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Royal Garrison Church Of All Saints

I've driven past the Royal Garrison Church Of All Saints in Aldershot on numerous occasions but I never really paid much attention to it until yesterday morning. As I drove along the A325 in the pitch dark and cloudless sky I noticed the full moon over the floodlight church. I can't explain why I never noticed how picturesque the church was until that moment. I'd driven past in the dark before, the church has been floodlit before, and the moon has been visible on many occasions but the church stood out of the first in months, and I cursed myself for not having my camera with me.

So this morning I threw a tripod in the boot of the car and put a charged battery and empty memory card in my camera and headed to work. The sky was not clear this morning, not cloudy just overcast, and the moon was no where to be seen so I feared my moment had passed, but as I approached the Wellington roundabout I saw the moon over the church, just where I wanted it, and so while most people were still in bed I was stood in the open air with the tempertaure hovering at -3°C taking photos at 6:45 in morning.

Royal Garrison Church Of All Saints, Aldershot (click for a larger version)

The above image is a tone mapped image made up from five separate shots. Even though the church in the background was brightly lit and the trees in the foreground were dark, the tone mapped shot gives the impression that the whole scene was evenly lit. Despite being taken just before 7am on a dark November morning it's the apparent even exposure over the whole scene that gives the image it's slightly unreal quality.

By sheer coincidence, as I was taking the five photos that make up this one image, a private jet that had just taken off from nearby Farnborough Airport passed through the scene. It took approximately 45 seconds to take all five photos and you can see the trail the jet's lights left as it moved from right to left. The long streaks of light are the wing tip lights which were on constantly and the red spots between the streaks are a result of the flashing beacon on the underside of the aircraft. You can also work out which photos were the longer exposure (and therefore have the longest streak) and when the camera's shutter was closed (the gaps between streaks).

Most days have a hightlight of some nature but it's rare that the highlight of my day is before 7 in the moring, but today I could happily gone back to bed knowing I'd done something that pleased me greatly.


It's not me, it's you.

In July 2009 I did something I hadn't done in over ten years, I signed a mobile phone contract. The release two years earlier of the iPhone had significantly changed the mobile communications market and the lack of mobile data and apps on the work phone I was using meant I was missing out on new developments in the market.

Three years later I found myself out of contract with O2, my mobile network provider. As I was happy with my current iPhone this seemed like an opportune moment to contact O2 and reduce my monthly bill, but two weeks later I have sworn off O2 for the foreseeable future and have come to realise that the mobile network providers are the latest legacy industry whose lack of foresight threatens their future.

While the specifics aren't important they will be familiar to anyone who has been frustrated by poor customer service. Phone calls to O2 went unanswered, some calls were disconnected due to high call volume and many were abandoned simply because I was unwilling to spend even longer on hold. I even visited my local O2 shop thinking that might help, but the employees pointed out they were retail staff rather than customer service staff and were therefore unable to help me, then handed me a land-line phone and asked me to sit in the corner. It was only five minutes later that I realised that I was in the same phone queue I'd been trying to get to the head of for several days. The person I had spoken to in-store had passed me off to someone else and was busily selling new contracts to new customers, he appeared to have no interest in supporting current, paying, customers. O2 and I were done.

It took a further 24 hours before I was able to get in touch with an O2 representative, and that was only through an on-line text chat function on the O2 website, and it took over an hour to get the PAC code I needed so that I could retain my existing phone number. In less than ten days I had gone from content customer to an ex-customer vowing never to return, and at no point in the entire process had I managed to speak to anyone.

Over the last 20 years the mobile networks built a hugely profitable business based on selling expensive ‘value-added’ services to consumers over their networks. But the mobile phone industry is now a high-tech industry at the consumer end as well, and as many high-tech companies have discovered if you are not the disrupting factor in your industry someone else will be. Like so many before them, the mobile phone networks are reluctant to kill their cash cows. For example, global research company Ovum says that in the next four years US mobile operators will have lost $54 billion in SMS revenue, in no small part because they were happy to continue charging extortionate prices for SMS services beyond the point customers had cheaper and better options, they simply drove customers away.

The mobile network providers are in the process of being relegated to the position of basic infrastructure providers rather than that of added value service providers. Owning the customer relationship has allowed mobile network providers to ignore the changes in the industry but the Internet can now provide all the services phone companies currently do and so much more as well. I spent two weeks in California last year and by using freely available WiFi hot spots I was able to stay in touch with friends and family without incurring any roaming or international charges from O2.

The widespread adoption of smartphones has changed the mobile phone industry. Rather than look at the direction technology is pushing their industry and getting behind that change, companies like O2 are choosing to dig their heels in an attempt to maintain existing business models. While you can argue that there are some advantages to the mobile network providers subsidise the high up-front cost of smartphones by locking customers into expensive multi-year contracts to. You can even put forward an arguments that explains  that companies like O2 appear to be cutting back on customer services but any company that fails to place the highest value on customer services is treading water at best. Nothing is more frustrating for the customer than being being told "You've come through to the wrong department", "I can't deal with that", "you'll need to contact someone else" or the line from an O2 employee that so annoyed me this weekend "I'm retail service, not customer service so I can't help." Companies like Apple have shown that any interaction with the customer is an opportunity to improve their impression of you and differentiate yourself from competitors. View customer service as a function to run as cheaply as possible and it will cost you customers.

Those long term contracts so favoured by the service providers may offer low cost access to expensive smartphones but they don’t offer value for money.  Subsidised phones are not the bargain they seem and if you are willing to pay the full up front cost of your mobile phone you will save money in the long run, and that’s before you take into account that you are no longer locked into a 12 or 24 month contract.

While there will undoubtedly be well researched and reasoned justification why customer service has become so poor, the unfortunate truth for mobile network operators is that they are no longer in the unique position of adding value to the mobile communication experience. The real advances in mobile technology are driven by the likes of Apple and Google and it seems that the situation will only worsen for mobile network provides.

There is a good chance that at some point in the future I will go back to using the O2 infrastructure either through an MVNO (mobile virtual network operator) like Giffgaff or even directly as an O2 customer, but what I will never again do is sign a long term contract with a mobile phone provider, and for that I should thank O2.


Flash, Brass & Amos

Despite the fact that the length of time I've lived in London can now be measured in decades, last night was the first time I've been to the Royal Albert Hall. The bands I tend to see play venues closer in size and quality to Whelans Pub in Dublin or, if I'm lucky, the Empire in Shepard's Bush. I tend to associate venues with a particular type of artist so it seemed rather fitting that my first trip to the Royal Albert Hall was to see Tori Amos joined by the Metropole Orchestra.

Tori Amos & The Metropole Orchestra at The Royal Albert Hall

So first the bad news. I never realised or appreciated that when I've attended classical or orchestral performances in the past, they've been in smaller venues that didn't require thousands of kilowatts of amplification to ensure the entire audience could hear. I shouldn't have been surprised that the 'band' needed a big setup to ensure the 5,000+ people in the audience could hear in a venue as capacious as the Royal Albert Hall.

And here's a totally non-shocking revelation. My sound system at home, designed to produce the best results for just one person, is better than the sound system used in the Royal Albert Hall last night. Rock lacks the subtly that can expose the limitations of sounds systems designed to fill big venues, but as soon as you have string and brass instruments the limitations of those stadium filling systems become apparent. Those Amos songs that make full use of the big wall of sound that an orchestra can produce fared better, while the more nuanced songs sounded clipped and brassy. Which seems ironic as the brass section, French Horns in particular, sounded rather good. And that forte of big sound systems, bass you can feel in your torso, wasn't there. From a pure musical fidelity perspective listening at home was more rewarding.

But there is something about a live performance that the best equipment at home can never reproduce, and when those crowd pleasing tracks burst from the stage all thoughts of music fidelity dissolve when faced with the sound of cheers from the audience. No one was there last night to critique the amplifiers or speakers, we were there with 5,000 other fans to enjoy 50 musicians at the top of their game.

This was not music produced and processed over weeks, this was live, one take, winner takes all music. There were the odd mistakes, swearing and even a do-over on the first song, but this was an experience that no CD can compete with. This was the Tori Amos who proved on her last album what that full classical sound can bring to her music and is now applying that sound to some of the best of her back catalogue. This was fusion music, new skills applied to old favourites. This was Deutsche Grammophon, the teenage years.

My other recollection from last night was camera related. It seemed almost everyone last night had a camera. Not just smartphones, there were a few big Digital SLR cameras to be seen dotted amongst the audience. This touches on one of my pet hates, people using camera flash in stadiums. There were several photo journalists present for the first song, and anyone who took a moment to watch them should have noticed that despite the darkness in the hall none of them were using flash or focus assist lights. You could hear camera shutters fire every now and again but there was not a bright flashing light to be seen.

While the pros weren't using flash most of the people using camera phones were. I won't take the time to explain the physics but when you're sat 50 metres from the stage the little LED camera flash powered by the 5 volt battery in your phone can't compete with, or add to, the 100,000 watts of state of the art stage lighting. All you do is run your battery flat and light the back of the head of the person in front of you, and last night I caught glimpses of the backs of lots of heads. I don't have a problem with people using cameras in venues like this (some of the photos I took last night are in this post) but it would be nice if they understood that flash doesn't work in these types of situations and stopped illuminating people's bald spots.

But despite small minded complaints about cameras and performance of the sound system, my first trip to the Royal Albert Hall, and my first time seeing Tori Amos live resulted in a night to remember, for all the right reasons.


Have you ever listened to.....

Over the last few years I may have moved to consuming media digitally where ever possible but there is still a FM radio in my bathroom that gets used everyday. Sadly for the BBC Radio 4's listening figures it's only used to catch up on the morning's headlines while I brush my teeth. In fact with the exception of one or two BBC podcasts I rarely listen to the radio and never listen to music.

It wasn't always like this, radio was how I found new music. Many afternoons and evenings were spent with my finger hovering over the record button on a tape deck waiting for songs on the radio that I liked so I could enjoy music on my schedule. Even then I avoided the more mainstream radio shows, and while we may not have had John Peel in Ireland we did have Dave Fanning on RTE Radio 2. Fanning's record collection may not have reached the size that Peel's did but I looked forward to the opening bars of Fleetwood Mac's 'Oh Well' indicating that Dave Fanning's show was starting (While I enjoy the more produced sound of the late 1970's Rumours era Fleetwood Mac, Oh Well was 1960's Pete Green, black & white, raw guitar and blues Fleetwood Mac. As someone once called it, dirty old Mac).

Music discovery for me now takes two forms. While friends and family regularly suggest music worth listening to (like my Brother in Law offering me a spare ticket to see tUnE-yArDs in Dublin last year), the greatest source of music discovery for me now is TV shows and Movies.

If you can wander away from the lowest common denominator TV shows that fill our TVs today, you find that TV can showcase great music. While The L Word will be remembered for filling the screen with the lives, losses and loves of lipstick lesbians, many overlook the quality of music used in the show, Natalia Zukerman, Holly Miranda, even Feist before that iPod advert catapulted her into the mainstream. I only have to look at the music tags in Shazam (a smartphone app that can identify tracks by listening to them) grabbed while watching TV to see that the TV shows I now enjoy are the source of so much of the great music I've discovered over the last few years.

But there are other sources. This morning, while browsing I came across a trailer for new documentary called Black Air. The documentary is about a muscle car manufactured by Buick in the early 1980s called the Grand National. Seen by some as the swan song of the American muscle car, the Grand National was initially ignored because rather than following the traditional muscle car formula of stuffing a big yank V8 engine into an intermediate sized car platform, the Grand National used the more European idea of employing a smaller engine but equipping it with fuel injection and turbo charging. While many in the US never appreciated this less traditional muscle car it has achieved a cult following in the last ten years, so much so that a documentary about the cars and its fans is being released on 11th December 2012, 25 years to the day that the last Buick Grand National rolled off the production line.

Black Air is an independent movie made on a shoestring budget, and this is were things become more interesting. Small budgets mean licensing costs rule out those expensive lowest common denominator musicians and bands. Rather than use expensive bands or cheap 'muzak' the director choose to use a local folk band to provide the soundtrack to the movie's trailer. Entitled 'Stones Awakening' it's a wonderful piece of music.

So thanks to a trailer for an independent movie you're unlikely to hear about, never mind watch, I have now become a fan of a Michigan based indie folk group called Doug Mains & The City folks, and they made a $5 sale to man in London who discovered their music over his Sunday morning Coffee because he was interested in an obscure American muscle car with a cult following.

And what makes me really happy, there wasn't a record company in sight.


Sunset, Kingston Upon Thames

Surrey County Hall Clock Tower, Kingston Upon Thames