Thursday, August 27, 2015

Dear Dear, we're cramming them in



It took me more than three years to persuade British Airways that commencing an e-mail to a frequent flyer with the expression "Dear Dear" was not the best way to "optimise customer engagement", as the airline's marketing types would call it. But, for far longer than it should have, whenever BA's Executive Club wrote to me, there it would be: "Dear Dear Mr. Poulter."

Of course, a less bothered me would have lived with what was obviously the result of a computer glitch. But as someone whose job involves managing a company's reputation, I thought that, out of professional brotherhood, it would be collegial to point out that this glitch actually made BA look stupid, and gave the impression that computers, not people were interacting with the airline's paying punters.

Worse, the e-mails lacked any means of writing back to the "James Hillier" who apparently sent them. No return e-mail address, no postal address, no phone number with which - with genuine intent to help - I could point out the silliness of the "Dear Dear" salutation.

Eventually, and out of sheer frustration, I resorted to Twitter. Initially, signs were good. A slightly cheeky tweet from me resulted in a direct message from BA's social media team promising to look into it. Shortly after I received this assurance I found myself mysteriously upgraded to business class on a flight from Los Angeles. You can draw your own conclusion as to why.

In fairness, the "Dear Dear"s have now stopped. Someone, somewhere in customer marketing has solved the glitch. British Airways is by far, however, not the worst when it comes to customer service and in fact, for the most part (apart from a disastrous lost baggage saga in Chicago two years ago) it is the airline I prefer to travel with the most. But the e-mail issue highlighted how dealing with airlines has become more and more complicated, and less and less about dealing with living, breathing human beings.

This showed itself acutely a few weeks ago when I tried - foolishly - to contact Air France in the first week of August to fix a problem with a booking I'd made with Flying Blue frequent flyer miles.

Being the start of the marathon French holiday season, Air France was clearly understaffed when I tried to solve the issue over the phone. Calling a number sounds simple enough, but it took three attempts (including one which resulted in me getting cut off) to speak to someone - as opposed to a recorded message - and when I did, I was advised that, for help in English I would need to call back from a phone in the UK...!

On pointing out that I was in France trying to book a flight to London, I got cut off again. Eventually I got through to a very nice Romanian lady called Marina who couldn't have been any more helpful.

It would be unfair to single out Air France. Like most of the major 'flag carriers' they are no better and no worse than any other national airline. But, as with all of them, the customer experience is being increasingly sacrificed for cost.

Air France and United Airlines, for example, now have passengers do the work that check-in staff used to do: checking in. At Charles De Gaulle airport in Paris, Air France economy passengers have to use unmanned terminals to check-in, print out their boarding pass and print their own baggage label...before then taking it all to a drop-off desk where a member of staff checks the bag onto the conveyor belt. The same with United at Newark International in New Jersey.

Quite what this achieves is lost on me. The 'fast bag drop' queues are just as long, if not longer, than they would be with traditional check-in desks. And, of course, somewhere in the marketing communication, the airlines will call this an improvement to the customer experience. What they're actually doing, of course, is saving money to make money, the major imperative of all airlines.

We've long abandoned the notion that flying is a luxury. In fact, unless you're privileged enough (or have a generous employer) to fly in first or business class, the majority of us will endure flying in economy. Which has become a living hell.

Mass air travel is now a long way from those 1960s images of Pan-Am and BOAC cabins, full of pipe-smoking Cary Grant lookalikes in blazers, with their female companions, decked out in twinsets and pearls, ordering gin and tonics from poster girl stewardesses, as they were then known.

Today, it is a cramped ordeal, worsened by passive-agressive duals over armrests and reclining seats, and shrinking overhead locker space due to inconsiderate Muppets bringing ever larger bags onboard just to save them a 20-minute wait at the other end.




Bit by bit, and by stealth, airlines are cramming us in like never before, and the so-called low-cost revolution hasn't really benefitted anyone. By far the worst offence is the reconfiguring of cabins to include more premium seats (i.e. business class and 'premium economy'), while adding even more seats in economy. On regional flights, that will mean more rows, but on long-haul, airlines are even adding seats to the rows themselves, with narrower seats enabling ten-seat rows on wide-bodied jets.

As pointed out in Bloomberg Business Week some months ago, Bill McGee, an airline industry veteran and contributing editor to Consumer Reports, noted that: "The roomiest economy seats you can book on the [United States'] four largest airlines are narrower than the tightest economy seats offered in the 1990s."

Indeed, as the airline industry continues to consolidate through mergers, acquisitions and alliances, the competitive need to differentiate is gradually eroding. There is even talk of one American airline, Delta, introducing a fifth, 'sub-economy' class, which presumably is just a row of wooden benches and a communal bucket for a toilet.


British Airways does, however, appear to have recognised that passenger comfort is, after all, a means to boost income, not just make more by cramming more of us in. The airline has announced that its new fleet of Boeing 787-9 Dreamliners will have economy seats half an inch wider than those on their 787-8 Dreamliner model that came into operation in 2013.

When Boeing launched the Dreamliner it promised a "revolutionary" aircraft featuring innovations like mood lighting and improved air quality to make the passenger experience more enjoyable. When I flew on BA's Dreamliner to Newark last year, it was anything but enjoyable, and was so cramped in economy that I'd wished I'd flown on one of United's ageing Boeing 757s and 767s that fly the same route.

BA has now admitted that seating arrangements on its initial fleet of Dreamliners "felt a bit tight", and that it, along with other 787 operators, had tried to squeeze too many nine-seat economy class rows in, instead of eight seats as Boeing had originally intended for the aircraft. And so, the new BA 787s will offer an economy class seat pitch of 32 inches instead of the current 31, and will feature wider seats (at the expense of aisle width) of 17.3 inches instead of the current 16.8.



I would rather airlines saved money on other things to ensure that the most important aspect of flying - the seat - was as comfortable as possible for the price of the ticket booked. In the United States - where airline comfort and service quality has always, in my view, been a long way behind Europe - travelling city-to-city, across country or even just across a state, is an ordeal.

Even JetBlue - an airline that bucked the industry by offering comfortable leather seats and inflight satellite TV, as well as not putting fees on everything - is joining the club of American carriers putting more and smaller seats onto their planes, decreasing leg room and introducing a range of tarriffs for anything from bags to WiFi.

No doubt this trend towards 'less-is-actually-less' will be appreciated by Wall Street's speculators (though I doubt many of them fly economy class...): in 2013 the main US airlines earned more than $30 billion from add-ons alone, items that would have once been incorporated into the ticket price.

There is a strong argument that some extras are justfiable: while I object to being charged exorbitant rates for WiFi by hotels (for whom it is part of their infrastructure overhead, like lighting and heating), I don't see it as a problem to charge for it inflight, where it is a premium feature.

If being offered sandwiches and drinks for a reasonable price keeps ticket prices down, I'm fine, so long as you don't have to sit next to the guy eating the pizza he brought with him for a five-hour flight from New York to San Francisco. But once airlines start gouging for just a handful of kilos over a baggage allowance, or charge you for "the extra legroom" offered by an exit row when, by law, every flight has to have someone sitting in those seats, we have a problem.




And then there is the bizarre practice of overbooking. You choose your flights, based on how they fit your plans, you pay for them, turn up at the airport at the time you were asked to be there and then discover that your seat has been given to someone else, and would you accept vouchers to take a later flight?

This is nothing but hedging: airlines bet on the fact that a certain percentage of passengers will always fail to turn up for a flight. But with the majority of these being business travellers on expensive, flexible tickets, it's always the poor mug in economy who gets bounced.

There are, of course, plenty of valid arguments to justify airlines doing all this to us, their would-be loyal customers. In principle, all these measures - fees, overbooking, ten-seat economy class rows - are designed to maximise profits while minimising costs, which should mean everyone - passengers, airlines and their shareholders alike - get to benefit. But, really, do they?

Some of us have to travel, either for work or to visit familes. Others choose to travel because they can. None should be penalised. Robert Louis Stevenson clearly didn't have the era of low-cost aviation in mind when he posed the notion that "To travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive". These days, you can't wait to get off the plane.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Tramps like us: the 40th anniversary of Born To Run


My shot at the title, a 24-year-old kid aimin'
at "the greatest rock'n'roll record ever."

Being feted as "the new" anything is often more curse than blessing. And so this was proving to be so when, 40 years ago today, Bruce Springsteen released Born To Run, the album he hoped would be "the greatest rock ’n’ roll record ever”.

In 1972 Springsteen signed a deal with Columbia Records, the same stable as Bob Dylan. The man who'd signed him, John Hammond, had also been responsible for discovering Dylan (not to mention Billie Holiday and Aretha Franklin), and clearly saw something of the former Robert Zimmerman in the scruffy-looking singer-songwriter from Freehold, New Jersey, who'd auditioned alone with just an acoustic guitar.

"The kid absolutely knocked me out," Hammond told Newsweek in October 1975. "I only hear somebody really good once every ten years. Not only was Bruce the best, he was a lot better than Dylan when I first heard him.”

Inevitably, this led to Springsteen being cast as "the new Dylan", not helped by early CBS ads even comparing the two. Lyrically, they were clearly cut from similar cloth, neither caring much for trite pop, but instead telling intricate, character-driven stories that reflected the human condition.

The marked difference was that Springsteen’s music was a layering of influences: the restrained emotion of Roy Orbison, the cinematic, Saturday night melodrama of Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound, the rawness of Presley's rock’n’roll, the R'n'B of Solomon Burke. This was married to noirish storytelling, with Springsteen drawing on his beat - the seaside towns of the Jersey Shore and the bars of Greenwich Village where he'd honed his songwriting.

The first two Columbia albums - Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J. and The Wild, The Innocent & The E Street Shuffle - presented characters like Crazy Janey, Go-Kart Mozart, Spanish Johnny and the Magic Rat, Through them, Springsteen cast himself as balladeer, animating a landscape of cars, diners, leather jackets and girls named Mary, located somewhere between Rebel Without A Cause and the reality of working class New Jersey in the early 1970s.

The albums were received reasonably well but failed to match sales expectations. The Dylan reference may not have helped, either: "I never needed another Bob Dylan, not having had much time for the first one," wrote Sandy Robertson in Sounds a few years later. "So when I started copping eyefuls of all these Zimmerman comparisons, circa '73 when Greetings From Asbury Park N.J. was released, I was more than a little dubious about Bruce Springsteen."

In truth, many were dubious about Springsteen, including Springsteen himself. Such self-doubt would be part of the go-for-broke attitude that made Born To Run such a labour of love for all concerned. It took 14 months to record, with Springsteen obsessing over every detail, such was his paranoia that delivering a dud album would see the end of his recording career.

"Bruce was obsessive,” producer Mike Appel recently told the New York Post. "He tried everything because he was frightened of not living up to everything he could live up to. We just had to do it, because we had nothing to fall back on. Sometimes that’s the best thing in life."

The pressure on the project wasn't helped by John Hammond retiring midway through the album's recording, leaving Springsteen with new Columbia suits to impress.

Relief of a kind came from Boston music critic Jon Landau - who would, a whole year later play an even bigger part in Springsteen's life and Born To Run's release - when he declared, after seeing Springsteen live: "I saw my rock ‘n’ roll past flash before my eyes. And I saw something else: I saw rock and roll future and its name is Bruce Springsteen."

It's a much-repeated quote, and while there's no doubting its earnestness and impact, it may have also heaped further expection on its subject.

Not that Springsteen himself at the time, minded: "I was trying to find that spotlight, to be noticed, to be talked about," Springsteen explained in the documentary Wings For Wheels, "That's what I felt inside of me and what I wanted to communicate. I had a lot of ambition."

Ambitious, he may have been, but work on Born To Run went on and on, putting strain on long-standing friendships between Springsteen and the core members of his E Street Band - pianist David Sancious, Roy Bittan (who replaced Sancious during recording), saxophonist Clarence Clemons, organist Danny Federici, bass player Garry Tallent, drummer Ernest Carter and his replacement, Max Weinberg.

Just the album's title track took half a year to record, as Springsteen built it up from a relatively simple arrangement based on a guitar riff he'd come up with in his bedroom to something epicly Spectorish, with strings, multiple guitars, keyboards and even a glockenspiel. Springsteen's fastidiousness had no bounds as he obsessed about everything - even making endless changes of amplifiers just to get 'that' sound. On Jungleland, the album's closing song, Clemons spent 16 hours recording the sax solo to ensure that it rigidly met his boss's exact prescription.

"We had a lot of fun...when we weren't suffering!”, Springsteen says in Wings For Wheels, although Steve Van Zandt - who came in at a later stage of production - half jokingly said: "Fun is not a word I'd use. If you spend six months on one song something's not going right."

Production on the album had begun in May 1974 at 914 Sound Studios in Blauvelt, a small commuter town north of New York City. With the album still far from complete, towards the end of the year Springsteen and the E Street Band went out on the road to try out a few of the new songs live. This resulted in even more ideas for new arrangements of existing songs, as well as drawing the dismissal of the song Born To Run by a CBS suit who referred to it as as "born to crawl".

With no sign of a finished album, recording resumed in early 1975 at The Record Plant in New York City. Landua was drafted in - and onto Mike Appel's turf - to assist in producing and creativity. Van Zandt was also brought in to assist with guitar work (although his major contribution was his expert brass arrangements on the R&B stomper, Tenth Avenue Freeze-out).

Still, studio time continued to be arduous. Jimmy Iovine, then an engineer at The Record Plant (now known as co-creator with Dr. Dre of Apple's Beats business), recalls resorting to desperate measures to survive, especially Clemons' marathon session for the Jungleland sax solo: "I had a piece of Wrigley’s spearmint gum, took the gum out of the wrapper and I chewed on the aluminium foil," Iovine reveals in Wings For Wheels. "The pain was so severe that I knew it would wake me up!".

Even when everyone thought they had a final album, there was still more strife to come: in July 1975, Springsteen, listening to the master tape in a Pennsylvania hotel room decided that the album wasn't fit for muster and threatened to throw it into the hotel swimming pool in disgust. Mike Appel convinced him otherwise.


And so, on August 25, 1975, one of the greatest albums of the rock era was released. Whatever blood, sweat and tears, not to mention personnel and friendships, Springsteen went through to deliver it, it stands up as a remarkable piece of work.

Released in a year that, in mainstream rock and pop terms had little going for it - bloated, cocaine-fuelled West Coast career filler and the unsatisfying early stirrings of punk - Born To Run was a concept album in all but name. In post-Vietnam America, with an approaching fuel crisis and the shadow of urban riots in the early '70s still evident, the album gave Springsteen an outlet to explore opportunity, freedom and escape - "We've got to get out while we can". Even its cover - with Eric Meola's iconic photograph of Springsteen draped on Clemons' shoulder - suggested that music and camarderie offered an escape tunnel for ambitions.

"As a songwriter," Springsteen wrote in the book Songs. "I always felt one of my jobs was to face the questions that evolve out of my music and search for the answers as best as I could find. For me, the primary questions I’d be writing about for the rest of my work life to form in the songs on Born To Run ('I want to know if love is real'). It was the album where I left behind my adolescent definitions of love and freedom."

He explains: "Thunder Road [with a title borrowed from a 1958 Robert Mitchum movie] opens the album, introducing its characters and its central proposition: Do you want to take a chance? On us? On life? You’re then led though the band bio and block party of Tenth Avenue Freeze-out, the broken friendships of Backstreets, out into the open with Born To Run, and into the dark city and spiritual battlefield of Jungleland."

After such a long development time, to everyone's relief, Born To Run was released to instant acclaim, becoming Springsteen's first Top 10 Billboard album (with a little help from Appel leaking a copy of the album to radio stations to create buzz).

Columbia Records put the entire might of their publicity machine into selling it, which saw Springsteen appearing on the front cover of both Time and Newsweek magazines in the same week in October 1975, the first major rock artist to achieve such a double, and the first entertainer since Liza Minelli in her Cabaret days.
Arriving in London that same month for a seminal show at the-then Hammersmith Odeon, Springsteen encountered record company posters declaring "London’s Finally Ready for Bruce Springsteen!". Ambition may have fired Springsteen from the beginning, and perfectionism and obsessiveness played their part, too, in making Born To Run happen, but now it had happened, the now-26-year-old from Freehold still succumbed to his modest roots, the product of being of a generation that saw only vulgarity in self-promotion.

Be that as it was, Bruce Springsteen - The Boss - had arrived, not only in his native land but on foreign soil, too. Ambition carried Springsteen through, but there was something more than this that those around him in the early days knew made his ultimate success inevitable. "I remember thinking that what he had was unstoppable," David Sancious, the original E Street piano player. "It was going to happen, one way or another."

Although it would be another entire decade before Springsteen would establish himself as a global superstar, thanks to another 'born' album, Born In The USA, Born To Run was the propellant of an unstoppable career which, 40 years later, is still as creative and commercially vibrant as ever.

It may have undergone a difficult, some might say recklessly long gestation, but Born To Run established Bruce Springsteen as a unique artist in the rock and pop world. Commercial, without selling out; edgy, without scaring old ladies; respectful of the pop culture of his youth without being anachronistic. 40 years on, he's still doing all of that, and uniquely, amongst his peers, with the very same earnestness that brought Born To Run to fruition in the first place.

Monday, August 24, 2015

A MANbag...? What a carry-on...


Lord knows what Lady Bracknell would have made of modern France. Not a great deal, if her indignation over Jack Worthing's admission that he'd been found in a handbag is anything to go by.

But a manbag? The metrosexual accessory was thrust back into the spotlight last week by an easyJet passenger getting tasered - yes, tasered - for refusing to adhere to the airline's apparently more draconian-than-I-realised regulations for carry-on luggage. And as if receiving 50,000 volts wasn't bad enough, the 37-year-old flying from Gatwick to Belfast wound up being sectioned. "Following examination by doctors," said a police spokesperson, "he was detained under Section 2 of the Mental Health Act for admission into a psychiatric unit for further assessment and treatment in the interest of his own health, safety and protection of others."

Clearly, there is room for education on the matter. Here in France men routinely carry neat little bags strapped across their torsos. To be honest, I have never enquired as to what they carry in them (and, frankly, am unlikely to) though casual evidence suggests a mobile phone and not a lot else.

Either way, in France, Italy, Spain and other countries where sock-wearing is constitutionally optional and riding a scooter is considered chic and not at all regarded as the result of diminished testosterone levels, carrying such pouches is simply a practical means of carting around one's life essentials.

Being British, however, and genetically predetermined to be as unfashionable as my continental cousins are on-mode, I make do with pockets for this purpose.

This has much to do with the fact I'm an odd shape to begin with, and a few more unsightly bulges caused by keys, phones, wallets and coins won't make the slightest bit of difference whatsoever to my outline. Even owning a wallet is regarded by some of my countrymen as being a "bit of a ponce". Stuffing pockets with cash, credit cards and driving licences is simply the most blokeish means of carrying such items.

Clearly what I'm skating around here, in a characteristically British fashion, is the concern that manbag ownership constitutes some sort of assault on masculinity, or an affectation in the manner of Paul Weller during his Style Council era (Google it...).

Everyday, however, I walk to work carrying a bag containing my laptop, iPad, assorted electrical chargers, notebooks, pens, paperwork and other paraphernalia for my job, and because it's a "computer bag" everything is allright. Same when I take my classic Billingham shoulder bag on holiday, stuffed with cameras and guidebooks,

But strap on something small, practical and apparently not cheap, and you risk the same ridicule that certain cologne-drenched middle-aged men faced during the 1980s, when the 'man purse' made its appearance in Spanish holiday resorts - inviting muggers to a free-for-all on account of it being hand-carried, highly visible and full of cash, plastic and passports.

So, against this foundation of stereotypification and sexual insecurity, it may come as a shock to learn that British men are, today, spending more money on manbags than women are on handbags, if I can be forgiven for the genderisation.

Earlier this year, market research company Mintel discovered that men in the UK were, on average, spending £106 for what was termed a "luxury" bag to carry around, which was £42 more than women who spent an average of £64.

This doesn't, of course, account for distinction between the type of bag. The Clerkenwell creative with his ironic (and bloody expensive) leather school satchel to carry around high-end felt-tips and a couple of Moleskines (you know, for "ideas") will be a somewhat different proposition to Jean-Claude here in Paris. But it is certain that male ownership of 'designer' bags in Britain is growing, adding to a £1.3 billion industry.

Earlier this year fashion market analyst Tamara Sender told the Daily Mail that the Mintel research demonstrated a growing acceptance of men carrying something which, to all intents and purposes, can be likenend to the feminine handbag: "Whilst manbags in the past have been met with mockery, men have now begun to see the item as acceptable to wear most of the time and as they become accustomed to the practicality of using a manbag they are likely to continue to use them as they age."

Which does mean that airlines had better start being far less ambiguous as to what can be regarded as a "personal item". Because, surely, the people needing to be tasered the most are the inconsiderate idiots who try and cram into an overhead locker wheeled suitcases which require the muscle density of an Olympic shot putter to be lifted, delaying the flight as a queue of irate passengers forms behind them. Airlines like easyJet and British Airways - which recently reduced the maxium size of hand luggage to 40 x 30 x 15cm without capping the size of carry-on suitcases - should take note.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

When the curtain comes down: the alternative lives of rock stars

Facebook/Iron Maiden

We read this week that Iron Maiden's Bruce Dickinson has begun selling private jets through Harrods. As you do.

While the idea of selling something like a jet aircraft through London's most overpriced and ridiculous department store isn't so surprising (its reputation for the exotic extends from selling actual gold bars to Dubai camel milk chocolates), the fact that the man behind it is as famous for Bring Your Daughter To The Slaughter (released as a Christmas single with the intention of scaring "the living daylights out of Cliff Richard") is less so.

Dickinson is, however, hardly your average heavy metal lead singer. His aviation services company, Cardiff Aviation, employs more than 60 staff, and, having fenced internationally (he was once ranked Britain's No. 7) he launched a business selling fencing accessories (and we're talking about the sport, not garden enclosures).



And so, it was announced this week, that Dickinson would be behind a 'pop-up' venture selling six-seat Eclipse 550 jets through the Knightsbridge department store for around £2.2 million each. This is something the jets' manufacturer claims - in what must be normal private jet salesmanship - is "the lowest acquisition cost of any jet on the market, allowing you to achieve jet speeds at the purchase price of a turboprop!". So, in your face, Gulfstream.

Dickinson isn't, of course, the only rock star to spin a living out of other enterprises, although the majority are logical extensions of their personal interests - restaurants, like Bill Wyman's Sticky Fingers in London, and booze are popular sources of extra-curricula income. Sting owns an entire Tuscan vineyard, Il Palagio, which offers bottles of...er...'Message In A Bottle', 'Sister Moon' and 'When We Dance', while Megadeth's Dave Mustaine is also believed to have launched his own brand of wine, despite being a member of Alcoholics Anonymous. Indeed Iron Maiden recently launched their own wine, 'Eddie's Evil Brew', delicately named after their famous stage icon and described by the band themselves as "a lovely Merlot".

One of the most successful ventures by any rock star, and which has been turned into the day job, is that of Pink Floyd drummer Nick Mason. He turned his de rigueur rock star collection of exotic vehicles into a business, Ten Tenths, which rents them out for track days and film and television work.



There are other, even more obscure outlets: Gwen Stefani launched her own range of clothing, L.A.M.B., as, indeed, did Liam Gallagher, with his rather modish Pretty Green label, which has now  also become a chain of shops with branches in London, Manchester, Glasgow, Sheffield and three in Japan. Poison's Bret Michaels brought out his own aftershave, 'Roses & Thorns', which his website modestly claims will "Make your perimeter excite and ignite the senses" and is an "Exhilarating scent with a mysterious kicker...leading to sexy results," whatever that means.



Some, however, have invested their money and downtime in more sensible pursuits. U2's Bono set up the private investment venture Elevation Partners with a pair of ex-Apple executives, putting money into Silicon Valley companies like Facebook, Yelp and Palm. Peter Gabriel - himself the son of an entrepreneurial inventor - reinvested much of the money he made from his first worldwide hit album, So, into his Real World empire, which includes his Real World Studios complex near Bath, as well as the Real World record label that has done as much to champion world music as WOMAD, the event Gabriel helped co-found.


But if you want to go truly off the wall, there is Jeff 'Skunk' Baxter. Baxter was one of the moist sought-after session guitarists of the early 1970s, notably playing on albums by Steely Dan and The Doobie Brothers. And then he became a consultant on missiles, and not the kind that rock musicians have a habit of boasting about. 

Baxter, who looked - and still does - like the archetypal 1970s LA session musician, added the signature guitarwork to Steely Dan's Rikki Don't Lose That Number and Bodhisattva, the Doobies' Take Me In Your Arms and Livin' On The Fault Line, and even Donna Summer's Hot Stuff

In the mid-80s however - and no doubt in a moment of idleness - Baxter started thinking about the connection between the digital music technology emerging at the time and technology being developed for military use. This, and a conversation with a neighbour who'd worked for one of southern California's numerous defence companies, led him to develop an academic interest in missiles. 


Indeed, such was Baxter's interest that he ended up writing a white paper discussing how one might retask a US Navy missile system, which in turn caught the attention of a Californian member of Congress, which led him to be invited into the inner circles of defence politics in Washington. As a result, Baxter developed a new career advising on missile-based defence, also working with the US spook community and even appearing on TV as a national spokesman for Americans for Missile Defense, an unsurprisingly right-of-centre organisation which cares about such things. 


Whatever the political hue of Baxter's post-rock guitarist career, it should, perhaps, be provided as career advice for today's generation of pop stars - discovered, elevated and then spat out by TV "talent" shows - and whose own professional trajectories will be, let's face it, brief.

Who knows - One Direction become traffic consultants? Taylor Swift advises on migratory birds? N-Dubz's Dappy reinvents himself as a quantum physicist? Check back here in a decade or two to see if What Would David Bowie Do? was right...

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Then it was "The Few" - today it should be a few more

© Crown copyright 2015

"You don't have to be a pilot to fly in the RAF," intones the serious, throaty voiceover in the latest TV recruitment ad for the UK's Royal Air Force. And it is correct: there are plenty of other jobs - caterers, air traffic controllers, medics, office staff, drivers, dog handlers, instructors, even sign painters and gardeners.

You name it, and there is a job for you. Just don't expect 'pilot' to be one of them. Because to become a RAF pilot - especially a fast jet pilot - requires there to be planes that you can, you know, fly. Which, these days, is becoming a challenge.

By the end of this decade, the RAF will have the smallest number of frontline combat aircraft since its inauguration in 1918. By 2020 it is expected to have just 127 fighter jets available, as its remaining Tornados - a plane conceived in the 1960s and now operationally in its 40s - are retired along with, incredibly, the first "tranche" of its Eurofighter Typhoon jets, which were only introduced in 2003.

The Ministry of Defence and the RAF do, of course, maintain that they will be ready and able to deal with any global threat with what they have left - presumably a collection of rubber bands from the supply cupboard, a few redundant pilots wielding pitchforks, and the insanely over-budget and, apparently, inadequate F-35 Lightning II.

Famously, the last time the UK had to defend its airspace in anger was in the summer of 1940, the Battle of Britain. Then, "the Few" - RAF pilots, which included British as well as Czech, Polish, French and Canadian personnel - bravely held off Adolf Hitler's attempt to gain air superiority as a precursor to invasion.

Exactly 75 years ago today, August 18, 1940, the RAF experienced what became known as "The Hardest Day". Wave after wave of Nazi Luftwaffe planes were sent to attack key south-east England airfields, like Kenley, North Weald, Hornchurch and Biggin Hill, hoping to catch as many RAF aircraft on the ground as possible.

Mistakenly, the Germans had estimated that the RAF only had 300 fighters at its disposal, when in fact the reality was more than twice than that. Still, the odds were stacked heavily against the defending forces.

According to an RAF infographic posted on Twitter, in July 1940 the Luftwaffe had 864 fighters and 1,137 bombers, whereas the RAF had just 656 fighters, which included the fast new Spitfire, the slower Hawker Hurricane (although it ended the war with the greater number of 'kills') and even the Gloster Gladiator biplane.

By its end, The Hardest Day had produced some of the heaviest losses of the Battle of Britain on either side - some 36 RAF fighter aircraft destroyed in the air, 29 on the ground, and 63 damaged either in the air or on the ground, with 29 casualties including 10 killed. The Luftwaffe suffered even more, by as much as a ratio of 2:1.

© Crown copyright 2015
Comparing August 18, 1940 with August 18, 2015, is, of course, like comparing a Roman chariot with a Ferrari. Hurricanes and Spitfires were worlds apart in terms of capability to today's Typhoon, not to mention what goes into building it. It took ten years, from manufacturing contract to delivery, to produce the first production version of the £120 million-apiece Typhoon.

The Spitfire, on the other hand, took just three years from prototype to operational service, with the largest Spitfire factory - Castle Bromwich - producing more than 300 a month at the peak of production. Each Spitfire cost around £12,000, or roughly £200,000 at modern prices. By the end of its service life, 20,000 had been built.

Of course, World War II required a different national economy. At the end of the conflict, the UK was in a perilous financial state, and food rationing continued well into the 1950s.

It would be naive to compare wartime defence spending to today, but look around the world - be it Putin's Russia or the chaos in Iraq, Syria and Libya - and you have to ask yourself: are we properly protected? Could the RAF hold off another invader on the same scale as it did in 1940?

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In total, the RAF has today just under 800 aircraft of different types, but of these, less than 200 or so - the Typhoons and Tornados - are designed for frontline combat. But at a time of increased sabre-rattling by Russia (including a significant spike in the number of Russian planes testing UK air defences each week). the shrinking Royal Air Force - the oldest independent air force in the world - is stretched like never before.

Pilots are in short supply, squadrons are relying on spare parts from other air forces. Planes scheduled for the scrapheap are being given stays of execution to fill operational gaps while others are being sold or mothballed long before it is necessary to keep costs down. The RAF is, according to Chief of the Defence Staff General Sir Nicholas Houghton, at the "very limits of its fast jet availability".

Don't get me wrong: this post is not a conservative endorsement of warfare, a hawkish ambition to see more bomber aircraft instead of more nurses or even some anachronistic and jingoistic desire to see the UK return to its former glories. But for an island nation that last came under the very real threat of invasion 75 years ago, it is troubling that Britain should be placing itself at such comparative risk.

As has been well documented, procurement and project management in the Ministry of Defence has been a shambles: within the next couple of years there will be two new aircraft carriers with no planes to fly from them; even today, RAF aircrew are embedded with foreign air forces because the UK doesn't have its own planes, in strategically critical areas like anti-submarine reconnaissance, in which they can train.

During Operation Ellamy, the 2011 air campaign over Libya, flying instructors were called off training squadrons to fly jets on operations over North Africa. Back in June this year, the UK's public spending watchdog, the National Audit Office, revealed that a controversial £3.2 billion, 25-year project to outsource the training of all British military pilots is nearly six years behind schedule. Delays have meant that it will not be operational until 2019, placing further strain on the throughput of pilots to the RAF, Royal Navy, Royal Marines and Army Air Corps. And by the time they get there, what will they have to fly?

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In its last budget review, the UK has, at least, agreed to keep defence spending at 2% of its GDP, though it would be flawed to use this as a basis of comparison with others. US defence spending is way out on top at 3.5% of national output - a staggering $581 billion per year. But based on GDP, the UK is just above Greece, which is absurd. In reality, the picture of actual defence spending is more acute: according to the International Institute for Strategic Studies, the top ten defence spenders are, in reverse order, South Korea, Germany, India, Japan, France, the UK, Russia, Saudi Arabia, China and the United States, the latter of which has more combat aircraft than it knows what to do with them.

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Pilots will tell you that the Typhoon - now the backbone of Britain's air defence - is a very capable plane. 80 or so currently in service might sound a lot, and modern air defence does not compare with that of the 1940s. 'Ack-ack' guns and barrage balloons have given way to supersonic missile technology; the Spitfire - still described today as "pure" flying - required pilots to engage their enemy like hand-to-hand fighting in the air, whereas the Typhoon can dispatch a target from distance at the touch of a button.

But what would happen if an aggressor decided to take on the RAF's current frontline combat jets in numbers and succeeded? How long would it take to replace the pilots and their wings? It certainly wouldn't be another month before 300 new planes would be flying.

Monday, August 17, 2015

The couch trip: Chelsea don't need a doctor, they need a shrink



In the end it had nothing to do with doctors, though that's not to say they weren't needed. But perhaps what Chelsea need right now is not the enormous medical staff José Mourinho claimed on Friday he has such a clearly fantastic working relationship with, but an army of shrinks to figure out what it is that ails the [London] Blues so much.

In any case, yesterday's encounter at the Etihad Stadium should not be - and certainly wasn't - about Chelsea. Manchester City were magnificent. They were everything their opponents haven't been since their pre-season and the season itself kicked off.

Twitter/Chelsea FC
In Sergio Agüero, they had a striker who, were it not for Asmir Bergovic repeatedly proving his doubters very wrong in the first half, could have had Chelsea reeling by half-time. 

In David Silva, they had a constant irritant who put a very blinding spotlight on Chelsea's sudden defensive frailties. In Yaya Touré and Fernandinho, they had a midfield engine that both provided and protected, even if the latter's version of protection would have given the Soprano crew a run for their money with his red card for-sure elbow on Costa. 

And, as painful as it is to admit it - because I've never been much of a fan - Vincent Kompany marshalled the City defence with such efficiency that Chelsea's spearhead of Costa, Hazard and Willian was largely blunt, with Joe Hart - he of the Son of Trump hair - having precious little to contend with all afternoon.

3-0 is not the scoreline I would have predicted between "the former champions and the champions", as Mourinho had cheekily described the teams in a pre-match interview with Sky. But still, Chelsea's early season lethargy may prove costly, given how imperious City looked yesterday. Any slip-up next Sunday at West Brom and serious questions will start getting asked about how a club can win the Barclays Premier League at a canter, and yet just three months later look so average.

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There is something of a delicious irony about the rumours still surrounding Manuel Pellegrini's future, and City's apparent desire to bring in Pep Guardiola, It wasn't that long ago that Roman Abramovich was, allegedly, desperate to bring in the Spaniard, before accepting that he and Mourinho were, like star-crossed lovers, a foregone conclusion.

One wonders, though, how that relationship is faring now. Of course, with Mourinho, everything and anything he says or does has a touch of Machiavelli about it. Publicly berating his popular first team doctor for, as we now know, just doing her job, was a clear case of being irked by a poor team performance. 

Claims yesterday that City's performance in the second half was "fake" and that - same old chestnut time! - Chelsea were, in fact, the better team is simply a load of old bollocks that no one swallows, if you'll excuse the mixed metaphor. Chelsea were poor and José knows it.

There is some credibility to the theory that Mourinho replaced John Terry with Kurt Zouma to "send a message" to Mr. Abramovich that reinforcements were needed. If so, it wouldn't be the first time he's done that sort of thing (two years ago he selected a side bereft of any recognised strikers for a game against Manchester United, seemingly to prove to club hierarchy that he'd run out of them. No surprise, then, that Costa arrived so early in the club's preparations for the following season).

It may have been significant that John Terry was substituted yesterday for the first time in a Premier League match under Mourinho, but to be fair, the manager could have taken off any one of his four defenders, such was their lack of cohesion. 

Indeed, the worst offender was probably Ivanovic, who should have done much, much more to prevent City's second goal, and a lazy clearance set-up City's third. This defence, after all, is the chassis of the very bus that Mourinho has been so frequently accused of parking. But right now, it looks like a rusty old Routemaster waiting to be scrapped. 




The signing of Ghanaian left-back Abdul Baba Rahman - announced less than an hour after the final whistle yesterday - couldn't have come soon enough. While he is, like Bergovic and Falcao, just a straight replacement (in this case, for Felipe Luis), any fresh blood in the defence at this stage can only be a good thing: competition for the jaded looking Azpilicueta, or the opportunity to move him over to right back and challenge Ivanovic, or for Zouma to play more and challenge both Terry and Cahill, in principle, still the best central defensive partnership in the league. 

Chelsea might be lacking in the goals department, but they shouldn't be shipping them at the other end, and that comes down to a defence that just doesn't look like they are talking to each other at all. Perhaps spending £30 million or more for John Stones will get the conversation started...

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Would it be that hard for Apple to give me back my music?


There is a convention in the technology industry that early adoption means putting up with things not working properly at first because it's all part of the "development process". And so, days before a new 'must-have' is launched, fanboys queue to buy it sight-unseen, accepting that any flaws in a first generation product are just part of playing a special role in the introduction of something new.

If this same logic was applied to cars, however, we would be driving new vehicles missing wheels, or a door too many, or a fuel injection system that isn't yet properly injecting fuel. Imagine buying a dining table and six months later IKEA informs you "in this latest release we've added a fourth leg to stabilise performance - enjoy!".

But with digital technology, manufacturers and consumers alike seem perfectly at ease with improvements being made on the fly, and even when they are, they are positioned as a bonus, something for free...and aren't you lucky!

Pre-digital, you bought your television or washing machine and it did what it was designed for, until it broke down, in which case you had it repaired. You would never have had someone from Currys call round to install functionality that the appliance wasn't designed to do to begin with, but which the manufacturer thought would be "neat" to arbitrarily add.

The technology industry thrives on constant reinvention. It's what drives the audience delirium at Apple's industry events, even if there is often something of The Emperor's New Clothes about it all. Steve Jobs created this cult: his charisma and determination transformed Apple from a niche into the cash machine his successor, Tim Cook, inherited, along with all of his dad-dancing lieutenants.

Jobs created a momentum that never ceases. Already, the buzz is building about Apple's next annual September event, which will predictably launch new iPhones and iPads. And already the fanboys are getting excited and planning their customary store camp-out. However, this is is all starting to become a bit of a tired routine.


Apple's digital 'ecosystem', as wonks are inclined to refer to it, is hardly in the first flushes of early adoption. The original iMac was launched almost 17 years ago as, in essence, a home entertainment hub. The iTunes music (and later video) management application came along in January 2001, while the iPod - which completed the holy trinity of Jobs' so-called "digital lifestyle" - followed nine months later. As WWDBD? has noted before, these were all the result of Apple's 'magpie' tendency of taking other people's ideas and making them slicker, better and easier to use.

Thus CDs ripped easily on the iMac and were organised logically, with Gracenote filling in the details (though someone was clearly having a bad day when, instead of "Jean-Michel Jarre" on one CD, I got "Boring French Twat"), before easily being transferred onto the iPod for enjoyment on the go. For those of us who enjoy acquiring and collating their music collections, iTunes remained, for the most part, a usable tool for managing mobile music...up until the Cloud came along. And messed it up completely.

It became, to quote someone else, a "bloated mess". Before being branded 'Music', my iTunes library managed to duplicate albums as it uploaded my collection to its cloud servers. Then, it also lost tracks arbitrarily, something I've only discovered as I've moved music to my iPhone, and found album track listings looking like a set of old man's teeth - the Genesis album A Trick Of The Tail only comprised of tracks 2, 3, 4, 7 and 8, and Elvis Costello and The Roots' Wise Up Ghost reduced to just the opening song.

For an iTunes collection that once filled an 80Gb iPod quite adequately, and was managed from my iMac with drag-and-drop simplicity, I am now lost - and suspiciously bereft of albums that I've been ripping and storing now for a decade and a half.



And I'm not alone. A few weeks ago, seasoned Apple watcher Jim Dalrymple posted a breathtaking 'Dear John' letter to Apple on his news and comment site, The Loop, and it is still attracting plenty of agreement. Headlined "Apple Music is a nightmare and I’m done with it", Dalrymple explained how Apple Music had managed to 'lose' some 4700 songs from his library "with little hope of getting them back", forcing him to disable the platform altogether.

Like me, Dalrymple found Apple Music to be unnecessarily complicated, with, simply, too much going on. "Adding music to my library is nothing short of a mind-blowing exercise in frustration," he wrote, pointing out that adding an album to his Music library left off entire playlists. Manually adding tracks to the Music library on his Mac proved equally frustrating, with attempts to add tracks not being replicated on his iPhone.

The whole point of Apple having a completely cloud-integrated environment for its music and content was to enable the downloading of albums or movies on one or all of someone's Apple devices at the same time.



In principle, a great idea. Indeed, one of the things I appreciate the most about being sucked into the Apple world is that there is so much cross-platform logic: I write these blog posts in Notes, for example, knowing that what musings I come up with on my iPhone during the morning commute will be there on my MacBook in the evening. With the more clunky process of music and video content, the principles are ideal - rent an iTunes movie on my AppleTV, and it's downloadable onto my iPad for a flight.

But with music and the cloud, Apple seems to have complicated things and then worsened those complications with every new turn. Subscribing to the iCloud Music Library was a gamble, I admit, on my part, but it appeared to work...at first. Still, at least the iTunes interface seemed to work with it, allowing me to manually fix things that weren't right.

Now, however, with the Apple Music platform being forced on us, with its mass of intricacies, nothing seems to be right, and that's before I've even bothered with the much-vaunted streaming services. No, to simply try and continue using the music management functionality that I've enjoyed since that first iMac/iTunes/iPod triumvirate, everything seems to be all over the place.

Being as wedded as I am to physical media I still buy CDs, but it is no longer drag-and-drop simple to get them onto my phone, because the Music interface for the Mac is such a mass of functions I don't need and barely use. And then on my iPhone itself, Apple has replaced the basic requirement of being able to see track listings with some sort of playlist approach.

I know I'm hardly in the Millennial target group that downloads individual tracks and pretends to understand the concept of a mix tape (sorry, kids, but you have to have actually produced a mixtape to know what one is!), but would it be that hard to just allow the Music app to present a simple interface for managing and playing the music that you own, not the music that you might 'rent'?

I'm tilting at windmills, I know, and the mess that is Apple Music is more than compensated for by much of the rest of the Apple universe that looks good and works well. But seeing as music was always and will remain the thing I use my Apple devices for the most, this continue to bother me.



"At some point, enough is enough." was Dalrymple's conclusion. "Apple Music is just too much of a hassle to be bothered with," he fumed. "Looking at my old iTunes Match library, before Apple Music, I’m missing about 4,700 songs. At this point, I just don’t care anymore, I just want Apple Music off my devices."

I'm no luddite, but I've so far resisted the draw of streaming services to hang on to my admittedly anachronistic love of putting records on turntables and CDs into players, and seeing the spines of albums and jewel cases lined up like a wall in my living room. I honestly doubt that I'll ever change as, frankly, this is my thing. But I'm not so much of a fundamentalist that I haven't embraced the portability of MP3; I won't bang on about the evils of compressed music and all of those audiophile gripes from people who have to wait several hours for the amp's valves to warm up, just to listen to an album recorded in 1967.

I did love the idea of putting all my CDs into a computer, like my own jukebox, to be enjoyed whenever I want, wherever I wanted to. And I still hope that one day Apple will let me do that. Again...