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Have Read, Am Reading, Will Read

I’ve been working on making some changes and either introducing, or re-introducing some more positive habits into my life. And one of the main things I wanted to make time for is reading printed books.

There were two main reasons for this. One was to spend at least some time between waking and sleeping when I’m not reading from a screen to give my eyes a rest and to get into a better routine to promote a good night of sleep.

The other was to see if my attention span has suffered from the constant distractions of social media, notifications, and emails. There’s still plenty of debate over the potential benefits and harm of task switching (as opposed to pretending you can actually multi-task). And it’s never something I really experience when actively writing and creating something – only when passively consuming entertainment of some description

Plus I miss my childhood, spent devouring books for at least an hour every day…

So I bought some books. One I’ve already finished, one I’ve just started, and one is awaiting me impatiently… And the benefit of having been slack in my reading habits for a while is that many of the things I want to read are relatively cheap right now.

Jon Pierson: Spike, Mike, Slackers & Dykes: Guided Tour Through A Decade of American Independent Cinema

Spike, Mike Slackers and Dykes by Jon Pierson

Written in 1997, I can remember it being recommended by Clerks director Kevin Smith a long time ago. And it was one of those things I never seemed to get around to reading – until now.

And it was alright. The author, Jon Pierson, was responsible for investing in, and making deals for, indie films including Spike Lee’s first film, She’s Gotta Have It, the aforementioned Clerks by Kevin Smith, documentary The Thin Blue Line, and Richard Linklater’s Slackers among others. So a pretty good list of influential films from that period.

As a result, the book covers elements of film making, film distribution and dealing with studios, but not really in much depth. In fact, what was most interesting when reading it now is wondering whether there’s still a need for that type of role and how making films has changed. This was an era when extremely low budget meant $7,000 (El Mariachi) or $27,000 (Clerks) on 16mm film. Not an iPhone.

It was also an era before internet distribution – no Youtube or Vimeo. No Amazon or Netflix streaming. And none of the smaller online indie film sites like Indieflix.com, for example. And the book was published two years before the internet sensation of the Blair Witch Project…

Having said all that, it’s still a very interesting book. If you’ve got an outsider’s interest in film, then you’ll pick up some inspiration, and it’s a great example of someone risking their money and livelihood on things that they like and consider worth championing. Which doesn’t always pay off, but still resulted in a pretty incredible batting average. So if you’re interested, the wonderful vagaries of Amazon’s pricing algorithm mean you can get a secondhand copy anywhere from 1p to £23.47 depending on which apparently identical listing you click on.

 

Julian Dibbell: Play Money

Play Money by Julian Dibbell

I’m doing better with Play Money. It’s taken me less than a decade to finally get a copy of a book I’ve meant to read since I first heard about it. When it was written, the world of MMO gaming was relatively new and unknown. So the idea of a journalist taking a year out of work to try and earn a living purely within an online game seemed fairly odd to a lot of people. For me, it just seemed a fascinating glimpse into what might happen in the future..

And given the rise of MMOs and eSports, I’d like to tell my former self not to listen to the naysayers and invest more time and effort into the ideas he had back then…. darn it…

Anyway, it’s been interesting so far. I’m pretty early in, but it’s fascinating firstly to be transports back to the era of Ultima Online. For context, World of Warcraft was new and still growing in 2006. Second Life had appeared in 2003. And I was still in my twenties…

So while it’s not exactly a handbook for how to make a living from gaming in the modern age, it’s been an interesting look back so far. And it’ll be fun to see how many characters from the book are still active in gaming in some way…

Interestingly, author Julian Dibbell has recently switched from 20 years of writing about tech to becoming a tech attorney. Anyway, so far so good. and there are some shiny paperback copies of Play Money on Amazon, although the hardcover copy I chose appears to have vanished…

 

Mark Earls: Herd

Herd by Mark Earls

I’ve been waiting to dive into Herd to make sure I’m back to maximum focus. Mainly because I could have sworn I’d not only read it close to the original release, but also owned a copy.

Either it was a very rare time I lent a book to someone (I can only remember lending out a handful of books in my life, and the loss of the 2 I remember loaning out in the last 15 years still pains me), or I’d read some much insight from Mr Earls via articles, blogs, and Twitter etc that my memory started playing tricks on me.

But it seemed like a very pertinent time to re-read a book whose subtitle is ‘How to change mass behaviour by harnessing our true nature’, and it’ll be interesting to pick out which bits are relevant with the recent examples of Trump, Brexit and other mass behaviours…

I was also given a copy of Five on Brexit Island by some relatives recently. And looking at my profile on Goodreads, it appears than what I thought was a break of a few weeks after starting Cryptonomicon has turned into several months. In my defence, I did get distracted by motoring through the fantastic Ecko trilogy by Danie Ware, which I recommend to anyone who enjoys sci-fi, fantasy, and a healthy dose of vernacular English cursing.

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Capturing audio won’t help personal lives

I’ve just been reading about a new wearable called Kapture which is a wearable wristband which will save a 60 second audio clip from within a 5-foot radius on your wrist.

It’s similar to existing smartphone apps but being implemented in a wristband means it’s easier to use and doesn’t flatten your phone battery. It had a successful Kickstarter campaign a couple of years ago and will begin shipping soon.

But I couldn’t help remembering a passage from one of my favourite books, Makers by Cory Doctorow

One of the main characters, Perry, talks about the fact his mum would often change her mind, so he recorded her on a mini tape recorder. Rather than solving the issue

“…she said it didn’t matter what she’d said that morning, she was my mother and I had chores to do and no how was I going anywhere now that I’d started sneaking around the house with a hidden recorder. She took it away and threw it in the trash. And to top it off, she called me ‘J.Edgar’ for a month”

It’s part of a conversation about using RFID tags to remind people about their chores and why it’s not a great idea for a harmonious household.

And having had plenty of disagreements with family members over whether someone said a particular phrase, or how they said it etc, I can testify that the facts don’t matter as much as the perceptions people already have…

Obviously there are useful applications for recorders – business meetings, conferences etc. But I wonder whether it’ll be perceived in the same way as Google Glass if the end result is made public – obviously the big difference is you can record people in secret and they will never know unless you share it somewhere.

Headphones

Incidentally, the pricing on Amazon has long been a subject of debate and discussion when it throws up unusual prices for specific books. And it happened when I was researching the link above: Weird Amazon Pricing for Makers

If you go to the Kindle Edition, the other formats range from 1p for a hardback. But in the search listings, the paperback comes in at £25.25 and the Hardcover is £54.73! And both routes lead to a hardback page with the same October 2009 publication date. Signed and first edition copies are currently less than £20…

The other alternative is to go direct to Cory Doctorow’s site and enjoy the fact his work is usually licensed under Creative Commons. Fortunately, having downloaded a free copy of Makers originally, I bought a few hardcover copies for people as presents, so I just need to retrieve them and apparently cash in!

 

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My 5 all-time favourite graphic novels (this week)

I happened to catch a list of ‘5 must-read graphic novels‘ on the Guardian website. As I’ve got older, I’ve finally been able to accept that all lists are essentially subjective, and to not get upset when one of my favourites gets omitted. But this list is more subject to change than most as there are still a huge amount of comics I haven’t got to reading yet…

David Barnett at the Guardian went with:

  • The Wicked + The Divine (Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie)
  • Persepolis (Marjane Satrapi)
  • Sandman (Neil Gaiman)
  • Watchmen (Alan Moore)
  • Captain Marvel (Kelly Sue De Connick)
  • Plus mentions of The Invisibles, and The Dark Knight Returns.

So in terms of the graphic novels which changed my life:

 

V for Vendetta: Amazon

Many years ago my uncle kindly gave me his comic collection, including a number of the British title Warrior. Like 2000AD it contained a number of different storylines, and V for Vendetta was an obvious standout due to the tone and subject. Since then it’s obviously been the subject of a film and an accompanying re-release. The addition of colour in the new editions doesn’t necessarily improve things – the stark beauty of what David Lloyd originally drew possibly worked better in black and white. But before Watchmen, From Hell, or Batman: The Killing Joke, this was my first encounter with the work of Alan Moore, and one of the first times I’d read something which tackled an adult theme.

 

The Death of Captain Marvel: Amazon

This was in the same comic collection donated to me. I’d never really been familiar with Captain Marvel, but that didn’t change the impact of a wonderfully written story and one which broke with the comic tradition of having a big battle and a happy ending.

It’s handled with a reasonably light touch, and the fact that assembled Marvel superheroes are in attendance to only feel the helplessness anyone encounters with the illness of a friend or loved one probably helped me cope with the same emotions when I went through similar circumstances in real life. And it also goes back to a time when I thought death in a comic book was more meaningful, before a wave of reincarnations established it more as a marketing gimmick.

 

Wolverine: Amazon

This graphic novel collects issues #1-4 of the Wolverine series which launched in 1982. What’s interesting to me is how one-dimensional Wolverine had been up to this point – this series really defined him in terms of a ‘failed samurai’ who aims to live as an honourable warrior within a code he’d set himself, but finds himself regularly failing due to circumstances.

It just about edges out The Longbow Hunter in my list, which similarly re-invented Green Arrow and Oliver Queen into my favourite superhero due to the more self-contained nature of the storyline, and the impact it had on me with my ongoing interest in Japanese and samurai culture.

 

Transmetropolitan:  Amazon

I actually got around to reading Transmetropolitan fairly recently, and I wish I’d discovered it earlier. The black humour and love/hate that journalist Spider Jerusalem has for the dystopian future city which fuels his muse is a fine inspiration for any writer. It’s easy to summarise it as ‘Hunter S Thompson meets William Gibson cyberpunk’ or something similar, but that means you’ve missed the fact that Spider doesn’t just blindly hate people and his surroundings – he’s caught between needing them and wanting to do what’s right to help them, and the fact humanity often disappoints him on an individual and group level.

 

Phonogram: Amazon

The most personally subjective choice in the list, but I make no apologies for picking the Kieron Gillen and Jame Mckelvie title which could have been written personally for me. It’s a modern fantasy in which music powers magic, and the music in this particular case is 90’s era Britpop, which fueled my teenage years. If you were caught up in a passion for the likes of Blur, Oasis, The Manics, Kenickie etc, then you’ll feel instantly at home, particularly with the digs at the likes of Shed Seven.

The fact that the magic element also gives it a compelling storyline makes it work as a narrative as well as a reminiscence of the last time I can remember one pop culture dominating my life, and the nation to the point of making national news. Given the way the internet encourages deep interest in niches, it’s probably the last time it’ll happen in the UK for a long while, as there really isn’t a mainstream anymore, and the main media channels are no longer the arbiters of interest they once were.

 

So that’s the list. Others which almost made it include Preacher, Watchmen, a handful of Batman graphic novels (The Dark Knight, The Killed Joke etc), Persepolis, Sandman, and most of the other titles which have widespread awareness and acclaim.

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Treasure an age of individual beauty

Rather than mourning the loss of the classic canon of literature, music or film, we should be embracing an age where those interested can create and share their own ideals of beauty and art more easily.

Reading an article on the death of the novel by Will Self, followed by a reflection on Britpop and the anniversary of Blur’s Parklife, both seemed fueled by the end of gatekeepers rather than the end of great literature or music. It’s all too easy to mourn the loss of the past when you’re getting older.

The fact is that it’s never been easier or cheaper to immerse yourself in beautiful or thought-provoking art. Or to stumble across something thought provoking. And to find what speaks to you.

Although it’s best to look for yourself or get human recommendations rather than rely on the primitive suggestion attempts that big data is still providing. One day a data scientist will figure out that someone can like and loathe films by the same director or albums by the same band.

BookSnakebyAlanLevineFlickr

Book Snake by Alan Levine (Cogdog) on Flickr – CC License

Pinning Will Self’s term of a ‘serious novel’ down is difficult, but you could probably go by the standards of English teaching throughout the years. And while Jane Austen is justifiable as an example of a writer, I struggle to recall anything except boredom from studying her work.

Whereas George Orwell, Douglass Adams, Kurt Vonnegut, Joseph Heller etc have stayed with me. And they’ve been joined by the likes of William Gibson. Re-reading some of his books recently (Pattern Recognition onwards), I still find myself utterly captivated by the way he weaves his otaku obsession with the detail of inanimate objects into his stories. He can open with the idea that jetlag means your soul isn’t capable of flight and is still traveling to catch up with you, and inspire an interest in researching Curta digital mechanical calculators.

At the same time, I also re-read Cory Doctorow’s Homeland. If the concepts of mass demonstrations, unlawful arrests and technology-based conspiracies doesn’t provoke some interesting thoughts, it also includes afterwords written by the likes of Aaron Swartz, and links to starting a Hackerspace, building 3D printers and more.

Given the current technological issues impacting on the world alongside economics and politics, there’s a ‘serious’ argument to be made. Or for those of a more historical bent, I remain fascinated with Hagakure – Book of the Samurai and Letters from a Stoic.

Not all novels, granted. But the breadth of mediums, formats and styles underlines my point. My serious reading comes from blogs, websites, eBooks, printed books, graphic novels, comics, cartoons and more.

Harp music in the library by Henk Kosters Flickr

Harp music in the library by Henk Kosters Flickr – CC License

But besides the delivery mechanism, what has changed is that it can be a completely individual and multifaceted canon. And one which I can explore and share. And by exploring, I can easily also find people who appreciate even just one of the same choices.

I’m still discovering music today from genres I loved, bought and obsessed about 20 years ago which I didn’t get to hear at the time due to the availability of American alternative music in Kent in the early 90s, or my limited budget to risk on metal bands I’d never get to sample on the radio. As much as friends could provide some recommendations, it’s amazing how much was shaped by watching specialist music shows on at 2am in the morning.

And I could never have had enough teenage friends to cope with my desire to listen to classic 60’s soul, 80’s hiphop, 90’s grunge and thrash metal, and a few folk and country songwriters, often in the space of an afternoon.

The internet hasn’t caused the end of mass youth trends. It’s simply accelerated the process started by television, radio and access to history which meant Britpop and Grunge in the UK largely led to questionable clothing and hairstyle choices rather than attempts to try and change the world. It also means I can create a playlist of songs that make me happy that includes Alphabeat, Jimmy Cliff and The Cure. And not only potentially meet other people that somehow arrived at a similar list, but even use it to find dates or love.

If the loss of mass consensus is the cost, I’m happy to pay it. And it”ll be interesting to see how that applies to politics, for example, as parties finally realise that for every one issue which I might align with, they have several that repel me. In the meantime, I’ll be exploring the history of pirates and vikings to share with my son, the latest marketing and technology news for work, and the most beautiful writing and music for myself.

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Business Poison by Jonathan MacDonald

I was lucky enough to receive a review copy of the latest book by my friend Jonathan MacDonald just before Christmas. He’s been speaking and consulting for years to the likes of Google, Apple, P&G, Unilever, Nestlé and IKEA, and is also a genuinely nice guy.

But onto Business Poison, with the catchy subtitle ‘Diagnosing and treating the infectious poisons that determine your business success”.

BusinessPoison_JonathanMacDonald

It’s a reasonable length book at 84 pages, covering 24 topics. And it’s also a quick read, partly due to Jonathan’s informal but informative writing style. I went through it on the evening it arrived, and a couple of times since then, and much like A User Guide to the Creative Mind by Dave Birss I know it’s going to be a book I’ll be referring back to frequently.

And despite the concise nature, it manages to cover most of the problems I’ve encountered in my time working with businesses large and small, and running my own. Topics include ‘The Poison of Singular Personas’, ‘The Poison of Strategic Misrepresentation’ or ‘The Poison of Presumed Influence’.

Each is covered with a mix of Jonathan’s own experience, sources, quotes etc, and ways to potentially avoid or tackle each issue. I’d hate to think any business was capable of experiencing all of them at the same time (Although I can think of some that probably come close!), but over time the challenges and potential pitfalls you’ll encounter running or working for a business will probably mean you’ll end up with the full set eventually.

If I’m being hypercritical to compensate for knowing the author, I’d say that perhaps some more footnotes, case studies and further reading would be useful – various works are mentioned throughout so it would be handy to have them listed in one handy page for easier shopping.

I haven’t asked Jonathan exactly who he was writing the book for, although I suspect it was a mixture of readers ranging across the various levels of a business.

But interestingly, I found myself repeatedly wishing I’d had Business Poison ten years ago. How many times I encountered one or more issues in meetings and on projects, but didn’t have the experience to properly explain what was going wrong? And how many times did I sit with older, more experienced managers etc, and back down or keep quiet because I felt like I was the only person in the room seeing, or at least acknowledging, there was going to be an issue?

There’s a lot of talk about the rise of the ‘intrapreneur’ within organisations – an entrepreneur that stays within the larger company and attempts to innovate, disrupt and chance on the inside. But it can be a lonely crusade, and having something like this book at home or in your desk will help anyone feel like they’re not alone.

Putting aside the fact I like and respect Jonathan, I’d say that Business Poison is definitely worth reading for business owners and senior managers, particularly those in medium-to-large companies. And I’d say it’s essential if you’re working for one of those businesses and want to be aware of the potential pitfalls and dangers, particularly if you’re hopefully contributing to new ideas and projects. You’ll get an ROI on the £3 price of the Kindle version about 20 minutes into your next project or planning meeting!

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We all need to re-read The Long Tail again…

It’s been a while since I last read Chris Anderson’s The Long Tail. Certainly it’s come under fire, along with several other texts, for promoting a digital utopia.

But the reason I need to re-read it is that people keep referring to it being disproved by digital sales stats.

For instance, the recent finding that most digital music titles sell fewer than 100 copies, and 32% sell one copy, from a Nielsen Study referenced by Bob Lefsetz.

The problem is that I’m pretty sure, even after all these years, The Long Tail explicitly states that the Pareto Principle of the top successes selling the majority of copies, will remain true, and that most of the ‘long tail’ titles will sell next to nothing.

The point is that having digital copies of single sellers, or those selling to 10 or 100 people, is cost effective for a business when compared with having them all available in a retail store. Amazon and iTunes still make a huge profit from amalgamating all those small numbers, just as Google does with Advertising, and Facebook, Twitter and other social networks are attempting from our data.

There are lots of reasons to question any theory or belief about the future, but it’d be nice if we could all strive for at least some accuracy when doing it…

 

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Appearing on Econsultancy – thanks Google…

Just a quick one to share how proud I am to have been asked to comment on Google’s recent keyword and search algorithm changes not once, but twice, for the Econsultancy site.

Both are great articles as they bring a number of very insightful people together from the search and marketing worlds.

 

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Two books on social media and social business

I’ve been catching up with some work-related reading recently, including the following two books on social media, social business and influence.

Both books were kindly sent by their publishing companies, and then unforgivably got hidden in my library during a house move, so having uncovered them again I’ve finally got around to finishing them both.

 

Return on Influence by Mark Schaefer

As indicated by the title, Return On Influence: The Revolutionary Power of Klout, Social Scoring, and Influence Marketing looks at the various social scoring measures, such as Klout, Peerindex and Kred, which have become increasingly popular with both social media users and brands looking to reach them.

It focuses mainly on Klout, including the reasons why it exists and how it was started, reasons to use it, and how to improve your scores or outreach.

It’s a very readable book, with plenty of examples for both business and individual social scoring – and plenty of experts are quoted and referenced. And there’s plenty of further recommended further reading.

It would be a great book for anyone who is just starting out, or who has heard names like Klout and has no idea what it does. It wasn’t so helpful if you’ve been using the social scoring services for a while – the tips are fairly logical, and there’s a limit to how deep Schaefer can do into a proprietary algorithm which is being tweaked and refined.

But definitely worth keeping as a reference work for clients and friends who want a detailed look into social reputation measurement without me needing to go through the basics every time!

 

Likeonomics by Rohit Bhargava

Another very readable book packed full of relevant examples, but aimed at building business strategy and organisations wanted to build trust, with a formula for Truth, Relevance, Unselfishness, Simplicity and Timing.

It’s not unique in proposing that a modern company or individual benefits from building on these principles in the digital era when any customer can share their experiences, and there are plenty of references and further reading to pick up on.

It’s very well executed and laid out, meaning that it’s good to dip in and out from when you need to refer to a specific area or example, and it’s a good collection of principles and ideas to spark your own initiatives.

Having worked in this area for quite a long time now, I did find an occasional example and idea which made me think about things slightly differently, even if the concepts in the book weren’t exactly alien to me. It’s a book I suspect I’ll keep nearby and refer to regularly to refresh my mind and the what I’m working on. Likeonomics: The Unexpected Truth Behind Earning Trust, Influencing Behavior, and Inspiring Action

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An Open Business book worth pre-ordering…

My friend, and former boss and colleague, Dave Cushman, has been working on a book for some time now (with co-author Jamie Burke), covering the 10 Principles of Open Business.

It looks to be a great read with a number of prestigious contributors, and should also be pretty entertaining. Apparently if you pre-order the hardback now from Amazon, you get a slight saving.

The 10 Principles of Open Business: Building Success in Today’s Open Economy

Looking forward to checking it out….

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Very quick media reviews for June…

I blogged about some recent book and graphic novel purchases for my reading pleasure during June, so I thought it remiss if I didn’t follow up with some quick thoughts on what I enjoyed. In addition, I thought I’d also throw in some comments on the films I’ve recently been watching:

Books:

  • Idoru by William Gibson: Not my favourite William Gibson book, but even an average Gibson tale still contains something of interest for tech geeks and writers. I thought it was weaker than the first in this series (Virtual Light), or the later series that begins with Pattern Recognition, but still prompted a few thoughts and ideas.
  • Distrust That Particular Flavour by William Gibson: I was a little surprised by the age of some of the essays and magazine articles collected in this non-fiction book, but it’s fascinating to see a little more behind the writing process, inspiration and approach of one of my favourite novelists. It also gives you the chance to see what came to pass.
  • Wireless by Charles Stross: A short story collection which contains a small number of really quite lengthy stories – some more accessible than others. Stross certainly offers a very different perspective on sci-fi and the future, which was pretty refreshing. At least half of the stories would be worth the asking price alone, with only the P.G. Wodehouse-inspired robots of Trunk and Disorderly being a bit of a low note..
  • Rule 34 by Charles Stross: A brilliant book, although possibly inaccessible if you don’t have the slightest awareness of the internet, memes and tech. One of the best books I’ve read so far this year, and considering some of the plot elements may have cropped up in science fiction by other authors, it’s a testament to how good it is that the shared basis doesn’t matter at all.
  • Preacher Vol 4:  This isn’t part of the main Preacher storyline, but delves into the side characters appearing in the series. 3 stories are included, and it’s probably worthwhile purely due to the background on the ‘Saint of Killers’.
  • Preacher Vol 5: Back to the main storyline, and it’s as good as ever.
  • Transmetropolitan Vol 1: If I describe the plot as being the tale of future journalist Spider Jerusalem, it doesn’t sound particularly special. But it should be required reading for any aspiring journalist, and combines wonderfully twisted black humour, political commentary, science fiction tech, and just the right about of stimulating offensiveness. Why the hell didn’t I read this years ago?

 

Movies:

  • The Sweeney: You could get better acting and a similar plot by watching an Eastenders omnibus and flicking over to Top Gear repeats on Dave every 20 minutes. A plot full of holes, cockney cliches with no awareness and about the only redeeming feature in almost 2 hours is that Hayley Attwell is rather attractive.
  • Seeking a Friend for the End of the World: Slightly tame but still enjoyable journey for two characters facing the end of the world in a matter of days. There are a couple of brilliant moments which show that it could have been slightly darker overall, but it’s still interesting, enjoyable and pretty memorable.
  • Skyfall: Not a bad Bond film. Just not sure it’s quite as good as critics and box office records made out. A more human and fragile Bond might be more reflective of the modern world, but it’s not really the reason I want to watch a Bond film. But the action is good, the villain unsettling, and Bond, unlike The Sweeney, can maintain a decent suspension of disbelief. Although I did find myself disliking Judi Dench as M – unable to show any humanity or emotion in what was the biggest role for that character in a modern Bond film.
  • Despicable Me 2: Watched in a cinema packed with small children – it’s a pretty good sequel, with enough great moments for kids and parents alike. The only minor criticism is that Vector, the villain of the first film, was too brilliant to be matched in the second, and there does perhaps come a point where the Minions need to be reigned in in favour of the plot… Oddly enough, I’d introduced my son to Wall-E the night before, which is a more timeless kids film by tackling slightly more adult themes.