In the Criminal Justice System…

Found guilty — at least in the press — of a crime they didn’t commit. Vilified in the media and public. Falsely accused. It makes for gripping drama. It also makes for tragic reality.

I could just as easily be talking politics — the joke that is the 2016 election — as recent television shows. In this instance I’m talking about Netflix’s documentary, Amanda Knox, and HBO’s The Night Of.

One is the true story of an overzealous police detective, prosecutor and frenzied media hungry for a compelling story, the other is, well, a drama about the same thing.

Amanda Knox

amandaknoxAmanda Knox was an American student studying in Italy in 2007 when her British housemate was killed. The police detective and prosecutor almost immediately focused their investigation on her because she was ‘acting funny’ at the scene. By that they meant that she kissed her boyfriend at the house while the police were there and then later posted something on social media about how they were going to have sex that night, just a few days after her housemate was murdered. Strange, perhaps crass? Yes. Evidence of committing a crime? Not at all. Apparently, though, it was enough of an anomaly for the detectives investigating the murder. With her guilt already presumed, the police, prosecution and even media made sure to get the ‘evidence’ to convict her of the crime.

As a young, attractive woman accused of the crime the media was quick to jump on Knox, who had once posted on a social media account the nickname ‘Foxy Knoxy’, as a sex-crazed maniac who got caught up in a sex-game gone wrong. Stories emerged daily showing Knox posing with a gun (probably in a Halloween costume or perhaps a paintball gun, but definitely taken out of context no matter what) and her boyfriend at the time dressed in similarly inappropriate attire. Despite both photos obviously taken out of context and actually indicative of nothing, the media hoopla continued. Foxy Knoxy sold headlines. Later, after her arrest and imprisonment, she was lied to by being told she was HIV positive. Obviously, it had profound psychological effects on her. She kept a diary in prison which was, mysteriously, leaked to the press. Which, of course, drew more headlines and helped convince people of her guilt.

Though she was eventually found guilty in the Italian courts she appealed based on corrupted evidence. The appellate court exonerated her and set her free. Another court found her guilty and eventually went to the Italian Supreme Court. The Supreme Court found her innocent. The ‘evidence’ the police had on her in the first place was circumstantial and tenuous, at best. There was, theoretically, a knife that had her DNA on the handle and the DNA of the victim, Meredith Kercher, on the blade. An independent review of that knife found the DNA was corrupted in the lab an unusable.

Yet despite the lack of physical evidence Amanda Knox was almost from the beginning the only person investigated. Another person with a history of breaking into houses, Rudy Guede, was assumed to have been part of the sex-game gone wrong and convicted as well, but the media rarely touched upon his story. A known criminal committing another crime? Where’s the story in that? But Kercher’s family, and a lot of other people, still believe Knox, her boyfriend and Guede killed Kercher. Knox, in the documentary, said it best. You either believe she’s guilty or she’s innocent, there’s no in between. As she said, ‘Either I’m a psychopath in sheep’s clothing, or I am you.’ She’s you because the same situation could happen to you.

The Night Of

night-ofJust like it did to Nasir ‘Naz’ Khan, the protagonist of the HBO limited series The Night Of, which had a similar premise. Naz was accused of killing a woman, Andrea Cornish. There were a lot of drugs involved, he’d had sex with her and he fled the scene upon discovering her body. But he swore that during the time of the murder he was knocked out in the kitchen on a drug-infused high, so that he can’t remember what actually happened that night.

It’s a horrible defence, especially based on the preponderance of physical evidence, but the detective involved in the case again focused in on only the one suspect. Since Naz was Muslim the media, too, was quick to assume his guilt, the victim of racism and headlines. That he had no motive or history of any crime didn’t matter. It wasn’t until the trial that the police began investigating anyone else, mostly because the defence started presenting evidence that could point to reasonable doubt. Was any of it conclusive? No. Was any of it compelling and did it offer a motive for others? Most certainly.

What We Learned

What struck me about both the documentary and the drama was how similar they were. The guilt or innocence of both people is still in doubt. The media formed their own opinions rather quickly and basically played out a trial in the press. Both people may have been falsely accused, but definitely spent time in jail. I’m inclined to believe that neither Knox nor Naz actually committed the crimes of which they were accused; others disagree. The reality of their situations didn’t actually matter to the perception of them. They were unfairly abused by the very system that was designed to protect them. Some level of corruption or incompetence played into their trials. One day forever changed their lives.

In both things I’m struck by certain aspects of the justice system. Prosecutors, in particular, must be convinced of the defendant’s guilt. There must be a lot of mental gymnastics sometimes to go to trial. Sometimes, too often, people can be wrongly convicted. People are very much able to convince themselves of anything. Part of me is somewhat amazed that twelve people in a jury can actually agree on anything. There’s a reason there are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of different religions, political parties, TV stations and restaurants that all claim to be ‘the best’ or ‘the only’.

Humanity has a great ability to delude itself. But humanity also has a great propensity for following a leader. On a jury it only takes one strongly convinced person to swing the rest of the jury to their belief. This sort of delusion, ability to convince others and strongly held belief can make for fantastic drama in movies and television when it does, but can also lead to untold tragedy in real life. Truth matters, but who has the time to go find it.

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The Only Difference Is Everything

I’ve been back in the US for almost two months now. I’m not quite over my culture shock (or reverse culture shock), which I wrote about earlier.

I’m driving now, which is a bit strange after taking public transport for the past five years. I’ve spent part of today (more than I’d like, really) looking into the best and easiest way to get from my place into DC proper via public transport. Even though I’m only about 25 miles away from DC it’s going to take me about an hour and a half door-to-door. That feels ridiculous to me, and ridiculously inefficient. But it is what it is, so I have to cope.

One thing that I was really looking forward to upon moving back was donating plasma. For some reason the UK and NHS doesn’t accept plasma donations. They can do platelets and whole red blood, but not plasma. There are many places in the US where you can do it, though, and some even will even pay you for it. That’s a decent way to make some extra money, I suppose, though I would feel a bit strange doing that. Other places like the American Red Cross don’t pay you, nor do they accept plasma donations as often, but have more reach as a non-profit. The problem I have now, however, is that I cant’ donate. Not blood or plasma. Apparently having spent more than five years in Europe disqualifies me. Seemingly forever. I have to say, I’m more than a little upset about this. Blood is blood. My blood was good enough to use in the UK, it should be good enough to use here. What’s changed, other than my living situation? It’s bollocks, is what it is.

Another thing that’s bollocks is the amount of sugar in, well, everything. Why is there sugar in bread? Why is it so hard to find bread without sugar? Even when I can find it, sugarless bread is insanely expensive. I don’t understand why it’s such a problem. The incessant sugar, which has no health benefit whatsoever, could help explain why Americans have troubles with weight, diabetes and other health issues, though there are of course many other reasons). It shouldn’t really be surprising about a recent story concerning the sugar lobby, which years ago paid scientists to push health issues towards fat. One more example of money corrupting whatever it touches.


Another difference which I have found annoying is the inability to plug in a new sim card into my old British phone. In the UK I had an iPhone 5C. It’s a model that is made around the world, including the US. I had specifically unlocked my phone so that I could use it in the US. But US phone companies don’t use the same carrier networks or frequencies as those in the UK (or the rest of the world, actually). So even though my phone would work in literally any other country, it wouldn’t work in the US. For no other reason than American companies have to be different. Someone at one of the major carrier companies tried to explain why sim cards aren’t as prevalent here — something to do with potential theft and identity fraud — but that makes no sense. Smart phones are so ubiquitous that sims should be common. Not to mention that sims themselves don’t actually carry much, if any personal information which would make identity theft easy or common.

One more striking difference between the US and UK that I’ll be pointing out today is charity shops. Having moved into a new apartment and needing, well, pretty much everything you need to make a home, I’m a little disappointed with the lack of charity shops. Yes, the US has Goodwill. But those are few and far between. Alas. Back in the UK it seemed like there were charity shops on nearly every street corner. That could, perhaps, be a bit biased since there were, literally, four on one road just around the corner from me and a few more throughout town. But other places I visited had them as well. So they were all around. Since the shops were mostly, if not wholly, stocked with donations, the UK has definitely taken the approach that ‘one man’s junk is another man’s treasure’. On the other hand, the UK had far fewer swap meets and garage sales. They have their own positives and negatives, then.

So I have struggled to adapt. The differences, which seem so minor, make reintegration hard. I’m used to having and doing things a certain way, and I just can’t get those anymore. Shame.

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The Latest In Geekdom

I’ve been busy moving and not having consistent internet for the past few weeks, hence the delay in posting. There’s a lot of pop culture and geek news to catch up on since I’ve been away.


The 68th Annual Emmy Awards took place over the weekend. Congratulations to all the nominees and winners. I’d especially like to say well-done to Game of Thrones and Tatiana Maslany. GoT has now become the most awarded scripted television show of all time with its 38 wins (and an amazing 106 nominations!) over its 6 year span. With two more seasons planned, that number is only bound to go up, too. For Maslany, I’m happy that the Emmy’s are finally recognising her varied and impressive work in Orphan Black. orphan-blackIf you’ve not seen the show, she plays a number of clones, each with their own personality and characteristics, often in the same scene. She can go from an uptight, drug-abusing soccer mom one second to a trained assassin the next. She does it all seamlessly, too, as the quirks of one clone never appear in another. Basically, she can play up to 10 characters a single episode. It’s a sci-fi show that hasn’t gained the mass national attention of a show airing on HBO or Netflix — it airs on BBC America — so has limited exposure. But it’s great to see the Emmys daring to go outside the norm for their awards; especially considering the show opens up many, many questions about identity, autonomy, agency, sexuality and female power (amongst other thought-provoking social questions). As the LA Times wrote, ‘Geekdom Wins at the 2016 Emmy Awards‘. Yes, geekdom has definitely gone mainstream.

Star Trek

Fifty years after it’s premiere on television, Star Trek is once again in the news. I might be one of the few people happy with the announcement that Star Trek: Discovery, has pushed back their release date until May 2017. Showrunners Bryan Fuller and Alex Kurtzman felt like they needed more time to make a quality show that would live up to the writing, acting and production standards that had inspired them since childhood. I totally understand that. Yes, I’m disappointed I won’t have new Trek until May, but I’ve waited over a decade already, so what’s a few more months? I just hope this means they can actually get the quality show they want. I’ll be even more disappointed if the show turns out to be horrible despite the delay. In the meantime, I have plenty of other Trek available on Netflix to keep me busy.


Speaking of Netflix, the latest MCU (more geekdom gone mainstream) addition, Luke Cage, is available in a little over a week. It looks excellent and I’m sure it will keep me enthralled for its duration, as have the other shows.

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And Finally…

With that, I leave you with this video from Joss Whedon on the importance of voting from It’s got a lot of famous (and not so famous) people in it, including Robert Downey Jr, Scarlett Johansson and Mark Ruffalo (with a teaser for him getting nude, if that interests — I found it hilarious). Voting is important, because I, for one, don’t want the US to have its own ‘Brexit’-regret type feeling come 9 November if they (we?) elect a fear-mongering, con artists, homophobic racist. I don’t normally get political on here, and I don’t necessarily endorse any candidate, but the sentiment is important nonetheless.


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A Summer of Change

GlobeI spent a beautiful day yesterday at the US Open with my wife and father-in-law. It was clear skies, not terribly hot and filled with some excellent tennis. It was a great way to end summer. And it’s been an especially strange summer for me.

I started off in the UK, have recently come back to the US for the first time in a number of years, and will be moving once again to a different city in the US after a month of my current situation. I was happy living in the UK but as it was becoming more apparent I would likely be leaving I started looking for work. My wife also began looking for work.

Arthur Ashe

Looking for jobs is hard. Looking for jobs while living in a foreign country is even more difficult. We were looking up and down the east coast, from Atlanta up to Boston, with most of the focus in North Carolina and a little in the DC area. We don’t know anyone in North Carolina, but Oxford University Press has an office there, so I was hoping to get some sort of work with them. It’s also one of the fastest growing states in the country that’s supposed to have good job opportunities, a relatively good climate and decent cost of living expenses. Other than that whole ‘Bathroom Bill’ fiasco, it’s is supposed to be a nice place to live. When we left for the UK we lived around DC, so we still had contacts in the area.

That’s good for my wife, as her contacts included the manager for the company where she worked before we left. That company was hiring, she managed to get an interview soon upon our return and quick as that, she has a job again. I’m, of course, still looking. It is slightly easier now that we have a US address and phone number — at least I think and hope it will be — so I suspect it won’t be much longer until I get something.

When I’m not busy applying for jobs I’ve been busy trying my hand at writing. I’m reading about writing a screenplay. I figure that I watch enough movies and television shows I ought to be able to write one as well. I’ve got an interesting idea (I think) but I’m not sure how to make it work into a decent screenplay. I’ve always actually dreamt of being a writer, I just need to go do it. I’ve done a lot of different types of writing in my life so now it’s a matter of learning the style and formatting of screenwriting.

Part of my learning process is watching television and movies. Not merely for entertainment — which they often are — but studying them for what works and what doesn’t work, characterisation, plot development, storytelling technique and everything else that comes into the process. It’s not the same as writing, but it is giving me ideas. Maybe one day one of those ideas will help me get published (or bought and produced in this instance). I’m fascinated with the different perspectives and time-frames in things. I really enjoyed how the first season of True Detective moved back-and-forth in time to tell the story. It’s not the same at all, but I liked how the mechanics of How I Met Your Mother worked. Currently, I’m fascinated with the different perspectives of The Affair — how the same event told from two different viewpoints changes the implications of that event. It’s hard to sustain or do properly, but is appealing when done right.

Since I’ve been home I’ve been watching sports on TV as well. It’s not a screenwriting learning exercise, but it is entertaining. First it was the Olympics — which wasn’t really as interesting as I would have liked. Then it was American football. As you may remember from other posts, I’m a big fan of NFL football. Summer is the start of pre-season practices. For the first time in ages I’ve been in the US to actually watch games on TV. A live football game shouldn’t be exciting to me, but it is. But it’s just one more thing that’s different from what I’m used to. One more thing that’s changing.

Yet for all the change, some things remain the same. One of my best memories with my wife was our first trip to the US Open. That was the weekend I proposed all those years ago. While we again went to the Open, this year’s trip to the Open symbolically marks the end of the summer of change for me. My wife starts her new job next week, so we’re moving (again), I should be getting a job soon and perhaps life can return to some semblance of normality. I’m not sure I know what that is anymore.

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A Tale of Two Countries

I’ve been back in the US for a little over two weeks now. I had left almost 5 years ago to study in the UK and now return back to the country where I grew up and have spent the majority of my life. When preparing to come back I was reading about the possibility of having reverse culture shock upon returning. I seem to be experiencing it.

Little Things, Big Differences

When I was an undergrad I received information from my university’s Study Abroad office listing all the places where I could spend up to a year overseas. UC Irvine had quite an impressive list of places, having developed relationships with well over 50 universities and countries.

Some of the places where I could have gone were immediately out. Having taken Latin as my foreign language at university there was no way I could study in a country where they taught in a language other than English. That lone requirement made studying in almost any Asian country impossible, most of South America and a huge portion of Europe (I don’t remember how many African universities were available). From that point I had a list of about half a dozen countries where I could potentially study.

Initially that included the UK, Australia, South Africa, at least one Nordic country for a semester, and the Netherlands. I knew I wanted a full year and didn’t really want to go to South Africa (at the time, though now I would love a chance to visit). At the time I thought that both the UK and Australia would be much too similar to the US and so, kind of by default, settled on studying in the Netherlands. It was one of the best decisions of my life and has greatly influenced my future.

Having now spent the last 5 years in the UK (and 6 of the last 12) I have found those initial reservations that the UK would be too similar to the US to give me a sense of ‘foreign country’ were completely wrong. Yes, there were many similarities, but there were many, many differences.

Bigger Is Better?

Almost everything in the US is bigger, from politics to TV shows to societal concerns. I had almost forgotten that.

Even though I wasn’t in the US I still kept abreast of current events there. So I’ve been following politics with a distanced view. Whereas in the US the presidential election has been proceeding full-steam for well over 18 months now, the longest I ever saw anything political happening in the UK was roughly 6 months during the ‘Brexit’ campaign, and even that didn’t start getting heated until March or April (at least in my view). Having lived through very little political posturing in the UK since I wasn’t allowed to vote, the entire ‘Brexit’ campaign felt long and drawn out. I was tired of it long before the vote. I’m even more tired of this American campaign season. I’m very, very ready for it to end.

Outside of politics I closely followed American TV. Through the ubiquity of the internet I was able to continue watching some of my favourite shows and discover new ones. Over the last 50 years American TV shows have been getting shorter — both in content per episode due to commercials and episodes per season — but both still remain significantly longer than British shows. Most American network drama shows will be slotted for an hour but have anywhere from 40-45 minutes of actual content. They’ll usually run about 22 episodes per season. This has changed somewhat with the rise of serialised shows (Fargo, American Horror Story and True Detective, for example) and some shows on premium networks (notably Game of Thrones), but even the 10-13 episodes for those shows are more than the 3-6 that air for British shows that air on the BBC or ITV or the like. Both types have their strengths and weaknesses which I won’t go into here, but America seems to live by the adage that bigger is better.

The same could be said for architecture, shops, cars and distances. In the US, something is ‘close’ if it’s a 10-15 minute drive away (though having grown up in California, ‘close’ was actually more like 20-25 minutes). In the UK at 10-15 minute drive often puts you in a completely different town, village or city. Everywhere I lived or visited was relatively walkable and had good public transport options for things that were a bit further afield. Having a car wasn’t a necessity for everyone, though it did often make things easier. There are very few places in the US where having a car is a luxury. My partner and I have been apartment hunting this week. We’re moving to the Washington, DC metro area. DC is one of the American cities with a decent public transportation infrastructure, but even the areas where we were looking were far away from public transport or took multiple transfers and long times to get anywhere. The closer we were to central DC meant everything got more expensive, so it’s a fine balancing act. So of course we’re going to have at least one car and live in a relatively large place, because that’s just how America works. We went shopping at one of the local grocery stores to where we’re staying. They said it was a ‘small’ store but was as big or bigger than pretty much every grocery store we used in the UK. It was a strange feeling to think that store was ‘small’.

Cost of Living and Expenses

What has struck me most and given me the most reverse culture shock, however, is just how damned expensive the US is. Common amenities that I could get for £1-2 were now going to cost $6.99 or more. Even taking into account the exchange rate, that’s double the price. That was for simple things like toothpaste or common household goods. When I wanted things that were more ‘exotic’ in the US but common in the UK, the price skyrocketed. Take tea, for example. Even the cheapest variety of some sort of black tea, the store brand, costs $4 for a package of 25. Each bag, of course, is individually wrapped, too. As if my tea will get infected with the flavour of the other tea bag if it touches it. So wasteful, and so expensive! Want milk to put in it? The smallest size I can find at this local ‘small’ store is a quart; much larger than I’m used to, and more expensive to boot.

There are only two things that I can think of that are actually cheaper in the US than in the UK — petrol gas and cars. The current average price of gas in the US is $2.20 per gallon. As that’s almost 4 British litres, that’s very cheap (about £0.58p per litre if my maths are right). It’s hard to do a price comparison for cars as many of the makes available in the US aren’t available in the UK and vice versa (I rarely saw an SUV in the UK, for example, and almost never see Peugeot’s in the US). But because they’re so ubiquitous, cars are cheap. They have to be for 16 year-olds to get and drive them…

The cost of health care is another looming cost that is bigger in the US. Without going into too much detail (since I’ll likely do this as a whole other post in the future), whereas healthcare is free at point of service in the UK thanks to the NHS, in the US it is not. One recent American doctor touring the UK commented on this recently. The short of it is I already miss the NHS and I am a healthy individual who almost never needs it. I’m not looking forward to diving into the tangled, murky waters that make up the American health care system. Though it will be nice to donate plasma again instead of only whole blood.

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When School Meets Football

Apologies for the long delay. I’ve been packing and moving. It’s a huge task in the best of times and I was leaving one country for another, making it even harder. Suffice it to say I had little time for writing. I’ve now settled in to my (temporary) lodgings and shall (hopefully) be commencing upon regular posts again.

Today I return to one of my favourite pastimes — American football. The regular season for the NFL is less than a month away, which means training camps are underway and games are getting played (and televised). It also means the return of HBO’s ‘Hard Knocks’ series, which follows one of the 32 NFL teams for a few weeks chronicling training camp. It’s like a football version of ‘Big Brother’ I would say.

LARamsLogoAlternateThis year the show follows the Los Angeles Rams. The team was based in LA for decades before leaving for St Louis in the mid-1990s, returning just this year. When I was growing up I remember actually going to see the team play in LA on at least one occasion. The first episode aired this past Tuesday, and will air each Tuesday for six weeks. The episode captures the excitement of having a professional football team back in LA after more than two decades without having one. Fans of the team were happy to have them return after such a long absence.

I’m intrigued with the show for multiple reasons. I love football so it’s interesting to see a behind-the-scenes view of it. As I mentioned earlier, I remember the team from my childhood, so having them back in southern California brings back memories — even if I’m no longer in southern California. The team is practicing at the University of California, Irvine campus, which is where I studied as an undergraduate.

The first thing that struck me about the show this year was how little of campus I recognised (or perhaps remembered). When I was attending I don’t recall there being a football field at all. It turns out there’s not, just a re-purposed section of a facility called Crawford Field. Some of the other buildings they show either weren’t there when I was or have changed dramatically since I left. The student centre, for example, was greatly expanded soon after I graduated. When I do recognise a building or section of campus I get a small tingle of excitement — for no other reason than I find it amusing, really.

The second thing that struck me is that UCI is in Orange County, which is not Los Angeles. While UC, Irvine is part of the University of California system of schools, it’s not even the closes campus to Los Angeles. That honour, of course, falls to the University of California, Los Angeles, better known as UCLA. The two campuses are roughly 50 miles distant from each other.

However, it’s common both in sports and television to classify Orange County as part of the greater Los Angeles area. In baseball, the Angels are known as the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. They’re two totally different places, yet get subsumed into the LA region. I find it a bit annoying since the distances involved are often very large and the places aren’t necessarily near each other despite what is shown on the screen. The first episode of the series showed players lifting weights at a place called Muscle Beach, and going swimming in Huntington Beach. Muscle Beach is in Santa Monica, near UCLA; Huntington Beach is in Orange County near UCI. If you didn’t know southern California geography, however, you might think they were relatively close (though, obviously, ‘relatively’ is, ironically, a relative term). It’s a minor point, for sure, but somewhat ties into my next issue regarding knowledge.

The Rams used their position as the first team to pick a player in the annual NFL Draft to chose a quarterback named Jared Goff, who played at another UC school, Berkeley, known in sporting circles as Cal. Berkeley, like the other schools in the UC system, is known for its academic rigour and national prestige. It’s a hard school to get in to, usually requiring good grades, some sort of community service and high test scores. The US News and World Report Education section ranks Berkeley as the 20th best school in the US; whereas Times Higher Education ranks it as 13th in the world; the Academic Rankings of World Universities said it was number 3 in the world; and Forbes gave it the number 6 in public universities. No matter who is doing the surveying, it’s a good school.

It surprised me, then, that Goff didn’t know the directions in which the sun rose and set. At least one other new player didn’t know either, thinking the sun rose in the west. Now, I can understand not knowing which way is west or east if you can’t see the sun. Modern technology has made needing to know directions like that almost obsolete. But this simple tidbit of knowledge that I would expect primary school children to know? How can a man who attended one of the most prestigious institutions of higher education in the world not know this simple fact? How could he have passed any basic science class without knowing that, let alone enough of them to attend university?

There’s obviously a huge flaw in the system. Somewhere along the way his talent as an athlete began to overshadow his academics. I don’t know if his teachers let him slide a little due to his talent, or he was sick the day the rest of the class learned about simple physics like that, or some other reason. But it’s an indication that, for some, a premium is given to their non-academic talents. Football, in particular, is big money for universities. There are plenty of players who get partial or full scholarships to attend a particular university to play football. Those same scholarships apply to other sports, but often to a lesser degree. Yes, there are even some ‘full ride’ academic scholarships at many universities, but these are decidedly few and far between. Obviously it’s hard to get any of those ‘full ride’ scholarships that pays for university; it’s hard to get even partial scholarships. The competition is intense, in part because tuition is so high now.

But should a student’s athletic prowess outweigh their academic needs? Should some students, who obviously train very hard at what they do, be given preference over others? Would the system be better served if attending university were free for students, as it is in many Scandinavian countries (and was proposed by at least former American presidential candidate Bernie Sanders and, to a lesser extent, Hillary Clinton)? The system is obviously broken. Football players highlight just one aspect of the flaws (and I won’t even start on the NCAA). Something needs to change.


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Comic-Con Previews

I wrote a while ago about not watching TV or movie previews. Generally I don’t.  Not because they’re not interesting, but often because I have other things I’d rather watch. Or that I don’t want to get overly excited (or depressed) about the show or movie. When it comes to what appears at the San Diego Comic-Con, which happened over the past weekend, however, I’m willing to make an exception.

Now, I’ve never been to any comic conventions, let alone #SDCC, so I’m not exactly sure how it all works. From what I’ve seen and heard from others it seems to be similar to a really large conference. The biggest conference I ever attended was four days with two or three panels happening simultaneously. Thus I had to pick which panels and speakers I wanted to see. I never had to wait in a line overnight, like SDCC Hall H panels, but the basic concept, at least, is similar.

I have a friend who went to SDCC (as has for as long as I’ve known him, actually). He seems to have a good time every year, and this year I was a bit jealous. He was live-tweeting (with pictures) the whole convention, including getting donuts from the Star Trek panel while waiting in line. Apparently the people in line waited for almost 24 hours to get in to the panel. That’s dedication. The entire panel is now available to watch, so whether the entire thing was worth it is debatable.

I will say that I would have liked to get the first sneak peak of the new show before anyone else. But you can watch that for yourself now.

The #Trekkie in me is super excited for the show, Star Trek: Discovery. Show-runner Bryan Fuller is assembling quite the talented team of writers and producers. The registry number on the new ship, the USS Discovery, would theoretically place it after Enterprise and before TOS. There have been rumours of that time period for a while. I’ve even heard rumours of it taking place during the Earth-Romulan War, which has been relatively unexplored in Trek lore. Fuller, however, has been very coy about the show, helping to build my excitement. That said, I don’t like the look of the ship. Its triangle design looks ugly and aggressive. So far it looks to be the worst-looking ship in the whole Trek canon. That’s just my opinion, at least. I’ve seen others who like it.

The 50th Anniversary Trek panel was not the only thing happening at Comic-Con. I believe Hall H also hosted a Marvel panel. Which means more previews of the MCU. Of course I’m excited about all of these! Benedict Cumberbatch, the man who seems to be everywhere and in everything recently, will be Dr Strange in November this year.

The Netflix MCU shows will be in full force soon, too. Luke Cage airs 30 September.

There’s also been a brief preview for Iron Fist, which is ‘coming soon’.

Of course, with these two new shows and the already completed seasons of Daredevil and Jessica Jones, that means a team-up in The Defenders. All I know is that the mini-series will air in 2017. I’m hoping there will finally be some big tie-in to either Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. or, even better, both that show and the movies in the MCU. Perhaps setting up the characters to appear in Infinity War in 2018. And who else might be appearing in that (and her own, recently cast movie)? Brie Larson as Captain Marvel. Well, one can hope.

SDCC wasn’t just about Trek and Marvel, though. The DC universe got into the action with previews of some of their own upcoming films. I still haven’t seen Batman Vs Superman, and I don’t like Zack Snyder films, but even I have to admit some of the things looked interesting in the previews. Mostly I mean that there’s colour. Suicide Squad still has a dark, muted tone, but at least Harley Quinn and Joker are bright.

After that the new Wonder Woman movie comes out. As a friend of mine said, it basically seems like a female version of Captain America: First Avenger. But at least there’s a colour palette!

There was also a lot of humour, if not as much colour, in the Justice League trailer. Ben Affleck actually seems a decent choice for Batman, and Jason Momoa looks to be the perfect Aquaman. I’ll be interested in seeing how Ezra Miller’s version of the Flash compares to Grant Gustin’s version from TV.

There were plenty of other announcements coming out of SDCC, including Kong: Skull Island staring Tom Hiddleston (and Brie Larson — she’s almost as popular as Benedict Cumberbatch!), King Arthur: Legend of the Sword and the Harry Potter-verse related Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them with Eddie Redmayne (and Ezra Miller again!).

I doubt everything announced will live up to the hype, but I have hopes for quite a bit of it. Maybe one of these days I’ll actually get around to going to a convention of some sort. Maybe even SDCC.

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Looking Back In…

There are a lot of beautiful places in the UK. Coventry is not one of them. I wish I had paid more attention to that when I decided to go to school there.

Sure, there are nice parts like anywhere, but they are few and far between. My current town is a much nicer place. It was recently ranked the second happiest place to live in the UK. Having lived in Shrewsbury for almost three years now, I can attest to it being a happy place. Quite a bit nicer, too, than Coventry.

Though I live in Shrewsbury now, I won’t for much longer. Part of me, too, wishes I had never moved here. It’s the same part that wishes I had never decided to attend Warwick; if I hadn’t moved to Coventry I most likely never would have moved to Shrewsbury later. If I had to do it all over again, I would have chosen a different university, and the last few years of my life would be completely different.

If I had been paying close attention at the time, there were signs Warwick was not the place I should have gone. Having spent basically the last three years fighting them on one issue or another, I am perhaps a little biased on the subject. But if it can happen to me, it could happen to you, too. If you’re thinking of attending university (for an undergraduate degree or a postgraduate one) I suggest taking these things into account.


Having lived in the US before coming to Britain for Warwick, I didn’t have the opportunity to see the university in person before applying, accepting and attending. Instead I had to rely on web pages, testimonials and pictures online. Of course the university puts its best view online, including glowing testimonials of happy graduates. Whilst there are nice towns to live around Coventry, it’s hard to get a proper perspective on distance online. Had I been able to visit in person, I might have had different thoughts on coming.

Plenty of students do live in the nicer towns, commuting in as necessary. I’ve commuted in my life, it’s not a huge deal. Knowing what to expect — the times given online via the university and bus schedules are the best case scenarios — would have been useful.

Even campus itself has issues. Warwick is a typical ’60s institution build solidly of concrete. It’s not the most aesthetically pleasing university of all time. If that sort of thing is important to you, going to visit in person can persuade or dissuade you as appropriate. My undergraduate university, UC Irvine, was also a ’60s institution built of concrete. That aspect didn’t bother me. I actually quite enjoyed Irvine (the campus, not necessarily the town around it), despite the architecture. Having visited numerous universities while deciding where to attend as an undergrad was a very useful experience. I wish I would have done the same thing as a postgrad.


Find out what is important to you in a university. Do you like a lot of extra-curricular activities? Do you want the top-ranked school in your field? Do you want a good sports/fitness programme?

If you know what to look for it can help narrow your search immensely. I went in looking for a good History department, as that was my field. Warwick definitely has a good department, ranking 4th in the UK (and 15th in the world) in the QS rankings. It’s a large department, too, with a lot going on for it — seminars, conferences, funding opportunities and other things.

Had I been a little more refined in my searching, however, I would have come to find that despite all its great qualities, the History department doesn’t have a particularly good focus on popular music or culture (at least twentieth century popular music and culture, which is my focus). My advisor has never published anything in the field. Maybe History wasn’t the best department for me; maybe I would have been better suited for the Film and Television department or Sociology, or even Politics and International Studies. Maybe History was, in fact, the best department but the university overall didn’t suit my needs the best.

Having now spent more than four years studying, meeting people and going to conferences I have found other universities that might have better popular culture areas, but worse history departments. Should I have tried finding an advisor who has published works in my field, even if the university doesnt’ have the same ranking? Would I have been better going off to one of those? Perhaps, it’s hard to know for sure. I might have prioritised those things and lived in a bad place or not been able to get funding for conferences, meaning I wouldn’t have all the connections and experiences. I might not have got along with my advisor. Who knows. The point being, I wish I would have done a bit more research into all the aspects that were important to me.

Ask Questions

This follows both previous points in a large degree. Don’t be afraid of asking questions. Think you’ve found someone who might be a good supervisor (or, if an undergraduate, someone whose work you enjoy reading)? Get in contact with them! Ask them their thoughts about anything you can think of that might relate to your experience at the university. Officials will almost always give you positive reviews, so do take what they say with a grain of salt, but what they praise might not be the same things you were looking for. Reading between the lines might give you more insight that the actual words.

Similarly, find and ask students (current and former) if they’d be willing to talk or answer some questions for you. Most will give you a slightly more realistic expectation of the university. They will, of course, have their own biases, but it’s not their job to try to recruit other students in the way that faculty and staff try to do.

Try to find other local residents — from businesses, councils, libraries, whatever — and find out what their experiences are. Do they say there’s no good restaurants, the local football club is the best in the world and has a great fanbase, it’s a dirty town/city, transportation is convenient and great or something else?

Had I done the same thing I might have taken a different route. I thought that because Coventry has a busy train station and relatively good busses getting to campus would be easy. It wasn’t quite as easy or convenient as I would have liked — especially in cold, rain or snowy weather — and I probably could have found that out by asking local residents. Bus timetables and Google maps are great for getting some information. They’re rubbish for getting first-hand experience of matters.

Make Sure It’s What You Want

I can’t stress this enough. Make sure going for your degree (of whatever level) is really what you want. With university costs rising higher than ever, it’s going to be expensive to get a degree. That’s a lot of debt later on in life. It’s a big commitment (3 or 4 years at least in the UK, often 4 or 5 in the US) to get even a Bachelor’s degree; and similar timeframes, if not longer, for PhDs. That’s a lot of time and money; are you sure it’s worth it?

If you know you want to be a doctor, lawyer, professor, computer engineer or something that definitely needs a degree (or more) then yes, obviously it’s worth it. If you want to start your own business or spend your life in retail or a service industry, is a degree necessary? Would it be better to get an apprenticeship, internship or work experience and build from there? You could always go get a degree if it turns out that wasn’t what you wanted.

I’ve realised I wanted to get my PhD — which I still don’t have, and is one of the things I’m fighting my university about — not because I was going toward something, but because I was trying to get away from my retail existence.  I didn’t necessarily have the goal of wanting to be a university teacher, for which you need a PhD. I thought that might be a nice backup position if/when I got the PhD, but it wasn’t my main goal. My hope was that by researching for however many years I would discover what it is I really liked. It turns out it’s music and pop culture, hence the blog, but another degree doesn’t help me break into those fields. I probably would have been better off trying to find a job with a record label, a management company, a venue or even with music journal instead of working toward the PhD, at least then I’ve have some industry experience. It’s never too late, perhaps, to get into those fields, but am I now overqualified for them? It’s a balancing act, a juggling issue.

I look back and wonder if I would have been better off somewhere else, doing something else. It’s hard to know for sure. It definitely would have been a far different experience, that’s for sure. There are things I wish I would have done different, and things I wish I could have done differently. Of course, there are things that I’m happy happened and wouldn’t change them for the world. Looking back, though, if I had to do it all again I most likely wouldn’t have chosen Coventry and Warwick. Those places might be right for you, though. Good luck figuring it out.

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Non-Psychedelic Feedback

Over the past few months I’ve had a few job interviews. Unfortunately I did not get those jobs, but it was useful to go to the interviews nonetheless.

I say a few jobs, really it’s been two. I had a few other interviews for academic jobs a few years ago, but other than those it has been a long time between ‘real’ interviews. I’ve had some experience in retail interviews in between, but because I have so much experience in retail — and I had worked at one of the positions during the holiday periods before, so didn’t even need an interview again — I hardly count those.

The two interviews I did have were for permanent editing positions with a company that I like and respect. As I founded and edited a journal during my studies I thought I was well suited for the positions. Obviously getting to the interview stage meant the recruiters also thought along similar lines. So I was quite happy to get the interviews.

The company used ‘competency-based’ questions during the interview. This means they gave me a situation and I had to answer by giving a bit of background, what I did and the resolution afterwards. One such question was ‘Tell us about a time where you had to evaluate a problem and what was your solution?’ There were about ten of these types of questions, ranging from customer service to financial management.

When at the first interview — my first in about two years — I thought I was giving good answers. After I left I began reflecting on it. I realised as I was leaving that I didn’t think I’d get the job. I felt I had repeated some of the answers a bit too much — did I mention I was working on a postgraduate degree? It’s amazing how many transferable skills can come from that sort of thing. Still, I felt like I used that ‘I studied’ a bit too much. I was also a bit too hasty in answering questions. Meaning I didn’t think about finding the best example to answer the questions, merely the first.

As expected, I didn’t get the job. But I felt much better going into the second interview since I knew what to expect. I also thought it would be worthwhile bringing in answers that really showed my personality. I thought it would make me stick out a bit more. As I play a lot of games, I was determined to bring those experiences into my interview. So I did. Unfortunately I didn’t get the second job, either.

On the advice of a career counselor I requested feedback from the people who interviewed me. I was a little hesitant at first because it was almost two months later. I wasn’t sure I would be remembered or if it would be useful. I also thought it might sound desperate.

It turns out I was wrong. They people did remember me and provided useful feedback. They told me what I did that was good — and should be repeated in further interviews — and what I could improve upon.

One thing I needed to work on was merely a misinterpretation on my part. The company had asked about something financial. They wanted an example of balancing financial books, understanding Profit & Loss and/or using spreadsheets to manage accounts. I organised a conference using such a procedure, so I have the experience. But I misunderstood the question, interpreting it instead about the financial health of a company. I used to be a manager at a retail company. Part of the role was keeping close track of sales and staffing. If the company wasn’t making the planned sales I had to try to manage the budget for the day by cutting staff. In one sense I was performing a close focus on financial information. But I wasn’t answering the question they way they were expecting. If I get a similar question in a future interview I will now know a better way of answering it. They also recommended not using games as an example. Since I have quite a bit of professional and academic experience, I should focus on that. If I do use the games example, do it near the end.

I’m hoping that with the feedback I received I will be able to interview better. The people who interviewed me were confident that I would get a job, perhaps even in that industry, shortly. As they mentioned, I had an impressive-enough CV to get the interview. From there it’s about finding the best fit for the job. The two people who were hired instead had a little more direct experience in the field. They also suggested ways for me to get that more direct experience. Or, if not that, a way to make it sound like I would be the best fit by using my academic and professional experiences. I will get a job, it’s just a matter of when.

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The Power of Music

I love music. It can be such a breath of fresh air in tough times.

And recently, all around the world, there has been a lot of tough times. From the horrible, senseless and most deadly mass-shooting in US history in an Orlando gay club, to the Labour MP in the UK who died after being shot, or the news that at least six people have been shot at a teacher protest in Mexico, or a suicide attack in Kabul that has killed at least 14 people (and the list goes on, sadly). These are all terrible tragedies, affecting countless lives.

For me, what sometimes helps me get through the tough times is music. Though I’ve not been affected by anything like those tragic, senseless deaths at the hands of others, I — like everyone — have had my own life struggles.

A number of years ago I went through a bad breakup (I know, nothing on the same scale, and for that I apologise). What helped me stay strong in the face of this adversity was music. Not my friends — who at the time were few since I was relatively new in the area — or even co-workers — who, again, because I was new didn’t know that well — but music. It had a cathartic effect on me. I spent much of the day when I wasn’t working listening to ‘Lost‘ by Michael Bublé or ‘Don’t Look Back In Anger‘ by Oasis on repeat. Over the course of a month I probably listened to those two songs 100 times if not more.

That experience brought back a quip from one of my favourite movies. As Nick Horby brilliantly wrote (and John Cusack fantastically portrayed) in High Fidelity, ‘what came first, the music or the misery?’ Or, ‘Did I listen to pop music because I was miserable? Or was I miserable because I listened to pop music?’

The reason music resonates with so many of us is because it’s based on emotions. It can help us cope in hard times or enjoy the happy times. There’s a reason weddings in almost any culture include music of some form. Many times funerals will as well. Music is filled with power. One particular happy song that still brings a smile to my face and has been stuck in my head since I heard it nearly two years ago: ‘Shut Up and Dance‘ by Walk the Moon. I definitely would have played that at my wedding had it been released at the time.

Live music in concert has an even greater ability to amplify those feelings. I’ve been to loads of concerts in my life. Some have been just okay, some have been merely fun, some have been great and some have been transcendent.

I went to see Barry Manilow over the weekend. Not because I’m a fan but because my partner is and she wanted to go. No matter how reluctant I’ve been to attend a concert in the past, I’ve almost always enjoyed the experience (though I can remember one show where I walked out because I was bored). Though I wasn’t particularly enthused to see Manilow I knew I’d probably have a good time nonetheless. It was definitely a unique experience. It’s the only show where I’ve ever been given a glow stick upon entering the arena, that’s for sure. Even though I hardly recognised any songs he played, I still had a decent enough time. In part because my partner was thoroughly enjoying it, which made me feel better about the experience. But it was also just by watching the crowd. Everyone around me was up and dancing or singing along. The crowd was having a good time. It was infectious. It’s hard being in a happy crowd and being the sad loner. The fact that the rest of the show felt extremely rehearsed (even the jokes to some extent), that it ran like a well-oiled machine and in some respects that the performers were merely ‘going through the motions’ if you will shouldn’t detract from the enthusiasm and joy it brought the crowd. Is it really a bad thing when the artist knows what they (and the audience) like and gives it to them?

The point being, I’ve enjoyed nearly every show I’ve seen. Indeed, I’ve often told people that one of my favourite concert experiences was seeing Michael Bublé. At the time I didn’t know his music very well at all — really only the standards from Sinatra or the like that he covered. But the man exudes charm and charisma that dares you not to have a good time. He seemed to be enjoying himself on stage, which I find makes it easier for me to enjoy off stage. I even went out and got much of his catalogue after the show because I had such a good time. Is much of his music cheesy and pop? Sure. It doesn’t mean he’s not a good performer who knows how to entertain his audience.

The news that Ticketmaster is now giving out free tickets to a ‘select’ events in the US due to a class-action lawsuit has me excited for seeing more shows there in the next few years. I doubt either artist will be part of the ‘select’ group, but I would love to get tickets to Bruce Springsteen or Wilco because of this.

Where Manilow felt like an artist who had the same setlist for the whole tour (not that there’s anything wrong with that, per se), Springsteen and Wilco are known to change it up with each concert — and to play long, extended shows. Jeff Tweedy, the lead singer of Wilco, has been known to take this change to extremes. If he’s playing solo acoustic shows for two nights in the same city the setlists for the two shows will be almost completely different. If he plays 25-30 songs each night there might be five that he plays both nights. Springsteen, especially recently, has been known to take requests from his audience during the show. It makes each experience unique and memorable, not to mention exciting.

Music has the power to bring sadness, joy, love or hate. Let’s use it as a positive force in the world, to bring happiness in dark times. Go listen to your favourite song. Let it wash over you, reminding you of happy times. If you don’t have a favourite song, try some of the links provided. Or just listen to this piece of pop perfection from Haim:

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