others weren’t using the internet at the same time, as well as ensuring that they’re they’re using the best microphone that they have to hand and so on.

And I know that when these kind of remote contributions work, they sound good. But in every case today, I heard the telltale sounds of the bitrate changes mid conversation. We’ve all used Skype or similar and heard the same thing. The audio suddenly changes from clear to closer to telephone call quality, before getting better again.

The problem is that to the listener, this detracts enormously from the message, because it’s very distracting. In every circumstance it would have been better if the interview had been conducted at a lower bandwidth all the way along. In many cases, a phone call would have sufficed if the line was clear.

I realise that these systems do usually work. I’ve been a contributor to podcasts and broadcasts myself, without any perceivable problems. Likewise, I know that phone interviews have to be abandoned when they line drops in quality, the presenter apologising and suggesting that they might try again (They rarely do though, because in the case of breakfast radio, the schedules are planned to within an inch of their lives).

But I would strongly argue that a consistent sound at a lower bitrate – i.e. phone quality – is better for listeners than a flaky connection at a higher quality.

The Uninhabitable Earth by David Wallace-Wells

This book lays out the horrifying facts about climate change in a compelling and urgent way. 

In The Uninhabitable Earth, David Wallace-Wells takes a comprehensive stroll through the very real perils that the world is facing from climate change. He opens with a devastating picture of just how quickly we’re going to see real suffering and destruction, running through a number of scenarios of varying magnitudes. He references recent weather events that were incredibly disruptive, and goes on to explain how the scale of these pales into insignificance in comparison with what is coming. 

Then he dives more deeply into separate areas: heat death, hunger, drowning and so on. Each of these chapters again forcibly makes its point over and over as Wallace-Wells presents the unassailable research that backs all of this up.  

The prospects for a time as close as 2100 seem truly awful. If that seems distant then think about a child born today. They might comfortably expect to still be alive in 2100, aged just 81. 

The horrors compound on each other. All of the evidence is detailed in well over a hundred pages of very comprehensive notes, where arguments are often developed further. The interested reader has no end of further exploration available to them. 

The book does grapple a bit with the fact that even though we sort-of know a lot of this, political will is rarely there to do anything about it. From the Paris accord to the rapid industrialisation of countries like China or India. We live for the now and not for tomorrow.  

There’s also an interesting argument about how climate change rarely features as a “villain” in popular culture. The Day After Tomorrow aside, we prefer to see our climate villains as big business chiefs who don’t care about pollution or oil company executives. We need a person rather than a thing to blame.  

And it’s to the author’s credit that he also explores the extremists who posit that humanity is going to end in the very near future. As ever, deep within YouTube and the internet, there are those who make these claims which aren’t supported by proper science. This kind of over-claiming doesn’t help, because one of the challenges climate scientists face is getting outright dismissal of everything if anything they ever say doesn’t come true. Wallace-Wells argues that this has led to scientists painting a sometimes brighter picture than they really should. 

My only real complaints are the book are the sections that consider life elsewhere in the universe. While he rightly poo-poos thoughts that we can just build a colony on Mars or somewhere – places that have vastly more extreme weather than even the worst outcomes we might get on earth in the foreseeable future – discussions about life elsewhere aren’t really extensive enough. Paul Davies’ 2010 The Eerie Silence is probably a better bet. 

My other issue is do with mixed units of measurement. Units of temperature are usually Celsius, but because the author is American, we will sometimes jump to Fahrenheit. Similarly, measurements of height will switch between metres and feet, seemingly depending on where the science originated. The book should be consistently metric. 

But overall, this is powerful book and the urgency is real. 

Thanks to Netgalley and Penguin-UK Allen Lane for my ARC. The Uninhabitable Earth: A Story of the Future is out now.

Berberian Sound Studio

Berberian Sound Studio was a very fine 2012 horror film made by Peter Strickland. Set in the seventies, Toby Jones starred as Gilderoy, a sound mixer who has been employed to work on an Italian film called The Equestrian Vortex. He believes that he was employed because of his sound recording and mixing on a documentary about wildlife around Box Hill in Surrey.

The Equestrian Vortex, is of course a “giallo” movie – a slasher horror film from the seventies, and Gilderoy begins to feel ever more uncomfortable as he understands what he’s working on.

Now the Donmar Warehouse is showing an adaption by Joel Horwood and director Tom Scutt. The story is broadly speaking the same, with Tom Brooke playing the reserved Gilderoy, arriving in a new country, with no understanding of the language. The play keeps the action within the confines of the studio where Gilderoy will be working. As with the original film, a projector booth screens footage from the film that the audience will never see. Instead, we hear only the post-dubbing sound. Many films of the period were indeed shot with the sound completely replaced in post.

In Berberian Sound Studio, actresses including Sylvia (Lara Rossi) dub the voices while two foley effects men, both called Massimo – ‘that’ll be easy to remember’ – rush around adding physical sound effects, often to great comic effect.

Gilderoy’s prized possession is his Nagra reel-to-reel tape recorder, with which he is able to conjour a soundscape for the film, as well as listen to audio tapes sent from his mother who he lives with back at home.

The sense of alienation of Gilderoy begins to affect him. A lack of comprehension with his colleagues, the long hours he spends in the studio working, the need to work faster than he’s used to, and the weight of the film that they’re working on – including the uncertainty about how the film should end.

Brooke conveys this really well, beginning as a comic figure out of his depth, before the madness begins to envelop him. The sound design and music by Ben and Max Ringham is absolutely superb – elements seem to be being done live, while other aspects are pre-recorded. Either way, the mixing works really well and creates a disturbing atmosphere.

The set is a thing of beauty too – a small voice booth in one corner where the actresses have to scream (or not), and a production desk with faders and reel to reel recorders that give a great sense of location.

The production works well in the confines of the Donmar – the claustrophobia of the piece, which plays out uninterrupted for 90 minutes or so, compounded by the size of the room. It’s a great transition from screen to stage.

[Interesting sidenote: this is an example of podcast advertising working! Despite being on the Donmar’s mailing list, it was only hearing a podcast ad on Mark Kermode’s podcast that got me to buy tickets. It just shows how well a tightly targeted campaign can work.]

Undercover Advertising

In the UK, we have some really tight restriction on what and how we are able to advertise. Ofcom has a Broadcasting Code. The Advertising Standards Authority has both Broadcast and Non-Broadcast Codes. Beyond these, there are EU wide codes, and industry codes.

But frankly, the internet still appears to be the wild west. Panorama aired a recent edition highlighting a number of the challenges. There wasn’t anything too surprising: Instagram “influencers” promoting gambling to an audience that is largely under the legal age for gambling; a popular DJ promoting alcohol to an audience that includes large numbers of people under the legal drinking age.

What the episode did show was that regulators are fighting a losing battle. If I’m based in a non-UK country but have a global following, where should the regulation sit? Different countries have different laws. Social media is global, but advertising regulation has been built on older geographic boundaries.

Recently the UK’s Competitions and Markets Authority got a formal commitment from 16 celebrities agreeing that they would make clear anything they post commercially. But this is a drop in the ocean. There are probably millions of people including “paid promotion” in their output.

I do question whether adding “#ad” amidst a deluge of other hashtags is enough.

Interestingly, the CMA itself says in a guide to influencers that it’s not. But has anyone told the influencers?

The ASA also has its own guide but these are both UK rules, and influencers are global. It still feels that nobody is truly making allowances for global advertising differences.

Consider broadcast TV. Within the EU, it’s illegal to sponsor the news or current affairs programming. So a service like CNN might have to operate slightly differently inside the EU compared to how in might in North America or Africa. And what can be legally advertised varies a lot too.

When I worked in commercial radio, I would be asked by our sales team to provide research that showed how few children listened to particular shows. Advertisers (and their agencies) had a duty not to do promotional activity in shows with significant child audiences if they were advertising alcohol. They behaved responsibly, and according to Ofcom rules about advertising alcohol brands. Yet that same company was featured in that Panorama sponsoring someone with lots of followers across all demographics to promote an alcohol brand.

Vox just published a really interesting piece about healthcare influencers. The US is one of the few places in the world where prescription drugs can be freely advertised. Most of the world does not allow this, relying instead on doctors to prescribe the correct drugs rather than getting patients to “ask their doctor” about a particular medication that they heard about while watching an episode of NCIS. Only advertising for drugs available in pharmacies without prescriptions is permitted in most of the world.

Now pushing medication in Instagram is troubling enough – not being able to provide details surrounding side effects or the fact that a particular drug may not be right for you. But even with appropriate labelling and explanations, such paid promotions are illegal in most countries. (I note that Instagram is said to be testing such geofencing capabilities, but they’ve yet to rollout such functionality to all users.)

But if there’s one thing that really annoys me, it’s the fact that there isn’t a consistent way of labelling posts that contain paid promotion. This is surely the easiest thing to fix?

To be clear, some platforms like YouTube do have that functionality – see the image at the top of this post. But users are inconsistent in how they label their videos. Some use these tools – others do, or don’t do, their own thing to alert viewers or followers to the presence of paid promotion or sponsorship.

It seems to me that there should be a requirement for all users to use a consistent way of clearly marking their posts as including paid promotion of any sort.

Some platforms like Instagram don’t seem to roll out these kinds of tools especially widely. Some users may have them, but most don’t. To be clear, even Instagram’s own advertising labelling leaves much to be desired – a small “Sponsored” label below the name of the company posting is about the only thing that alerts you to it being an ad. That and the fact that they’re nearly always videos. (NB. I turn on “Use Less Data” buried in Settings > Account > Mobile Data to minimise the number of pre-loaded videos I see in Instagram.)

Brands love the lack of clarity about whether or not there is paid promotion taking place, and this can result in the advertising working better. People who wouldn’t for a moment spend time on a shopping TV channel, will devour their favourite influencer’s latest sponsored post, even if it only exists to promote a brand. And we are much more able to zone out of advertising we see on posters or on television compared to hidden advertising within people we follow’s posts.

Summary

It feels to me that there are two critical issues that social networks need to solve, and frankly I’m amazed that regulators haven’t clamped down more on the social networks, because if either of these things happened in “old media” then there would be fines, sanctions or licences being pulled.

  1. Clarity of advertising – Is this an ad or isn’t it? Why isn’t every post taking some element of paid promotion clearly labelled as such? Why don’t the social networks make a requirement within their T&Cs that everyone uses a built-in tool to identify these posts as containing advertising? Why isn’t there a consistent approach to labelling posts or videos as advertising, the same way that we know when we’re watching a TV ad? #ad isn’t enough.
  2. Adhering to local regulations – Platforms need to work with influencers to make sure that their posts adhere to global advertising rules. If someone is posting an advert in a category that is illegal in a particular territory, then there needs to be functionality to restrict that posting geographically. Social networks as well as the influencers need to take responsibility for posts. There are many different rules in different territories and these are really hard to stay on top of. But tough. Laws are laws.

The platforms, of course, mostly put the onus for all of this on the users. If I include an advert in a post I make on Instagram (Ha – the idea!) then I don’t actually pay Instagram a share of that revenue. Instagram instead makes money from selling ads that surround my post. But I’m responsible for what I post, and it’s me that gets in trouble and not Instagram.

But that surely isn’t sustainable if users are constantly breaking the law using a platform, whether or not users are aware of rules or local laws.

I always go back to how good the likes of YouTube and Instagram are at keeping porn or nudity off their platforms. If they really want to do something, then they find a way to do it.

Das Boot

I first saw the original 1981 Wolfgang Petersen version of Das Boot on TV sometime in the late 80s. But it wasn’t until a 1998 re-release of the extended director’s cut of the film, that I saw in a cinema on Lower Regent Street, that I can honestly say that I saw it properly. That version ran to 207 minutes of often great intensity – as though you were trapped inside the cramped confines of a U-boat alongside the forty or so men aboard the vessel. Petersen also produced a TV mini-series version of the film.

There’s a whole genre of submarine films that have come and gone over the years that include notable entries: John McTiernan’s The Hunt for Red October and Kathryn Bigelow’s K19: The Widow Maker and probably the two of the better titles. But Das Boot stands alone at the top. So what should be made of a new version of the story coming from Sky Deutschland?

The first thing to say is that this is more of a sequel than a remake. We follow the crew of a different boat, U-612, although it too is based in La Rochelle on the French Atlantic coast. U-612 is fresh from the factory and Captain Hoffman is given his first command with the boat. It’s late 1942, and things aren’t going so well, with more U-boats being lost at sea. In fact, by this point in the war, crypt-analysts at Bletchley Park were fairly reliably breaking the Enigma code that was being used by the German navy.

To expand out the series a little, this new version of Das Boot has two simultaneous storylines. The U-boat itself is fairly quickly diverted into carrying out a secret mission – not something that everyone aboard appreciates doing. Meanwhile on land, there is a story based around a cell of communist resistance fighters trying to disrupt the German war effort.

The key link between the two stories is provided by Simone Strasser (Vicky Krieps), who has just arrived in La Rochelle as a translator for at first the German navy and later the Gestapo, and her brother Frank (Leonard Schleicher) who has at the last minute been brought aboard U-612 as the radio operator.

Frank has become a father with a local barmaid who happens to be Jewish, and has started providing information to the resistance led by Carla (Lizzy Caplan), a former fighter from the Spanish Civil War.

This is a production that has had millions spent on it. It’s hard to tell where physical life-size U-boat replicas stop and CGI effects begin – I note that they shot in Malta which has the world’s largest water tanks for filming any productions of a nautical theme. The real La Rochelle U-boat base is used, as it was in the 1981 feature, and a variety of French towns and villages provide a great sense of wartime atmosphere.

There is a single director across the entire series – Andreas Prochaska – something that doesn’t always happen with TV series. But it means that you end up with a very consistent tone across the whole piece.

And the music is superb, with Klaus Doldinger’s original memorable theme being reused to great effect by Matthias Weber who has scored this TV series.

There are similarities with the 1981 film – both versions beginning with the U-boat crews spending a final night in the local brothel before they embark on what might become a months long voyage. And the cramped quarters and differences between the officers and men are the same as you always get. But then to do anything else would be unrealistic.

Sky Deutschland really is on a roll at the moment, with first Babylon Berlin and now this. The good news is that both series are returning, and I personally can’t wait!

My Lovely Wife by Samantha Downing

A twisted thriller about a couple who are not all they seem. 

The set-up for My Lovely Wife is intriguing and it’s hard to avoid giving away too much in the way of spoilers. ‘Tobias’ narrates this story. He’s married to Millicent and they live together in an idyllic gated community in Florida with their two kids Jenna and Rory.  

But the book opens up with Tobias claiming to be deaf and trying to pick up a woman in a bar. He’s scouting out a potential victim. And his wife is in on it. 

This a dark page-turner, with young married couple who have some seriously unusual tendencies. Tobias is a tennis coach in the local country club. Millicent is a real estate agent who has sold numerous properties in and around their exclusive community.  

But murder isn’t straightforward, and although Tobias and Millicent are in it together, they have their own separate roles – not always asking precisely what the other is doing. Things begin to unravel when to cover their tracks, they decide to construct a way to cover their tracks and keep investigators away from what’s really happening. Inevitably, this has unintended consequences.  

The obvious comparison here would be the Dexter novels, but unlike those, the victims are mostly blameless. These are clearly twisted people. 

The book is a rip-roaring read, and while I suspect that you could poke holes at some elements of the plot, the story is tightly constructed and makes internal sense. You’re certainly never sure how things will resolve themselves by the end, and the final act is tense as a consequence. 

Thanks to Netgalley and Penguin-UK Michael Joseph for my ARC. My Lovely Wife is published on 2 May 2019 in hardback and 26 March 2019 on the Kindle. 

Tangerine by Christine Langan

The cover of the paperback edition of Tangerine has a quote from The Times claiming that the book is like a cross between Girl on a Train and The Talented Mr Ripley.

This was one of those books that I absolutely did pick up based on the cover – but that strapline also sold it to me. Tangerine is Waterstones’ fiction book of the month, and it was in my local branch that I picked up a copy, finding the premise intriguing.

Alice Shipley has moved to Tangiers to be with her new husband John. But Alice is crippled with a kind of agoraphobia that means that she spends most of her time in her flat, and really has only the vaguest notion of what her husband does.

Then Lucy arrives. Lucy and Alice went to a female-only college in the US, where something happened. Lucy showing up is not something Alice expected.

The book flips the narrative back and forth from each of the two women’s perspectives and we begin to learn more about what has happened, and what is now happening.

The comparisons with Patricia Highsmith’s most famed character are fair, although there aren’t quite the shocks and surprises that Tom Ripley gave us.

The book definitely gives us a sense of place – with its 1950s Moroccan setting, and the characters’ motivations are definitely well drawn. I suppose I thought it was just missing that extra bit.

One thing I would say is that Abacus share slightly too much of the plot on the back of the book, revealing something that doesn’t happen until close to the novel’s denouement. This same publisher’s blurb appears on the Amazon website, so I would avoid reading any more about the plot than I have already given here.

Normal People by Sally Rooney

When a book receives as much hype as Sally Rooney’s Booker longlisted, Costa winning and Waterstones winning novel, it can have a reverse reaction for me. The book sounds like it’s being over-hyped. I begin to think that it can’t possibly live up to expectations. I tend to actively avoid such titles.

But then, I heard an interview with Rooney, and thought I should give it a go. I picked up a copy over Christmas to add to my teetering pile(s) of unread books, and this week settled down to it.

I confess that I really enjoyed it.

The novel is the story of Connell and Marianne, following them from their school days in a small Irish town, through to their time in Trinity College Dublin.

Connell is one of the cool kids – centre forward for his school’s football team and hanging out with the similar types. He’s also smart, doing well in his exams. He has been brought up by his single mother who earns a living as a cleaner at Marianne’s house. Marianne goes to the same school as Connell and is also very smart. But she’s not one of the cool kids. She’s alone at school – perhaps even aloof. Her family has money, but that doesn’t matter – and she’s not part of scene.

Connell and Marianne develop a secret relationship; a relationship that Connell is unwilling to make public for fear of humiliation in front of his peers.

Later, when they’re at university, the tables are turned. Marianne is much more in her element, and it’s Connell who has become more of an outsider.

The novel is told is short fragmentary pieces; we jump a few weeks here – a few months there. Marianne and Connell’s relationship is complex, and their intentions don’t always make sense. But that’s real life, and their story does feel “real.”

I’ve seen some reviews suggest more of this tale

Is the book over-hyped? Quite probably. But that doesn’t mean that it’s not a good book. I enjoyed it enormously, and it had a very satisfactory conclusion.

Turbulence by David Szalay

This is essentially a book of short stories with a clever over-arching mechanic that links them. Each chapter tells a different story about someone who is somehow travelling between airports.

So the first chapter starts with a flight from London to Madrid. The next story will take us from Madrid to Dakar. And so we will keep travelling until eventually we arrive back in London.

Each story stands alone, but a character met in the last story will feature in the following one. The stories are very readable little sketches. For the most part nothing too life changing happens, yet the sketch is enough that we get a flavour of the lives of the characters. And just as you’re getting comfortable, the story moves on to the next destination and the next character.

It’s a clever construction and while the book is slight, some of the stories will stay with you.

Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss

Ghost Wall was a book that seemed to come up in quite a few of Best of 2018 blogs and articles that I read over Christmas, so I was eager to read this.

It’s an incredibly slim volume, running to around 150 pages, but in packs an absolute punch. I read it across a single day.

Silvie has been dragged along by her father to take part in an archaeological re-enactment in a remote bit of Northumbrian countryside one summer. Her domineering father is a bus-driver by trade, but a man who loves ancient British history to the point that Silvie’s true name is Sulevia, after an ancient British goddess.

Silvie’s mother has also been dragged into spending the time living as an iron-age family might have done, hunting and gathering their own food, living in a period-appropriate hut.

The project is being overseen by a local professor who has also brought a handful of students along for the summer too. But none of them are being forced to endure the full hardship that Silvie’s father is insisting on.

While he’s undoubtedly a fan of iron age history, he is not a nice man. The family have no choice about taking part in the re-enactment.

There’s inherent sexism going on. Silvie’s and her mother are expected to do domestic things while others get to do the more interesting stuff. Her father is slightly distrusting of the students. And more importantly, everything is becoming a little unhinged as the professor and Silvie’s father plot and scheme about some of the less pleasant aspects of iron age society.

Highly recommended.