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The French Dispatch, 2021 - ★★★★

Wes Anderson’s latest is a wild romp, slightly incoherent at times — or, not incoherent, exactly but confusing in a good way. Until you realise afterwards that it did all hang together and make sense.

It tells the tale — several tales — of the eponymous fictional magazine, which is loosely based on The New Yorker. Here, it is a supplement to a Kansas newspaper, published from a city in France.

There are four stories, wrapped in a framing sequence of the editor-in-chief dying and his will saying that the magazine should cease publication.

There’s chaos, slapstick, wild events, and Anderson’s usual painterly visuals. It’s loads of fun.

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The Caledonian Gambit by Dan Moren (Books 2021, 23)

Dan Moren writes about Apple stuff over at Six Colours, and at Macworld and so on, but he’s also an SF writer. This is his first novel, and there are already a couple of sequels. The series is described as ‘The Galactic Cold War,’ and that’s a pretty good description.

There are several planets, linked by wormholes. From what I can tell, they’re all originally Earth colonies, but there is at least one empire and one commonwealth, and Earth itself has been conquered by the empire. No aliens, at least so far.

It’s pretty good, in an ‘SF meets cold-war thriller’ kind of way. There’s nothing groundbreaking, but a set of characters I wouldn’t mind spending more time with, and an intersting situation.

What struck me, as a Scot, was the ‘Caledonian’ part. Moren is American, but he spent some time in Scotland. Caledonia is the name of one of the colony planets — predictably, the one where most of the action happens. Part of its capital city is called Leith. Just down the coast there’s Berwick.1 Various other towns or areas have names drawn from Scotland. It has moons called Skye and Aran. A group of terrorists or freedom fighters are called the Black Watch — though slightly oddly their leader is called De Valera.

Worth a read.

  1. Berwick is not actually in Scotland, though it has been at various times in history. North Berwick is in Scotland. 

Get Back to Christmas

Watching the first part of Peter Jackson’s ‘Get Back’ on Disney+

We subscribed to Disney+ last night, so that we could watch Peter Jackson’s The Beatles: Get Back. I had thought it was going to be a movie, but it turns out it’s a miniseries: three two-hour episodes. The second drops today, and the third tomorrow.

It’s built from hours of footage that were recorded for the Let It Be documentary back in 1969. I remember watching that once and being disappointed by it. The main problem was that it was presented as a fly-on-the-wall thing, but the fly was aurally challenged.

In other words, you couldn’t make out much of the chatter between the guys. That, almost as much as hearing them rehearsing and working on the songs, was kind of the point.

If you were making a documentary like that today you’d probably have all the band members wearing microphone packs, as the participants in reality TV shows do, so that what they said would make it to storage. Back then, though, even if that had been practical,1 it was far from obvious that the individual Beatles would all have complied. Plus we’d want to hear from Brian,3 and Mal, and Glyn, and the other George, as well as John, Paul, George, and Ringo.

That’s a lot of microphone packs. So of course, the original producers relied on ambient miking. It’s fine when the speaker is near one of the vocal mics, or when they’re right under a boom, but otherwise… well, as I say, Let It Be was a frustrating experience.

However, technology has come a long, long, way in the succeeding fifty years. Every word in this is clear as a bell,2 undoubtedly with the help of modern digital audio editing. It’s slightly ironic to note that one of the first things the band say is that the place they’re working in — a warehouse in Twickenham — is acoustically bad. An odd choice of a place in which to work on writing and performing songs.

Anyway, as of the cliffhanger ending of episode one, this series is fucking amazing! Totally brilliant!

But only if you’re a fan. If you only take a passing interest in The Beatles, or (weirdly) none at all, you probably shouldn’t waste your time on this.

The Disneyfication of Christmas

Disney have made a genius move in launching this when they did. We will be far, far, from the only people who took out a subscription to watch this, with the intention of cancelling it after a month.

A month. What’s a month after yesterday, the 25th of November? Oh yes.

All those subscriptions that are due to renew on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day? So many of them won’t be cancelled, either just to have things to watch over Christmas, or to keep the kids happy, or because people will forget with everything else going on.

I don’t mind, I’ll probably try to catch up on some of the newer Marvel and Star Wars stuff, of which there is just far, far, too much now, in my humble opinion.

But there’s not too much Beatles.

  1. It wouldn’t, because they would have had to be wired microphones 

  2. The odd line is given a subtitle, but I think those are more about Scouse accents than inaudibility. 

  3. I don’t know what I was thinking here. Obviously Brian Epstein was dead by 1969 and isn’t in the film. My thanks to Tony for pointing this out. 

The Origin of Angels?

On the current series of Doctor Who

I was surprised just over three weeks ago when I learned — from the Saturday Guardian, the physical newspaper, of all things — that Doctor Who was staring the next day. I was aware it was going to be happening this autumn, certainly, but somehow I’d missed any hype about it online.

I was perhaps more surprised to learn that it was going to be a single story. Surprised, and pleased: a six-parter, just like the old days, like the ones I grew up with. Of course, back then you’d get a few four-parters and maybe a six, all across what felt like many weeks. In this case, the six parts will make up the whole season. But still. There would be cliffhangers.

Now we’re three weeks in, halfway through.

There are cliffhangers. So many cliffhangers. Cliffs hung so thoroughly that the metaphor breaks down. The whole thing even started with The Doctor and Yaz hanging upside down. Not from a cliff, but still.

Hang those cliffs. The angels have the blue box.1 No, wait, that’s for later. Or earlier. This time haze is getting to me.

This season, series, story, whatever you want to call it, is incredible. I am loving it. If they can hold up this quality, and especially give it a good ending — stick the landing, as people say for some (I believe gymnastics-related) reason — then it could be the high-water mark of Doctor Who.

And even if they don’t manage a great ending, the ride will have been worthwhile.

But I want to get something out there before we get too much further into the series, and spoilers ahead, probably, so stop reading if you haven’t seen at least up to episode 3, ‘Once, Upon Time.’ Also if you think speculations can be spoilers. I, personally, don’t.

OK, so, we’ve seen glimpses of the Weeping Angels in these episodes. These creatures feed on time energy, and in this story, time energy is going wild, has been unleashed in dangerous ways. Whatever all that means (‘Time is evil,’ as one of the priest-triangles said).

I think we’re seeing the origin of the Weeping Angels. Or we’re going to see it. Something that happens in this story will bring the Angels into being. No idea what, mind you. I thought the Mouri in the Temple of Atropos might end up turning into them, but I think we’ve moved away from there now.

Anyway, all is well in Who-land.

  1. I may never even write this, but I have been completely Berenstained by this phrase. I firmly remember it as blue box, and some places on the net do say that. But most say phone box, and I just played the relevant part of Blink and, indeed, that says phone. According to the transcript on Genius it goes ‘They have taken the blue box, haven’t they? The angels have the phone box.’ So both terms are used, but not the key one in the way I remember it. 

Mona Lisa Overdrive by William Gibson (Books 2021, 22)

I reach the end of the Sprawl Trilogy

Talk about not remembering books: I’ve got to ask myself whether I ever did read this one. I remembered one thing from it, but it’s not how I remembered it. When people jack in to the matrix they use headsets — ‘trodes’ — with electrodes that connect to their temples.

There is a transition between the real world and cyberspace when they connect, and I had this memory of one cowboy (people who enter the matrix or cyberspace are called ‘cowboys’ or ‘jockeys’) who had a set of trodes that made the transition feel like the world was falling apart. I’ve been half waiting for that bit through these three books. Here’s a quote:


Yes,’ she said, and Tick’s room was gone, its walls a flutter of cards, tumbling and receding, against the bright grid, the towering forms of data.

Nice transition, that,’ she heard him say. ‘Built into the trodes, that is. But of drama…’

So that must be the bit I remembered, but if you had asked me I’d have said I thought it came a book or two earlier, and was mentioned more than once.

But what of the book itself? It keeps up the standard, maybe raises it slightly. We have four interconnected stories, four viewpoint characters, told in alternating chapters. One of the stories — that of Kumiko, who is experiencing the flutter of cards, above — isn’t really relevant, in the sense that it doesn’t drive the plot at all. Things that happen around her do affect the main plot, but she’s not really aware of them.

What surprised me about this and the three books overall, is how much they really are a trilogy. I had the impression that they were considered only to be very loosely connected at best; essentially three stories set in the same milieu. But in fact not only do characters recur, everything here ties back to the events of Neuromancer, which happened some fourteen years before.

All very worth reading if you haven’t already.

Songs and Singles

Sometimes a song needs to stand alone to stand out.

You’ve probably heard a song off an album — you’ve heard the album, maybe a few times, but it’s just kind of washed over you, not really made much of an impression — you hear a song, maybe on the radio, maybe some random or curated playlist, and you go. ‘Wow! What a great song!’ And then you realise it’s from that album, the one that washed over you.

That’s what singles were for. Still are for, since they’re still released, though it’s not quite the same.

I just had that experience with Radiohead. Kid A never made much of an impact on me, but when I turned BBC 6 Music on tonight, a killer track was playing. Steve Lamacq back-announced it. He was playing the whole album, and the track was ‘The National Anthem.’ I knew Kid A had a track of that name, but it had never really got to me. But there, now, tonight, it was just amazing.

A similar, if inverted, effect is when the album is so good that it kind of drowns out a brillant single. I can only think of one example of that at the moment. If you cast your mind back (assuming it goes that far) to when The Jam released ‘The Eton Rifles,’ it was an incredible song.

But Setting Sons is such a good album that I hardly notice ‘The Eton Rifles’ on it.

Anyway. Singles. Yes.

Adventures in Mac Repairs

How I got a free screen repair and a free battery replacement into the bargain.

I have a 15-inch MacBook Pro from 2017. It’s in perfect working order, except the battery was past its best. ‘Service recommended,’ it always said when I checked. But it was fine, I could get a couple of hours out of it, and I rarely use the computer away from somewhere I can plug in. Especially this last couple of years.

But the screen had developed a problem. There were marks on it that I couldn’t remove. They were kind of hard to photograph, but you can see them here:

MacBook screen with delamination marks
MacBook screen with delamination marks

I discovered there was a known defect in models of that era called ‘screen delamination.’ The top layer of the screen’s coating was becoming detached from the underlying one.

People had solutions, which involved careful cleaning with various solvents or mild abrasives: isopropyl alcohol, or, I don’t know, toothpaste, maybe.1

Inevitably, the whole affair has a ‘gate’ name: Staingate. Perhaps less inevitably, but unsurprisingly since it’s a manufacturing defect, Apple have long since acknowledged the problem and offered a free repair programme. As long as your machine was no more than four years old.

I discovered these facts back in the summer. Dug out my receipt. I bought the laptop four years and four days ago. Damn!

At the time I was deep in working towards my dissertation, so I wasn’t going to spend any more time on it. In September, though, I thought it would be worth contacting Apple support and seeing what could be done. I couldn’t get a Genius Bar appointment, but I could take it to an Apple Authorised Service Provider called MR in Shoreditch. They had a look at it and said, yes it’s the delamination thing, you’re outside the free programme, we can fix it: 800 quid.

Too much. But! they also said that it would be worth taking it in to Apple. They might, depending on who you saw, do it for free anyway.

I was slightly sceptical, and we were getting ready for a trip to Scotland at the time, so I left it. Eventually, though, I booked it into the Genius Bar.

You’re outside the programme, they said. But we’ll fix it under consumer law. No charge.

The Sale of Goods Act (or its successors) for the win again: a laptop screen should last longer than four years.

During the tests they run, the guy noticed that the battery was poorly, and offered a replacement. £199 seems steep, so I said no thanks.

Yesterday I got an email to say it was ready to pick up, so I toddled off to Westfield. The staff member who brought it out to me asked me to wait while she checked something. Came back and said, ‘You know how you rejected the battery replacement? Well it seems they did it anyway. We won’t charge you.’

So that was weird. The work note that came with it said ‘Battery won’t charge at all,’ which was not true when I took it in. But here I am with a good-as-new battery. Well, actually new.

All of this required what they call a ‘Top case replacement.’ ‘Top case with battery,’ in fact, which suggests the battery is in the screen part of the laptop, not the keyboard part, which seems weird.

The big downside — but one that had been prepared for — is that I lost all my stickers. I had heard of this kind of thing happening, so I took photographs.

The stickers on my MacBook
The stickers on my MacBook

The questions now are how and whether to replace them.

  1. Don’t clean your computer screen with toothpaste. 

Count Zero by William Gibson (Books 2021, 21)

The only thing I remembered about this was its opening line, which is nowhere near as memorable as that of its predecessor.

It’s also not as good as Neuromancer, by a long shot. Difficult second album syndrome, I’d imagine. It came out a year or two later. It’s not actively bad, don’t get me wrong. But it just doesn’t have the spark, it never quite catches fire, you know?

Still, plenty of gritty Sprawl-drama, and the obligatory trip to a space station.

No Country for Old Men, 2007 - ★★½

This film is infuriating. It reminded me of Shallow Grave, at least at the start, in this way: if you find a load of money that’s obviously come from a drug deal gone wrong, or otherwise somehow involved in organised crime, there is one thing you should not do. That is try it keep it all, to run away with it or hide it, and expect to survive the wrath of the criminals.

The safest thing, of course, is to just walk away from it all and call the cops. But if you must get into it, then obviously what you should do is take some of the money. Not a lot. Say, 10%. An amount that the gangsters might plausibly accept as having gone missing during the the shootout, or whatever. Leave the rest, call the cops, and let them handle the aftermath. You might get away with it.

Here, the main character does exactly the wrong thing. What’s worse, in story terms, is that from the start we have no one to identify with: no character who is obviously the ‘hero,’ if you like. No one to root for. Because it all starts off without us having any particular reason to root for Llewelyn. And as it goes on, and we do start to want him to make it — if only because the focus is mainly on him — he continues to annoyingly make terrible choices.

Worse still — and spoilers ahead — worse still, his story is just dropped on the floor. He doesn’t even get the respect of us seeing his end. The narrative hands over to a secondary character (though to be fair, that character, the sheriff, is the first character we meet, if only in voiceover).

And the end is just… nothing. 

It is by far my least favourite Coen brothers film.

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