New Top Gear: Not bad if I do say so myself

Oh boy.

This was always going to divide opinion, but I actually liked this newly revamped Top Gear.  But here’s the thing that people must remember: it’s the first episode.  It’s the first episode of a new series which required significant changes in staff both in front of and behind the camera.  And they’ve had about the same preparation time as the old series.

So I think Chris Evans and chums have done a spectacularly great job given the circumstances.  Given that I can see what’s going on at the Top Gear test track and studio as I worked next door to them, the amount of effort being put into the show is no less than 100% – in fact, I’d say there’s more staff (security and crew) and more kit than previous series.  They even had the production office (a cabin) spruced up.  As we’ve seen, there’s now a dirt track to liven up the segment formally called Star in a Reasonably Priced Car.

Try trawling Twitter, and you’ll come across all manner of opinions – all the way from knuckle dragging idiots that are calling the new presenters all names under the sun, through to “boring”, through to thinking the BBC could simply produce animatronic puppets of the original presenters and keep exactly the same show as before.

One thing that irritated me was Carole “Countdown” Vorderman’s comment:

which is silly.

Carol Vorderman has worked extensively on many TV series, including revamps, she should know better that you’re not going to get things completely right in the first episode of a new series – and a new series that has been given a bit of a revamp and was extremely popular beforehand. It took Clarkson and chums 10 years to get the format to what is was.  The camaraderie between the presenters took a while to build as well.  The point is, the expectation that the team were either going to be clones of the original team, or that there would be super witty un-PC “banter” right off the bat was presumptuous and wrong.

So I tweeted her to say as such (I was not rude or disrespectful – I like the lady). I was immediately blocked, and Twitter informed that my account was suspended temporarily as they suspected something bad had happened. So I reset my password and got back in.

Miss Vorderman is completely entitled to her opinion, and she’s entitled to block or report whomever she pleases. But it suggests to me that she’s not receptive to anybody thinking that maybe – just maybe – one should give your fellow industry colleagues a bit more of chance and not write the whole thing off instantly.  She didn’t like it – fine.  We get that.  But to be so dismissive.. sigh.

Also, unless she’s been privileged to watch unfinished episodes of Amazon’s The Grand Tour, she can’t make assumptions about that until it airs. Just because it features Clarkson, Hammond and May doesn’t mean it’ll immediately be brilliant.

In any event, I don’t think we can expect Carol Vorderman to turn up on the new Top Gear show attempting the improved test track…

In the mean time, let’s give peace a chance. Let’s wait and see what the new Top Gear team has up their sleeves in future episodes. I’m sure they’re monitoring social media, the newspapers, and so on, and maybe (because the show is recorded two weeks before it airs – obviously except for the big VT pieces), adjustments can be made. But don’t write the show off completely yet, please. It’d be an insult to the very hard work that’s gone into this thing.

X-Men: Apocalypse – Silly, but great fun

Empire Magazine rated X-Men: Apocalypse just two stars, but if I paid attention to all movie reviews, I’d never go and see any.  But last night I utilised my Odeon Limitless pass to watch the latest installment in the X-Men franchise.

I’ve been fond of the X-Men movies since the first film was released in 2000.  Heck, I even managed to get to work on one of the films (X-Men: The Last Stand) – but that’s pretty much universally acknowledged as being the worst out the whole series – old and new.  I wholeheartedly agree (at least plot-wise – the VFX were, of course, phenomenal, but then again I’m biased).  Sigh.  But after Matthew Vaughn and Jane Goldman released X-Men First Class, the franchise was back to its good old self.

Apocalypse’s 144 minutes crams a lot in – just like Captain America: Civil War.  We’re dealing with an ancient mutant, Magneto and his family, the introduction to Jean Grey (played by Game of Thrones Sansa Stark herself, Sophie Turner), Nightcrawler, Quicksilver and Cyclops.  We’re seeing the first proper formation of Charles Xavier’s X-Men.  It’s a big family drama that just happens to feature an extraordinarily large amount of digital visual effects.  My former employers, MPC, are the lead facility on this film and they do a grand job.  But be warned: some of the effects go a bit cartoony at times.  Especially comical was Quicksilver’s rescue of the students after Apocalypse turns up to wreck havoc.  But I did love the pizza eating pug.

And then there’s the ending.  The CG VFX is cranked up to 11. At one point we’re treated to a game of punch tennis, with Apocalypse as the tennis ball.  Very surreal, very silly, very cartoony, and quite frankly hilarious.  But I actually liked it!  It was different.  Completely off the wall stuff.   There was one plot point that didn’t make sense given the circumstances, and it’s perhaps a little too early to discuss it here because of spoilers, but I’m sure the filmmakers have a reasonable explanation prepared.

Yes, by all means X-Men: Apocalypse is not without its flaws, but at the same time it’s by no means bad.  Just switch off one’s brain, enjoy the visuals, the explosions, the madness.  It’s not a bad way of spending 144 minutes.

Apple turnover: Replacing a bricked 9.7″ iPad Pro due to 9.3.2 firmware

Yesterday I popped up to London to get my recently bricked (thanks to the latest 9.3.2 firmware update) 9.7″ iPad Pro fixed.  Having arranged what I think must be my first ever Genius appointment in the 12+ years I’ve been using Apple products, I took a leisurely poot on the 139 bus from Waterloo Station up to Regent’s Street/Oxford Circus.

The Regent Street Apple Store is currently under refurbishment at the moment, so you have to walk down (or take a lift) downstairs to a temporary area full of tables, people and Apple Store staff in green shirts.  I’ve always had problems with the Apple Store layouts in that they never put up any signs pointing you to where things are, or what they do.  You wouldn’t go shopping in a supermarket and have to figure out where the canned soup is, so why should a high end technlology store be any different?  For example, I joined a smallish queue with an Apple Store staff member at the end dealing with queries.  I had naturally assumed this is where I had to check in for my appointment.

Not so.

Apparently I could have flagged anybody down and be shephearded over to empty desks to wait for somebody to come and see me about my problem.  And this is what happened.  After a wait of about 5 minutes, a chap came over and I described the problem: upgrading the iPad Pro OTA (over the air) to 9.3.2 , which worked fine for the large iPad Pro and iPhone 6S Plus, bricked the smaller iPad Pro.  I attempted numerous restores – even downloading the 9.3.1 update and attempting to apply that.  I attempted a full wipe and restore.  No dice.  Error 56 every single time.

So the Apple Store Genius chap brought out his MacBook Air and attempted to do the same.  No dice on every occasion.  Error 56 (hardware problem).  Whatever Apple did with the 9.3.2 update should never do that sort of thing.  I occasionally get very nervous flash updating hardware RAID controller firmware at work, but I should never have to face complete and total hardware replacement if I update my iOS device’s OS and firmware.

Anyway, it was determined that the iPad Pro was a very dead iPad Pro and was not pining for the Fjords as Apple suspected.  The Genius staff member took away the iPad because with the lights in the store was making it very difficult to read the etched serial number on the back of the unit.  He also attempted to locate replacement stock, but it turns out the Regent Street store was completely out.  For at least 7 days.  But thankfully the Covent Garden store did have some available and he made a reservation for me to go and pick it up immediately (I had 45 minutes to get there – the store closes at 8pm).  It was that, or wait until Apple release some form of update that undoes everything – but as there is no timescale for this, and we don’t know WHAT the 9.3.2 firmware actually did, it was too much of a gamble.

So I Ubered over to the Covent Garden store.  That was a mistake.  I forgot just how busy London traffic is.  But we got there with 15 minutes to spare.  Upon entering the store, I was passed around 4-5 different Apple Store staff members – going forwards and backwards before I was about to lose my temper.  Again, no signs in the store to indicate where I should be going.  But thankfully I helpful chap took my details and walked back with me to the right place to get hold of the reserved replacement unit.  Within 10 minutes we swapped out the SIM and was getting going with restoring from the last iCloud backup.  About 10 minutes after the store closed I had a working iPad Pro 9.7″ again.

I am not updating from 9.3 until the next release of iOS (which should be 9.3.3) and that I have seen people update successfully first.  This entire little adventure has cost me £40 including train, bus and Uber fares.  All because Apple mucked up a firmware update.  And because Apple made it impossible to restore from a backup.

I will be writing to Apple about this, and enclosing my reasonable invoice to reclaim the fees paid to get the unit replaced.  Interestingly, I was made to sign something electronically which I managed to muck up.  The Apple Store staff appear to use older iPads that don’t support Apple Pencil, so I was expected to use my finger to sign.  Which I didn’t – I just clicked Done.  Does that still tie me to the T&Cs?  I don’t know.  We’ll see what Apple says when I write to them.

Breaking Bad Apple: Firmware update bricks my iPad Pro

I have a 9.7″ iPad Pro to go along with the 12.9″ model, because if you’re reading magazines, books or anything that requires holding the device more than 5 minutes, your arm will ache when using its bigger brother.

So you imagine how extremely hacked off I was when Apple rolled out a new firmware update for iOS last week which worked perfectly well against my iPhone and bigger iPad, but subsequently bricked the newest member of the team.

When I say bricked, it bricked it good.  It’s completely unusable at the moment. I can’t restore from backups, and I can’t restore from an earlier firmware (especially after Apple rolled out a new version of iTunes).  As such, and as I’ve been unwell, I’ve made an appointment to go to London after work tomorrow to get the iPad replaced (reports indicate that Apple are swapping out the units after their own restore processes have failed).

The thing about the restore process, BTW, is that it requires a Mac or PC.  So much for Apple advertising the iPad Pro range as replacement computers.  How can that be if you need a blasted PC to be able to restore firmware?!

Having invested heavily in Apple over the years (although one should say I should have invested in shares, not the gadgets), I am finding myself losing faith and trust in the company every time something bad happens.  And it’s been happening a lot of late (especially with Apple Music, which has been a massive disaster in my eyes).  Recent iOS and to a lesser extent, OS X, updates, have been bug ridden piles of nonsense which should never have seen public release.  I can’t imagine how much testing goes on, but clearly it’s not enough.

The only thing is that unless you’re actively reading tech news, you might not have known there was a problem with the 9.3.2 update for 9.7′ iPad Pros.  Apple sure as hell will email the hell out of you to try and buy their latest product – but if they subsequently remove firmware for a product you own (that’s in warranty) after they’ve discovered a problem – no matter the scope of the problem – forget it.  They rarely apologise for their muck-ups.

So now I’ve got to pay more money to take the train to London and get somebody to swap out the product.  It may well be a refurbished model at that.  Marvellous.

I’d like to go back to a Windows based PC and move to Android, but neither platform is able to do what I want it to do.  At least not completely.  And without cost.   I appreciate nothing’s perfect, but I expect much higher standards from Apple who go out their way to convince you they care about the customer.  This appears to no longer be true.  Apple need to step up to the plate, admit they’ve caused significant problems for customers (regardless of how small or big the problem is) and get it fixed – without cost to the customer.  It’s their ecosystem, their responsibility.

For my 40th birthday..

.. (which was yesterday, BTW), I was stuck indoors having had a chest infection for the past two weeks.  During that time I’ve been on holiday and off-work, and have had my ex-wife come by to help sort out her stuff at the house.  But as the coughing/vomiting wasn’t getting any better, I went along to the docs on Tuesday to get some antibiotics – which is working, more or less.

During the time I was sick, I started to run out of food.  So I gave Amazon Prime Now a chance.  It’s pretty good – two hour, same day delivery window.  It doesn’t have as much selection as a proper supermarket, but it does cover the basics.  So I bought bread milk, cheese, mineral water and other bits and bobs.  As I was getting a bit bored, I also bought a 7 disc X-Men movie collection.  Due to an error in the checkout process, the promotional £10 off a £30 spend didn’t work.  So I called Prime Now support who credited me £10.  It was then I discovered that the £10 promo HAD been applied and in fact got £20 off the shop.  Effectively I paid for the movie, and got the food for free.  As I spend a lot of Amazon anyway, I don’t feel too guilty about getting an extra £10 off.

I also bought a few other Blu-Rays during the week: The Lady in the Van, Bridge of Spies, Room, The Hateful Eight, and Steve Jobs.  I’d already seen Steve Jobs before and deem it to be a most excellent film (interestingly for those looking for the excitement of product announcements, forget it – this is very much a human drama about his relationship with his daughter, Lisa).

I’ve never been too fond of westerns before my colleague Dave at work introduced me to some classics, but I really got into Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight.  Shot in the good old Ultra Panavision (65mm, projected at 70mm) with lenses that came from the old cameras back in the 60s, this is a wonderfully tense western almost entirely set in a single location – a cabin caught in a dreadful blizzard.  As the drama unfolds, you’re treated to violence that would make Game of Thrones look like the Teletubbies.

The Lady in the Van was a pleasant surprise.  I wasn’t sure what to make of it when it hit the cinema (and had avoided it), but I’m very glad to have bought the Blu-Ray.  As you’d expect, Dame Maggie Smith as Miss Shepherd is wonderfully cantankerous.  She really did live in Alan Bennett’s drive for 15 years, and his interactions with her are comedic and yet heartfelt.  The ending is fantastic (both figuratively and literally).

Perhaps the best of all was Bridge of Spies.  Directed by Steven Spielberg from a script by the Coen Brothers and Matt Chapman, this film is inspired by true events.  In 1957, the FBI captures Rudolf Abel, a suspected spy for Russia.  Tom Hanks stars as James B. Donovan, an insurance lawyer with criminal law experience who is asked to represent Abel in court.  When the US sends a pilot in an experimental plane to spy on Russian territory which goes horribly wrong, Donovan is sent to East Berlin to negotiate the release of the American – in exchange for Abel.  The entire story is riveting from start to finish, and one of the best Cold War thrillers I’ve seen.  I thoroughly enjoyed it.

I’ve not seen Room yet – probably will get a chance to do so this week.

So that was it.  My 40th birthday.  Two more years until the meaning of Life, the Universe and Everything.