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Guilty pleasures: Keane

Keane are the latest next-big-thing in music and they’ve already had tons of vitriol heaped on their heads: they’re too posh, too well-connected, too goddamned *nice* to be credible musicians. And yet, and yet… their album’s absolutely wonderful.

Here’s a few reasons why I love them:

* The piano part on “everybody’s changing” reminds me of The Associates. Anything that makes me think of The Associates is by definition, fantastic.

* Singer Tom Chaplin looks utterly terrified in videos, the antithesis of a pop star. Which makes me – a 30-something straight bloke – want to mother him. God knows what effect he has on women.

* The lyrics are utter bollocks, but sung with such conviction they’re utterly compelling.

* There’s a real ambition to the music, a feeling that the band wants to be more than a poor facsimile of the latest fad.

* Chaplin manages to combine the choirboy vocals of Thom Yorke with Bono’s roar – and he’s barely started, musically.

* They remind me of A-Ha. This is a good thing.

* They’re hated by the people who praise carbon copies of 30-year old “credible” bands to the skies. That alone should make them worth listening to.

* The album is a masterpiece of rock music production. It’s so shiny that you could eat your dinner from it.

* In these days of “two good songs, ten throwaway ones” on most bands’ albums, “Hopes & Fears” doesn’t have a single duff track.

Of course, it could all go horribly wrong: the band could fall into the trap of worrying about sales positions and end up writing pale imitations of their current stuff (see Bryan Adams, whose current single has the music from “Run To You” with a different vocal on top), or worry about credibility and write an album whose core audience will be approximately six London-based music journalists. Then again, they might use their current fame as an opportunity to do whatever the hell they like, giving pianist (and songwriter) Tim Rice-Oxley free reign to be as uncommercial as he likes. I sincerely hope they go for the third route.

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Tally-ho ho ho!

Squander Two is winding up the pro-hunt lobby, in a discussion that’s taking place over a few different blogs. He makes a great point:

All those people who say the hunt is no crueller than shooting, here’s a question for you. You’re sentenced to death and given a choice between being shot or being chased across twenty miles or so of country by a pack of dogs and mounted men and then being ripped to shreds by the dogs. Would that be a difficult decision?

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If that isn’t nice, what is?

McSweeney’s has an interview with Kurt Vonnegut, whose writing never fails to amaze me. Like his work, the interview is very funny and very sad.

Part one
Part two
Part three

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This is cool. And when I say cool, I mean totally sweet

NewsFire is a free RSS reader for OS X. It’s fast, looks good and it’s an absolute godsend for anyone who’s drowning in a sea of weblogs.

[Via MacCentral]

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iTunes: Shooting the messenger?

Glasgow’s Evening Times reports that iTunes has been accused of ripping off customers:

The Consumers’ Association said today that by charging 20% more in the UK than in France and Germany, Apple could be guilty of an “anti-competitive practice” in the single European market.
It wants the Office of Fair Trading to investigate why the firm charges 79p per song in the UK, but just 76p in France and Germany. It charges 55p in the US.
Consumers’ Association adviser Phil Evans said: “There appears to be considerable evidence iTunes distorts the basis of the single market.”

I’m pretty sure Apple operates with the same margins in the UK as it does elsewhere, and as a result the price of downloads is dictated not by Apple, but by the record labels. If that’s the case, shouldn’t the Consumers’ Association be pointing the finger at them?

Update, 5.30pm
In a statement, Apple says: “The underlying economic model in each country has an impact on how we price our track downloads. That’s not unusual – look at the price of CDs in the US versus the UK. We believe the real comparison to be made is with the price of other track downloads in the UK. We are extremely proud to launch the iTunes music store in the UK with by far the lowest price for track downloads, just 79p for every track.”

Incidentally, the rules of the new UK download chart state that any digital download with a wholesale price of less than 40p isn’t eligible for the chart. Assuming downloads are being bought by Apple at around 40p, add in the cost of music licensing, payment processing, tax and other overheads and you’re pretty close to 79p per track.

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Firefox. Wheeeeeeeeeeeeee!

The preview release of the Firefox 1.0 web browser is out, and it’s great: ridiculously fast rendering, lots of privacy features and – one for the blog fans – RSS support. I haven’t had the chance to test it on a PC yet but on the Mac, it flies.

Update, 4pm
A few PC owners have been in touch to say that it flies on the PC too. To summarise, then: wheeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee!

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Do you have the worst IT job in the world?

A friend of mine is writing a magazine article about the worst jobs in IT, looking for IT’s unsung heroes. He says: “If your job involves tedious tasks, clueless users, poor conditions, unreasonable hours, or it’s just plain awful” then he’d like to hear from you.

More information and an email link here.

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No smoke without ire

I smoke, and I live in Glasgow. Both these things are relevant because it looks very much like Scotland will beat the rest of the UK in the race to implement a ban on smoking in pubs, and because Glasgow council has unveiled a crackdown on smokers – not because of health, but because of littering. Apparently the big companies in the centre of town who banned smoking to save on insurance premiums are too tight-fisted to invest in outside ashtrays, so when their smoking staff hang around the front of the building, they flick their cigarette butts in the street. It’s a growing problem for the city, so they’re going to invoke anti-littering laws and charge £50 for dropping a cigarette butt. And to be fair, even the firms that *have* invested in ashtrays are finding that some staff ignore them.

I’m in the unusual position – for me at least – of not knowing what I think about these things. Oh, the smoker in me hates the idea of a ban or of being fined for flicking a butt into the gutter – after all, smoking isn’t illegal, if the demand for non-smoking pubs is so great, why aren’t there more? Market forces would mean non-smoking pubs thrived, while smoky ones went to the wall; the problem of cigarette butts doesn’t seem like a major problem when, every night of the week, I watch arseholes chucking drinks cans, takeaway wrappers, plastic bags, newspapers and god knows what else into the gardens of the flats across the road, etc etc etc – but the rational part of me thinks, okay.

Anyone who honestly believes smoking isn’t harmful is an idiot. Sure, there’s lots of junk science out there: the oft-quoted Californian EPA study into second hand smoke didn’t so much bend the stats as build a giant bullshit mountain that could block out the sun; smoking is often highlighted as the only evil in the world when places such as Hope Street are so polluted, having a smoke gives your lungs a break; there’s a tendency to shout “vested interests!” if a study is even tangentially connected to the tobacco industry, but to shout “hurrah!” when a study is funded by big pharmaceutical firms who have a vested interest in getting people on to expensive and ineffective nicotine replacement therapies; and so, depressingly, on… but smoking is really bad news. The smoking=cancer thing may well have been overstated, but there’s irrefutable evidence of the link between smoking and all kinds of diseases best described as “really bad shit”. And while the risk of second hand smoke may have been overstated, it *is* clearly a health risk. If you believe that smoking isn’t dangerous, you’re in the same camp as the people who believe that drugs make them better drivers (because of course, muscle relaxants are soooooo good for your reflexes).

It’s a constant source of debate on the internet and, like all debates, there are no grey areas. I can summarise the positions of each camp as follows: smokers believe that all anti-smokers should be shot; anti-smokers believe that all smokers should be shot. Great debate, folks!

So, who’s right? The answer is, of course, nobody. I’ll argue against the smokers first.

Smoking’s legal. It’s not up to anyone to tell me I can’t smoke.

Hmmm. Drinking’s legal, as is driving. Combine the two and it’s a pretty nasty combination. Same with smoking: personally, I don’t think it’s fair to stop people killing themselves if they so wish, but as soon as other people enter the equation then it’s no longer a personal choice. If you want to drink ten bottles of vodka, go ahead. If you want to drive a car afterwards, that’s a different thing altogether.

Non-smokers are whining nazis.

Some of them are, that’s for sure. The ones who want to ban smoking *outside* spring to mind. But smokers are a big part of the problem. Me, I don’t smoke in non-smoking areas. But I’ve spent many a train or bus journey inhaling other people’s smoke, because they’re too arrogant, ignorant or flat-out-stupid to realise that because they can’t wait 20 minutes for a smoke, they’re making non-smokers think that every smoker is an arsehole. Your lack of respect for other people fuels their lack of tolerance towards smokers.

All the statistics are bullshit. Look at the EPA study, even a judge said it was bullshit.

Since then there have been all kinds of research projects – independent, whiter than white ones – that have concluded that smoking is “really bad shit” and which didn’t take any shortcuts, which didn’t select only the data that fit their agenda, and which haven’t been shot to pieces by their peers. Sorry, folks, but the results are in and guess what? We’re screwed!

Bill Hicks was right. He said…

Yeah, he said “non-smokers die every day!” and then died of cancer, aged 32. Using him as a figurehead for smokers’ rights seems somewhat ironic. Or stupid. Don’t get me wrong, I thought his smoking stuff was funny. But he was a comedian, not a scientist.

We’re being picked on! Look at the problems caused by cars! By industrial pollution!

If I smack someone around the head, should I get off because Osama Bin Laden is much worse?

Look at non-smoking sections in pubs – they’re usually empty. Everyone’s in the smoking section.

That’s because you’re wilfully misunderstanding how things work. My wife hates smoking – really hates it – and hates the fact I smoke. However, while she doesn’t particularly like smoky pubs (that’s probably an understatement), she goes to them because *she’s married to a smoker*. When we go to a place where smoking is allowed, I smoke; my wife hates it, but she puts up with it. When we have a choice between a place where smoking is allowed and one where smoking isn’t allowed, we tend to go to the one where smoking is allowed because my wife knows how uncomfortable I get if I can’t smoke. My wife isn’t in smoky pubs because she likes them; she’s there because she doesn’t want me to be uncomfortable. It’s an important difference (and before you start thinking I’m some kind of monster, I don’t smoke in the flat – I hang out of the window, where I’ve placed an ashtray so I don’t litter – and I don’t smoke in the car). That’s why you’ll find non-smokers in the smoking sections of pubs: they’re not there because they want to be, but because they don’t want their smoking friends to get agitated and uncomfortable.

To recap, then, smoking is dumb, it’s lethal, it’s not some divine right. With me so far? Okay then! Non-smokers here I come!

Smoking costs the NHS a fortune.

Yep, an estimated £1.5 billion per year to treat smoking-related illnesses. Which is a drop in the ocean compared to the £9.5 billion generated in tax from, er, sales of tobacco products. And if you want to be cynical, just think how much extra money is saved by smokers dropping dead years before their time.

Smokers should just quit.

Christ, if only it was that easy. I’ve been hypnotised (twice), zapped with lasers, gone cold turkey, tried eating an entire pack of cigs, tried smoking three packs of cigs, chewed nicotine gum, tried patches, used an inhalator, sucked nicotine lozenges, tried herbal cigarettes and, most memorably, taken the miracle stop-smoking drug Zyban – which made me so depressed, I was seriously convinced that I was losing my mind (my Zyban experience would make a long blog entry in its own right, and may well do one day). And I’m still on the smokes. It’s not as easy as you think – if it was, the millions of people who try and fail to stop smoking every year would all be non-smokers.

Non-smokers shouldn’t have to put up with smoke.

I agree, to a point. But it can get ridiculous. Non-smoking restaurants? No problem. Non-smoking airplanes? Sure. Non-smoking airports, buildings the size of cities where a single cupboard can’t be provided for us addicts to poison ourselves out of sight, smell and earshot? Oh, come on. And some of you, to be frank, take it too far. Wanting smoking banned in the open air? Moaning that someone *ten floors below you* smokes in their flat? Having terms and conditions of employment where people can be fired for smoking, during their lunch break, when they’re not on company premises? Those are all real examples… doesn’t any of that seem a teensy-weensy bit, y’know, over the top?

Smokers ignore non-smoking signs.

The problem isn’t that they’re smokers. It’s that they’re arseholes. Throw the book at them. Make it a big, heavy book, and throw it really hard.

Cigarette butts are litter.

Yes, they are. We have litter bins for litter; why not stick a bit on top for smokes? Then by all means throw the book at people who throw their cigarettes into the street.

Smokers get smoking breaks, whereas non-smokers don’t. We have to sit and work while smokers spent 10, 15 minutes outside.

If you’ve never spent time gossiping, or checking personal email, or making personal phone calls, or staring into space, or thinking about the weekend, or wondering what your girlfriend/boyfriend is doing right now, or making coffee, or seeing if there are any good deals on Lastminute.com, or going to chat to a colleague, then perhaps you’ve got a point. And you’re a bloody liar.

It’s awful and should be banned altogether.

That worked really well when the US banned alcohol and later, embarked on a war on drugs, didn’t it? Drug dealers are already moving into cigarette smuggling in the UK: it’s much safer than drug dealing (the penalties are laughable) and the profits are almost as high. And there’s the great big hole a ban would leave in the nation’s tax take to consider, too.

Just you wait. The Scottish Executive’s consultation exercise ends soon, and you’ll see the nation wants a smoking ban everywhere.

The consultation was self-selecting: by its very nature, it’s going to be dominated by people with strong anti-smoking opinions. Did you actually look at the document, or the web site? It takes forever to complete, and it’s dominated by comments fields rather than yes-no answers. Most people won’t bother filling it out; the ones who did will have strong opinions and too much time on their hands. Of course I was one of them ;-) I’m willing to bet that if you take the results (when they come out) and apply the percentages to the whole population, you’ll come to the conclusion that all smokers believe they should be taken out and executed.

So, both camps have dug in and can’t see the other side’s point of view (if you read political blogs, you’ll know that’s not unusual). But do I have any bright ideas for solving the problem? I’m glad you asked that :-)

Ban it. Ban smoking in pubs, clubs, restaurants, airports, whatever. It’s lethal. But when you ban it, please take into account that an awful lot of people smoke and will continue to do so, ban or no ban. So don’t try to prevent people from smoking in the open air; in places like airports, where check-in times are ridiculously early and delays can last for hours or even days, either provide a high-tech smoking area (like the ones in Glasgow airport) or let smokers go back outside for a quick smoke once they’ve been through security (make us go through security again on our return, there’s no point in being stupid here); if smoking is banned in your workplace, don’t try and extend that ban to people’s lunch breaks offsite or worse – and I’ve seen contracts including this – what people do in their own time when you’re no longer in charge of their activities. If you want people to do what suits you 24/7, up the wage rate by 300% so you’re *paying* them 24/7…

I could sum up the solution in two words: be reasonable. That applies equally to anti-smokers and to pro-smokers. If you’re a smoker, respect other people. Don’t light up in non-smoking areas, don’t campaign for some illusory right to smoke whenever and wherever you feel like it, don’t treat non-smokers with contempt. If you’re a non-smoker, accept the fact that many people smoke for whatever reason, and make the world safe for non-smokers without putting unreasonable demands on smokers (the airport example is a case in point: for a non-smoker, an eight hour delay is hellish enough; for a smoker, the same delay in a place where you cannot smoke and the rules are enforced by people with machine guns is a million times worse. By all means segregate the smokers, but forcing them to stay airside with nowhere to smoke is worse than replacing their entire record collection with Celine Dion albums).

As ever, Bill & Ted put it best: “Be excellent to each other”.

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Available from all good newsagents (and some bad ones too)

I keep meaning to post about articles that have hit print, and I always forget. But not this month!

In the new issue of .net magazine I’ve written the cover feature, which is about ditching the day job to become a freelance web designer/developer. The emphasis is on the nuts and bolts of freelancing – taking the plunge, how to find work, what to watch out for and so on, and it features interviews with people who’ve been there, done that and have the overdrafts to prove it.

On a related note, creative types might be interested in Gaping Void’s How to be creative, a long essay that covers everything from selling out to writer’s block. It’s currently zooming around the blogosphere, and deservedly so: it’s very opinionated but contains lots of very good advice.

I’ve also written the cover feature for the new issue of MacFormat, which takes a look at Apple’s strategy and some of the things it could, should or shouldn’t do (and some things we really wish it would do, but know deep in our hearts that it won’t). Thanks to the vagaries of print publishing it was written before the announcement of the 4G iPod and the new iMac; we were right about the 4G iPod, but Apple clearly doesn’t agree with our case for a headless iMac. The article also looks at some of the really smart things Apple is doing in music, corporate IT, creative industries and software, and it’s designed to be good argument fuel for Apple lovers and haters alike.

Last but not least, I’ve got a big feature in the current edition of PC Plus that takes a look at the world of counterfeiting – especially chips, mobile phone equipment and computer consumables. The article rubbishes some of the more ridiculous claims of the anti-counterfeit lobby, but also highlights some of the things you might want to think about before shelling out on counterfeit goods. It may not be funding Osama Bin Laden, but counterfeiting is anything but a victimless crime.

And of course, all three magazines are also packed with the usual fine writing and general magazine goodness you’d expect :-)

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How to cover hurricanes

Novelist and journalist Carl Hiassen has some sage advice for TV reporters.