The Ides of March

Today is the 15th March - The Ides of March.

It became significant as the date of the assassination of Julius Caesar in 44 BC.

For World War II buffs, it’s also significant as a fateful day for Europe. On this day in 1939 Hitler’s troops began the occupation of the rest of Czechoslovakia, ending the pretence of the Munich Agreement. Nazi Germany had annexed the Sudetenland region of Czechoslovakia the previous October and promised the Western Powers that this would be the last of his territorial demands. They fell for it.

It could be said that this was the beginning of the end for Hitler. From this point forward the road to war was inevitable. German troops marched in from the west and Hungarian troops moved into Ruthenia from the east. By the end of the day Czechoslovakia ceased to exist as a sovereign state.

Neither Britain nor France made the slightest move to intervene, even though at Munich they had provided Czechoslovakia with a guarantee against aggression.

It’s interesting reading about this period, and particularly the response in Britain. Not long before, Britain’s Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain had been lauded as a peacemaker. The Times and Daily Mail newspapers in particular had shown admiration for Hitler. Even after the 15th March the Daily Mail took its time to renounce Hitler. Of course, Winston Churchill new better.

A Year with the Apple HomePod

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When Apple finally released the HomePod on the 9th Feb 2018 it didn’t take me long to buy one. I had looked at the Google Home and Amazon Echo with curiosity, but was never really tempted. I’m an Apple Music subscriber for one, and I was also reluctant to put an Amazon or Google listening device in my home. I’ve got serious concerns over privacy, and it’s only Apple that have been able to allay those concerns. That’s not my inner Apple fanboy talking, I’ve read Apple’s support papers on privacy and security.

Prior to the HomePod, I had been using a Sonos Play:1. The Sonos audio quality is generally good, but every now and again there’s a notable distortion. Only on songs with strong levels of bass, but it happens even when the volume is at mid-levels. The other problem I have with the Sonos is the integration with Apple Music, namely the lack of support for Smart Playlists. I use Smart Playlists extensively within iTunes and to get around the lack of support in Sonos I’ve had to periodically manually copy songs from my smart playlist to dedicated manual playlists for the Sonos. Not ideal. The Sonos has now been relegated to the bedroom. I appreciate my Sonos Play:1 is pretty old now so many of the issues have probably been resolved with newer versions. I believe you can even integrate the new Sonos smart speakers with Siri.

After using the HomePod for a full year my thoughts are pretty much the same as they were after the first month of use.

The Basics

First of all, the sound quality is excellent. You don’t need to be an audiophile to tell this delivers crisp, clear sound at an amazing volume for such a small unit.

Second, the microphones are unbelievable. For Siri to hear my commands when I’m speaking at normal volume and music is booming out is quite frankly, witchcraft.

Smart Speaker

A lot has been written about the smart speaker capability, particularly in comparison to the Google Assistant on the Google Home and Alexa on the Amazon Echo. It’s true that Siri is not leading the way in this regard. I find that Siri does the job, most of the time, and it is slowly getting better.

To be frank, all the virtual assistants are shit. All of them have problems with understanding context. It’s early days and I’m sure we’re going to see amazing leaps in AI over the next few years, but at the moment we’re a long way from the Her days.

The technorati on blogs and YouTube get hung up with smart speaker comparisons. In reality, is the average joe even using voice commands on a regular basis? Let’s face it, talking to an inanimate object feels weird.

Still, I can say “Hey Sir, play me something I like”, and pretty much without fail, music that I like starts playing. It helps that over the years I’ve obsessively rated thousands of songs in my iTunes library. At first I thought that Siri was just selecting music from my library that I’ve given a a high rating. That is the case, but it’s also mixed with songs that i know aren’t in my library, and seems to match my tastes quite well.

The only caveat to that is that I don’t live on my own and the music tastes of my wife and daughter also get factored in. At the moment there’s no way to use multiple accounts with the HomePod. Apple have said that will come, but for now Rach and Lauren can play music, and the music they select influences Siri’s learning. You can turn it off in settings. In fact, I probably should turn it off - that should stop Dolly Parton songs interrupting my music sessions!

Podcasts

I listen to a lot of podcasts and for some reason I couldn’t get my podcasts to play on the HomePod. If I asked Siri to play a specific podcast, it would play. If I asked Siri to play my most recent podcast, Siri would tell me ‘You’re not subscribed to any podcasts”. I am. It drove me insane. I subscribe to shit loads of podcasts. I listen to podcasts pretty much every day.

I’m guessing the issue has something to do with the fact I have seperate Apple IDs for iCloud and iTunes content. It’s an issue that goes back to the days of MobileMe. For some reason we had to create a new account for MobileMe and couldn’t use our existing iTunes ID. Eventually, MobileMe got replaced by iCloud and even though Apple has hinted in the past that they’re working on a fix to allow customers to merge Apple IDs, it’s now 2019 and that fix is nowhere in sight.

Setting up the HomePod was a breeze. You just hold up your iPhone close to the HomePod and it automatically transfers all the settings over. This is the crux of the problem I reckon. I think it was trying to use my iCloud account for podcasts even though on my iPhone I’m signed in with my other Apple ID for iTunes.

You may notice I’m using the past tense. I gave up on the Apple Podcasts app and now use Overcast. I finally gave up with Apple Podcasts when the Apple Podcasts integration on the Apple Watch with iOS 12 failed to meet expectations. That’s another rant for another day.

For now, if I want to play a podcast on my HomePod I just Airplay it. So old school I know!

Conclusion

I’m happy with the HomePod and considering buying another one to try out stereo sound with the Apple TV. We’ve recently moved to a new apartment with stone tiled floors, so the acoustics are pretty terrible when watching TV using the in-built TV speakers. The HomePod sound seems to compensate for the acoustics in a way that is much more noticeable than I remember at our old place. Stereo HomePods could be the (pricy) answer. Alternatively, I might try a Soundbar. I hear the Sonos playbar is quite good!

Make Us Dream

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Who has been the best midfielder in the history of the Premier League? Man Utd fans will pick Scholes. Chelsea fans will pick Lampard and Liverpool fans will say Steven Gerrard. Neutrals will vary between the three and the argument will go on and on in the pub and between the pundits on TV for years.

As a Liverpool fan I’m going to say Gerrard, of course I am, but I honestly believe there’s no contest.

Don’t take my word for it. Ask Peter Crouch, who's played with just about everyone. Crouchy devotes a whole chapter to Steven Gerrard in his recent book ‘How to be a Footballer’. Here’s what he had to say:

And the skills Gerrard had! People would say to me, Xabi Alonso is the best passer of a football I’ve ever seen. I’d say, yeah, but Stevie is better. They’d tell me that Claude Makélélé was the best tackler. Yeah, but Stevie’s better. Lampard is the best goal-scoring midfielder. Yup, Stevie’s on a par with him. He could play right-back and left-back. He could play centre midfield, he could play off the striker. He could play centre-forward and he could dominate totally from right midfield. It’s only when you train with a player that you realise quite how good they are. On match-day you would see Thierry Henry and Gianfranco Zola producing little miracles. With Gerrard they were a daily occurrence. He was by far the best player in England training, and that includes David Beckham, Wayne Rooney and Michael Owen. I never trained with Paul Scholes; our times in the national set-up did not overlap. But the Chelsea lads would say the same thing: Gerrard is the most naturally gifted player we’ve worked with.

The documentary Make Us Dream (available on Amazon Prime) about Stevie’s career is good, but it doesn’t really cover anything new.

If like me, you’ve read his two autobiographies, watched the documentary about him when he released his first autobiography, and the many since that have been on LFC TV, and also watched countless highlights packages on YouTube put together by fans, you will be familiar with the script.

The standard highlights and lowlights:

  • Banging goals in from 30 yards
  • Tough tackling
  • The great goals against Manchester United
  • That goal against Olympiakos that meant Liverpool qualified out of the group stage of the Champions League (the year they won it)
  • That goal in the Champions League final that inspired the famous comeback
  • Signing for Chelsea, and then not signing for Chelsea
  • The FA Cup Final screamer against West Ham
  • 'We Go Again’ at the end of the game where Liverpool beat Manchester City near the end of the 2013/14 season when we were challenging for the title
  • That slip against Chelsea two games later that led to Liverpool conceding a goal (people forget that Liverpool lost that game 0-2, not 0-1).

What all these compilations of Stevie’s career miss, and what’s hard to purvey unless you’ve sat and watched every game, is the sheer number of games when he carried Liverpool. All those seasons when we just qualified for the Champions League, or managed to win a trophy even though we were nowhere to be seen in the Premier League title race, it was Stevie who made the difference more times than not. He was a playmaker and a match winner. He drove the side forward. He brought the game to life when we were struggling. He kept us in games we seemed destined to lose. Owen, Torres, Suarez - all fantastic strikers during the Gerrard era - and all say that they wouldn’t have scored so many goals without Stevie offering the supply.

We now watch from a distance to see how his new career pans out as a manager at Rangers. Waiting, and hoping, for that day in a few years, after Klopp has finally ended the Premier League drought and built a new dynasty, when Stevie takes the reins as Liverpool manager.