Roses Are Red, Violets Are Blue

I’ve long been a fan of the Red vs Blue series – I subscribed to both season and am the proud owner of the DVDs. When the soundtrack CD Roses Are Red, Violets Are Blue, performed by Trocadero, came up for sale, I felt obliged to buy it in order to support the series and also to get Blood Gulch Blues, the catchy title track of season 1. I didn’t expect it to be much good – I never recalled hearing any decent music during the series, and I uncharitably thought that a band doing music for free for a webseries surely couldn’t be that great.

Well, Trocadero aren’t that great, but the CD has three great tracks, which is three more than the vast majority of bands. Blood Gulch Blues has a catchy retro electronic keyboard sound and incorporates the trademark Red vs Blue guitar riffs. Funny Farm has much more of a rock sound; the vocals and lyrics don’t measure up to Blood Gulch Blues but the instrumentals are good, up until the end where they become repetitive. Half Life is a classic album finisher with a subdued start and good tune that works up into a noisy rock conclusion.

As for the rest of the 12 tracks, either they’re unmemorable or I just haven’t listened to them enough. As a measure of how much I like the three tracks I’ve mentioned above, they’ve all joined my select list of iTunes Top Rated Songs, which are all suitable for public consumption and playing at parties. Check out the previews – you might like them.

number9dream

Just finished reading number9dream by David Mitchell. I bought this book over a year ago and until yesterday, it lingered on my bookshelf looking a little dejected in its garishly colourful cover. I took it with me when I went home for the 10k run and finally read it on the train back to Oxford.

As I read it, watching the countryside trundle past, I remember thinking that surely novels must be the supreme form of mood-altering drugs – perfectly tailored, selectable and able to change your emotions far more subtly than any dopamine reuptake antagonist – and if novels are drugs, then number9dream was first among them.

I’m not going to write a full review of the book (there are plenty on Amazon) but it’s a peculiar mix of contemplative and dramatic styles, set in a near-future Tokyo with a charmingly naive protagonist and wonderfully sarcastic side characters. Beautifully written in a witty, dreamy way, its sentences run and mix together like curling smoke to form weird ideas and settings. Highly recommended. I’m looking forward to reading Cloud Atlas (thanks Lal!), and buying Ghostwritten.

The Race

I did my fourth race of the year this morning, a 10k charity run along the Hoylake embankment in Wirral, a mere few miles away from where I grew up. The last time I did a 10k run was in May and I managed it in just under 48 minutes; not a bad time for my first 10k run, but certainly something to be improved on. In June, I took part in a 5k race in Clapham which I completed in 21 minutes or so, pretty speedy.

Since then I’ve been training once or twice a week, generally doing runs of 5 or 6 miles (8 or 9k) in Oxford, with the occasional 8 or 9 mile run interspersed. While I generally train for distance, I still try and keep my speed at an average of 7 or 8 miles per hour, thanks to my handy-dandy GPS watch (which came in quite useful while I was in North Carolina).

Now, I only know I did my last 10k in 47:50 or so because I just looked it up; before this morning I thought it was about 46 minutes. As a result, my aim for today’s race was to make it in under 45 minutes.

The course was very simple – a long, straight run along a wide concrete embankment not far from the beach, turning around at the 5k point, with roughly half of the run in fields adjoining the embankment. A little boring, to be sure, but with stunning views. The weather was fairly pleasant, with a perfect cool temperature at the 11am start. The only problem was a moderately strong wind that was directly against me as I ran back towards the finish line; yes, I know this means that it was behind me during the first half, but the result was that I was slowed down overall.

Although the race was supposed to have a maximum of 300 runners, I think they signed up close to 500 on the day. At the start I found myself right up by the line and sprung off at a ridiculously fast (for me) 10 or 11mph. I slowed down to a more manageable 9.5mph after a few minutes, and then progressively down for the rest of the first half to reach about 8.5mph by the 5k point. The fast start was a major mistake; it meant that I was being overtaken by people for most of the race. I’m not particularly bothered by this because it’s happened in a lot of my races but it upsets my rhythm.

I think part of the reason I started so fast is because I underestimated the caliber of the other runners – at the 5k I did in Clapham, I attached myself to the back of the leading group and didn’t have much trouble keeping up. Clearly those guys weren’t as good as the runners in Hoylake, who sped away. I suppose I should have expected this, since the Hoylake race is 11 years old (opposed to the 2 year old Clapham race) and it’s a favorite spot for runners to train on.

By the 5k point, I was feeling a little better and started to overtake some runners who’d come out even faster than I did, overexerting themselves. Perhaps my best part of the race was a 1.5k stretch along a path in a field, where I overtook a few runners who I’d been keeping pace with for a while. I’m not a road runner, I find it a bit boring. I do practically all of my training along trails in Oxford along the various rivers. The trails are more often than not waterlogged with uneven ground – just like what I encountered in Hoylake. I like to think that my experience with the Oxford trails helped me get ahead at this point.

Unfortunately we returned to concrete at about 7k and a couple of groups overhauled me. I could pretend that this was solely down to a painful blister that was developing on the inside of my right foot (as it does in every race), or perhaps the wind, but I just didn’t feel like I could keep up with them. As usual, when I reached the 9.5k point and could see the end, I ramped up the pace and passed a couple of people in front of me, finishing in 45:16.

Not bad, I thought at the time, although I could’ve done it under 45 minutes if I just tried a little harder. As it turns out, 45:16 is over two and a half minutes faster than my previous time from four months ago. Not too shabby at all, especially given that I did a 5k session yesterday (another mistake, I admit).

My next race is exactly four weeks from now in Liverpool, called the L1310k, and it’s a half marathon (13 miles, or 20k). This is significantly longer than I’ve ever run before so I’ll need to try doing at least one 11 mile practice run. I expect that I won’t do too well in Liverpool; I’ll need to bring my speed down dramatically and watch my pace. Still, it should be a fun challenge since there are almost 10,000 runners signed up. Most of them will be for the 10k segment, admittedly, but that leaves a good few thousand for the half marathon. Running in the middle of a city deserted by cars and among a huge crowd is a great experience, as I learned from Oxford.

American Airlines Boarding Procedures

REVIEW – AMERICAN AIRLINES BOARDING PROCEDURE

I have the dubious distinction of being a frequent flier now. A distinction, because it means I get to fly to a lot of interesting places and see a lot of interesting people. Dubious, because it would be even better if I got to fly in business class instead of on the cheapest tickets I can find.

This being the case, I’m familiar with boarding procedures which see me following the first class, business class and club member fliers. American Airlines, however, have done something new with this. Instead of having the unwashed masses board via seat number, they’ve split us up into numbered groups, from 1 to 6.

On the whole, this is a good idea since there are always people who cannot cope with the concept of reading their seat number and correlating it with what they hear over the PA. However, it’s ended up with me always being assigned to group 6, the last to board the plane.

I don’t know whether to feel flattered or insulted by this. Unlike most fliers, I have no especial hatred of the boarding lounge and I don’t really know why you’d rush to board a cramped plane (unless, of course, you aren’t travelling in coach). So by this measure, I should be pleased. Even better, being in group 6 means that you are generally seated at the front of the plane and so are among the first to escape, which is certainly a good thing.

I still wonder, though, why I’m in this group, along with about 20 other bemused-looking fliers stranded in the lounge. I don’t check in particularly late or early, I don’t look particularly smart or scruffy, and I don’t always get the cheapest ticket. So what gives? How do I get assigned to this group? Is it defined by bloggers, or somewhat-frequent fliers, or what?

Of course, it could all be chance. We will discover the truth the next time I go flying.

The Stepford Wives

REVIEW – THE STEPFORD WIVES

This movie was always going to be a little bit peculiar – Nicole Kidman, Matthew Broderick and Christopher Walken’s names rarely grace the same bill, let alone the same page. And while I wasn’t alive when the original movie was released, I’m pretty sure that you weren’t supposed to know they were robots – unlike now, it’s assumed most people are in on the secret. In any case, it gets revealed pretty early on.

Nicole Kidman stars as a high-powered television executive responsible for bringing to fruition a number of ridiculously over the top, female-biased reality shows. When a disgruntled contestant (male, of course) attempts to assassinate her, she’s fired and suffers a nervous breakdown. Hence the move to Stepford, where it is hoped that her husband (Matthew Broderick) and two kisd, and herself, will be able to rebuild some semblance of a normal family life.

Stepford is an impossibly beautiful and rich town populated by immaculate women and their geeky husbands. Nicole (sorry, I forget her character’s name) is spooked and teams up with a gay guy and a female writer who is far from the Stepford ideal, i.e. not tall and beautiful. They eventually discover the secret of Stepford (OMG, they’re all robots!!11!1!one!) and hijinks ensue.

In fact, hijinks ensue for the entire first half of the movie, which is done perfectly and is totally hilarious. Christopher Walken plays his usual creepy yet somehow friendly character excellently, and seeing Matthew Broderick slowly being accepted into the husband’s club is always fun. The addition of the gay guy is a great idea and makes his eventual transformation all the more amusing.

Shortly after the middle of the movie, it begins stuttering and running around in circles. Eventually it runs out of steam and ends in an abrupt, unsatisfying and nonsensical conclusion (just like, in fact, the robot that malfunctions at the start of the movie). This is an awful shame, given the first half.

Watching The Stepford Wives, you get the feeling that the writers had a huge number of great ideas for the concept and threw them all in the first half, where they belonged. Having done all the good and obvious jokes riffing on the whole ‘wives as robots’ shtick, they evidently had no idea how to shape them into a coherent plot and reach a satisfying conclusion – so they just copped out and sprinted to the end as fast as possible. So, it’s worth renting on DVD if there isn’t anything better around (such as Mean Girls).

Mean Girls

Written on the flight from London to North Carolina

REVIEW – MEAN GIRLS

The title Mean Girls conjured up images of a thoroughly depressing drama involving troubled young women, no doubt set in a prison or something like that, when I first heard about it earlier this year. I knew this couldn’t be entirely true since the poster had a good-looking teenage cast on it, but the images never went away. In the end, it came down to either watching this movie or Shrek 2 for the third time, and there’s only so much Mike Myers I can take in one sitting.

In reality, Mean Girls is a teen comedy firmly set in the Clueless and Ten Things I Hate About You mould, except with less romance and more female cattiness. Indeed, the heroine looks identical to Bianca Stratford from Ten Things (the dizzy one) She may even be the same person. Shorn of access to IMDB I have no way of verifying this.

Since I missed the first third of the film, you might want to look for another review if you want to know what the film is actually like. Still, I can tell you that in most ways it fulfils the time-honoured criteria of modern teen comedies, such as:

* having an impossibly attractive ‘teenager’ cast
* female lead being highly attractive yet her nasty nemesis is even more attractive, thus rendering the lead a more sympathetic and attainable character (in the male population’s eyes)
* lots of amusing angst
* high school setting
* heroine who starts out innocent, gets corrupted and then gets back on the tracks much wiser for it
* romantic interest who looks alarmingly like Tom Welling of Smallville fame (again, he may be Tom Welling)
* indie ‘alternative’ sidekicks
* various comical slapstick moments
* understanding yet slightly clueless parents

However, it differs from the standard in some pleasing ways. The heroine is a maths whiz and there are various parts of the movie where she is shown doing actual maths and answering difficult calculus questions; score one for the scientific community! Another welcome change is the absence of the gross humour perfected by the American Pie movies. Along with this comes slightly (very slightly) more subtle and intelligent humour.

Unfortunately Mean Girls suffers from a lack of focus. The main storyline (new girl at school teams up with uncool people to bring down ruling nasty-girl clique) is accompanied by various subplots that pop in and out of significance, surrounded by a cast too large for the movie’s length. It also suffers from an almost amusing lack of originality; quite apart from the formulaic plot, every single scene seems familiar.

Aside from these forgiveable problems, it’s a likeable movie that requires no brain power and unusually features maths. Definitely worth renting, and ideal for a date (providing that the world of dating hasn’t changed in the last two years).

Epilogue: IMDB reveals that Tom Welling was not in this movie, and the lead actress was not in Ten Things I Hate About You.

Shining Rock

I’ve just returned from a two day hike that wandered a scant few miles away from Cold Mountain (of book and movie fame). We arrived at the trailhead at about 4pm on Saturday, rather later than we’d intended, but made fine progress to camp at a place called Shining Rock. At Shining Rock itself, the girls discovered an interesting dark yet sparkly mineral that to them immediately suggested a use as eyeshadow – typical. I’m told that the mineral was mica, or “muscovite, to be more precise,” as the ever-studious Kate puts it. Being male, I was naturally above such distractions and instead occupied myself more productively by bending sticks in interesting ways.

Due to a balky gas canister, dinner consisted of rice al dente and a cold hot chocolate drink (ingredients: hot chocolate mix, water, three assorted cream pods). It certainly wasn’t the worst drink I’ve ever had… anyway, it’s not as if I was expecting some gourmet meal anyway.

As our lone candle succumbed to the inevitability of entropy, the mist that had cloaked the hills and peaks we’d walked all day finally departed to reveal a careless scattering of stars. The sky cleared so rapidly and fully that I can happily count Saturday night as only the third time in my life that I’ve seen the Milky Way. One wag on the hike made some remark about whether we had stars in England, but that didn’t distract from the moment.

We decided to sleep outside, leaving aside our tent, and just gaze up at the stars. This was a great plan until I realised that I couldn’t see the stars without my glasses. No problem – I just wore them until I felt in danger of falling asleep.

The next morning began with our campsite enveloped in a chilly and thoroughly depressing fog. We tried pushing on to reach Cold Mountain, roughly four or five miles away, but due to slightly difficult terrain and time constraints we had to turn back after only a couple of miles. Luckily karma reasserted itself as the fog evaporated and at every peak we walked on the way back to the car, we could see that we were a mile high, looking out over trees and hills and valleys and mountains on every side. Just think of the moment in the Lord of the Rings (the first movie) when the Fellowship emerge over the top of a hill and there you have it.

I should point out (mostly because I have been instructed to) that there were literally tonnes of blueberries along this trail. Not so many by the trailhead, because that’s where all the day trippers congregated, but a few miles further in, they were in such abundance that the girls on the hike couldn’t restrain themselves from stopping literally every thirty seconds to gorge themselves until their teeth turned blue. On the times that I was leading, I tried to compensate by slowing down but then resigned myself to accepting my fate as a shepherd of a blueberry-grazing flock intent on ravaging the landscape.

About halfway back to the car we happened across an old guy in a pretty substantial camp consisting of his friends, family and a motley assorted of old, rusty, banged-up vehicles. This guy made the pretty bold claim of being directly related to the main character in Cold Mountain. While we haven’t checked up his story thoroughly, I tend to believe him despite the fact that he didn’t appear to look much like Jude Law.

Soon enough, we were back at the car and sighing in relief as boots and socks were discarded. A trip to nearby Asheville (now one of the most desirable cities to live in the US, I’m told) involved a good vegetarian dinner; for some reason I always seem to eat much better whenever I go abroad. Notch up another reason why I’m looking forward to going to India in December (provisionally). I also ordered a herbal iced tea and felt pretty pleased with myself by pronouncing it in the American way (i.e. wrongly, without an ‘h’).

Today it’s Monday, and the harbingers of Hurricane Frances have shown themselves in the form of two hours of heavy rain this afternoon. More to follow.

Headphones

Some of my most prolific writing gets done in the air. Perhaps it’s because I have so much free time (at least until they install in-flight internet connections) – or perhaps it’s precisely the opposite; that I have plenty of work to do but can’t bring myself to start it on the plane. Either way, there’s always a lot to write about for such an apparently uneventful few hours.

REVIEW: Shure e2c noise-isolating headphones

I own the newest generation iPod, and was one of the first people in the UK to buy the first generation. I can tell the difference between 128 and 192kbps encoded mp3s. The fact that I even know what 128kbps means puts me aside from most consumers. The industry term is ‘early adopter’. That said, I’m by no means an audiophile; I don’t use non-lossy compression formats and until now I’ve happily used headphones that could be bought for less than £10 at any electronics shop. In other words, I’m writing this review as someone who has an above-average awareness of music technology, but not as someone who spends hundreds or thousands of pounds on hifi systems – or even wants to.

It first occurred to me that I might want to replace Apple’s standard iPod headphones after listening to music on my iPod for about 30 hours in a single week; you can say what you like about PhD students, but they’re certainly capable of putting the hours in when necessary, as long as they have adequate musical distraction. The headphones seemed acceptable to me but they became a little uncomfortable after a few hours, and after hearing legions of musicians slate their quality, I was convinced that there must be some better way of listening to music.

Portability is a must for me, so I immediately ignored the usual earmuff-style headphones. This limited my options to the in-ear headphones, headphones which you insert into your ear canal. This is not as horrible as it sounds, and in fact it’s a much more comfortable and secure solution than normal earbud headphones. It’s also necessary if you want to get decent isolation from outside noise without using earmuffs.

There are a few companies that make in-ear headphones. Sony is the most obvious choice with their MDR-71SL headphones. Reviews are generally positive of Sony’s offering given the low price, but they’re agreed to be on the low end of the range. Higher-end manufacturers include Shure and Etymotic, who sell headphones costing up to several hundred dollars; now, I might be gadget-mad but there’s no way I’m going to spend more than, say, $100 on a pair of headphones.

This condition limited me to just one option, Shure’s e2c headphones. Lest it seem that I bought those particular headphones out of necessity, Shure are a very well regarded company that sells professional-grade studio equipment such as microphones, so I wasn’t exactly upset. The headphones, at a bit under $100, are at the low end of their consumer-grade in-ear headphone range, which also includes the e3c and e5c (the ‘c’ stands for consumer. I have no idea how much the professional headphones cost). The entire range is reviewed very favourably, and inevitably the e3c and e5c are rated higher than the e2c, commensurate with their inflated prices.

Enough of the other reviews though – what do I think of them? Well, I received the headphones a few weeks ago and have been using them on and off in various surroundings – at home, on the train, on a coach, in a noisy airport lounge and now in a plane. In short, I’ve been very satisfied with them. I did not put them on for the first time and immediately exclaim, ‘Why, it’s like a whole new listening experience!’ (as I was admittedly expecting). However, I did put them on and fail to hear anything else whatsoever other than the music. These headphones might not be noise cancelling, but they are noise isolating and as far as I’m concerned they amount to the same result for far less outlay.

I’ve sat at home using the headphone at a normal volume and completely failed to notice one of my housemates moving in. In every single situation I’ve used the headphones other than the plane*, I haven’t been able to hear any noise. What’s more, the sound is much crisper and the bass more distinct than on other headphones I’ve used.

*Sitting here above the Atlantic, I am aware of a low-frequency rumbling. I find it difficult to believe that any headphones could stop the conduction of noise from the plane, through my seat and my spine up to my ears.

Clearly the ability to shut out all external noise is not always desirable. I wouldn’t recommend wearing the headphones while cycling or driving or in any situation where it might be useful to hear what’s going on around you. I would recommend them for anyone who does a reasonable amount of commuting and wants to be able to shut out the voices of the noisy tourists in the row ahead talking about how quaint Oxford is. The Shure e2c in-ear noise isolating headphones are aimed at a very specific niche market – those people who care enough about their music to pay more than usual, but not quite enough to pay for the really good headphones. In other words, they’re very good mid-range headphones that are ideal for commuting and produce excellent isolation and respectable sound quality.

PACKAGING

The headphones come in a plastic container that is impossible to open without physically destroying it. Once opened, you have the headphones and three different sizes of earbud that you place on the head of the headphones, depending on your ear size. I find the small size fits me best although I hear the medium size is more average, and indeed some people apparently have different sized ears. There are also three pairs of foam ear buds, made from the same material as earplugs (the spongy stuff). I haven’t used these yet since they seem a bit of a hassle to me and I’m fine with the normal rubber buds, but I imagine that they provide slightly better isolation since they expand to fill the diameter of your ear canal.

A fabric-covered plastic carrying case is thoughtfully supplied with the headphones and is a very compact way of carrying the headphones around safely.

Putting the headphones on for the first time is an interesting experience. You loop the headphone cables behind your ears and then slide the earbuds in. This may take a few attempts, and it will feel weird. After that it becomes very easy to pop them in and out and you begin to feel a real sense of auditory superiority as you walk around in them, narrowing avoiding buses and taxis blaring their horns at you. As you can see from photos, the headphones have an external driver that sits outside your ear canal. They are no less comfortable for this, but they are definitely much more stylish. Plus, it sets you apart from the crowd of iPod users (who to this day still persist in ostentatiously waving their iPods around and wearing their headphone wires *outside* their T-shirts).