Screen-age kicks

As you may have noticed, the new series of Doctor Who starts tonight. I was never a Whovian – I watched it as a child and the rebooted series never appealed to me – but thanks to my daughter I’ve rediscovered it and realised what a great show it can be.

Tonight isn’t just about the return of the show, though. It’s the first time a woman, the excellent Jodie Whittaker, has played The Doctor. For my daughter, that’s incredible: someone exactly like her (smart, funny, kick-ass and female) having the lead role in her favourite show.

Some boys moaned about “a TARDIS full of bras”, of course, because having one female lead out of thirteen is political correctness gone too far. Apparently a show about a near-immortal shape-shifting time-travelling space alien is totally realistic, but having that alien assume female form is too far-fetched.

It’s their loss: as my friend Karl Hodge writes, the Doctor is a great character. Irrespective of his, her or their pronouns.

What’s your point, caller?

A passing thought: what exactly is the point of phone-in programmes? I’ve caught a few this week before turning off in disgust, one about vaccinations where ridiculous claims (knowing loads of people whose kids were harmed by MMR, knowing loads of people who went for homeopathy instead and their kids never contracted the Black Death) went unchallenged while people with evidence and expert knowledge were barracked, and several about political issues where every caller was either an idiot or a party activist. I know phone-in radio is cheap to make, but what’s in it for the listener?

The final Fred show

Tomorrow morning, BBC Radio Scotland will broadcast the last ever MacAulay & Co programme after nearly eighteen years on air. I’m going to miss it, and the people who make it.

I was a listener long before I became a contributor. In 1997 and 1998 I had a real job, and when I was late for work – which I often was, sometimes deliberately because I didn’t want to switch off something particularly funny – I’d listen to the show, laugh like a drain and think: it must be a right laugh to be on a show like that.

I’m not quite sure when I became a contributor – 2003 sounds about right – but I can honestly say that it’s been one of the best things in my life for a very long time. Without exception the people working on the programme – not just the voices you hear on the radio but the people who put the whole thing together and make it work more or less smoothly – are among the nicest, funniest, most talented people I’ve ever worked with, and it’s been a real joy to be part of the team. I’ve met pop stars and actors, comedians and authors, done some very silly things on air and been part of all kinds of tomfoolery, and the crazy buggers paid me to do it.

Fred’s moving on to bigger and brighter things and I’m sure the team will shine elsewhere too. As for me, I’m sure I’ll keep turning up here and there but I doubt I’ll ever be part of something quite like the Fred show ever again.

If you’ve ever listened to the show and thought “it must be a right laugh to be on that show,” man, it was. It really, really was.

“The problem, as it turns out, is that meth is a bit of an unusual product in that it’s typically sold by violent criminals”

This is a fun piece about Breaking Bad: are the economics and the chemistry correct?

The basic shape of the problem is illustrated by a late-August story out of San Francisco. A man in his early 50s bought some meth on Sixth St., sampled the product, and decided the quality didn’t pass muster. He chose to confront his supplier about it, much as one might complain about the purchase of any kind of good or service that didn’t meet reasonable quality standards. The problem, as it turns out, is that meth is a bit of an unusual product in that it’s typically sold by violent criminals. Complaining to the dealer didn’t reap a refund; it got the complainer tased, stabbed, and—adding insult to injury—mocked in local blogs for his misfortunes.

Our radio rocks

A true story: when I used to have a day job, I’d listen to BBC Radio Scotland during my morning commute. I’d listen to the people on comedian Fred MacAulay’s programme and think “that must be a laugh to do. Imagine if that was your job.” These days, I’m one of the people going on Fred’s programme, and I’m thinking “this is a laugh to do. I can’t believe this is my job.”

Radio’s a magical thing. I have fond memories of listening to Irish radio under the covers when I was supposed to be asleep as a child, trying and failing to get into the bands on John Peel’s playlist as an adolescent, drunkenly calling late-night phone-in idiot-fests as a twentysomething, hearing my own band played on an indie rock show in my late twenties and damn near falling out of my car laughing at various programmes – some of them serious – today. It’s a fantastic medium and I feel very privileged to be even slightly involved in it.

It’s World Radio Day today. As UNESCO director general Irina Bokova says:

“In a world changing quickly, we must make the most of radio’s ability to connect people and societies, to share knowledge and information and to strengthen understanding. This World Radio Day is a moment to recognise the marvel of radio and to harness its power for the benefit of all.”

UNESCO explains:

Since the first broadcast over 100 years ago, radio has proven to be a powerful information source for mobilizing social change and a central point for community life. It is the mass media that reaches the widest audience in the world. In an era of new technologies, it remains the world’s most accessible platform, a powerful communication tool and a low cost medium.

The angry face of DCI Banks

I’m hopeless at catching programmes when they’re actually broadcast, so it’s taken me a while to get round to watching the DCI Banks adaptations of Peter Robinson’s books. I like the books, but I encountered exactly the same problem I had with the recent dramatisation of Mark Billingham’s DI Thorne novels. No, not the annoying sidekick, or the maverick cop breaks the rules but always gets his man blah blah blah… the problem I had was overacting. It was bad in Thorne, but even worse in Banks.

Put it this way: if you created a drinking game where you had to down a shot every time DCI Banks made this face:

You’d be very pissed very, very quickly.

That face put me off the programme. I mean it. It’s not just his “I’m angry at a suspect” face. It’s his “I wish I’d had some toast before leaving the house” face, his “I wonder what I’ll have for my tea” face and his “I’m feeling quite chipper today, actually” face.

I don’t get it. Was there a memo that says all TV detectives are allowed two facial expressions, Really Pissed Off and Absolutely Fucking Furious?

The Booth at the End: genuinely gripping TV

I know I’m late to this, but if you haven’t seen The Booth at the End, it’s well worth your time. The series is available in its entirety online, and I loved three things about it: the economy of the writing, Xander Berkeley’s acting, and the clever way separate strands begin to interleave.

Here’s a review from The Guardian:

A man (Xander Berkeley, delivering a performance so brilliant it should be used as an acting masterclass) sits at the end booth in an anonymous diner. People come to him with problems. He offers them each a deal. They must perform a task – rob a bank to be prettier, kill a stranger’s child to save a cancer-stricken son – tell him the details, and they will get what they want. Whether they agree and fulfil their side of the bargain is entirely up to them.

Poverty porn? Maybe. The Scheme is back on the BBC

Last year I blogged about BBC Scotland’s The Scheme, a fly on the wall documentary series filmed in Kilmarnock. It was pulled for legal reasons – people featured in it ended up in court, and the episodes including them couldn’t be shown until the legal process was complete – and it’s back tonight. If you watched it last time you can skip this week and next, as they’re showing the full series. If you’re not in Scotland you’ll be able to watch it on iPlayer.

The programme has attracted fierce criticism, and it’s been dubbed “poverty porn”. The critics have a point. As I wrote when it first aired:

People doing nice things or even normal things aren’t exactly riveting TV, so there’s precious little of that in the programme. What you get instead is a freak show, a “look at the funny poor people!” programme for the smug middle classes.

Then again:

I suspect few sensible people would agree to be filmed for that long in the first place, so what you end up with is a year in the life of attention whores and idiots, edited to make them look more whorish and idiotic. Of course it’s not representative: most people’s lives aren’t interesting enough to watch.

Two months with an Apple TV

I bought an Apple TV in an attempt to free my huge home video library from its Mac-shaped prison: I can’t be bothered unplugging everything and moving the Mac downstairs when I want to watch a clip of Baby Bigmouth, and life’s too short to burn your own DVDs. It’s been in daily use since then, so here are a few thoughts.

It’s great if you have kids, and Handbrake
Kids like films; kids also like scratching DVDs. Slowly but surely I’ve been using the combination of Fairmount and Handbrake to copy our various Pixar discs to the Apple TV. It takes forever – DVD ripping, no matter how good the software, is never anything but a pain – but it’s cheaper than having to buy Wall-E all over again.

It’s surprisingly good
720p HD video over Wi-Fi? No problem. If you absolutely, positively have to have 1080p, don’t buy an Apple TV yet. It doesn’t do it. Me, I couldn’t care less. My TV isn’t big enough to tell the difference between HD and True HD.

It’s really good with the iPad
The novelty of watching something on YouTube on the iPad and hitting one button to put it on the TV hasn’t worn off yet. Once iPlayer etc can do it too, things will be fun.

It’s buggy
I’ve never had to reboot an Apple product as often as I have to reboot the Apple TV. If I get two days out of it I’m happy. Luckily the reboot is simple and quick, but we’re not quite in “it just works” territory here.

It can be desperately slow
I’ve had to divide my home movies into individual years, and even then the Apple TV takes between two and five minutes to load details of a 100-clip library – not the video, just the folder listing and thumbnails. To say this pisses me off would be an enormous understatement. I don’t know if it’s the Apple TV or iTunes, and I don’t care.

It needs iTunes
Apple TV is crying out for a media server, I think. Having to leave iTunes running on your Mac is a pain, and I hate to think how much energy the combination of Apple TV and running MacBook Pro is using up. I hope it isn’t too much, but I’m scared to see what my next electricity bill says.

Movies are still ropey
Is there such a thing as a good UK video on demand service? The catalogue on Apple TV (and in iTunes, and on the Xbox, and…) is still very patchy.

It needs iPlayer
If Nintendo can put it on the Wii, Apple can put it on the Apple TV. This one’s right at the top of my wish list.

It doesn’t do many video formats
If you’re the kind of person whose television aerial is bittorrent-shaped, expect to spend a lot of time converting those AVI and MKV files to M4Vs or MP4s.

YouTube is great, but I can’t favourite anything
Anyone else have this problem? I’ve been getting the temporary-error message for two months now.

I can’t see my own Flickr photos
Flickr support is nice. Flickr support without login, not so nice. I keep my personal pics in Friends and Family mode; Apple TV can’t login to display them.

It’s great for music
Or at least, it is if you’re willing to faff a bit. My Apple TV is hooked to an AV receiver, which in turn is hooked to the TV. I’ve got HDMI control on so that when the TV goes off, the DVD player does too; unfortunately that means the process of listening to music without the TV is this:

* Turn everything on
* Turn AV receiver to Apple TV
* Find playlist etc on Apple TV, start playing.
* Turn off the TV
* Turn the AV receiver back on again (it’s gone into standby)
* Take the Apple TV off pause (it goes into that automatically)

It’s not elegant, but it gets there eventually.

It’s worth £101
Provided, that is, you don’t mind swearing at it from time to time and rebooting it every few days. It’s a clever bit of kit but if you want something as simple and as reliable as a basic DVD player, get a basic DVD player.