The WTA’s three-way comeback trail fight

We are rapidly heading towards the point of the year where Wimbledon takes over UK TV screens. Currently, the WTA and ATP tours are finishing up their stints on the orange clay, with the French Open still to come, but attention has already turned to the highlight of the grass court season (and arguably the entire tennis-related year). This year, there are no less than three women with everything to fight for heading into Wimbledon, and no Serena Williams to dominate, it couldn’t really be a more interesting battle all set to take place under the Centre Court roof.

Maria Sharapova

I’m still not really sure where I fall in terms of reaction to Maria’s comeback. I tend to fall on the side that she probably wasn’t intentionally trying to cheat when she failed the drug test last year, but I also do think she hasn’t shown the contrition we might expect from someone returning from a drugs ban. However, the frisson of tension that her return has brought has really spiced up some of the recent tournament. The Bouchard/Sharapova match that played out recently would not have been so interesting if there hadn’t been beef between the two players.

Now, Maria has failed to gain entry to the French Open and has agreed to accept her qualifying spot in Wimbledon without applying for a wildcard to the main draw. She’ll have to fight to get into the main draw with the rest of the players, and will have additional matches under her belt (for better or worse) if she makes it. Does she have the fitness to complete a full fortnight of competition? Or will she even make it through qualifying at Roehampton?

Viktoria Azarenka

I can’t say I was really a fan of Azarenka before she dropped out of the sport for a knee injury and then extended her leave to start a family. The screeching, you know? But she’s a good player and one of the few that could really challenge Serena and get under her skin. I do approve of an athlete that takes maternity leave and opts to come back, and it’s great that the sport allows her to keep her sixth place ranking if she returns within a year.

I really think it will be interesting to see what she can achieve. Others have returned from having children and been super successful, but we will soon find out if Azarenka’s Wimbledon target is too soon, or if she’s ready to return to the top.

Petra Kvitova

It was horrifying to hear what happened to Kvitova – attacked with a knife in her own home, and suffering injuries that have kept her out of the sport for months. But she has been nothing but inspirational about the whole thing. No doubt shaken initially, she took only a day or two before issuing statements that said she would do everything within her power to come back.

I haven’t been following her progress closely, but saw a picture a few weeks ago of her holding a racquet and training, and I felt gladdened. Now she has targeted a Wimbledon return as well, and it will be nothing short of wonderful to see her back on the grass court she loves so much.

Three incredible athletes all on the comeback trail, with everything to prove and a wide open draw that means anything could happen. It’s so exciting!

Podcast of the Month: 50 Things that Made the Modern Economy

The format of visiting a subject through a certain number of tangential objects has been done a few times, but I’ve found this recent iteration from the BBC fascinating. Tim Harford, one of the Beeb’s resident economists, covers fifty things that have, in some way, shaped the economy that we know and live with today. If you had to list some things, you’d probably say credit cards, interest rates, banks, etc, etc, but there’s a lot more to it than that.

What I love about this show is that it’s relatively short, so gives you information to think about in bitesize chunks and then sends you off on your day to see if you agree or not. The “things” chosen are often quite surprising, but when Harford reveals the history and what a difference they have made to the world, you see why they’ve been selected. The explanations of how each thing evolved are clear and concise, well told, and make you think.

Recent surprises include intellectual property, air conditioning, and that ever so innocuous item, the TV dinner.

The episodes, via the BBC, are available to listen to indefinitely which means you can wait till all 50 have been revealed before embarking on the journey or snap them up one by one as they are released. There’s also a book on the same topic, although at the moment I’m definitely preferring to listen to the podcasts and see what interesting “thing” will come next.

Buffy the HD slayer

For the longest time, I’ve been wanting to buy Buffy the Vampire Slayer on iTunes, but I’ve held off because it’s not in HD. Plenty of older content is being converted into HD, but I understood that Buffy was a particularly tricky one to convert, what with it being all special effects and kick-ass movement.

I hadn’t realised that the conversion had already been attempted a couple of years ago, with incredibly awful results.

This video is so interesting mostly because it shows just how hard a process it is. From the looks of it, the conversion was done automatically and no one went back and reviewed the new footage. There’s no excuse for putting a show on TV that reveals cameraman and lights from outside the shot. (Although this also happened quite famously with Friends!)

I suppose it is cost-prohibitive to have someone actually sit through and watch the programme and make sure it is up to scratch. I can understand if there are some compromises that have to be made, but given that it’s a show about vampires and the dark, seedy underworld that comes with that, the difference between light and shade is so crucial to the essence of the show that it needs to be retained. The clip in the video of the underwater scene so bright then emerging into the dark is just crazy.

I’m all for current widescreen dimensions, but I do agree with the above video that if the filmmakers chose it to be a certain way and are keen for that to remain, then you should stay loyal to that. I don’t care what shape or size the footage is really, just that it’s good quality in both visuals and content.

Having seen this attempt at upscaling Buffy into HD, I’m now thinking I’d be better off owning the SD version, rather than waiting to see if they ever can get it right. I hope they can, I think there’s a large battalion of loyal Buffy fans that would want to see quality footage, rendered correctly, loyal to the original. That’s not too much to ask, is it?

On the record 2017, Part 4: Like having a warm hug with a friend

The past few weeks have been superbly exciting for me in terms of music but it’s been a lot of singles. It feels like we’re waiting, waiting, waiting for all the new and fabulous albums that are to come. This is the first year in a long time that I’ve been anxious to get my hands on new albums before they arrive, before they’ve even been finished perhaps.

That’s not to say that there haven’t been some excellent ones that I will talk about in the list below. (I’m looking at you Paramore.)

Week 16

  • Youth, Tinie Tempah
    The format of rapping and inviting a guest in to complete the chorus works very well to me. Tinie Tempah has great beats, although his lyrics can be hit and miss. Some of the references are perfect, others are a little cringey. But overall a great album.
  • Raintown, Deacon Blue
    Like this album. It’s very 80s, and many of the songs all have that similar Dignity vibe about them, but that’s a good vibe, so why not? Has a lot of re-listenability though, kind of gentle easy listening but also with some strong and catchy moments to keep you paying attention.

Week 17

  • Tears on the Dancefloor, Steps
    This is just classic Steps. After 15 years, you’d think their sound has changed, and maybe it’s marginally more grown up but for the most part, it’s still that Abba pop sound that they do so well. I really enjoyed it, partly because I loved Steps before but also because there isn’t a lot of pop like this around anymore.
  • Random Access Memories, Daft Punk
    Really enjoyed this album, it’s definitely an indication of what music will be like when the robots officially inherit the earth. Lots of good beats and repeated lyrics to get right into your head. The only one I didn’t like was Giorgio with far too much chatting.

Week 18

  • Places, Lea Michele
    Surprisingly good, actually, although you have to really be in the mood for some soul-searching, slow-warbling, meaningful stuff. Interestingly found this better than Emeli Sande, where it’s the same kind of genre.
  • Park Life, Blur
    Ah, love this, it’s totally random and quirky. The songs veer from well-known catchy classics to the more oddball instrumentals, but it is so refreshing to have songs that aren’t just about love! A really entertaining album.

Week 19

  • Jump on Board, Texas
    Lovely to have Texas back, with Sharlene’s silky smooth vocals guiding us through a love song or two. It’s a good album, probably not groundbreaking in any way, but it’s like having a warm hug with a friend.
  • Cracked Rear View, Hootie & the Blowfish
    I really liked this album. I only knew a couple of the songs going in, but it’s a lot of good guitar pop and you can occasionally here the echoes of why Darius Rucker went into country in the end. Great songs, beautifully 90s, top addition to the collection. Interesting note: huge amount of lyrics referencing crying and tears.

Week 20

  • After Laughter, Paramore
    Mmm, love this album! I was so excited for it to arrive, which hasn’t happened with many albums so far. It lived up the expectation, great tunes, intensely eighties from start to finish and just a lovely mix of honest emotions, hopeful optimism and realistic sadness. Love it, have and will listen many times.
  • Hopes and Fears, Keane
    This is a really good, classic album. They have a different sound to most, with that missing guitar element, and that makes it a more maudlin effort than I remembered. Great collection of songs though, really a staple for any music library.

What consistently amazes me about this album adventure is the sheer variety of choice there is. I know that’s a stupid thing to say, but going week to week and listening to completely different genres and voices every time is a revelation.

Michael Palin’s town-planning dreams

Working my way through Michael Palin’s first collection of diaries, and stumbled across this paragraph – a dream of utopia that is still relevant today, even though we’re further away than ever.

I’m glad that there are cars and planes and television and washing machines, and I think we cannot suddenly pretend that they have not been invented – but I feel we must control their use, and that they should be used not to dictate but to stimulate.

Any urban planning should include an open play area at least twice the size of the car park, instead of the opposite; there should be severe restrictions on cars in central London – but above all, in every area there should be greater encouragements for people to meet and talk – not in official meetings or on two nights a week, but all the time.

There should be space indoors and outdoors, where people would want to stop and gather. At the base of every block of flats there should be a big, well-furnished well-equipped coffee shop or restaurant, a big foyer with papers, magazines, books on sale – and even a few fairground attractions.

It would mean a radical redirection of funds available for housing, but one quarter of the vast wealth in the hands of private property developers would, I think, help to equalise a system which at present is doomed – the colossal difference in living conditions which is being widened every day as new council estates are built on the cheap – and with them is built boredom, jealousy, repression, anger…

Michael Palin, 1972

Thoughts on Eurovision’s new revision

The Eurovision Song Competition this weekend was a fun evening of drinking wine and watching a variety of singing acts doing their thing, but despite the enjoyment of the evening, it left me a little flat. I thought at first it was because a serious song had won the whole thing. Portugal’s guy was clearly very talented but it didn’t really feel in the spirit of Eurovision – this is a competition about sassy gorillas and yodelling rappers after all.

But then, as Twitter quite graciously reminded me, it’s not about who wins. I can’t remember the last time I voted for an act that ended up winning the whole thing.

I think what really left me downhearted was the way the voting takes away all of the tension that I used to enjoy. I can see what they have tried to do – the last few years before the change saw runaway winners so that you didn’t even need the final few countries to pass judgement, we already knew who was taking home the trophy. This new system means that doesn’t happen.

But it also means sitting through 40+ countries announcing the results of their jury vote, which are absolutely meaningless. The big conceit is that we get to the end of the jury vote and “it’s all still okay, anyone could win it, your votes mean more.” So… what’s that all about then? It’s fun to laugh at the presenters and wish they would just get on with it if you know their announcements are crucial. If they are just filling time for the votes to be counted then I’m really less bothered.

And don’t get me started on the fact the juries cast their vote based on a previous night’s performance. They’re not even judging the same thing as us! The act could have sung totally out of tune, fallen over and ripped their costume, and still get ALL the jury votes. So bizarre.

Once that pointless exercise is out the way, you rip roar through the viewer votes with barely a chance to blink. The existing table is completely turned on its head, and you can only root for your country until it is booted out with a low score at the very start of the process. They are announcing countries without context, so I can’t remember which act is which, and in the end the result is the same as everyone predicted, no matter how much X-Factor style tension the presenters try to create.

I remember very little from one Eurovision to the next but I do remember disliking this format last year too. Perhaps I am the only one, because most of what I have seen online and on the night was superbly excited about the new version. Still it doesn’t matter because I will forget this in twelve months’ time and still sit down ready and waiting for a new batch of bizarre belters.