Posted in Travel

Baby it’s warm outside: Christmas in Corralejo

Christmas doesn’t have to be white (or even grey). In 2015, I swapped the turkey for another, sunnier breed of bird: a Canary Island called Fuerteventura. If it is winter warmth you seek, on the Canary Islands you shall find it. Tucked off the coast of Morocco, Fuerteventura doesn’t really do winter. Even in deepest December, temperatures flirt with the low-to-mid twenties, and the sky stays stays a blissed-out shade of blue. This attracts, unsurprisingly, no few holiday makers: escapees from the numbing gloom and desperate damp of the UK. What, after all, makes Brits feel merrier: Christmas and chilblains, or flip-flops and factor 40?

Flying in the week before Christmas, I visited Corralejo – a resort perched on Fuerteventura’s north-eastern shoulder. In its past life, Corralejo was an unassuming fishing village, before the tourists – lured by wandering sand dunes and golden, foam-lapped beaches – came calling in the 1970s. In their wake sprouted bars and bodegas, hotels and apartment blocks, restaurants and cafés, souvenir shops and bike hire outlets. All of which can be spotted along the rather tired-looking main strip, but go wandering and there’s plenty a characterful corner to be discovered – a drowsy town square here, a romantic marina there. The old tourist information centre is lonely and boarded up, and there’s the odd ghost hotel along the front – abandoned developments doomed for the wrecking ball – but for the most part Corralejo has a quiet air of purpose and activity. It hums.

It howls too. Fuerteventura translates roughly as ‘strong winds,’ and in Corralejo they blow uncommonly hard. Hard enough, anyway, to tousle your hair and imperil your beach towel, and in the midday sun it can even feel a little chilly. You won’t need to hole yourself up in the nearest storm cellar, but come dusk it’s a good idea to bundle up against the wind’s bitter bite. As for the daytime, that’s where the sand dunes come in. Nature in her wisdom has placed scores of them to Corralejo’s south, and in a pinch they’ll do you very well as shelters from the gale. Assuming, of course, you haven’t donned your board shorts and met the wind head on: Corralejo’s crashing, foam-crested waves make it a surfer’s mecca, even if, admittedly, the December sea gets chillier than a whale’s backside. Only enthusiast-grade swimmers should consider wading in without a wetsuit.

Not being surfing sorts, it wasn’t long before my girlfriend and I looked for amusements elsewhere. An excursion maybe, a boat trip perhaps? The worm of wanderlust stirring in our breasts, we visited the (non-boarded-up) tourist information centre to sift the options. As it turned out, there were no lack of available excursions, and those seeking boat trips weren’t unprovided for either. But in truth, we were after something a little more off-piste. To escape the throngs, to step off the map, to venture where the air was pure and the sky stretched huge overheard. ‘I’ve just the thing for you,’ enthused the attendant. ‘Volcano walking.’ We became enthused too. Seeking and receiving assurances that the volcano in question was long dormant, we duly signed up.

Volcano walking, curiously, isn’t the most popular tourist pastime in Fuerteventura. On the wind-worried Monday morning of our trip, other than my girlfriend and me, there was no one in attendance. But no matter: weren’t we here to get away from the crowds? And anyway, we weren’t completely alone. Accompanying us on our upward climb was Fred, a Sherpa-style guide, who, when he wasn’t bounding like a mountain goat over the rocky outcrops and treacherous scree, was delivering botanical and geological asides with effortless erudition of a university don. In a couple of senses, we couldn’t keep up with him.

Armed with an aluminium walking pole (the volcano walker’s best friend), and being eyed warily by the resident goats, we pursued Fred to the top. Several times we stopped for selfies. More than once I fell over. But the payoff when we finally crested the summit made the bruises – and all the unflattering snaps – worth it. Spread like a carpet at our feet, Fuerteventura looked magnificent, all looming volcanoes, ancient dry-stone walls and undulating sand dunes lit golden by the December sun. Wiping our toiling brows, we couldn’t help but exclaim at the strange, jagged beauty of it all. (At least I think we did; obviously, nothing that was said could be heard above the wind.)

Thankfully, the wind didn’t blow all the time. It took some very welcome time off during our second excursion, a meal-and-stargazing evening some few days later. And for once, we weren’t the only attendees. A convoy of people carriers was needed to ferry everyone around: first to a restaurant for the meal (very nice, thank you), and then, for the stargazing, to an undisclosed location down a bumpy, dusty track in the Fuerteventura outback. Light pollution is low in the Canaries at the best of times, and in a setting this secluded, the darkness was rich and velvety. All the better to gaze into the inky vacuum of the cosmos, which we did through a telescope while listening to our astronomer-cum-guide drop nuggets of wisdom on quasars, dying suns and black holes. Very educational, but I must say it’s difficult to stay interested in heavenly bodies when your very own is so perishingly cold. The organisers had given us blankets in which to snug ourselves, but they weren’t nearly thermal enough to ward off the considerable late-night chill.

But of course it was chilly: Christmas was coming. And on the final full day of our week away, it arrived. Not that you’d have noticed in Corralejo, where nothing resembling lights, tinsel or Noddy Holder could be seen or heard, and everything was open for business. So, rather than spending Christmas afternoon gastronomically paralysed before the TV watching the Queen’s speech, I spent it in an Italian café sipping a chillaxed hot chocolate, lackadaisically watching locals criss-cross a sunny town square. It was, it seemed to me, Christmas as it should be spent: all relaxation, no hoopla. Which serves as a pretty accurate description of Fuerteventura itself. If you want to put the holiday in season, a Christmas in Corralejo has much to recommend it.

Posted in Video Games

Journal of the Plague Year: Surviving Tom Clancy’s The Division

tc-the-division-update-1-4-pts-patch-notes-1

It started well, if nothing else. At launch in March, Tom Clancy’s The Division was a sales prodigy, generating more than $330 million worldwide in its first five days – a record for a new gaming IP. But while the game sold like hotcakes, it wasn’t long before things went the way of the soufflé. By June, thanks in part to failings both unintended (glitches, bugs) and intended (an ungenerous endgame, a Dark Zone friendly to griefers), The Division’s playerbase on Steam had declined by more than ninety per cent. A game set in the aftermath of a smallpox pandemic was itself being tested for vital signs.

For my part, the downward spiral was especially depressing because, for the first month or two after release, I loved The Division. A little too much, if anything. The game hooked me like a talon, refusing to relax its grip. The graphics, the loot, yes, even the infamous Dark Zone – I was bonkers for all of it. I counted the day lost that was not spent in the streets of post-apocalyptic Manhattan, an alternative reality where numbers came out of people’s heads and time’s passing went unnoticed. Remarkably for such a social phobic, my favourite activity in the game was matchmaking with random players to complete the story missions. Playing solo was enjoyable too, but there was nothing quite like the esprit de corps of teamwork, of flanking enemies tactically or rushing in like a white knight to pull off clutch revives. Even impossible-seeming missions where the whole squad wiped multiple times (hello Hudson Refugee Camp) weren’t frustrating, but fun.

Most lapsed Division players can pinpoint the date when, for them, the fun stopped. For me it was with the release of patch 1.1 in April. Never mind the much-hated nerf to the crafting system, my main gripe was the arrival of ‘gear score,’ a crude power rating that could be viewed by all other players. Suddenly matchmaking wasn’t so simple: now you could get kicked from groups for the crime of having too low a score (below 190 or some other arbitrary sum). The result for me: a status anxiety I assumed I left behind when I logged on. The result for the game: a generalised prejudice against newer, lower-geared players.

Two more patches followed, but neither helped. Among The Division’s long-suffering community, one opinion is aired so often it’s become a truism: the game is best from levels 1-30. Ask someone mired in the unforgiving endgame about their 1-30 experience and watch them go into ecstasies of nostalgia as if recalling a golden age: when loot was plentiful, progress was meaningful and enemies could be killed without first spraying them with every bullet in your backpack. All this changes – how it changes! – once you hit level 30. Up goes the difficulty of the missions, down goes the quantity of build-improving loot: it’s almost as if developers Massive forgot what made the base game so great and determined to wipe the experience clean of every trace of fun. Like A Christmas Carol told in reverse, the game starts out generous and ends up as a miser, universally resented. The Division: the loot shooter that isn’t.

By the endgame, the stinginess really is bottomless. While it was at least possible, if laborious, to gear up as a solo player in patch 1.0 – using Phoenix Credits, high-end blueprints and crafting materials – it wasn’t from 1.1 onwards. To get the best gear, you needed to beat the hardest content. And to beat the hardest content, you needed the best gear. To square this impossible circle, we were encouraged – nay compelled – to group up with other, stronger players. But here’s the kicker: if your gear score wasn’t high enough, there was a good chance those stronger players wouldn’t let you in their group in the first place.

It was never clear, at least to this gamer, what The Division’s endgame has against the casuals (‘filthy casuals,’ if you will). The developers’ unsparing sternness seems to fly in the face of established videogame psychology, to reject that well-worn feedback loop where players are rewarded for successes – small and large – and thereby compelled to play on. I say this to Massive: we are happy to grind for our rewards. All we ask is a fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work. Ploughing through a metric ton of bullet-sponge enemies on the vanishingly slim chance that RNGesus might favour us with a useable drop – if The Division was a job, it would violate every employment law on the statute book. Is it any wonder that most of the playerbase, their patience spent, have gone on long-term strike?

But a change is coming. The tide is on the turn. Massive, the architects of so much torment for so many, have decided to listen. Or perhaps their Ubisoft overlords, in despair at the game’s haemorrhaging playerbase, went and bashed a few heads together. Either way, in September Massive hosted an ‘Elite Task Force’ in Malmö, Sweden, composed of prominent YouTubers, Twitch streamers and other names to reckon with in the community. The brief of the invitees: to diagnose the game’s failings and workshop the solutions (no pressure, then). Shortly after, Massive let it be known that a Public Test Server – or ‘PTS’ – would be released on PC, allowing us to playtest the new 1.4 patch before release. For beleaguered players like me, this was the first cold proof that they might actually be serious about putting The Division the right way up.

The PTS went live on September 26th, stained with the tears of Massive’s contrition, but I didn’t play it straight away. Five months had passed since I weaned myself from The Division’s teat, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to start suckling again just yet. After all, could a game this fucked ever be fixed? But curiosity eventually getting the better of my cynicism, I started playing. And I have to admit, I loved it. My sneer didn’t make it past the loading screen. Immediately it was clear that loot drops and difficulty levels had been rewired out of recognition. A new ‘world tier’ system let the player select a universal enemy level appropriate to their gear score, and conferred a palpable sense of endgame progress. But here was the best thing. To the general stupefaction of the playerbase, loot actually dropped. My eyebrows shot up and stayed there when I saw a teal gearset item – once so vanishingly rare – drop from a random mob. Lord god! This was unprecedentedly amazing.

More good news: the game was accessible to the casual player again. Challenge mode, once best tackled with a full squad and a stiff drink, was solo-able if you had decent gear. Some dissenting voices said that Massive had made the game too easy, had turned the loot taps on too full. Opinion divides sharply on this issue. Obviously the game has to get easier: this is a patch aimed at the lapsed, not the faithful. But if enemies are too squishy and loot too liberal, the playerbase will soon be all geared up with nowhere to go. There was a squeal from the community when the difficulty pendulum swung back the other way, but I think we’ve finally landed in the sweet spot.

Apparently, 1.4 will go live in October (most likely the 25th). For hardcore agents who’ve hung onto the game like grim death, as well as lapsed casuals (raises hand) who gave up a month after release, these are exciting times: a Year Zero for the game we love, or at any rate want to love. Of course, there’s a chance it’s all too little, too late – especially with Battlefield 1 and Titanfall 2 and Civilization 6 and even Watch Dogs 2 all competing for our thumbs. But I’m inclined to be optimistic. The Division may be in a downed state right now, but I think Massive have got the skill power to perform a revive.

Posted in Uncategorized

The Queen is Not Dead: Rise of the Tomb Raider

2809248-1424111574-11

Before she rose, the tomb raider very nearly fell. For reasons best known to themselves, publishers Square Enix launched Lara Croft’s latest on a date when most gamers had a diary clash. November 10th 2015 was – as everyone knows – the global release date of Fallout 4, a game which didn’t so much threaten to eclipse Rise of the Tomb Raider in sales as toast it for breakfast in an apocalyptic fission fireball. Sadly, it gets worse: owing to a timed exclusivity deal struck by Microsoft in a rearguard action against all-conquering Sony, ROTTR was available, initially, for Xbox gamers only. Who evidently weren’t tripping over themselves to buy it. The game shipped only 63,000 copies on launch in the UK, against its 2013 predecessor’s 183,000.

Those who did snap up ROTTR on launch – few though they were – would have no cause for remorse, however. The game is a triumph: bigger, better and more beautiful than its predecessor, and quite possibly the finest entry in Tomb Raider’s two-decade history. I should qualify this, firstly, with a word on the plot. A hidden-treasure MacGuffin reputed to grant eternal life? A father whose life work was devoted to tracking down said treasure? An evil collective determined to find and keep said treasure in a tilt at world domination? I mean, for shame, is it or isn’t it an unblushing rip-off of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade? Yes, the story does prod the action along competently enough, but if ROTTR didn’t breach the Copyright Act, it must have been a close-run thing.

Whether you deem Lara Croft or Indiana Jones better looking is a matter of taste, but I put it to you that no game, before or since, has better visuals than ROTTR. From knuckly cave openings in Syria to mountain passes in frostbitten Siberia, Rise is a game of commanding, ravishing beauty. Lara leaves deep trails as she tramps through thick snowdrifts, campfires look real enough to warm your hands on and the sight of godrays filtering through the shivering branches would make Wordsworth weep – especially if, like me, he played on PC. Truly, it’s a game unlikely to offend anyone’s aesthetics.

And ROTTR manages to be more than just an eye-popping tech demo. Recapturing the formula of its successful predecessor, it’s easy to pick up yet hard to put down. ‘Open world’ may be the catchword of the day, but ROTTR is defiantly, almost proudly linear, with an attention-to-detail that dazzles in the cinematic set pieces that see Lara being sprang at by bears, leaping across fast-disintegrating platforms and ducking from arrows shot by a sinister undead race. While the game plainly doesn’t have the depth of its exact-contemporary Fallout 4, there is a cod-RPG progression system akin to Far Cry or Assassin’s Creed, letting you upgrade Lara’s skills and weaponry – though even at the start of the game, she feels plenty powerful enough.

Combat is satisfying, if a little easy at the default difficulty setting. The game gets stealth right, however: killing enemies with a bow before stealing away unobserved affords a keen pleasure (all the more so because enemy AI is quite sophisticated). If Lara was a survivor in the prequel, this time around she’s a one-woman commando unit, taking down battalions of enemies with explosive arrows and Molotov cocktails and an arsenal of no-nonsense guns. While those aforesaid enemies are evil, Lara has a lot of bloodshed on her conscience: at a low estimate, I butchered over a hundred human souls. It can be hard at times to square the steely, yet sensitive, young woman we see in cut scenes with the unfeeling killing machine who emerges in free play.

All the more so because Lara’s signature accessories these days aren’t so much her twin pistols as the twin ice picks that serve as climbing aids. In the intervals of slaying enemies, you’ll likely as not be climbing: scaling sheer precipices in the howling wind with impossibly deep ravines gaping below. Usually it’s worth the climb: the game is generously strewn with crafting materials and collectibles – from historical artefacts to extracts from journal entries that provide background on the plot. But what I was especially looking for were the optional challenge tombs, those holdovers from Tomb Raiders’ halcyon days that were such a hit in the 2013 reboot. And they’re even better here. I solved the early ones with little ado, but sussing the larger later ones require significant smarts. None took more than half an hour’s head scratching, I should add, and the endorphin rush on solving the harder ones is like nothing else in the game.

If nothing else, the tombs are a welcome gear shift, an opportunity for the player to mop their brow between firefights and get their puzzle hit. Of course, there those who think that the firefights, not the tombs, should be the optional side activity. It’s a high wire that developer Crystal Dynamics must walk: what should Tomb Raider be? Clearly they needed to contemporise Lara to meet modern gaming expectations, but without throwing aside the series’ hallmarks: the exploration, the mystery and above all the puzzles. To hard-bitten Tomb Raider traditionalists, quick time events and on-rails set pieces – staples of 2013’s reboot – are not in Lara’s line at all. Personally, I think ROTTR is much more faithful  to its legacy than its predecessor.

And let’s guard against viewing the classic Tomb Raiders with nostalgia-tinted goggles. Yes, they blazed a trail for 3D gaming and helped sell PlayStations by the truckload, but face it: the combat was crude even by contemporary standards (hold down the shoot button; who needs aiming?), and Ms Croft, for all the craft and love that went into her appearance, controlled more like an eighteen-wheeler than a woman. Then was the uncompromising difficulty setting: ‘90s Lara was a stern mistress. The puzzles – free from hints – were bafflingly hard, and many was the time I died to a falling boulder or marauding T Rex or sudden bastard spike pit. Is it any surprise that most players (raises hand) had the level-skip cheat memorised?

As a history buff, Lara will be aware that no golden era lasts forever. In 1997, Tomb Raider would never have been upstaged by Fallout, or the Fallout equivalent. Tomb Raider was the upstager. While its star has since fallen, and new entries in the series don’t inspire anything like the same event glamour, Lara still has a reputation to uphold as a cultural icon, the first lady of videogaming. But, as ROTTR shows, she’s more than a legacy act. The tomb raider has risen again, and this time she means to stay. Call off the National Trust: Croft Manor hasn’t crumbled to dust just yet.

Posted in Tennis

Stan Wawrinka, Occasional World Beater

3839506500000578-3784470-image-a-124_1473640181423

‘Wawrinka stuns Djokovic to win US Open’ went the BBC headline. But how stunned could the Serb world number one have felt, really? Of Stan Wawrinka’s three grand slam triumphs, every single one has featured a win over Djokovic – including the 2014 Australian Open quarter-final, and last year’s masterclass in the final of the French Open. If Novak was indeed stunned by Stan’s win on Sunday, he must have the most terrible memory in tennis.

You can’t fault Djokovic for feeling confident pre-match, though. Based off cold statistics, he was the favourite, ahead in the head-to-head 19–4, and in the grand slam count twelve to two. But he would have known that where Wawrinka is concerned, any such tale of the tape is academic. In grand slam finals at least, the Swiss is a statistical anomaly: the underdog that isn’t. Three times he’s faced the world number one player – once Nadal, twice Djokovic – and three times he’s beaten him. It’s almost as if Wawrinka becomes a different beast when the stakes are highest. So he does: Stan morphs into The Stanimal.

It’s not a physical transformation; he had those stevedore’s shoulders and oil-drum torso all along. As Stanimal behaviourists will attest, it starts with the specimen’s body language instead. Watch closely and he’ll begin pointing to his temple after winning an important point, as much as to say: you won’t beat me, I am a mental fortress. The real giveaways, though, are the groundstrokes. Stan’s backhand has long been the market leader, engineered and conditioned for optimum destructiveness. But when wielded by the Stanimal, the backhand gets an upgrade, and the forehand – generally the less reliable shot – becomes an all-powerful winner machine. A fusillade of heavy artillery later and the enemy is battered into submission: by the close of the US Open final, Djokovic’s body had buckled at the impact of Wawrinka’s powerful blows.

If Stan could summon The Stanimal on command, there’s no telling how many grand slams he’d rack up. Of course, he can’t. Tether a beast and it loses its wildness. Which explains the most common charge levelled against Wawrinka: his inconsistency. Yes, he has the talent to win grand slams; equally, as we saw in Wimbledon and the Australian Open this year, he’s not above losing them the early rounds. If anyone can unseat Djokovic from world number one, then, it won’t be the Swiss. Where Stan goes missing for months at a time, losing to the Andrey Kuznetsovs and Grigor Dimitrovs of the tour, Novak is never off duty, gobbling masters events for breakfast and reaching the business end of almost every grand slam going. The Serb is the keen-jawed tennis executive, nine-to-fiving week in, week out. The Swiss, by comparison, is the stubbled part-timer, swooping into the office unexpectedly to close the big deal – much to the chagrin of his more strait-laced coworkers.

While in all likelihood Stanimal will never have the number one next to his name, he’s singular in another way – an unusually late bloomer, he didn’t win his first major title until aged 28. Previously, Wawrinka fell into the same bucket as Richard Gasquet: a shotmaker with a highlight-reel backhand who lacked the steel to threaten the top players. That was until Wawrinka’s ‘big bang’ moment at the 2013 Australian Open, when, outplaying Djokovic in round four, he lost narrowly 12–10 in the fifth. Encouraged that he could mix it with the best players, he shucked off his low self-esteem and a year later won the very same tournament, up-ending Djokovic and Nadal for good measure along the way. When the French Open was added (in spectacular fashion) a year later, it confirmed the arrival of a new force at the top of men’s game. Until then, grand slams were the monopoly of a favoured few, with everyone else (Cilic, Del Potro) left fighting for the odd scrap from the table.Wawrinka, thrillingly, had broken the bear hug of the big four, arriving just as his Swiss compatriot Roger Federer fell off the pace, just when tennis was threatening to become the Murray-Djokovic show (where the word ‘show’ is used loosely).

We can all be thankful for the Stanimal’s predatory swoops. And at 31, the old beast is showing no sign of mellowing with age. Will we see him one more time on the lawns of SW19? A career grand slam – now that really would leave the tennis world stunned.

 

Posted in Nostalgia, Tech

All the Mobile Phones I Have Ever Owned 2002 – 2016

Here’s an easy-to-forget fact: mobile phones are quite young. Born in 1973, as a consumer product they grew slowly, not penetrating public consciousness until the mid-eighties – as expensive exoticisms for nerds and yuppies. Even as recently as twenty years ago, they stubbornly remained more luxury than necessity. Not until 1999 did the tipping point arrive, when suddenly everyone and their mother had a mobile and you couldn’t leave the house without hearing the bleep-bloop of the Nokia theme.

Now of course, their ascent is total. We can no more live without mobiles phones than without air (they’re, geddit, our O2). But certain questions still dangle. Does their connectivity and convenience come at a cost? Are smartphones one of the great emancipating advances, or have we become subject peoples, ruled by the lump of metal and Gorilla Glass in our hand?

First thing in the morning, having dismissed our smartphone alarms, our first order of business is to read our smartphone emails, check our smartphone WhatsApp messages and scrutinise our smartphone Twitter mentions. All assuming, of course, there’s still charge in our smartphone battery. These days, we measure out our lives not in coffee spoons, but in phone contracts, twenty-four months at a time.

And if you’re anything like me, you still keep your old phones: heritage handsets gathering dust in a bedroom drawer. Laid in chronological order, they tell a tale. Not just of the warp speed of technological development (compared to my Samsung Galaxy S7, my first Nokia is a museum piece) but of something more autobiographical. Whether or boasts a camera or not, a mobile phone takes a snapshot of your life. Each one is a chronicle of your tastes, your value systems, your spending power at the time. Cue this fascinating article: a complete history of every mobile phone I have ever owned. Please turn off your mobile phones.

2002-2004: Nokia 5210

My first mobile phone came late. For my first sixteen summers, I owned neither smartphone nor dumbphone – making me one of the last holdouts in my school. In the unlikely event you wished to get in touch, your options were as follows: snail mail, landline, telegram, face time (real conversation, that is, not Apple’s videotelephony app). Suspecting – wrongly – that I was missing out on all the great parties, I resolved to be behind the times no longer. Finally, I would possess a blessed mobile phone.

It being 2002, there was no choice but to choose Nokia: they were masters of the planet. But rather than default to the 3310 like everyone else, I dared to be different, slightly. Small, sturdy and packing a built-in thermometer, the 5210 was made for the more adventuresome consumer. The battery life came in at over a week, and carapaced in a thick rubbery exoskeleton, the handset was as idiot-proof as possible. While not quite armour-plated, the 5210 was certainly thick-skinned. And it needed to be. My sister called it, with dismissive hauteur, a ‘camping phone,’ and it met with a cool reception at school for being, well, uncool.

For all that, I liked my 5210 greatly. It dragged me into the modern world, and only rarely was I frustrated by the ten-text-message limit and low-pixel monochrome screen. After all, with a mobile phone in my pocket I was supplied for every eventuality, or so I thought at the time.

2004-2007: Nokia 6610i

snok6610i_l

In 2004, university beckoned: the most vital three years of any geek’s life. And to be ready, I needed a serious makeover. A fresh wardrobe. A fresh computer. A fresh personality. And, with all the friends I’d be making, a fresh phone. Though reliable and worthy, the 5210 was more clunky than sexy. What I desired instead was something sleek, new – a phone for the student I wanted to be, not the student I was.

Sadly, no such phone existed in 2004 (and arguably still doesn’t). So I settled instead for another Nokia: the 6610i. Having ditched the rubber exoskeleton for a blue plastic onesie, it did out-cool its predecessor – just. And there were further advancements. First, the colour screen, which I gulped through my eyes in wonderment upon first pressing the ‘on’ button. Second – and here’s a real extravagance – it had a camera. It was a ‘camera phone.’ Not only would the 6610i store my new friends’ numbers, but it could prove they existed. Look at the smiling pictures – the camera never lies! Of course, in the end I used the camera barely at all. Not just because no one let me photograph them. At a piddling 0.1 megapixels (288×352), the image quality shamed a daguerreotype.

But the 6610i gave good service. It accompanied me on my undergraduate adventures and misadventures (mostly in libraries), and bears the marks of a life well-lived. I could have looked after it a bit better, in truth. By 2007, the shiny new phone of three years ago was a battered ruin, its keypad worn away, its blue plastic cover warty with spilt ink.

No longer a student but a keen-jawed graduate itching to put my stamp on the world of Work, I obviously needed a new phone. A serious phone. A corporate phone. To the Orange shop I duly went.

2007-2008: Sony Ericsson K810i

k810i_1_b

2007, also known as When The iPhone Launched, was the Year Zero of smartphones. Naturally I had no idea of that at the time. In 2007, I was still two years away from my first iPod, and anyway, as a pound-conscious recent grad, the iPhone would have been hopelessly beyond my purse.

But I was aware of certain other industry developments. I knew that (much like my old beaten-up 6610i) the shine was starting to come off Nokia at this point – that other players, chiefly Sony Ericson, were muscling in on their market share. To see why, you only need behold my shiny new handset of the time, the Sony Ericsson K810i. It had a great camera, a superior screen and – farewell, faithful Discman – an MP3 player. If, by today’s standards, my first two Nokias were phones from before the flood, this one looks recognisably twenty-first century.

But with these advancements came a pact with Beelzebub – or to be more precise, a contract with Orange. This marked the point where I ditched pay-as-you-go for something more binding. Sign here, here and here, and the phone was mine for a term of 18 months. If my first phone meant freedom, now I was just another node in the network, surveilled by Orange’s all-seeing eye.

It was a hint at things to come. The great age of the smartphone, of GPS and mobile data, was round the corner, and the K810i – 3G enabled – was a proto-smartphone. Unfortunately, and perhaps tellingly, my K810i’s internet button fell off. Perhaps society wasn’t yet ready to be Always On.

2008-2010: Sony Ericsson C905

10133667-sony-ericsson-c905-silver

In 2009, I didn’t just change my phone, I changed my form factor. No longer would I tolerate a ‘bar’ phone – after all, they were a bit 2002-2008. Rather, all like the best handsets of that era, the Sony Ericsson C905 was a ‘slider.’

The slider is seldom seen these days. But in 2009, it was enjoying a moment. A sliding mechanism made the handset more compact overall, and with the rise of touchscreen, physical buttons were beginning to look unsexy. The solution? Hide them away. That’s the C905 summed up – a tidy, if unspectacular presence in your pocket.

But don’t mock. While the C905 may not be the pick of my smartphone litter, it was still first-rate as dumbphones go. A phone of practicality over aesthetics, the build quality was excellent, and it took half a week to make inroads into the battery life. Even now, it would make a very decent stand-in were my Galaxy S7 to go west. But I’m getting ahead of myself…

2010-2012: HTC Desire

htc-desire-1

In July 2010, my life changed. Or at the very least my phone number did. But it was worth the administrative headache, because the HTC Desire was my very first smartphone. And not any old smartphone either. Highly touted by all the review sites, HTC’s flagship handset was prized and praised even beyond the all-conquering iPhone. The name said it all: Desire. Everyone wanted one.

I lie, of course. Everyone still wanted the iPhone (naturally; it had an Apple logo). But in a fair fight, the Desire – faster, cooler, sharper-screened – would have destroyed the competition. I bought mine on holiday, undiscouraged by rural Devon’s non-existent 3G signal. The phone felt sleek in my hand, the screen was arrestingly big and beautiful, and if it existed in the real world, the Android Market had an app for it.

But once I’d got over the hot thrill of being a smartphone user, the chinks in the Desire’s armour began to show. The biggest, undoubtedly, was the lack of internal memory: a woeful 148Mb. Installing anything new involved a delicate dance of arranging existing apps by size and removing the non-essentials, the Angry Birds, the YouTubes, to make room. And then there was the battery life – one of the running sores of our age. It was certainly a rude awakening for me. Used to phones that lived a week, now I was reaching for the charger once a day at least.

Oh HTC Desire, what could have been. You were a marvel and you were a mess.

2012-2014: Samsung Galaxy Ace 2

samsung-galaxy-ace-2

In October 2012, I left my HTC Desire in a Lidl supermarket. Convinced it had been stolen, I hastened back – but not before ordering a replacement. It hardly matters which one, I told the Orange operative breathlessly, so long as it’s a smartphone, and is cheap. The phone he duly offered me – the Samsung Galaxy Ace 2 – placed a check mark in both boxes. Certainly I could make no complaint at the price: at a footling £11 a month, it was £25 cheaper than the HTC Desire. Which no one had stolen, by the way. I rushed back to Lidl and it was still there, unwanted, unclaimed. Undesired. But by that point I had already ordered its replacement.

Thinking on it now, perhaps I left my phone in Lidl on purpose. During my two years with the Desire, I had begun to weary of wishlist phones and trophy tablets. What was the point in forking over £35 a month for a top-end phone that was, in its essentials, no different to a low-end phone? It was just so much idle vanity.

Thus it was that I unboxed the Galaxy Ace 2 the next day – unenthusiastically. And my disappointment wasn’t disappointed. Turning it over in my hand, the design was charmless, the proportions bulky, the rear of the case pleasingly cheap looking. In fairness, the phone was not less usable for being affordable. Both the battery life and internal memory were both much improved over the HTC Desire, and there was even a front-facing camera to capture my habitually underwhelmed expression. It was exactly the phone I needed.

2014-2016: Nokia Lumia 635

2014, or as I call it, The Homecoming. After seven years in the howling wilderness – with Samsung, Sony Ericsson and HTC – I went back to where it all began. My first, my only. Nokia. Only the Nokia that greeted me in 2014 was very different to the company I knew in 2002. Having entered into a pact with Microsoft, Nokia no longer had a software platform they called their own. Now they made Windows Phones. The Lumia 635 that I carried home from Carphone Warehouse was a Windows Phone first and a Nokia phone a distant second.

I chose Windows Phone because I wanted a change. But chiefly because the Samsung Galaxy Ace 3 – my logical next upgrade – was dementedly overpriced at £21 per month. By comparison, the Lumia 635 was arithmetically cheap, and clad in a zesty lime case, colourful to boot. And at first, I liked my new phone. The Windows software was intuitive and idiot-proof, and even the battery life was good. At last, here was a smartphone I didn’t have to feed the charge lead every blessed night.

But over time, the low-res screen did nag at me. Then there were the software gremlins. Apps like the countdown timer had a whimsical tendency to restart, and twelve months in, the alarm clock stopped working. And why was the Windows store missing so many apps? Where was the front-facing camera and rear flash? These shortcomings, insignificant in themselves, added up to one big fail. Even the admittedly great podcast and music apps couldn’t begin to make up for it. Nokia, you disappointed me. Or do I need to blame Microsoft?

2016- : Samsung Galaxy S7

samsung-galaxy-s7-edge-2

And so we get to now. The present day. The first phone in this list that doesn’t languish a drawer, but has life coursing through its electronic veins. And what veins. The Samsung Galaxy S7 is the culmination of all that came before it, the greatest smartphone in the annals of consumer electronics, the final word in mobile telecommunications and pocket computing. Until the Galaxy S8 or some other flagship smartphone get released next year, that is.

But until then, let’s savour the S7 awhile. It really is the most wonderful creation. I can’t get enough of the lean frame, the sensationally lovely screen, the extremely respectable battery life. But the camera is the clincher. Or maybe it’s the heart-rate sensor. No, it has to be the fact you can drop it in a toilet and – providing you don’t flush – continue your conversation as if nothing happened. Compared to the S7’s bells and whistles, my old phones are relics from the old stone age.

And I’m obliged to say that I feel pretty flash whenever I whip my S7 out in public. It was none too cheap, but – my coffers boosted from four years of budget tariffs – I reckon I can afford it. After all, phones are now auxiliary limbs, or extensions to our brain. Would you skimp on those?

Posted in Tennis

US Open: Edmund d. Isner

Sport, it is said, is war by other means. And it’s especially so when John Isner and Kyle Edmund are the belligerents. While not tennis’s biggest guns, they do have two of its biggest shots: Isner’s elegant-gun serve and the Edmund’s wrecking-ball forehand are phenomenons best enjoyed behind tempered glass, if you’re a spectator, or a suit of armour, if you’re on the other side of the net. For two hours and 43 minutes they rained blows on each other in an encounter of pulsating, pulverising aggression. Ace followed ace followed ace. Forehand winner followed forehand winner followed forehand winner. The forehand, ultimately, was the winner, Edmund triumphing 6-4 3-6 6-2 7-6 (7-5).

Head-to-head is a misleading term where John Isner is concerned: at six foot ten, the American out-tops Edmund by eight whole inches. But going into the match, Isner was most people’s favourite, having won their sole previous encounter – at this year’s French Open – in straight sets. Since that defeat, however, Kyle Edmund has grown up. In July, he lead a GB team minus Andy Murray to a Davis Cup victory over Serbia. And on Tuesday, in an eye-catching upset, he straight-setted Richard Gasquet in the first round. Edmund always had the big weapons. Now, it seems, he has the big belief to match.

And how he needed it against Isner. Having lost the first set, the American rallied in the second and at the start of the third moved 0-40 up on Edmund’s serve. The match pivoted on this moment. Had he taken one of his break points, Isner would likely have ridden his giant serve to the set, and been odds-on to win the match. As it was, Edmund saved all three break points (with some envenomed forehands) and broke a frustrated Isner in the very next game. While the American hung on all the way to a fourth-set tiebreak, Edmund never again relinquished the momentum, sealing the match, fittingly, with another rip-snorting forehand winner.

Unfortunately, an even taller obstacle awaits him in the fourth round, in the rubbery shape of Novak Djokovic. Djokovic, it’s true, isn’t in his most annihilatingly imperious form. As well as nursing a wrist injury, he’s licking mental wounds sustained during early losses at Wimbledon and the Olympic Games. But to blast holes in the Serb’s anti-tank defence, Edmund will still need his artillery to be at full force. Though if the Isner match is anything to go by, the Brit’s game is developing in unexpected ways. Not just as Nadal-like forehand, Edmund is becoming a a Murray-like passing shot artist too. A cross between Murray and Nadal? That might – just – be enough to take a set off the world number one.

Posted in Housing, Uncategorized

Hot property – Keeping cool in London’s overheated housing market

Perhaps in retrospect I should have taken it as a sign. My first brush with the London property market ended with a brush-off. It was March 2011 and I had just shaken hands with an estate agent on a one-bedroom flat in Bow, east London. True it was only rented, and my partner and I would be forking over more than £1,000 a month – no small expense – but that didn’t matter right then. The deal closed, I walked out with a pep in my step, a glide in my stride. I had grown half a head taller. Then, an hour later, the phone rang.

It was the estate agent calling back.

‘Sorry about this,’ came her consoling voice. ‘But the landlord’s pulled out. He’s found himself another tenant. A banker. Canary Wharf. £50k a year basic. Sorry if we’ve messed you around. Check your account in an hour or so – your holding fee should have been refunded.’

With a curt goodbye, she rang off. Suddenly I felt as lifeless as the dialling tone to which I listened. Just like that, we had been denied. London, which worships at the altar of money, had looked us up and down and not liked the size of our sacrifice. It didn’t matter that we were good for the rent, nor that the flat itself was nothing special. This was the city telling us to know our place. We’d tried to rent a home that, apparently, was only for financiers with telephone-number salaries to try to rent.

But when one door closes, a different one opens. I use that expression with the darkest irony, because the problem with our next one-bedroom flat in Bow was this: we couldn’t get in the door. Even now, I’m not sure what went wrong – was it door, key, or a door-key conspiracy? Push as we might, and curse as we did, nothing budged. Mutely, I began to wonder: were the gods of the housing market trying to warn us off? First they had refused us for not being moneyed enough. Now they were literally slamming the door in our faces.

Oh we got in, eventually. But in a larger sense we’re still stuck outside. Still shouting in exasperation, still pounding on the door, still peering in an uncaring keyhole. Because as everyone knows, being a tenant is only the runner’s up prize. In many respects, it’s no prize at all. For the last few decades, the true – the only – ambition of any good citizen of the UK is to become a homeowner. Indeed, why aspire to anything else? Behind its brick skin, an owned home is more than just a place to hang your hat; it’s the guarantor of your financial future. There’s just one roadblock on this property-owning superhighway: how in the name of Felicity J Lord are you to save for a deposit when palming the lion’s share of your earnings off to a landlord?

In our five years as London tenants, we coughed up, at a low estimate, £60,000 on rent. Money that would have made a decent deposit: in the landlord’s trousers. The result was five years of financial stasis, where we’d pay the rent every month, but could put by only pennies – at best – for the future. Keep it up until the day of judgement, and we’d have been no closer to tasting the heady mead of home ownership than before. We’d spent so much for so little. Insofar as those five years taught us anything, it was of the unpleasantness of spending the springtime of your life as an economic unit in service to an exploitative property market. But that’s the private renting for you. Predatory and wolfish, it devours tenants until they can pay no more, then spits them out.

In September 2013, we were spat from our flat in Bow, the landlady having announced she was selling up. Presumably word of the UK’s chucklesome house prices had reached the southern hemisphere – she worked at a Sydney bank – and the time was ripe, in her professional view, to liquidate her London asset. Either way, we weren’t sorry to leave. Geographically distant as she was, her tight-fistedness with money was all too evident. It took fully four weeks for her to bestir herself into ordering a new washing machine, and longer still to replace a desperately clapped-out boiler. (As if the wealth discrepancy wasn’t Victorian enough, we became scullery maids running kettle baths and hand-washing laundry.)

No, not all landlords are rip-off merchants who laugh their tits off while counting a fat wodge of your banknotes. But such is the lack of oversight in private renting, you never know the nature of the devil with whom you choose to sup. Yes, they could be a saint. But they could also be a rogue. Having been elbowed out from Bow, we had no choice but to play another round of landlord roulette when we moved to Leytonstone. Airy, bay-windowed and slam in the middle of town, the new flat itself was beautiful. We loved it on sight. Early indications on the landlord front, though, were less encouraging. There was no disguising the condensation in the double glazing, while the meanness of the sofas and bedsteads seemed to hint at another skinflint owner. For all its period spaciousness, the property was unloved in the way only a rental property could be.

Thankfully our luck was in: the landlord, when we finally met him, was a reasonable fellow. He was swift in attending to our knackered boiler and borked washing machine, and we transacted our business over two-and-a-half years without incident. But that’s the nub of the problem: property in the UK is a business. We hear daily of ever-spiralling house prices and unprecedented returns for BTL landlords as if it’s a cause for national cheer. The housing market has well and truly gone off its onion, but we’re equally mad for paying whatever figure that Foxton’s pull out their arse for townhouses in Wandsworth or bedsits in Bromley. We’re fools for houses. Or perhaps we’re just fools.

There is a postscript to this tale of property – and poverty. In the summer of 2016, loath to pay another penny to landlords Australian or otherwise, we moved back in with my parents. If anything this move was overdue. Unable to save for a deposit, we had been in a fool’s paradise – which was in fact no paradise at all. The rent had risen remorselessly, and the downstairs neighbours were so noisy that by the end we could hardly stick the sight of them. Our patience frayed; we left. Living at home isn’t without its consolations, of course. Rent comes in at a much more reasonable £200 a month, and the only noisy neighbours are the ones my parents watch every night on EastEnders. But it’s hard not to be jealous of my parents’ generation: the baby boomers who could buy a Hampstead townhouse and still have change from a 20p piece.

How do we start putting the property market the right away up? It doesn’t take a rocket scientist, or even a housing minister, to come up with a list of fixes. Build more houses. Reintroduce rent controls. Rebalance the economy so all the chips aren’t piled on London. We can all agree: house prices are farcically high, and the trend-line is only pointing upwards. It’s hard to resist the conclusion, then, that house prices stay high because those that have capital assets in our society want them that way. In the UK in 2016, fairness and logic are rather like houses themselves: in short supply.