January, 2017

Grand Tour

We’re several weeks into Amazon’s megabudget Top Gear remake, “Grand Tour,” and you can’t fail to have noticed it has arrived. There have been ads everywhere from the sides of buses to TV, and of course, all over the front page of the Amazon website. Even Amazon’s packaging covers their grinning faces right now.

We’ve even managed to have a “presenter says something stupid” story, with mild-mannered Richard Hammond somehow implying that eating ice cream as an adult is “gay.”

Cost estimates for the new series vary wildly, but what’s clear is that a lot of money has been spent on this series.

And yet, I confess I’ve been utterly underwhelmed by Grand Tour so far.

They’ve got a lot more money, but I’m not sure they’re spending it wisely.

They’ve been hopping around the world for, well, basically no reason at all. After a few long-haul outings in the US and South Africa, they’ve stayed in Europe. But apart from a seeming product placement deal with DHL (does that PP logo need to appear in the UK streaming world?), there seems little to no point. In South Africa they managed a single short feature in which James May watched a bunch of locals do donuts, while he didn’t do any himself.

And, er, that’s about the extent of it.

Look, I realise that the bulk of the show is made months in advance, and these are just the last bits, providing an over-arching narrative to otherwise unrelated features. But really, what’s the point?

Is it really only that they have to use a tent, and can’t broadcast from a single location because that infringes the BBC’s intellectual property?

The car features are basically the same as Top Gear’s.

They’ve got a UK track to test cars and time them – the same as Top Gear.

There’s a new racing driving who does now speak but is basically a new Stig – the same as Top Gear.

We don’t have “The Producers,” instead “Mr Wilman” sends texts. That’d be Andy Wilman, the show’s producer, reinventor of Top Gear with Clarkson, with whom he went to school.

The only thing they don’t seem to have is the star interview. Instead they have a “joke” sequence that has already got very boring very quickly (along with a “drone crash” at the start of each episode).

Then there are the awful attempts at comedy. The worst of these must have been a singularly unfunny section segment the RAF with the USAF.

There are other gags, and they’re totally laboured. It feels like nobody has the ability to reign in the stars and say, “Look, this isn’t funny. We’re dropping it or editing it out.”

And I’m really disappointed that they’ve not tried to do a few more different things. If you’re going to dart around the world, do it for a reason. Do some new features that make use of your locales.

Yes, we want the presenters’ chemistry, but what we’ve got is a version Top Gear that’s as close as possible to the original without infringing the aforementioned IP, but with much more money thrown at it. And not for the better.

I’ll be honest and say that I never watched Top Gear for reviews of supercars. They were easily the dullest.

I wanted silly challenges, races, and journeys. The presenters were never that funny, but I kind of thought they knew that. Yet now we seem to be getting more of their “comic” turns.

It feels as though they’ve been given a massive amount of cash and allowed to do what they like with no Amazon interference. Indeed I suspect that’s exactly what has happened.

Sometimes a network keeping you on track is actually useful.

Their two-parter in the Namib desert was better, although a seasoned watched understands that they’re never in the peril they claim to be.

But overall I don’t think they’ve stretched themselves creatively, and indeed I think they’re just coasting doing more of their usual act. It’s not that this is a terrible series – it’s still well made and looks great.

But given the freedom and budget they have, I expected better.

In the meantime, James May’s The Reassembler on BBC Four is probably a better watch.

Editorial Note

Looking at my WordPress dashboard, I see that I have over 100 posts in draft form – saved, but unpublished.

This is clearly ridiculous.

Now it’s true that many of them are only very slightly sketched out, but others are full pieces that I, for whatever reason, never quite got around to publishing. So I’m going to have a bit of a clear out. That may well mean that I higher than usual volume of stuff is going to appear here over the coming days and weeks.

Either that, or I will lose interest in the task at hand altogether…

Future Shock: The Story of 2000AD

The comic, 2000AD, was launched in 1977 when I was 7 years old. While I read a fair few comics when I was young, I can’t say that I was reading 2000AD from the very start. It was more about The Beano at that time, which I’d begin to buy with my pocket money on a semi-regular basis. I remember that the 1978 Beano Book was the first of their annuals that I owned. It would become very well thumbed, as would be the Summer Specials. Otherwise it might occasionally be the Dandy, or perhaps Whizzer & Chips.

As I got a little older, I progressed to Warlord. Quite why a comic full of Second World War stories was relatively popular in the late seventies isn’t entirely obvious to me now. But as kids we’d eat up Bank Holiday screenings of films like The Guns of Navarone, Where Eagles Dare and The Great Escape. At primary school we’d re-enact scenes from these films, throwing dirt around to create dust cloud “explosions.”

(Warlord, Wikipedia tells me, lasted all the way through until 1986. But perhaps more staggering is the ongoing publication of its DC Thomson stablemate Commando. These comics, in compact form, continue tell tales of derring-do from the second war, each book having a self-contained story.

While I understand that there’s a certain kitsch appeal, which was probably why some compilation books were published a few years ago, and could be seen in Waterstones up and down the country, I can only think that it’s readership now is fairly elderly. It reminds me that Bauer Media had to close down a magazine called Der Landser while it was completing the purchase of Absolute Radio in 2013. That magazine seemed to be aimed at an elderly audience who were proud of their military heritage, but were not – the publisher argued – Nazi sympathisers.

As of 2013, Commando was still selling nearly 10,000 copies a month.

And today DC Thomson is still publishing 4 issues a fortnight, and you can get digital downloads too!)

But back to 2000AD. I’d probably read a few copies of it here and there. My brother had started reading the relaunched Eagle. But sometime around 1984 I started to get into a bit more purposefully. I know it was around this time because the second part of a fantastic story – The Ballad of Halo Jones – was just starting to be published.

I’d missed part one, so I started to hunt it out. I made my first visits to Forbidden Planet, which was then hidden away off Denmark Street.

I started to catch up on Judge Dredd too. Because some of the older Dredd stories were being republished in US editions, I was picking up some of those and reading up on key stories like The Cursed Earth, the Judge Child, and The Apocalypse War. I queued to get a copy of the first compilation of Halo Jones stories signed by writer Alan Moore and artist Ian Gibson, and I had a Halo Jones T-shirt.

By now I was buying plastic bags to put my comics in, because I knew that was the way that you needed to keep your comics pristine.

In the wider realm, I was playing role playing games with my friends, and I bought a copy of the Judge Dredd roleplaying game. You could buy metal figures (I note from my nephew’s models, that today it’s more likely that you’ll be painting plastic). I fashioned polystyrene boxes, found around the back of the local Currys and Laskys, into a section of Mega-City One. I bought the ZX Spectrum Judge Dredd game – although I don’t remember it as being any good.

2000AD got me into comics.

I was more of a British comic reader than anything. But I was aware that changes were afoot. I started to pick up copies of Swamp Thing because I knew Alan Moore was writing it. Then came things like The Dark Knight Returns, Hellblazer and Watchmen. I started to learn who Neil Gaiman was, and would look for Vertigo titles. It was a good time for comics. Forbidden Planet had moved to larger premises and I was visiting it and other comic shops in London more frequently.

My comic habit only really slowed down when I reached university. With less access to comics, and plenty of other things to do, it took a back seat. From then on I became an occasional comic reader – always wanting to know what was happening and who were the big names. But the choice was vast.

And that about sums up my comic reading today. I’ll pick up a graphic novel now and again, or a short run series. I still enjoy a wander around Forbidden Planet (still in roughly the same part of London, but in much bigger premises at the top of Shaftesbury Avenue). And I’m pleased to see that 2000AD still survives even though I’ve not read a copy for quite a while.

This is all a very long introduction to the fact that I’ve recently watched Future Shock: The Story of 2000AD. I’d known that this was coming since over the past 18 months or more, I’ve had a steady stream of emails alerting me to the various interviews that the producers had been carrying out. They really had trawled wide and deep for this definitive history of the comic.

I knew a little of the fact that Action comic had preceded it, and had ended up being shut down after it had created a scandal, but beyond that my knowledge came from years of reading the comic on and off. The documentary details how the comic was created and the lack of support they had from the publishers almost from the start, since this was doing things that other comics weren’t.

In many respects it changed the mold of British comics. Aside from the smart way it could talk to both a younger audience by giving them action and explosions, it also held an older audience with wry takes on the politics of the day. The documentary pretty accurately reflects that.

Some of the stories in the documentary, I vaguely knew. It was certainly unusual that 2000AD credited its writers and artists. But as the film shows, this did mean that the top talent could be poached relatively easily – especially when DC Comics came calling, literally setting up shop in a hotel suite and inviting everyone to come along to them. Of course those same people then led the US comic invasion that completely shook up US comics at the time.

Then there was the fact that lack of intellectual property began to become a much bigger issue. The single most painful part of the film for me was when Neil Gaiman related how Alan Moore had explained to him where future Halo Jones would take the series. The character’s entire life. But he didn’t own the rights – he’d signed these over to IPC (at the time) and if anyone profited from the characters it was the publishers. Moore, of course, had lots of run-ins with comic publishers, notably including DC Comics from whom he refuses to even cash cheques for films like V for Vendetta and Watchmen, when they got made into films. Interestingly, it’s not totally clear that even today, if you create a new story for 2000AD, that they don’t own the rights. More than one contributor said that they hold back their best stuff for a publisher like Image who will let them keep more ownership.

Alan Moore, incidentally, is probably the main person missing from the film which is a shame as he’s such an entertaining character. But this is a film about Pat Mills really – he holds the entire structure of the piece together having been there at the very start, and still contributing to this day.

If there’s one part of the story which is covered – although glossed over quite quickly – it was the late nineties. I’d certainly lost track of the comic at that time, but there seemed to have been an attempt to replicate “lads mags” in comic form. The film is fairly honest about this period, including significant contributions from then editor Dave Bishop, who was not universally liked.

In 2000, the title was sold by its then owners Fleetway, to Rebellion. Primarily a video games developer, they are portrayed – probably quite fairly – as the first owner of the title who really understood what it stood for. It certainly seems to have prospered in that time, and current editor Matt Smith has been editing the title since 2002 – a remarkable period of stability.

The documentary shows how the title continues to develop new writers. Indeed it makes the very valid point that aside from 2000AD, every other comic on UK bookshelves today are franchises meaning that there’s no room left for original characters.

Perhaps the one part of story that seems to be missing from the documentary is the effect it had on the wider comic scene in the UK. There was a period where other titles like Deadline (home of Tank Girl), Crisis and Revolver were being published. While none of these lasted that long, many of the same writers could found working for these titles too. It was an exciting period for British comics.

Overall the documentary really is very good and very even handed. It’s not all wonderful, and it leaves you thinking that perhaps some of the participants aren’t so enamoured of some of the other ones. But the film makes a strong case for 2000AD having strongly influenced vast swathes of what’s come since, up to and including the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

And I came away thinking, I really do need to pick up a few recent copies of 2000AD as the comic reaches its 40th anniversary in 2017.

And if you’ve never read it, then I do recommend picking up a copy of The Ballad of Halo Jones, either in print or digitally. If you’ve ever been intrigued by the favicon I use for this site, it’ll at least explain my “inspiration.”

Celebrity RIP Tweets

We have just come through 2016, and for many, it won’t be fondly remembered. Election and referendum results notwithstanding, there were a number of deaths – often of people very much revered.

Today, when someone dies, we learn about it almost instantly. The news will turn up in social feeds. Alerts on our smartphones will tell us about breaking news.

And if you don’t personally get the news that way, it’s entirely probable that someone near you will hear it that way. Then you might switch to a 24 hour news channel or put on the radio.

We live in a continuous 24 hour news cycle.

The old idea of news cycles has long since gone. And that means that when something happens, we need instant analysis and reporting.

Yet the reporting of someone’s death can really grate with me. If the name is big enough – say, David Bowie – then everything stops.

Breakfast TV and radio that day was thrown over to rolling news and reaction to his death, with the announcement having come at around 7am UK time.

But actual details about the death are initially likely to be limited. A manager will have perhaps put out a brief two-line statement saying that the person died peacefully in their sleep, and that’ll be about the long and short of it. It’s possible that it was well known that the person had been ill for some time, or it might come as quite a shock – an unforeseen heart attack perhaps.

However, the media has hours of airtime to fill. Fans want to remember their heroes.

The first thing that reports of a celebrity death will include is quotes from their peers. And these now tend to come from social media – especially Twitter.

The problem is that it can almost feel like there’s a rush on for other famous, and not-so-famous people to have their say. Now of course, the democracy of the internet means that we can all have our say, and while another artist may have been friends and worked with the deceased star, someone else might have been inspired by that person, or perhaps just loved their work.

But in the media, he who shouts first, gets quoted first. So instead of a carefully curated collection of thoughts of those who perhaps we’d be most interested in hearing eulogies from, we get the thoughts of those who happen to be Tweeting soonest.

It can be as simple as whoever wakes up and hears the news first is the person who’s thoughts lead the news bulletins over the next few hours.

“Tributes have been coming in for Deceased_Star. Talent_Show_Winner said, ‘I always looked up to them. I was really proud that I was able to sing one of their songs in the semi-final of Talent_Show. They inspired me.’ Meanwhile Twitter_Loving_Comedian said, ‘It was a privilege to work with them at Charity_Event.'”

Well, thanks for that.

I’m not saying that the comments made by said famous folk aren’t heartfelt and don’t count. I can’t tell you whether someone is posting something on Twitter because it makes them look good and relevant that they comment, or whether it’s just an earnest tribute towards someone who was important to them in whatever way.

But at 7.15am there are scores of journalists scouring Tweetdeck looking for anything any famous person says. So a politician with a reactive PR person gets in early, but older and wiser people – who would previously either actually been called by a journalist, or released a statement via an agent – don’t get heard early on. (Read a great piece by Andrew Collins based on one particular Tweet here.)

I understand the difficulty on the other side of the fence. You’re a music journalist, and suddenly every broadcast outlet and newspaper is calling you asking you to either speak on air, or write 1,500 words for tomorrow’s edition – and needing to be online by lunchtime.

There’s a brilliantly funny story by ex-Word editor and Whistle Test presenter, Mark Ellen, in his book Rock Stars Stole My Life, who relates being called by broadcasters everywhere to comment on the death of Michael Jackson. The running gag was that Paul Gambaccini – seemingly always on top of every news producer’s contact list when a musician dies – was stuck in traffic in a cab.

But they’re journalists, and that’s to be expected. And anyway, I’m not really talking about them.

I’m talking about news reports that are full of basically random famous folk. Yes, the facts can probably be summarised in a couple of lines, but there are hours to fill! And so we get pretty much whoever’s available at short notice and whoever happened to hit Twitter first.

In due course, over the following few hours, a better selection of comments is gathered. Relevant friends and artists have their thoughts collected. And the TV channels stop using the same B-roll footage that they found on YouTube, archivists delivering much better quality, interesting and relevant pictures*.

* Although this is likely to be the subject of a future blog. Despite having a vast wealth of digital material at our fingertips, it’s disheartening how many television obituary packages seem to consist of badly captured and screen-grabbed footage. When Liz Smith died recently, ITV News’ obit seemed to consist of footage simply grabbed from the BBC iPlayer of a recent Royle Family reairing. Even allowing for this being over Christmas, surely a higher quality source could have been found?

The Cycling Podcast Review of the Year 2016

I seem to have been a little backwards in coming forwards with details of this edition of The Cycling Podcast put together by yours truly and published over the Christmas period.

Obviously it won’t be of enormous interest if you don’t follow professional cycling, and you’ll miss all the running jokes if you haven’t listened to previous episodes of the programme. And if you do follow cycling, and already listen to The Cycling Podcast, then you should have already heard it.

Nonetheless, a certain amount of effort went into making this, since we all know that searching for audio clips is relatively slow going. You can’t easily “scrub” it as you would video.

Image Posting – A Bit More Optimised

Yesterday I mentioned that I was struggling with embedding properly responsive images that will go lovely and large if you have a nice big screen, but only download a small image if that’s all I need. Added to which, I use Flickr to host all my images for me.

Thanks to Emily in the comments for alerting me to srcset as being the way to do this properly.

While it doesn’t look like there’s a handy WordPress Flickr-embedder that will do this easily, you can spend a bit of time getting details of the URLs of each sized image, and put together some code that does the trick.

Here’s an example. If you’re looking at this on a mobile phone, you might only be seeing the 320px image. But on a lovely large or retina display, you may be seeing a 2048px image!

(At least I hope that’s the case)

Across the rooftops at dawn

Here’s the code I used to do this:

<a href="https://www.flickr.com/photos/adambowie/31836754726/" title="Across the rooftops at dawn"><img src="https://c1.staticflickr.com/1/427/31836754726_cbbe667b3e_n_d.jpg" srcset="https://c1.staticflickr.com/1/427/31836754726_cbbe667b3e_z_d.jpg 640w, https://c1.staticflickr.com/1/427/31836754726_cbbe667b3e_c_d.jpg 800w, https://c1.staticflickr.com/1/427/31836754726_cbbe667b3e_b_d.jpg 1024w,
https://c1.staticflickr.com/1/427/31836754726_d378ecf063_h_d.jpg 1600w, https://c1.staticflickr.com/1/427/31836754726_f37b9c6b4a_k_d.jpg 2048w" alt="Across the rooftops at dawn"></a>

Essentially, the first image, 31836754726_cbbe667b3e_n_d.jpg in my case, is the 320px image on Flickr. Then inside srcset are some of the other different sizes available. I probably could reduce this list a little, since you do need to get the precise Flickr URLs for each size from the download page for the photo.

Still, I think this all works, and so despite being a little bit more of a hassle to embed a picture than previously, I’ll try to do something like this in the future. Then I’ll see if Google likes it!

Rail Fares: Who’d Benefit From Cutting Them?

Today, most of the country went back to work, or at least began to return judging by the generally quiet commute I had today.

But a new year means new rail fares. Or more to the point increased rail fares.

It’s always worth noting that it’s UK Government policy to reduce rail subsidies. Like most forms of transport, general taxation pays for at least part of our transport needs. And it has been government policy to get rail users to pay for a larger part of the cost of the railways over time. Hence we see above inflation fare increases each year.

Certain routes and fares are capped, but others aren’t. For goodness’ sake, don’t try travelling from London to Newcastle on the spur of the moment!

(Of course, nobody thinks about “subsidies” to road users. New roads are considered “investments.” And no, vehicle licence funds (aka your “car tax”) do not pay for all the roads.)

Anyway, the usual protest groups were out today protesting the ever increasing fares we’re paying, and the increasing proportion of salaries accounted for by commuting costs.

On Twitter, I saw this Tweet from Buzzfeed’s James Ball:

Are rich people really likely to be the big winners if rail fare increases were reigned in?

The data in the Tweet above came from the 2014 National Transport Survey, and it’s worth noting that the numbers refer to the average number of journeys completed by each income group, and not percentages as you might at first believe.

The 2015 data is now available, so for the rest of this piece, I’ll refer to that.

Here’s the equivalent data from that 2015 survey:

The numbers are pretty similar, and would seem to tell the same story. The richest in society make more train journeys. So do they benefit the most?

Of course, these are averages.

But we can also look at the miles travelled:

This shows a similar story – the rich travel further.

But if we use both sets of data, we can look at the average trip length:

Suddenly the data is much closer. It seems that regardless of income level, if you travel by train, your journey will be broadly the same length.

Now this kind of overall data obfuscates things a lot. Buried within it are people who travel once or twice a year perhaps visiting family and going on holiday, and those who travel every day for work.

Other factors need to be considered too. If I’m very poor and in the lowest income level, then I’m likely to be either not in employment, or perhaps only have a part-time job.

The ONS shows that lowest quintile earns a median “final income” of £13,841. It notes that increases in tax credits and Jobseekers Allowances make a difference in this quintile.

If we assume that rail travel is relatively expensive, then it seems likely that anyone at the lowest level of employment is unlikely to travel a great deal, or indeed choose a job that is sufficiently distant the train travel is an optimal travel solution.

In other words, if I live in Croydon, and have a job in central London that gives me an income of just £13,841, I’m not going to be happy to spend £1,704, or 12.3% of my entire income on train fares. I’m going to look for a low-paid local job if I can that minimises my commuting costs.

On the other hand, if I’m in the top quintile with an average final income of £86,768, then spending just 2.0% of my income on my commute is far more palatable.

Just to be clear, this is really all about commuting. 56% of all rail trips are for commuting/business purposes.

But rail isn’t remotely suitable for commuting if there isn’t a line that works for you. It’s perhaps unsurprising that London and the south east see far more rail commuting than other parts of the country, simply because the infrastructure is there.

And note that this excludes tube travel.

With both property prices and earnings higher in the south-east, plus active disincentives to use other forms of transport – notably the car – then these London and home counties travellers significantly skew the results in favour of the wealthier.

Yet increases in rail fares do not solely affect those in the top quintile. All it means is that those transport users – who largely have no other choice of transport to use – are less affected than poorer users.

In many respects, the archetypal “Surrey stockbroker” can moan, but get on afford to pay for their trainfare. But a nurse who has to live far outside of central London through high property prices has pay the fares or look for a job elsewhere.

Failing to Optimise This Site

Over the past few days, Google has been pushing users to try running its Test My Site With Google service. In particular, it’s trying to help sites see how mobile friendly they are.

I dutifully entered the details of this site, and waited for the report.

I host this site quite cheaply, so wasn’t expecting any great shakes. But it’s running an up to date implementation of WordPress, and the theme I’m running is pretty responsive.

The report gives you three scores, marked out of one hundred – for mobile friendliness, mobile speed and desktop speed.

Mobile Friendliness came in at 98/100.

I’ll take that. The theme I’m using seems to work well on mobiles, with the only small issue being “tap targets” – the ease with which people can use their fingers to navigate the site. If the buttons are too small, then people may struggle to navigate with their fingers.

Then came the bad news.

Mobile Speed was just 14/100. And Desktop Speed came in at 0/100!

This is worrying because Google does base your ranking in part on your site’s speed. You would think that 0/100 for desktop means the site’s not loading at all, yet that’s simply not the case.

What is true is that some third-party hosted elements are slow loading – namely Flickr and Vimeo. But I “outsource” those for a reason. It keeps my costs down by hosting those elsewhere, and I can ensure that viewability is maintained by those companies’ development. Self-hosted videos or pictures can be a bit of a nightmare, and of course my hosting fees would ramp up.

However, Google was giving me big red marks against “Optimise Images” and “Eliminate render-blocking JavaScript and CSS in above-the-fold content.”

For the latter, I killed some JavaScript that WordPress loads for emoji. That’s redundant on this site as far as I’m concerned. But while that seems to remove the red mark against JavaScript, “Optimise Images” is still there. And I still score zero for desktop speed.

At this point I’m a little stuck.

Let me explain how I use images on this site. Here’s an example of a photo from Flickr embedded into this site:

Through the Woods - December 28, 2016

I use Flickr’s own embed code, choosing the “Large” 1600 width image. The reason for that is that on desktop, I want the photo to look nice and big. While it’s not full-width, it’s pretty wide. And if you have a retina-style display, the photo should appear nice and big.

The embed code uses some Flickr JavaScript to ensure that the image is resized appropriately in a “responsive” manner. In other words, rather than being a fixed width, it will display smaller for smaller or mobile screens.

The problem remains, however, that in the background a 1600 px width image is loading. That’s slow and is impacting on Google’s assessment of my site.

I could embed a smaller width image. The one below is 800 px wide.

Through the Woods - December 28, 2016

But this is going to look a bit rubbish on a smaller screen.

I can also adjust the embed code so that JavaScript isn’t loaded.

Through the Woods - December 28, 2016

But while that helps with lessening the amount of JavaScript and is perhaps something I’ll do in the future, it still doesn’t help with reducing the size of the base image (1.2MB).

And if you’re viewing this on mobile, then all three images will probably look identical. But that’s the problem. You only need to see, perhaps a 600 px image.

I’d love to be able to load only large images when the display is big, but a smaller version if the display is more modest. And while there are plugins for WordPress that allow this (e.g. WP Retina 2X), they’re based on loading from your WordPress install, and not a third-party location like Flickr.

So I’m a bit stuck. My site, but it’s nature, will have large photos embedded, but I can’t find a way to make them look nice on large displays, but in particular, shrink the page-loads for those viewing on smaller screens.

[Update] Thanks to Em in the comments below, I’m trying to use srcset to see if that helps. See my next post here.