Raising Steam – Terry Pratchett

Posted in Books with tags , on February 3, 2015 by thecognitivekey

Terry Pratchett’s novels fall into two distinct groups, those which are very funny and engaging, and those which seem disconnected and have that feel of being written quickly without the usual due diligence. When they are good they are very, very good and when they are bad they are horrid. I think it depends on the characters who appear as the central characters. Rincewind, Sam Vimes, the witches, they all appear in jolly good readable novels. It’s as though Terry Pratchett takes more time over them because they are favourites. Novels which aren’t so strong have characters we don’t care for, the plots are shallow and I get the feeling that they have been written in a hurry to fulfil a contract, there’s usually the semblance of a joke in there but never enough to stretch to a full novel, XXXX springs to mind, Small Gods and quite a few of the ‘stand-alone’ novels where the characters are present for just the single or maybe two novels.

Terry Pratchett on song though is worth the odd near miss. So where does Raising Steam fit on the Pratchett spectrum? Raising Steam is a Moist Lipwig novel, Moist Lipwig the saviour of the Post Office and the Bank. He’s not one of my favourite characters, things are too easy for him, whatever the odds he always manages to win – he’s a great believer in deus ex machina, even for Discworld his escapes are not really credible. But to its credit the tale does have Sam Vimes and Vetinari so it could pull through.

It doesn’t though. Often Pratchett has an idea which he works and works. Soul Music: the music industry, XXXX: Australia, the links are easy to see, they don’t always make for a good book but it’s a successful formula. The theme of this book is the railway, the steam railway and maybe that is where the trouble starts because the steam engine suddenly becomes a major character but one without character, goblins play a big part, as do dwarves, the Guards but there’s never enough to pull it all together. The plot is fragmented. I think it might just have worked with the railway, but the dwarves rebellion (is this a dig at religious fundamentalism?) just doesn’t fit well. It’s as though there a few plot threads which have become intermingled without making a whole.

The whole plot is rather thin. Too many characters. Loose ends – what happened to the goblin’s underground train? I thought that might have played a part in the long journey to the dwarves hinterland, but no, it was built up as an idea but then the idea was never developed.

There is a long train ride building up to the climax. The train comes under attack, but nothing really happened, and it happened slowly and I didn’t care. As I got towards the end of the book I felt it could easily have been written by Enid Blyton. Nothing happens and everyone is happy at the end. That may be the overall impression of Terry Pratchett’s books but usually they are written with humour and he makes us care for the characters. I didn’t care for anyone here. Even the well-loved Sam Vimes and Vetinari didn’t come out well.

It’s a train crash of a story. Not one to read again. I shall go back to read about Rincewind.

Diana Krall – Wallflower

Posted in Music on February 2, 2015 by thecognitivekey

I like Diana Krall, maybe I ought to say I like the early Diana Krall, lots of bounce and energy. Later albums have failed in the energy stakes and things can sound a little bland. This album was due to be released last year but was postponed along with a tour because Ms Krall had pneumonia, luckily for all she has recovered and the album is now out.

The tracks are all covers of well-known modern songs. Unfortunately Ms Krall doesn’t add anything to them. As I write I am listening to her album All For You which is a great album and it throws this new album into great contrast. The energy which just pours from All For You is absent in Wallflower, what we have is an album which sounds as though the singer is just going through the motions, waiting for it to be over so she can go home. It’s a shame because she has a great singing voice and we know she can deliver beautiful songs. Was this album produced for contractual reasons? It has that sound, the I don’t care enough to put ‘me’ into the songs. A shame.

I may play a track or two from this album on the radio, but I think I am more likely to stick to All For You.

Bob Dylan – Shadows In The Dark

Posted in Music on February 2, 2015 by thecognitivekey

It’s been a while since I reviewed an album and I have listened to many since the last review. It’s been a little while since Dylan released a new album, three years in fact if we exclude the Basement Tapes. So maybe the time is ripe to start reviewing again.

Bob Dylan has written some great songs, he’s even sounded OK singing the odd one. I am not a great fan of his singing, it suits some records but on the whole I think they are few and far between. However, a new album is of interest, maybe another classic waiting to take the world by storm.

This is a new album, but it is never going to take anything by storm. All of the tracks on this album are covers, covers of Frank Sinatra songs which apparently were chosen for this album by Dylan himself. There are ten tracks, some I recognise but most I don’t, I think if you had to name 10 Sinatra tracks you might name one maybe two of these, but you’d probably be a Sinatra fan. Noteworthy they are not.

But that’s just part of the problem. The biggest failing on this album is the singing of Dylan. Barely known tracks would work if sung with passion and verve like Sinatra, but these are not. These 10 songs have been transformed into 10 dirges, not one is sung with anything like mild enthusiasm. I haven’t heard a more depressing album in quite a while. Not knowing the songs didn’t help as I didn’t know what the potential of these songs could be, but if Sinatra sung them then they must have something. What a pity that Bob Dylan chose to ignore that something.

I listened to all the tracks in the hope that just one would rise above the direness, not one did. I don’t really see what the point of this album is, all the songs are covers, performed dreadfully. I shan’t be playing any of this album on my radio show. The patients deserve much better than this poor fare.

Southern Electric billing

Posted in Customer Service with tags on January 23, 2015 by thecognitivekey

I was trained in the dockyard as an electrical apprentice, way back in the 1970s. Back then the electricity companies were public utilities and our electricity was provided by the SEB (Southern Electricity Board). We’d see the initials SEB everywhere, it was rather reassuring to have a local electricity company, and I have always had a soft spot for them.

So when I bought my house I made sure it was Southern Electric, as they had become, who provided my electricity and that was despite their use of an adjective when they surely meant to use a noun. Further I insisted my gas came via British Gas (electricity from the electricity experts and gas from the gas experts, simple), until I found their customer service particularly unhelpful and extremely rude following one house move. After that it seemed natural that I’d get SE to provide both fuels, and so things have been that way since. I have been with SE (or SSE as they now like to be called) through all subsequent house moves. Never a regret.

Until I decided to replace my gas boiler. That was a couple of years ago now and one day when I have recovered from the trauma, of the ordering and installation processes, and the subsequent need for their Shield people to get everything working properly, twice, I shall write about how not to run a boiler replacement company. I know all about it, I have seen them in action. I should have stuck with my gas from the gas experts mantra.

No, the current complaint is with their billing process. Last month I received an email asking me to provide meter readings so they could accurately bill me. The billing doesn’t really matter that much as I pay the same amount each month on some sort of budget system, it allows me to pay the same every month. I provided the meter readings and the bills arrived, or the emails telling me the bills were available online arrived.

I like to keep an eye on things so I looked at the bills and thought it odd that I was owing them so much money on the budget plan, it also showed high gas usage despite the efficiency of the new boiler. Hang on though, they have used estimated readings not mine, and the estimates are a good 30% higher.

Do I care? Well you could make the case that it will all sort itself out in the end at some point when they send a reader round to take readings for them. But that’s only true if the price stays the same. If they reduce the price, as seems to be happening with the other big utilities, then I will have paid for fuel I haven’t yet used at a higher price than I should. Is this another deliberate scheme to screw more money from their customers? I don’t know. I phoned SE and their customer service team didn’t sound at all surprised that my readings had got lost in the system, but they did update their estimated readings with mine. A fleeting apology, I didn’t want self immolation or anything like that, but it did just sound very automatic and scripted (it can’t have been scripted exactly, but I felt as though they were taught to say sorry as a Pavlovian response to a complaint, apologise without understanding and move on seemed to be the approach). Say sorry, but please sound sincere.

We are probably only talking a few pounds here, but they are my pounds, and I don’t like companies who have a cavalier disregard of that. Your customer meter reading process appears not to work SE, and your customer service seem uninterested, addressing not the problem but only the effects of the problem. Maybe the time has come for me to bury the ghost of the SEB and move on.

High-Rise – JG Ballard

Posted in Books on January 18, 2015 by thecognitivekey

This book was mentioned briefly in a science programme on TV. I can’t remember the science programme but the book is worth a read if you have nothing else. It’s set in a 40 storey apartment block. It’s about the divisions that arise amongst the residents as the services start to decay and tensions grow. The block is stratified by class, the richest to the topmost floors the poorest to the bottom. This is presented as a natural layering of people within a high-rise as the more expensive suites are always the upper floors. Interestingly enough though, the poorest here are not what I would describe as poor, flight crew, hairdressers, TV people. All office type workers, as we go up the floors so we run through the medical professions, more media people, then in the upper storeys we have the architect and other ‘top’ professions. Ballard identifies three strata and the story follows one person from each of these strata, a chapter or two on each before returning to the first again, but always the story moves on. Not a great deal is happening, but the social tension grows, one death early on then more as the high-rise society breaks down. One thing I noticed, apart from there apparently being no-one from a manual trade resident in the building, is that as things are breaking down an awful lot of people are recording the breakdown. Filming rather than helping. The book was written in the late 1970s and so pre-dates the mobile phone and YouTube, but it’s interesting that if the situation was to happen today then we would be able to follow it closely on the internet, we would be more interested in filming that helping others.

Another point which stands out quite prominently, and is perhaps a major weakness in the book, is the role of women in the book. None of the main characters are women, the few women who do appear are weak and ‘need’ to be dominated by the male main characters. Women are either mothers or objects of desire. As I got further through the book so this came much clearer, it was as if Ballard was defining the role of women in a society which starts to fail. Maybe that was the perception of their role in the 1970s when the book was written but thinking has changed significantly since then and I feel that had the book been written in the 21st century the women would have been defined with much more prominent and influential roles. As it is they are merely unrealistic shades of women.

It’s worth a read I guess, if only to see the way women are portrayed or visualised has changed over recent decades. Changing for the better no doubt, and continuing to do so. It’s also interesting to see how Ballard describes how the failure will be received by different people, though it is all a bit destructive, at no point is there any indication that anyone in the high-rise attempts to prevent the fall into savagery. It’s a bleak one-sided view of what could happen.

Initially I thought this book would make a good film, parts of it might, but it is stuck in a 1970s time-warp, maybe no surprise as it reflects the times it was written in, but that time-warp and those ideas are of that time. There is no point revelling in those past times.

It’s a sort of 1970s Lord of the Flies, set in a ‘modern’ Britain, but without the hope of a rescue at the end. Halfway through I had thoughts I might re-read this book in the future. Now I have finished it I am pretty certain I shan’t.

Pattern Recognition – William Gibson

Posted in Books on January 15, 2015 by thecognitivekey

It’s been a while since I read any William Gibson, many years, but I do recall enjoying his books, so I was pleased to get the Blue Ant trilogy for Christmas. I am very difficult to buy for, but this seems to be the ideal gift.

Pattern Recognition is set I guess in the world of advertising, or it lives in there but drifts into other worlds. I must say that I didn’t care for the characters. All very spoiled and self-centred. The main character has a phobia about certain brand icons, removes all labels from her clothes, yet is employed by the industry to decide, without needing to provide evidence, whether a style of brand will succeed at a glance. Maybe the advertising industry does work like that, but it’s totally alien to my world and I found it very difficult to believe in. Suspension of belief is OK in a novel, but the ridiculous is not.

Very little happens throughout the book. There is a plot of sorts. It’s very thin. The action moves between London, Tokyo and Moscow. The Twin Towers gets a mention. The heroine floats through, always winning. The ending was so boring as to make me wonder if that was really it. I didn’t care at all. Everything gets wrapped up in the end far too easily, not a deus ex machina because it wasn’t a complicated enough story to warrant it. I got the impression the author was bored and couldn’t see the way out but just wanted it all to end, any way please.

The only time I raised an eyebrow of interest was when the heroine referred to Poole in Dorset as a city, I had to read that part a couple of times as it was so wrong I thought maybe I’d missed something, maybe her mistake was part of a code or something. It wasn’t.

I was never tempted to stop reading, the plot did drift along, it just never arrived anywhere and I didn’t care. The other two books in the trilogy are on the table. I will read them, I just hope they are more interesting.

Revolution – Russell Brand

Posted in Books on January 15, 2015 by thecognitivekey

Having seen the man give a pretty good performance with Paxman on why people should choose not to vote I thought it would be interesting to hear what else he has to say.

I must say that I don’t find him very funny, no that’s not true, I don’t find him funny at all. His and Jonathan Ross’ prank call to Andrew Sachs was in particularly poor taste, no surprise to me that Ross was involved as the man is a fool, interesting to see Russell Brand was involved in it. So it was with great surprise to hear him argue with some eminent commentators on politics, and even more of a surprise to hear him give a good performance. Dogged, he seemed able to pick up a point and turn it well. I was impressed, a new, different Russell Brand. Then a book to apparently support what he had been saying. He had drawn much derision from the right-wing press that he had to be doing something right to have annoyed them. The book would be worth a look.

It started off OKish an outline as to why the book had been conceived, why people shouldn’t vote, but soon it was waffle and more waffle. The topic drifted from politics, to religion then back to some sort of politics. I have tried to read this book, tried really hard, but I am just a third or so through it and it’s a struggle. He has some good phrases but he is let down terribly but the quality of his arguments. We are all entitled to a viewpoint but that doesn’t make our personal viewpoint worthy of the basis of a theoretical argument, quoting the polemic of activists doesn’t impress me. A solid philosophical basis would be good, but he hasn’t got one, or not one that is apparent.

If he’s advocating revolution where does religion come into it? It’s the antithesis of revolution. And yoga! What has yoga to do with revolution or social change? Nothing! I have had to put the book down for now. I may dip into it now and then to see if anything develops that may be of interest but I fear that the waffle and drivel will continue to spread across the pages.

I am still happy to see or hear him give politicians a hard time on current affairs shows. I now know that the arguments are thin and he makes the most of this by interrupting and sticking to the soundbites. A revolutionary for the social media age. The enlightened cipher of our time maybe.

And he still isn’t funny.