Cheese Hurts

My latest comedy song, Cheese Hurts, featured on The Mitch Benn Podcast, #25 – (link below – you can also find it on iTunes). Not got round to doing a video version for YouTube yet, but I will do as soon as I get time.

Click here, scroll down to Podcast 25 and click to play.

You can also download the MP3 of Cheese Hurts, here.

The Ele-vator SmartStand

Here’s my new business card – an ‘elephant’ stand for iPhone, smartphone or PDA.

Call recording crippled on Android – FIX THIS NOW Google!

I recently passed up the opportunity to wait until the end of the month and upgrade my battered iPhone 3G to Apple’s whizzy new 4G model. Instead, I opted for the similarly whizzy and well-spec’d Dell Streak, running Google’s Android operating system. While I love the iPhone’s user interface, I have become increasingly frustrated with Apple’s strategy of keeping the system so determinedly closed. I wanted a device that I could simply transfer media files to and from without having to go through a proprietary file manager like iTunes. I wanted the ability to choose which apps I wanted to run simultaneously, not a system whose creators place arbitrary limits on users and developers in a bid to maintain system performance.

But my most pressing, specific need was for a device that would allow me, if I so chose, to record any incoming or outgoing voice call and save the result as an MP3 file or similar.

As a researcher and journalist, I often need to record phone interviews in order to later produce  accurate transcripts of conversations. It ensures I don’t misquote people, am able to review complex points until I understand them fully and allows me to concentrate closely and think of intelligent questions to move the discussion on, rather than missing points as I struggle to maintain an on-the-fly written shorthand transcript. And as I increasingly seek to produce more audio content, it would be useful to be able to record certain interviews on the phone for later editing and podcasting.

So, for me, call recording functionality is essential and I have been constantly frustrated by the lack of this feature on the iPhone, or in any of its millions of available apps. Apple has refused to expose the phone’s incoming and outgoing call voice streams to application developers, and there’s no hope of any call recording app emerging until they do – or until they build it into the OS itself. My previous Symbian-based Nokia phone had no problem recording calls, and it has been a standard feature of many simpler mobile handsets for years.

I had assumed that by changing to a phone with a more open operating system – Android – produced by the world’s #1 cheerleader for open platforms – Google – my frustrations would be over. How wrong I was!

Before I opted for a Dell Streak, I made a cursory check in the Android Marketplace and saw there were several call recording apps available. Great. But when I got my device and downloaded one, it didn’t work. Tried another. That didn’t work either. “What’s up?” I thought. Had my carrier, O2, crippled the device in some way? After a few tweets back and forth with one of Dell’s people, I found that no, everything should be working fine. Try another app, he suggested. But I’d exhausted the free ones, and didn’t want to part with any cash until I knew the app would work. So I Googled – and what I found left me utterly dismayed, enraged and incredulous.

After reading (and commenting on) a long thread over at the Google Code forum I discovered that, just like the iPhone, Google Android does not have a facility for developers to access the phone’s incoming voice stream. The call recording apps available in the Android Marketplace depend on an ‘analogue kludge’ – the only way to record both sides of a call is to turn on the phone’s speakerphone at sufficient volume for the incoming caller’s voice to be picked up by the phone’s mic. Not only does this mean you can’t record conversations without broadcasting them to everyone around you, but use of the speakerphone will produce a horrible echo for the other participant in the call and, unless you are in a totally silent environment, the resultant recording will be virtually inaudible. Completely useless if, like me, you ever take calls via a headset or need to record one somewhere other than a silent, isolated room.

And it’s not as if Google is not aware of the problem – the thread mentioned above was started some 15 months ago, and there’s still no word on any resolution to the issue. Some commenters suggested legal restrictions on call recording in certain countries were to blame, but it’s perfectly legal in the UK and many other places to record calls for the purposes I described above. And, as I also pointed out, many older and less complex phones have been offering this facility for years with no problems.

So my plea to Google is – FIX THIS FAST.

Ironically, with the introduction of limited multitasking on the new iPhone 4G, we may soon find ourselves in a situation where Apple decides to permit call recording, leaving Android phones among the only ones lacking such basic functionality. And if that happens, I may well be kicking myself for switching.

Jamie Oliver’s Fifteen: a suitable case for Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares?

Shortly before my wife Lisa’s birthday in April, she hinted that she might quite like to visit Fifteen, Jamie Oliver’s beach-front restaurant near Newquay in Cornwall, which she informed me had been created for a reality TV show where a bunch of former ne’erdowells and no-hopers had the chance to train as chefs. Since we were due to be staying in a cottage just down the coast in June, I understood this to be not so much of a hint as a ‘guiding shove’ and duly went online to book a table, figuring that another few quid on the mounting credit-crunch credit card bill would make little difference to my ailing finances.

Now I’ve never been a big fan of Jamie Oliver. In my 2001 comedy song “Serial Media Whores“, I referred to him as “Sainsbury’s motor-mouthed gimp” (although that was before his reality TV transformation from ‘fat-lipped twat’ into school-dinners supremo and social entrepreneur). Neither am I much of an aficionado of fine dining – given the choice, I’d rather have pub grub than foie gras any day.  But the online sample menu promised a mouthwatering selection of fresh local produce cooked to the highest standards and I was cautiously hopeful.

And so it was that last Tuesday evening we pulled up at Watergate Bay, a glorious stretch of surf-friendly sea and sand just up the coast from Newquay. Fifteen nestles in the cliff-side overlooking the bay, and is accessed from an inauspicious set of concrete steps at the corner of the beach car park. As we descended, I whipped out my Flip video and iPhone to document our visit. Unfortunately, Lisa does not share my enthusiasm for geeky gadgetry and was understandably miffed that she might have to spend one of our rare nights off from the kids playing second fiddle to a smartphone, twiddling her thumbs while I Twittered with mine. After all, this was supposed to be her birthday present.

Rightly chastened, I promised to power down all technology until the end of the meal, but my insensitive and wholly inappropriate behaviour (for which, incidentally, I hereby publicly and unreservedly apologise to my other half)  made for a decidedly frosty start to the evening.

After seating us, our waitress served up a couple of slices of freshly baked bread,  a saucer of sumptuous, peppery olive oil and a bowl of delicious Puglian green olives. Sadly, that was as good as it got. Among the lowlights of the mandatory £55-a-head, five-course ‘taster menu’ was our main of sea bass fillet (a single, paltry sliver trimmed into a square), which arrived on a bed of what I can only describe as barely-cooked chickpeas mixed with chopped herbs and peppers. Although the fish (what there was of it) was fine, the veg looked and tasted more like the kind of unappetising slop served up by dreadlocked hippies in a Glastonbury tent caff than the gustatory masterpiece of a Michelin-starred chef.

For dessert, we both plumped for a white and dark chocolate tart with cherries. Another mistake. First, the waitress informed us the restaurant had run out of cherries so the dish would instead be served with raspberries. I’d been looking forward to cherries, but raspberries were good too, so no big deal. However, we were expecting something that was at least chilled,  firm and  chocolatey. What arrived was more akin to a Lidl own-brand cheesecake that had been left on a sunny windowsill for a couple of days. It consisted of a thin crust of what seemed like crushed Oreos, filled with a runny, slightly warm, cream-coloured goo. To me, it invoked a melted Milky Bar encased in grit and infused with concentrated essence of tramp’s  feet. The raspberries fortunately helped rinse away the cloying, cheesy tang that clung to my tongue after my two ill-advised mouthfuls of tart.

It might simply be, of course, that my unsophisticated palate was incapable of appreciating the subtle combination of textures and flavours presented, but I doubt it. I’ve seen enough episodes of Masterchef to know  a chocolate tart shouldn’t emit a rancid funk. And Lisa, whose palate is far less plebeian than mine, was equally unimpressed. Not that we told our waitress what we really thought, although our frequent gagging and wincing probably gave her a clue – that and the fact we  returned two barely-touched courses.

Yes, I probably should have complained, but to be honest I was slightly wary of offending the waitress – who was attentive almost to the point of stalking. I was even more worried she might tell the chef (who, for all I knew, could have been some ex-care-in-the-community case – just one customer complaint away from a frenzied knife attack). Besides, in spite of the food, we were enjoying the waterfront vista, the funky pink graffiti and the cool lights, which hang  from the ceiling like giant suspended droplets of sea-spray. And I didn’t want to put even more of a downer on Lisa’s supposed birthday treat by getting into protracted quibbles over quality and price with the staff. I figured we’d already drawn enough attention to ourselves with our earlier domestic set-to.

Notwithstanding, it would be fair to say the whole experience was a bitter disappointment. Before the meal had even begun, we’d already been made to feel like miserable paupers by the sommelier. After quizzing us on what we liked, she asked how much we were thinking of spending on a bottle. We said somewhere around the £25 mark. She paused, looked us up and down in what we both felt was a disdainful manner and informed us that all the restaurant had in that price bracket was the house white at about £20 a bottle.

Then there were the toilets, to which I  paid my first (and fortunately only) visit just before our parting coffee . The gents in Fifteen looked more like the sort of facility you might find on the A15 – dank and dingy, complete with a basin full of dirty, soapy water, drips all over the floor and leaky urinals. Now this I did manage to get on video, so you can see it for yourself here.

All in all, then, I don’t think we’ll be returning to Fifteen Cornwall in a hurry, though I certainly think there’s some more reality TV mileage in the venture – Gordon Ramsay should include it in the next series of Kitchen Nightmares. And I’m beginning to hope Oliver doesn’t get his mitts on my kids’ school lunches. On the basis of the dining experience he gave me, I reckon they’d be far better off sticking with turkey twizzlers.

George (23m) picking up birds on an iPhone

Further to my post about the educational side benefits of my 4-year-old daughter’s iphone adventures (“If you want smart kids, show them your smartphone”), here’s a video of my 23-month-old son George identifying a variety of garden birds by their picture and call on the iPhone application Chirp.

We certainly haven’t “hot-housed” him to remember these names – after showing him the app once, he’s repeatedly asked to play with it (he’s probably done so for around 10 stints of no more than 5 minutes apiece, with me speaking the names as I let him choose and press the birds he wants to see).

Obviously, like any proud parent I’d like to think he was particularly advanced – but I also believe there’s something in the nature of this kind of fun, interactive learning which encourages even very young children to soak up knowledge.

Parental involvement and encouragement is also vital, of course, but would he learn as much from a book or flashcards? I doubt it. For a start, they don’t have the added dimension of being able to play him recordings of the birds’ calls as he looks at their pictures. He likes books, too, but at this age they don’t hold his attention for very long (he seems more interesting in ripping them up).

It’s also crucial, I believe, to allow a child to follow his or her own curiousity in a way that’s fun.  George has shown an interest in birds ever since he’s been able to point. It’s no good trying to force a young child to play with something they don’t find engaging (as evidenced by my 4-year-old Ellen’s complete refusal to play with the pointedly pedagogic ‘Phonics’ application, which may appeal to a lot of parents with its boast of compliance with UK National Curriculum guidelines, but does little to capture kids’ imaginations).

“I got those piggy bug mutation blues…”

The feverish media response to the recent ‘swine flu’ outbreak inspired me to make this little comedy number the other week. After posting it on YouTube, I noticed there were already a few other videos entitled ‘Swine Flu Blues’, so now I’m thinking of changing the title to ‘Piggy Bug  Blues’ instead [edit: done]. If you like it, please rate it on YouTube (you can now sign in with a Google account). Also, it’s up on (here), too – so if it makes you laugh, I’d really appreciate a ‘funny’ vote there as well – thanks. (Geeks among you may also be interested to know I made the backing track using the iPhone app ‘Band’, from MooCowMusic.)

If you want smart kids, show them your smartphone

A couple of hours ago, I finished putting my four-year-old to bed. Like most kids of her age, she likes to prolong bedtime as long as possible, knowing Daddy’s a bit of a soft touch. So, after several stories and songs, she starts with the questions. Tonight’s opening gambit was: “Daddy, what does a mosquito look like?” (She’d earlier heard me say I was bitten by one the other night.) I tell her it’s a bit like a fly, only with a smaller body, longer legs and a needle for a mouth, which it uses to suck your blood. “Can I see a picture of one on your phone?” I whip out my iPhone and call up a picture of a mosquito on Google Images. “How do they bite you?” she asks.

“Would you like to see a video of a mosquito biting someone?” She squeals an excited “yes”. I pop up the YouTube app and search for ‘mosquito biting’. Sure enough, I find a video of a mosquito perched on someone’s finger biting them and then flying off. I show her, pointing out what’s happening in lurid detail and explaining in a toddler-friendly way why they do it, how you can repel them and how you can treat their bites. The Q&A continues for ten minutes or so, with me able to answer all her questions instantly with real-time multimedia accompaniment. We touch on malaria in Africa, mosquito nets, antihistamine and immunisation, at which point – curiosity satisfied for the night – she settles down.

I don’t mind being suckered into prolonging bedtime for a few minutes when she is clearly not only learning things, but more importantly learning *how* to learn things, in a way that’s both accessible and fun. She knows the difference between Google, Wikipedia and YouTube, and which on-screen icons to press to call them up, even though she cannot yet read or write. She knows I can show her a map of anywhere, instantly, and ‘fly’ over the satellite-photographed terrain of Google Earth. She knows she can look at her friends’ houses on Google Streetview and deftly navigates the 3D scenes on the phone’s touchscreen. In a few years, she will learn that she can learn even more by connecting to people all over the world on social networks such as Twitter.

Our night-time discussions over the weeks have ranged from art to astrophysics, animals to animation, geography to geopolitics, biology to ballet. She knows there’s a device in Daddy’s pocket that can show her almost anything she imagines and help satisfy any curiosity. It encourages her to ask more questions and to learn even more. Yes, she also knows she can watch ‘Charlie and Lola’ and other CBeebies favourites on BBC iPlayer, or play Disney Flying Fairies. Often I let her. Entertainment and play are equally important to a child’s mental, physical and social development as education – and, indeed, they are not mutually exclusive. But TV and computer games take their natural place among the myriad playtime diversions of painting, Play-Doh, make-believe, music, dancing, toys and rough-and-tumble with her 23-month-old brother (who, incidentally, is also able to manipulate my iPhone fairly deftly – his current favourite apps are Dice, Snozzle, MooBox and Brian Eno’s visual music generator Bloom).

There are those who think introducing such young children to computers, the Internet and mobile phones is horrific, that it somehow ‘spoils’ them, that the ‘instant gratification’ enabled by new technology is a curse of our modern age, that we are bringing up a generation of helpless, tech-fixated drones. They are mistaken. With appropriate parental guidance, the web in your pocket is your kids’ gateway to all of the world’s knowledge, achievement, creativity, aspiration and inspiration.

Will those who grow up with this technology take it for granted? Of course. We, on the other hand, should not. Because – as long as we steer children in a way that stimulates both their curiosity and confidence – today’s technology can help bring about a future where human beings are not only better informed, but better equipped to meet the huge social and environmental challenges facing the planet.

*    *     *

As a footnote, when I read earlier today that the UK Government had backtracked on proposals to teach social networking in the classroom following an outcry from the technologically illiterate and tabloid tub-thumpers, it saddened me. For without proper education and guidance, the potential of new technologies to enrich people’s lives will be realised only by the few, not the many. And *not* giving people the skills to find things out for themselves is far more likely to result in the kind of drone-like, socially disengaged population that the ill-informed Luddites rail against so passionately.


Mortlemania is my personal blog. For my professional blog, see

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