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March 28, 2014

Why I'm not watching F1 in 2014

Writing about web page http://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/0/formula1/26666624

I’ve always been a big motorsport fan. For years, I have watched every qualifying session and race of every F1 season (until the BBC stopped showing all races a couple of years ago – had to make do with the highlights since then for 50% of the races). Even the predictable dominance of he who needs his index fingers clipping off over the last four years hasn’t managed to turn me off. But the technical regulation changes, in particular those pertaining to powertrains, of 2014 have finally turned me off the sport.

Engines are a key factor in motor sport – the clue is in the name, after all. For me, engines are the most exciting and enthralling things I come into contact with in my day to day life. The bigger, the louder, the better. My choice of weekend car was influenced by a number of things – appearance, history, the fact that it’s British – but first and foremost I chose it because it has a 5 litre V8 engine. When I fire it up, animals flee and my garage reverberates as its foundations are shaken. It’s fabulous, and it never fails to make me grin like a 5 year old child and accelerate my heart beat by a good 20 beats a minute. It’s having a similar effect on me now just thinking about it.

You see, when it comes to engines, the old saying goes that “there ain’t no replacement for displacement”. The bigger the swept volume, the more air the engine breathes per cycle and the more fuel you can burn (and therefore you get more power out). More air and fuel making bigger explosions also results in fabulously loud and exciting noises. Engines are my thing, and the most endearing thing about them is the noise that they make. It’s in our biology that loud noises get our blood pumping – listen to rock music at quiet volumes and then again at loud ones and there is a great difference in how much you get into the track. I find the notes of a great engine spell-binding – for example in my Griff, the deep and assured burble of the exhausts while cruising which give way to a growl, a bellow and then an almighty roar as you floor it and the revs build. The noise of a Ferrari 412T2 – the last V12 engine in F1 – is spine-tinglingly awesome even through my stereo speakers, let alone in real life.

Of course, all of this old-school noise and speed is seen as downright anti-social today, more than it ever has been. Maybe that’s part of the appeal – the two fingers to a society trying to tell others what they can and can’t do in their own free time. The motor industry is caving into pressures to be more sensitive and fuel efficient at all levels of their products. Now, for the car I might drive to work on a weekday or pop to the shops in, I can completely understand this push. These are utiltiarian vehicles, and being sensible with the earth’s resources is in general a reasonable aim. For performance cars though, cars which don’t do mega miles but exist purely for the love of cars and driving, I’m much less convinced.

Technologically, it’s very impressive that engineers can make such improvements in fuel efficiency whilst maintaining performance. This is primarily achieved in engines by turbo-charging, which uses exhaust gas to force more air in to a smaller engine,so when you want to burn more fuel you have the air to do so, without the penalty of the big capacity engine the rest of the time. Modern turbocharged technologies are very impressive when done right – you get high torque from low rpm’s and performance everywhere in the rev band. Ultra-high end cars like the McLaren P1 are taking this even further, using electric motors to overcome one of the shortcomings of turbocharging – delayed throttle response (a technique McLaren refer to as “torque fill” – you draw the power curve you want the engine to have, and program the electric motors to fill the bits where the engine can’t quite deliver).

This is all very clever, but it has several problems for car enthusiasts like myself:

  • The downsizing of engines almost always means less cylinders. This generally has a very negative impact on noise. For luxury cars, moving to 4 cylinder engines is also terrible from a refinement perspective (go look up primary and secondary force balance before you disagree with me)
  • The turbo in the exhaust takes a lot of the force out of the exhaust gases, and robs engines of a decent exhaust note
  • For engines that don’t have the electrical bits, the throttle response and turbo lag does make for a less enjoyable experience. For all of these high-torque-everywhere type engines, the driving experience is strangely dulled by having so much performance without having to work for it – as odd as that may sound to some
  • Electric motors and batteries add a lot of weight, which needs very expensive engineering to minimise and mask. Weight is the primary enemy of an enjoyable driving experience
  • The electric power add-ons in particular add enormously to price and to complexity, which makes ownership much less attainable. More systems and bits can also only be bad for affordable maintainability, and adds yet more barriers to the car enthusiast who also likes to work on their own vehicles (not that any of this type are even remotely in price brackets that those who do their own spanner work would contemplate)

Even the multi-million pound budgets of F1 teams can’t sort out all of these issues, as the row over engine noise goes to show. In the article I’ve linked to, Andrew Benson – a well known and respected commentator – questions whether the engine note is really such a step back. He argues that the previous generation V8’s weren’t a great noise like the classic V12’s – no argument from me there. But the screaming sound of a V8 at 20,000 RPM (before they were limited) approaching a corner at close to 200MPH is a very happy memory that I can still flip back to. And as for asking if the noise is “that big a deal” – well for me, yes it is, as I think I have already made clear. In terms of your senses, you get a much better view of what is going on in a race by watching it on TV. The sounds and the smells are what you get by attending a track which you don’t get sat at home (I don’t subscribe to this whole crowd atmosphere thing, the spectacle is on the track not sat next to it). Some people are fascinated that some people, myself included, would spend hundreds of pounds attending a race just to hear the noise, just as I am happy to spend a day out and a fair wad of cash just to hear loud aeroplanes at airshows. Everyone has their own reasons for attending, and as one of our primary senses noise must surely be a big factor in the enjoyment of motorsport for many. I am surprised that so many people find this surprising, including those such as Andrew Benson who have spent their life following the sport.

In moving to ERS powertrains then, F1 is following the zeitgeist of engine downsizing for political reasons, amid claims that they are “more relevant” to the cars of today. I would contest that whilst they might have relevance to the playthings of millionaires whose supercars are now coming loaded with this sort of technology, for under an RRP of £100k you won’t find cars that have this sort of technology in. And no matter how much money you throw at a car, in moving to increasingly high-tech power trains the charm and character of a real sports car from yesteryear is sadly being eroded. For me then, it’s a farewell to following motorsport (as not much else is properly televised) and a retreat to my garage to play with real cars more instead. I only hope for future generations that access to real cars is well preserved.


October 30, 2013

The great energy debate, and Hinkley C

Unless you are living on Mars, you will have noticed a great deal of news coverage and political froth on energy supply recently. I thought I would set out the lay of the land as I see it in an attempt to try and cut through some of what has been reported.

Energy prices have increased significantly above inflation since 2007, when we all started to become poorer as a result of the credit crunch and hence have been sensitive to cost of living increases. Those cost increases are down to a number of pressures:

  1. The cost of fuel is increasing. This is in turn driven by a number of factors which include increased demand from emerging economies, finite reserves depleting making extraction more expensive, and fuel being traded internationally when the pound has significantly weakened. Roughly speaking, the wholesale cost of energy makes up around 45% of a domestic bill, and has been responsible for about 60% of the cost increases to the consumer.
  2. The transmission costs for the UK networks are increasing above the rate of inflation. This is because of the need to create a lot of new infrastructure for gas storage and connection of renewables to the grid. Transmission costs make up about 20% of a domestic bill, and are responsible for around 15% of the cost increases.
  3. There are a range of environmental subsidies which are all paid for through levies on domestic bills. You have probably noticed the large numbers of solar panels springing up on rooftops and in fields, or the construction of lots of new wind turbines. All of these are subsidised through feed-in tariffs, which come out of bills. Then there are smart meters and energy efficiency measures like “free” loft insulation. This is “free” at the point of use, but your energy supplier does this at zero cost to themselves – it’s all paid for through these levies. Additionally, a carbon price has come into force. This makes up around 5% of the gas pricel and 30% of the electricity price, and starting from a zero base a few years ago this is entirely a cost inflationary aspect.
  4. Following privatisation and subsequent botched market reforms, the price of energy collapsed around the turn of the millennium. We were therefore starting from a very low base, where energy was cheaper than it sustainably could have been. The energy companies were essentially all broke (sob sob I hear you cry…) and as a result of this and a lack of a clear long term direction for the sector set by policy there has been no driver to invest in new plant. We are now at the point where old stations that were build during the state industry days need replacing or are being forced to close due to new regulations. In order to invest in plant, energy companies need to raise the cash and demonstrate a reasonable rate of return to investors.

You will notice that none of these drivers are “trying to make a quick buck”. The headlines you read about profit margins are often misleading, to say the least. The energy market is volatile so it is only to be expected that year on year sometimes profits will jump up and sometimes they will fall back. In 2012, the company I work for (EDF Energy) saw profits fall by about 6%. A lot of our profits are also going into building new stations, covering investment in our existing plant (for example, post-Fukushima upgrades to our nuclear fleet) and covering other costs such as pension deficit repairs. The actual bottom line figure is much lower than the headlines suggest. Companies have to make a reasonable profit in order to be sustainable for the long term, otherwise you get market instability and a lack of investment. Healthy companies mean stable employment for a large sector of the UK workforce, and good returns for investors. A large chunk of institutional investors are actually pension funds of the UK workforce, so I suspect it’s in many of our interests that a reasonable return is given to them otherwise our retirement suffers.

To be fair, the coverage I have read on the BBC is largely quite balanced and communicates the above information in a balanced way, if you care to look for it. Newspapers have their own agendas and will tend to follow the direction of the political parties they support, and in any case love to stir up a story of public outrage. Whilst this is disappointing, there’s not much that can be done about it. What irks me though is that politicians who must surely be in the know about all these facts have decided to play political football with energy prices as we all seem to have moved on from blaming banks for our present troubles. A great example of this is Ed Miliband’s price freeze policy.

Whilst the price freeze may gain a lot of popular support from hard-up voters who aren’t all that well informed or interested in the nuances of the energy markets and only see rising bills and the finger being pointed at “the big six”, it presents a completely false picture of what is happening in the market. We are at a crunch point where we need to spend well over £100bn in the coming years on new energy infrastructure, and the government is looking to the private sector to fund this. The bill is much larger due to the environmental pressures being exerted on the industry – by the politicians. And into this delicate climate where we are being asked to spend vast sums on new plant (with a rather unstable outlook), in wade the politicians with all guns blazing for a few cheap headlines. You couldn’t make it up. If you want to freeze your energy prices for 20 months, you can already do so anyway without the need to go to the ballot box – just switch to a long term price fix contract, which are available for up to 3.5 years in length. John Major with his support for a windfall tax is no better – what sort of message is that sending? Please invest all these billions of pounds in projects that take decades to pay back, but don’t you dare make any money out of it or we’ll just shift the goal-posts and tax you at a moment’s notice. Or maybe all these environmental obligations we’ve been working on for years, perhaps we’ll just scrap them and upset the apple cart on all your investment planning.

With this kind of unstable climate, all that you will do is scare off investors and we won’t have any new infrastructure. As a result, we will see long term prices continue to rise whilst becoming increasingly unstable and the threat of a capacity shortfall will increase. That’s good for no-one. What is needed is a sensible and grown up approach, the outlook for which until the 2015 election does not look hopeful.

This brings me neatly on to the new nuclear deal at Hinkley C. The coverage centred on the strike price, and rightly so. The price agreed is lower than existing costs for all other low carbon technologies, so it should be a good deal for consumers. As I understand it, the price is also what will be paid when the plants come on line – i.e. you need to view the figure in the context of the value of money in 2023, not 2013. Add 10 years of inflation to the current wholesale price and £92.50/MWh looks a lot more palatable. Also, unlike feed-in tariffs, if the wholesale cost is above this level then the government gets the difference back. With all the inflationary pressures on wholesale prices, there is therefore a good chance that the consumer will effectively make money out of the plant. All good stuff.

What I am most pleased about however is that in all the coverage, despite the incident in Fukushima in 2011, the focus has been entirely on the price agreed. That no-one has (to my knowledge) questioned the safety and integrity of UK operators and regulators when new nuclear power plants are in the news is both right and something that makes me proud to be in that industry.


August 15, 2013

Why, as a motorist, I have a problem with cyclists

Writing about web page http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-23694438

The BBC news is today running an article entitled “Is there any such thing as Road Tax?”. The article actually explores the tension between motorists and cyclists, looking at the often-made claim by motorists that since cyclists don’t pay road tax, they shouldn’t be getting in their way.

I’d like to start this article by a couple of points about my own circumstances. I am a motorist, and I have a round-trip commute of 80 miles each day. I do occassionally cycle on the roads, although cycling is definitely not something I would choose to do as a past-time. When my commute is shorter, I hope to commute by bike every day. And my wife already commutes by bike every day. So, although I am a motorist who doesn’t currently use a bike very much, I don’t have a problem with cyclists as reasonable and responsible road users. When I see a cyclist, I will always endeavour to give them plenty of space on the road when overtaking, and I wouldn’t dream of using my car aggressively to intimidate one.

One of the issues this article touches on which some might find surprising is that VED (to give road tax its technical name) doesn’t actually get spent directly on the roads, it goes straight to the treasury. This is really a separate topic, but it’s definitely something that all motorists should be challenging more strongly. What are we paying the duty for if it doesn’t get spent on the roads? Government should be primarily funded by taxes evenly spread across tax-payers. We all pay our share of income tax, every time we buy something we pay a flat percentage of VAT, etc. Other taxes, such as council tax, are there to fund particular services – fine. There are other taxes aimed at changing our behaviours, such as on cigarettes. In this regard, motorists already pay a tax precisely linked to the environmental damage that vehicles do – which is of course fuel duty. So what is VED for, if not for the maintenance of our road network? There should either be a direct link between the two which all road users should pay, or it should be scrapped altogether because it’s not an even and fair tax on the UK population as a whole.

The main thrust though, is that motorists don’t like cyclists because they don’t pay to use the roads. I don’t think this is really true. Certainly it’s a well used phrase – I even use it myself from time to time – but really, that cyclists don’t have to pay to use the roads is not what irritates motorists. There are two issues around cyclists really that bother me:

1. Cyclists pick and choose the traffic laws they abide by. The most common example is jumping or ignoring lights. The problem here I think is that unlike the motorist, the cyclist can do this without fear of losing their ability to use their bike. There are no fines that I know of, nor is there a points system to dissuade them from law-breaking. Were I to observe in the dead of night that it was perfectly safe to run a light and be caught, I’d be £60 poorer and 1/4 of the way to losing my licence. Cyclists can do this without consequence. I’m not saying that motorists don’t break rules – of course they do (and there are plenty of bad examples of driving I could list that make me equally irate) but there are consequences for the motorist should they be caught. Unlike with cyclists, this keeps some semblance of order about things. This disparity of consequences is a real bone of contention for me. I think that this is an issue that needs some form of legislation to address, with fines and black marks against bad cycling just as for bad driving.

2. Cyclists hold motorists up – unnecessarily. I don’t usually mind encountering slow traffic or short delays where necessary – sometimes it is unavoidable for road users to get in each other’s way. Examples would be cyclists on narrow country lanes, or slow moving vehicles such as tractors and trucks that don’t have much of a choice about getting in the way or not. But when I encounter cyclists riding 2 or 3 abreast and leaving me unable to overtake, or riding in the middle of the road a long distance from junctions, or using the road in the way when there’s a cycle path also – well I consider that pretty unreasonable, and delays are bound to wind up motorists quicker than anything else. If I chose to dawdle along as a pedestrian on a cycle path and not get out of a cyclist’s way, I would (quite rightly) expect to be told in no uncertain terms to change my ways. Why should cyclists expect any different from motorists? This irritation isn’t solely reserved for cyclists – another great example would be middle-lane hogs on the motorway, who cause no end of delays and frustrations by not realising there’s a lane to the left.

So, in conclusion – don’t break the rules and don’t get in the way, and everyone will get along just great.


January 21, 2012

Legal challenge to UK energy legislation

Writing about web page http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-16646405

This week, green campaigners have launched a legal challenge to some aspects of legislation in an attempt to block new nuclear stations. There are two main areas of attack – governments limiting liability of the generators, and the introduction of a carbon floor price (the latter currently specific to the UK). Their challenge of course completely mis-represents the reasons why this legislation is in place. For example, on the subject of a carbon floor price Caroline Lucas, Green MP for Brighton and Hove, claims:

“The introduction of a carbon price floor is likely to result in huge windfall handouts of around £50m a year to existing nuclear generators”

I haven’t gone into the details of her claim, but I do know the history behind why the introduction of a floor price is critical to new nuclear investment, and it has nothing to do with handouts of £50m a year to generators (which, incidentally, is not a great sum in the first place. It would represent the change in revenues of existing nuclear generators if the wholesale price of electricity were to change by 0.1p per kWh, about a 2% change in the current base-load price of around 4.5p per kWh).

A little bit of history for those who aren’t familiar with the highlights of events affecting the UK energy market during the last 30 years. Electricty generation was largely a state-owned system, with the Central Electricity Generating Board (CEGB) owning and operating the power stations. In 1991, Margaret Thatcher concluded the sale of the CEGB to private investors, creating two companies – National Power and Powergen. However, during the sale process it was discovered that the existing nuclear fleet, containing a lot of old generation Magnox stations which were expensive to run and didn’t have a lot of life left in them, made the deal commercially untenable, and so all the nuclear stations were kept in public ownership under a new organisation, Nuclear Electric. This commercial PR disaster along with Chernobyl is what killed off the UK’s new nuclear build programme at the time, and why we only have one PWR today, Sizewell B.

Nuclear Electic was part-privatised in 1996, the newer design AGR and PWR stations sold off as a private company, British Energy, and the old Magnox stations retained under Magnox Electric and the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority. However, the government reformed the electricity market in 2001 with a piece of legislation called the new electricity trading arrangements. This, combined with a big dip in wholesale gas prices due to oversupply, led to a crash in the electricity price, and in 2002 British Energy essentially went bankrupt and had to be bailed out by the UK government (there were other factors, such as stations being offline, renegotiation of fuel costs and problematic business deals, but the wholesale price crash is the main trigger). The wholesale cost went down to 2p/kWh and lower, below the cost of generation. It should be pointed out that other generators also suffered from the price crash – Drax (the UK’s largest, newest and most efficient coal plant) came close to closure in 2003 because it wasn’t profitable at the time, and only a long-sighted view by investors kept it open (the plant is now very profitable).

British Energy survived with government help and was sold to EDF Energy in 2009. Now, a new build programme is looking to replace the existing nuclear fleet which is due to be largely decommissioned in the coming decade or so. However, building power plants is very expensive, in particular modern nuclear plants with advanced safety features. Therefore, investors are unwilling to commit to such a long-term project as a power station (which is expected to provide returns over a period of 60 years or more) with such high up-front costs unless they can see that their investments are secure, because it becomes too risky for the rates of return. As such, the prospect of a price crash such as that of 2001 repeating and wiping out their investment is untenable, and so long as that remains it’s unlikely that a new nuclear build programme will happen. This is the real purpose of the carbon floor price – not to give generators a £50m/year bonus (which as I’ve already stated, is small beer in the grand scheme of the industry), but to give investors the confidence to give long term commitments to new generating capacity in the UK. Without this, the industry will continue to suffer from under-investment in new capacity and we will be left with a short-term approach to new power stations, most likely further increases in the numbers of combined cycle gas turbine (CCGT) plant. There are two problems with this approach – firstly, it makes the market much more volatile to carbon fuel prices, which are unstable both in price and increasingly supply as declines in world production and increased dependence are used more and more as a political tool. Secondly, it doesn’t sort out our carbon emissions without the additional retro-fitting of carbon capture and storage technologies, which add further to the cost and fuel use and are as yet unproven on a large scale.

Faced with these realities, politicians have sensibly opted to provide the market with an instrument that guarantees a minimum carbon price, thereby making investment in nuclear and other low carbon technologies a commercial reality without otherwise subsidising them. Whether this amounts to a subsidy in name I’m not sure; it seems a bit of a grey area and I don’t have the technical knowledge to answer that question. What I do know is it seems like a credible way of delivering long term investment in low-carbon generating capacity, which can only be a good thing for the UK’s future and the environment. Few people complain about the direct subsidy of other renewable technologies including on-shore wind (except when they are taken away) which are in any case far larger in pence per kWh than any subsidisation of the nuclear industry. The fair alternative would be to remove all forms of subsidy for all forms of power generation, and apply a great deal of upward pressure politically on the carbon price. However, without the long term security of a floor price I still question the risk of such a strategy in securing the investment required.


December 31, 2011

Hollyzone's Albums Of 2011 1–10

And here’s the top 10! These are the ten albums I would take if I could only have ten from this year, although why anyone would be so cruel as to only allow me ten albums from any given year is beyond me…

1. Anna Calvi – Anna Calvi


It’s actually illegal in most countries for the under-18s to listen to albums are sexeh as this one, so be grateful we live in an enlightened nation where a woman cooing/bellowing about desire/the devil over Spanish-influenced guitars and occasional bouts of lush strings is totally acceptable. Oh yeah, this is bloody good. It’s all lyrical gender swapping, and bursts of thrilling sound. Heck, it starts with a guitar solo without making you want to frisbee the record right out of the window.
Best bits:
- ‘Suzanne And I’ – everyone loves big, ambiguous anthems about lesbonics/friendship/who knows.
- ‘Desire’ – ecstatic chorus alert.
- ‘Love Won’t Be Leaving’ – kitchen sink outro of joy.

2 Austra – Feel It Break


Do you like a bit of chilly 80s-style synth music? How about it with an ex-opera singer, ex-punk, ex-singer-songwriter in charge? Yes, that is a good plan. That is Austra’s plan. Lobbing lovely glacial synths onto a live rhythm section gives the songs quite a lot of heft and crunch, so even if the album’s a little one paced it’s a good pace, like the march of an army of sad robot penguins. There’s also the matter of Katie Stelmanis’s vocals – it’s pretty standard in chilly synth pop world to have singers who can’t really sing, but she can. So it’s all dizzying harmonies, wordless pizzicato bleeping and big stentorian bellowing, although thankfully none of that diva, singing-more-notes-than-is-necessary shit. Marvellous stuff.
Best bits:
- ‘Darken Her Horse’ – the best ‘big soaring chorus’ of the year, hands down.
- ‘Lose It’ – sounds a little like those Lloyds adverts but is really really good.
- ‘The Beat And The Pulse’ – juddering, Knife-ish, chug, one of the singles of the year.

3 Suuns – Zeroes QC


An ominous drone, a sinister groove, vocals drifting in on a distorted yet still human-sounding wind. Who are Suuns and what do they with our computers and guitars? They’re the twisted, sinister end point for all that indie-electro-dance stuff which has been around in varying degrees of palatability for the last few years, and they have made a damn fine album which isn’t as hard to listen to as it might seem at first. Its ideas are kept brief and breezy, nothing outstays its welcome. It invites us to dance, but in the style of a close second place in the Turing test – these robots have almost made a record which sounds human, but not quite. And that’s why it’s so good.
Best bits:
- ‘Arena’ – a real grower, in that it grows from nothing in a danceable number.
- ‘Up Past The Nursery’ – sparse but still funky, quite a feat in itself.
- ‘Armed For Peace’ – the only track serves as a pretty much perfect introduction to the rest of the album in just three and a half minutes.

4 Gang Gang Dance – Eye Contact


Gang Gang Dance are one of those special bands who can release an album where the first track is eleven minutes long and mostly ambient noise, and yet the album is still their most poppy. There’s a duet with him from Hot Chip, which sounds like a sad nerd serenading a crazy witch. Y’see, Lizzi Bougatsos has a voice like a tiny, eight year old serial killer, which makes it doubly unnerving when she starts singing lyrics nicked from nursery rhymes or ditties about “mindkillas”. It helps that all the tracks are brilliantly buzzy electro stompers, sometimes with thrilling guitar solos, sometimes with basslines you can feel from space.
Best bits:
- ‘Thru And Thru’ – best closing track on any album this year, bar none.
- ‘Mindkilla’ – shaking the foundations with that bassline.
- ‘Adult Goth’ – a floor-filler from a dimension where floor-fillers are made by super-smart computers not slavering morons.

5 PJ Harvey – Let England Shake


Oh come on, of course this was going to be in here. It’s ruddy, bloody marvellous, with the emphasis on blood because this is one of those albums where EVERYONE DIES! It is, frankly, the best album of the year. Why is it not at #1 in that case? Only because it’s heavy as anything, and I sometimes can’t listen to it for the same reason I am not always in the mood to watch Grave Of The Fireflies. EVERYONE DIES!!! But yeah, you’ve read a million reviews of this, it’s visceral, it’s heartfelt, it’s brilliant.
Best bits:
- ‘All And Everyone’ – the way the track builds and threatens a cathartic release but then… doesn’t. Only more misery. Brutally effective.
- ‘The Last Living English Rose’ – swaggering and proud musically, broken and crushed lyrically, a beautiful juxtaposition.
- ‘The Glorious Land’ – for those painful lyrics – “What is the glorious fruit of our land?/Its fruit is deformed children”.

6 Nicola Roberts – Cinderella’s Eyes


Yeah, that’s right, a Girls Aloud solo album. Nicola was clearly always the best member of GA, and by making an album with Metronomy, Diplo and Dragonette she’s shown that it needn’t be death by Will.I.Am and auto-tune robot vocals. What Nicola has realised is that all the best pop music is really really sad. And god, taken purely on its words this is a contender for the most misery-filled album of the year, with lots of lovely minor key synth pop and occasionaly shonky piano ballads driving it forward so you don’t end up wanting to kill yourself just by listening.
Best bits:
- ‘Gladiator’ – surprisingly lyrical dexterity and freakiness (Nic can apparently fire bullets from her chest, who knew?) with a nice martial guitar strut.
- ‘Yo Yo’ – top notch sad pop.
- ‘Beat Of My Drum’ – initially disorientating but after a few listens it’s great in a MIA-without-the-edge-or-the-bouts-of-cringey-stupidity way.

7 Young Galaxy – Shapeshifting


Young Galaxy are a bit hard to describe. They’re not really electro but they use a lot of synths to twinkle and parp. They’re kind of indie, in that they make songs of conventional structure and use guitars to jangle sometimes. They certainly like their percussion, and some songs are just a single guitar or synth line over an array of claps, whacks and other percussive sounds (castanets, steel drums). They have moments of small-scale Arcade Fire-ness. Ok, they have quite a few Arcade Fire style moments, albeit with fewer instruments going off at once. Then again they are Canadian. Must be in the water up there.
Best bits:
- ‘Peripheral Visions’ – if only for the big sing-a-long at the end which is quite affecting.
- ‘Blown Minded’ – stately march which nicely shows off the whole epic-but-kind-of-minimalist vibe of the whole album.
- ‘We Have Everything- – unashamedly anthemic.

8 Those Dancing Days – Daydreams And Nightmares


Adorable Swedish scamps who look like a bunch of off duty Brownies and sing sweet little ditties about… threatening violence against crap boyfriends and bitchy girl rivals alike. Wait, that can’t be right. Oh but it is, TDD serve up ADHD nuggets of joyful indie-pop, none of which overstay their welcome. It’s as if they need to wrap it up quickly and get home for tea and biscuits. I always find myself loving one album a year purely because it does a simple trick very very well, and this year it’s TDD. There’s nothing revolutionary here, but they have a scary mastery of their chosen form. Plus they’ve split up now, so no more fun for us. :(
Best bits:
- ‘Fuckarias’ – there’s no way this track should sound as muscular as it does, like being chased by a big pink truck.
- ‘I Know Where You Live pt.2’ – brilliantly huge chorus.
- ‘Can’t Find Entrance’ – breakneck speed sugary indie joy.

9 Washed Out – Within And Without


As the man who spearheaded the terribly named ‘chillwave’ invasion of the music blogosphere a couple if years back, there was a good chance that Ernest Greene, aka Washed Out, might have left it a year too late with this debut. The good news for Greene, and us, is it’s never too late for good albums and this is a very good album. It sounds suitably fuzzy, as if you’re remembering these songs rather than listening to them, with vocals floating around in the ether. But it’s not indulgent, and it doesn’t lack melodies, Greene grasping that lovely sonics mean little if they’re just tapering over a lack of decent tunes. There’s even a couple of sing-a-longs if you can decipher the words. Maybe it’s more fun to sing along in a fuzzy, distorted style.
Best bits:
- ‘You And I’ – simply gorgeous diet with Caroline from Chairlift, which just oozes class.
- ‘Amor Fati’ – gorgeous jangler.
- ‘Eyes Be Closed’ – keyboards splashing around like the ocean.

10 Harrys Gym – What Was Ours Cannot Be Yours


More sad songs from the melancholic Norwegians. Harrys Gym like to bring along a dash of electronics to their eleagic little epics, each building up and spiralling down, like tides. The record is centred around Anne Lise Frøkedal’s beautiful voice, all poised sadness or restrained sexiness, harmonising over herself. It’s an album which seems fixated on the inability of humans to be strong or heroic all the time. Musically there’s a lot of heft to the surroundings, tricks stolen from dance, trip hop and rock are peppered around the place, rhythms juddering or basslines crunching underneath Frøkedal’s latest missive about someone having the spirit crushed out of them by age or feckless partners or the weight of expectation. Heavy and light at the same time.
Best bits:
- ‘Sailing Home’ – specifically at 1:34 when the bass and the drums pile in properly.
- ‘Old Man’ – for one of the most heart rending vocals of the year.
- ‘No Hero’ – the slightly odd pairing of the indie guitars, the wobbling synth bass and the vocals shouldn’t work but does, very well.


December 30, 2011

Hollyzone's Albums Of 2011 11–28

For part one we have 11-28, the albums which were very good, but not quite good enough. Except for some which were good enough only someone else made something which was even gooderer. Anyway, there are 28, which isn’t a nice round number unless you have 14 fingers in which case it is. Sorry. I couldn’t be arsed to write about any of the other albums I’ve heard this year which means that they either weren’t very good, they were disappointing, or I haven’t heard enough of them (Ghostpoet, Lanterns On The Lake, I Break Horses and Soft Metals need to be filed under this category). Part two with a more numerically coherent top ten is tomorrow. Lucky you. You’re welcome.

11 St Vincent – Strange Mercy


Annie Clarke is a rock queen! No really, she is. She may not be death metal, but she’s throwing some guitar shapes here, alongside the stories about smalltown American scandals, sex, angry young women, sex, and lovers being shitty to each other. And sex. It’s a pretty lush album, each track a little wall of sound in itself, with strings, brass, wobbly electro basslines, and choirs of Clarkes all jostling for space alongside the guitars. Oh the guitars. This is more proof (alongside Wild Flag, below) that you don’t have to play every note on the damn guitar super fast to show you’ve got a mastery over it. Fun, thrilling, primal, sophisticated riffs are allowed too. Maybe it helps being a girl with a guitar, and if so, St Vincent is the head girl.
Best bits:
- ‘Surgeon’ – for that spiralling outro of layered vocals and the dizzying bassline.
- ‘Northern Lights’ – fuzzy chug-a-long rock out.
- ‘Cruel’ – starts orchestral then gets its claws out.

12 Lykke Li – Wounded Rhymes


Lykke Li has the sort of voice you’d expect to hear in an old 60s recording, and there’s a lot of almost retro sounding instruments and songs on display here. “Almost” retro because they’re not. This isn’t yet another album with a tedious obsession with olden days music (as so many of those desperate to touch the greatness of Winehouse have attempted) but one where those old style sounds are moulded into lovely, up to date numbers. It’s classy in the way that everyone pretends pop used to be (it wasn’t) hence why it doesn’t really sound like pop any more. So if you want to pretend that things were better in the old days slap this on and pretend its 1965 and we’re all so hip and happening and things are better. Just don’t look too shocked when she sings about prostitutes and other things which would have ensured this record would never have been released in 1965.
Best bits:
- ‘Youth Know No Pain’ – wurlitzer whirls, everyone gets up and dances.
- ‘I Follow Rivers’ – the percussion on this alone is worth the price of the album (unless you downloaded it for free in which case it’s worth more).
- ‘Sadness Is A Blessing’ – how was this not number 1 all year? It would have been if Adele had released it.

13 Metronomy – The English Riviera


Apparently it’s a concept album about the English seaside except it really isn’t. Instead it’s more falsetto harmonies, more quirky little ditties, and more evolution for the band who still sound like they’re recording everything in their bedroom, in a good way. There’s more heft in the rhythm section this time around which is welcome without detracting from the charm, and it’s a thoroughly well-crafted piece of sophisticated pop elegance. It nicks from 80s smooth pop but without sounding like it should be soundtracking wankers snorting coke in yachts while wearing white jeans. No, it’s geek-indie at its best.
Best bits:
- ‘She Wants’ – sinister slap bass pushing everything forward.
- ‘The Bay’ – smooth as hell pop which strays dangerously close to 80s wanker-pop without falling into those deadly waters.
- ‘Everything Goes My Way’ – all Metronomy albums must have a wonky duet crammed full of charm, this is it.

14 Cold Cave – Cherish The Light Years


You what’s wrong with most 80s influenced bands these days? Irony. Now don’t get me wrong, I love irony, but the best things about 80s music was that everyone took themselves very very seriously, especially the synth pop brigade. Cold Cave take themselves insanely seriously. It’s proper synth pop iconagraphy ahoy with lyrics about graveyards and anguished lovers either facing impossible odds together or breaking up in melodramatic waves sadness. It’s all delivered with the subtly of a North Korean military parade, waves of drums and keyboards and bellowing. There’s not a lot of light and shade, just a juggernaut of seriousness, but the sheet sincerity of it all is infectious and endearing. I can’t resist its silliness and I advise you don’t either.
Best bits:
- ‘Catacombs’ – totally seriousface, very silly to start with, but by the end it’s sucked you in so much that the payoff is quite emotional.
- ‘Underworld USA’ – very 80s, nice guitars, silly serious sing-a-long chorus.
- ‘Alchemy And You’ – best use of trumpets 2011.

15 Wild Flag – Wild Flag


Ah, y’know what, let’s not even begin to pretend this doesn’t sound loads like Sleater-Kinney. Wild Flag have Carrie and Janet from S-K, plus mates, and they have made a record which sounds an awful lot like S-K would have done had they decided to follow up The Woods with an album featuring more big, raw rock songs with twiddly (but not fretwanky) guitars, raw and zesty vocals, and retro, kind of 60s sounding keyboards. It is big, it is clever, it is endearingly life-affirming, with blasts of handclaps, 60s girl-group style backing vocals, and a pleasingly punkish edge to everything.
Best bits:
- ‘Romance’ – exactly two minutes in when the music drops out and it’s all handclaps. That.
- ‘Boom’ – for the breakneck crunching guitars.
- ‘Future Crimes’ – the contrast between the track’s general urgent heaviness and the twinkling keys.

16 EMAPast Life Martyred Saints


Droney, fuzzy, scuzzy, it’s like Past Life Martyred Saints is making a case for “dirgey” to be reclaimed as a positive rather than negative adjective. Quite a lot of the album is heavy, not in a heavy metal way, but in an oppressive and all consuming way, like a humid evening. That’s another word which is appropriate here if we can accept it as a positive not a negative – oppressive. There’s something enveloping about Erika M Anderson’s world, with its tales of small town freaks, angry geeks, and ominous metaphors. There are also plenty of squalls of guitar noise, some of it stately, some of it pure rocking out. It’s shit. Sorry, it’s THE shit. Now there’s a negative adjective turned positive for you.
Best bits:
- ‘The Grey Ship’ – an epic in two parts, a swaying acoustic beginning and a massive rockout ending.
- ‘Milkman’ – distorted glam stomper.
- ‘California’ – fuzzy rant, less a song, more a thrilling sermon with guitar noise.

17 Grimes Geidi Primes/Halfaxa


It was quite odd seeing NME calling Grimes the future of dance music, if only because it’s not that easy to dance to. At all. Yeah I tried. I’m being cheeky and lumping these two albums together which probably isn’t fair. Also she released them as free downloads in 2010, but as they only came out on record this year I am counting them. They’re worth counting too, two albums of dreamy, fuzzy electro. That’s ‘dreamy’ as in the full range of dreams, from twinkling brief half songs, through to terrifying nightmares of sinister little-girl-lost vocals and disconcerting waves of synth. Both albums are hodge-podges of ideas in the best possible way.
Best bits:
- ‘Weregild’ (from Halfaxa) – if only for the bit where the drums kick in.
- ‘Swan Song’ (from Halfaxa) – Crystal Castles if they were dreamy rather than furious.
- ‘Rosa’ (from Geidi Primes) – almost a proper song, twangy guitar and nearly intelligible lyrics, but what’s best about it that it’s groovy.

18 tUnE-yArDs – W H O K I L L


Ah, the unmistakable sound of drums and a car horn. A ragged guitar accompanied by the sound of falling wood. A raw voiced and angry woman harmonising with a police siren. Who knew Little Mix’s album would be so adventurous? Jokes, Merrill Garbus wouldn’t get past the first round of X Factor, if only because rather than some dirgey ballad her audition piece would be like one of the tracks off W H O K I L L, a righteous but often funny rant about the complete shitness of modern life, backed by a percussive cascade. Under Garbus’s command all instruments, including guitars, saxophones and, yes, sampled sirens, are merely shards of percussion to be used like some modern approximation of tribal rhythms.
Best bits:
- ‘My Country’ – a cascade of instruments and vocals, all falling down a hill.
- ‘Gangsta’ – strutting, jerky barrage of noise which somehow resolves itself into a cautionary tale with a sing-a-long chorus.
- ‘Bizniss’ – the lyrical and vocal dexterity here makes it a winner.

19 Zola Jesus – Conatus


Lots of heavy percussion, thudding towards the listener like a relentless army of goth girls, each with a cryptic story of vague sadness to impart. And yet, there’s also a lot of arms in the air rave moments, albeit slowed down from the high tempos of dance music, giving the whole album a weirdly underwater mood to it. Dark and mysterious but still inviting all the neighbours around for a party with black cake, black balloons and black party bags.
Best bits:
- ‘Vessel’ – the mechanical percussion is great.
- ‘Ixode’ – spiralling, layered vocals lead to a thoroughly ecstatic conclusion.
- ‘Seekir’ – this could almost be a pure pop song if it weren’t for the weird backing vocals, but when the drums kick in the dancing’s good.

20 Katy B – On A Mission


Ok, so she’s pop as anything, this isn’t edgy dubstep, and there’s the end of the last track where she goes off on one like an Oscar winner thanking her parents, cat, local lollipop lady for making it all happen, but hey, here’s a good dance record in a year of bad dance records. It helps that Katy has a good voice, distinctive even if the lyrics are a little banal, albeit in a sassy way. Thing is, when this album is good, it’s very very good, exhilarating to dance to, and fun to listen to. And yes, it’s not an album of great lyrical insights, but it’s nice that the overall theme is a girl being confident and honest about wanting a good time on her terms.
Best bits:
- ‘Katy On A Mission’ – huge wub wub wub anthem, resistance is futile.
- ‘Witches Brew’ – captures all the worst keyboard parts from late 90s trance and makes them good again using bleepy bleeps.
- ‘Broken Record’ – the last 45 seconds are possibly the best fade out ending in ages.

21 British Sea Power – Dancehall Valhalla


In which British Sea Power make another British Sea Power record. If that means anything to you then it’s an endorsement. If not then let me explain briefly – someone forgot to tell British Sea Power about any and all developments in indie since 2001. Therefore they make quirky guitar led songs about esoteric lyrical themes (this time round is more military themes, more star gazing, and more celebrations of music itself). These songs are then polished with big epic guitar riffs, and occasional deviations into slightly leftfield areas, but always returning to the slightly unfashionable indie underneath. And then they stick an almost 12 minute wigout at the end. Typical.
Best bits:
- ‘We Are Sound’ – top notch outro, classic BSP tactic of piling more and more sheer stuff in til the song pops.
- ‘Mongk II’ – twisted vocals over a driving insistent beat.
- ‘Observe The Skies’ – the most BSP song on here.

22 Chelsea Wolfe – Apokalypsis


Super-sinister, droning, hypnotic, it starts with a 23 second cover of a death metal song, and then soundtracks the most nightmare waltz through a haunted house you could imagine. Even the songs which don’t sound like nightmares are a bit off, love songs about being weirdos freaks. Glacial beauty, but only if the glacier is made of black ice.
Best bits:
- ‘Mer’ – guitar riffs strangely reminiscent of Brand New at their most haunting.
- ‘Tracks (Tall Bodies)’ – the most unnerving love song of the year, without being at all explicit.
- ‘Moses’ – builds around an unending creeping guitar riff into a woozy finale.

23 Bjork – Biophilia


A very sparse album which actually requires some concentration, but it’s worth it for the rewards. Of course Bjork would never do something as dull as simply release an album of songs you can sing along to, and this isn’t really a collection of songs per se, more some interesting sonic experiments with moments of startling beauty interspersed between moments of “WTF?” and “huh wuh?”. Guaranteed not to be to everyone’s tastes.
Best Bits:
- ‘Crystalline’ – surprise drum’n’bass outro.
- ‘Cosmogony’ – like a really really weird Disney song.
- ‘Mutual Core’ – I love the ‘chorus’ (insofar as there is one) on this.

24 Neon Indian – Era Extraña


Could Alan Palomo have made it more obvious than starting this album with what sounds like Space Invaders launching? I wasn’t that impressed with his debut, but this follow up is a great slice of electro-pop, layering 80s computer game noises over Palomo’s chillwave-ish vocals. It sounds like a distant Wayne Coyne trying to seduce a room full of retro-gamers, probably unsuccessfully because they’re all trying to beat Donkey Kong and save the princess.
Best bits:
- ‘Polish Girl’ – chillwave with bleeps not woozy guitars.
- ‘Fallout’ – see above.
- ‘Suns Irrupt’ – see above… look, they all sound the same but I like it.

25 Lady Gaga – Born This Way


It’s too long, there’s too much filler, one track sounds like Shania Twain, but in the end there’s a reason the Lady is a pop juggernaut crushing all before her and that’s because when she gets it right, she gets it righter than most. The sheer OTT-ness of the album sometimes works a total treat and it is nice to hear a pop star wanting to talk about more than just being ‘in da club’. We all know what it sounds like, and I am cool with that.
Best bits:
- ‘Government Hooker’ – precision engineered for the dancefloor.
- ‘Judas’ – pop as if made by evil robots who will crush and enslave us all, but in a good way.
- ‘Edge Of Glory’ – we’ll regret it in a few years time when they are everywhere, but here is a sax solo which is great!

26 True Widow – An High As The Highest Heavens And From The Centre To the Circumference Of The Earth


Slowly slowly the downtuned guitars and sludgy bass unfurl into… something. Not really songs because they’re more like funeral grooves, as if someone decided to slow down a load of danceable songs then cover them using only guitars dug from prehistoric times. Whack a load of floating and distant vocals on top and voila. An album of gloom which isn’t oppressive. An album where all the songs seem to sound the same, but they aren’t, and besides too much variation would ruin the mood. Which is one of futile despair. One for dinner parties and social gatherings.
Best bits:
- ‘Jackyl’ – for the droning guitars and spooky vocals.
- ‘NH’ – for the droning guitars and spooky vocals.
- ‘Boaz’ – for the amazing drum and bass meets opera bit in the… kidding, it’s for the droning guitars and spooky vocals.

27 Maybeshewill – I Was Here For A Moment Then I Was Gone


More heavy rock meets post-rock from Maybeshewill, the band who like to make post-rock songs but either cut out the first five minutes of build up and just slam in the bit with the loud guitars and drum fills, or they condense it all down into four minutes. It’s definitely worth it for people who like waves of uplifting guitars to wash over them, and I am one of those.
Best bits:
- ‘Red Paper Lanterns’ – for the best in guitar riff and xylophone interactions.
- ‘Critical Distance’ – the lovely cascading piano could have been Coldplay at their best but instead it gets to play with with skittering drums and big guitars and souds all the better for it.
- ‘Farewell To Sarajevo’ – stately and pretty.

28 Yacht – Shangri-La


DFA’s oddballs return with another album of strangeness which could be self-help motivational indie-dance, or an ironic act of such subtlety that it’s impossible to know who the joke is on. Whatever they’re on (and I think they’re being sincere) they’ve added some decent tunes, all in typical DFA style. It’s not up there with LCD Soundsystem, but in that vein cowbells are whacked, beats are dropped, basslines are wobbled and the pair have a giddy enthusiasm which means you’re about halfway through the album before you realise most of what they’re saying is bollox, but it’s danceable and fun bollox.
Best bits:
- ‘Dystopia’ – for sheer balls at nicking the chorus from elsewhere and the lolling rhythm.
- ‘I Walked Alone’ – for using autotune in a way which isn’t irritating.
- ‘Tripped And Fell In Love’ – the longest track, a Juan Maclean-ish groove.


August 12, 2011

Collective Punishment And The Riots

Writing about web page http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/crime/councils-set-to-evict-rioters-2335878.html

Is anyone else slightly scared by the threats from several councils to evict people found guilty of rioting this week from their council homes? In a statement picked up by the Independent, Councillor Paul Andrews, Manchester City Council’s executive member for neighbourhood services, said:

“If you are a tenant of any of our properties, and you or your children are found to be involved in the looting we will use whatever powers are available to us to make sure you are thrown out.”

Does this not strike anyone else as being a bit, you know, collective punishment-y? Specifically the way Andrews goes out of his way to say that even if it’s not the adults in the house but their children, it could still lead to eviction.

As we’re living in one of the more hysterical periods of public opinion I suppose I am obligated to point out the obvious, namely that I don’t condone the riots and think anyone convicted of looting should be punished in accordance to the law (attacks on the local community deserve jail). But I feel distinctly uncomfortable with the idea that we can punish people who might have had no idea that their relatives were out causing trouble, or who might have had no power to prevent their relatives from doing so had they known.

Yes, good parenting will often lead to kids who won’t do this sort of thing, but this does not mean that everyone whose kids took part is a bad person, even when in some cases they might not be top notch parents.


A little levity from the wonderful Photoshoplooter blog.

The idea that doing this will lead to people self-examining and deciding to be better people is also something of a gamble. When I first heard about the proposal it put me in mind of the Israeli policy of last decade whereby the houses of suicide bombers from the Palestinian community were bulldozed as collective punishment. It didn’t stop the suicide bombers from coming and the Israeli army recommended it end in 2005 as “the policy had little deterrent effect and inflamed Palestinian hatred”. Or the Intolerable Acts, passed by the British in America in 1774 as a reaction to the Boston Tea Party and other acts of defiance from the colonists, which provoked mass outrage across the country and lead to the American War of Independence. I find it hard to think similar won’t happen in the cases of some of the looters. They already feel detached enough from regular society to not care that they are smashing it up, making them homeless would surely only lead to more resentment and stored up trouble?

The rioters almost certainly knew they risked jail for their actions, but few would probably have anticipated losing their homes. The powers to evict clearly exist, otherwise they would not have been mentioned as an option, but it sounds like they are being called up as an extraordinary option rather than a usual part of the due process of the criminal justice system. This means anyone subject to an eviction has been specially singled out by the authorities, and this is quite likely a recipe for future antagonism and refusal to engage from the evictees.

Maybe it’s just me, but I find idea of collective punishment is somewhat gross in itself. It doesn’t even follow the judicial convention of innocent until proven guilty as it is essentially inflicting punishment on people who are innocent, alongside the guilty. We need to punish the guilty in these riots, but we need also to avoid making a whole new set of problems, both by fostering further resentment and by escalating the viciousness of our response. If the state can’t behave in a civilised way, why should the people?


July 23, 2011

Offensive Times Cartoon

Writing about web page http://yfrog.com/kh6omcj

I know I am a couple of days late on this but did anyone see the Times cartoon from last week commenting on the Somalia famine situation and the phone-hacking scandal? In case you didn’t here’s a shot of it:


Via twitter.com/SaiPang

It’s amazing on how many levels this is a bad cartoon, several of which spill over into being actually offensive. The editor should have sent it back with multiple revisions requested, and ideally it should have been spiked completely.

Whenever I see political and satirical cartoons I am always bearing in mind something Martin Rowson of The Guardian said in a talk I saw five years ago. Commenting on the recent controversy surrounding the Danish cartoons of Mohammed, Rowson said he felt it was the cartoonist’s job to attack those worthy of attack, and that these were the people in power, the people more powerful than the cartoonist. In the case of the Mohammed cartoons this hadn’t happened – as Mohammed is dead it wasn’t him (a powerful religious and military figure) being attacked but followers of his religion, ordinary Muslims who would be in a position of less power than the cartoonists were. Drawing George W Bush as a chimp, as Steve Bell is wont to do, is fine because Bush is a powerful man, but ordinary people with no recourse to reply are not.

And so to the Times cartoon. Obviously it is not a direct attack on the Somali people themselves, but look at the depicted children. Each identical in appearance, and looking like caricatures at that. There are almost overtones of ‘all foreigners look the same’. It doesn’t take much to make people look different in cartoons, and it doesn’t take much to make the people you are drawing look like, oh I don’t know, actual humans.

Then there’s the comparison of the famine with the phone-hacking case. Obviously both are serious. Endemic corruption in a country’s government, press and police can’t be easily dismissed as trivia and fluff despite the efforts of some, mostly journalists associated with News International and its outlets. I am not going to argue, however, that it is more serious than the famine because, quite simply, it isn’t. On the surface this makes the cartoon’s heavy-handed and poorly drawn sentiment agreeable.

But there’s more to it than that. This week only saw the declaration of famine. Official bodies have admitted this was a last resort. As the BBC reported -

The BBC’s Africa correspondent Andrew Harding says the emotive word “famine” is used rarely and carefully by humanitarian organisations, and it is the first time since 1992 that the word has been applied to a situation in Somalia.

The situation in east Africa hasn’t suddenly crept up on us. The Today program was reporting on the imminent announcement of famine a week before it was official, and the crisis itself has been developing for years in a country with no proper government and with militias keeping international aid efforts out.

Yes, the media has been awash with the phone-hacking scandal over these last few weeks, but can it be argued that it’s not a hugely important event? It’s certainly more important and more significant than the Royal wedding or Cheryl Cole’s ongoing problems with X Factor USA/Ashley Cole/breaking a nail. A truly honest cartoon would take this into account, and a truly attentive cartoonist would have highlighted the Somalia situation earlier. As it is it just comes across as a News International employee trying to divert attention from the serious wrongdoings of their bosses.

Anyway, if you only click on one link from this post, make it this one: https://www.donate.bt.com/DEC/dec_form_eaca.html?p_form_id=DEC01 Aid agencies may not currently be able to get into the affected areas, but they need to be prepared in case they do, or if the people in these areas can escape from the combination of environmental and human hostility.


July 04, 2011

I've Moved

Soon I’ll no longer be able to edit this blog and nobody will be able to comment on it, it’ll just sit here doing nothing. Very sad, I had a lot of fun blogging but I didn’t really dedicate the time to it recently (getting a PhD and all that) so I guess it really died a while back. Anyway, in what will hopefully be a spur to lots of new blogging activity, I’ve set up a new blog at http://tomkempton.blogspot.com/.

Byebye Warwick Blog!

Kempez


April 07, 2011

31 Films In 31 Days

So I decided to watch 31 films in March. Deciding to this on the 5th meant I had to cram them in at various points, so I would advise if you do do this to either start on the 1st of the month, or pick a shorter month like February, June or Glovember. Oh, and don’t watch five Almodovar films in two days, it really messes with your perception of reality.

The films:

The Philadelphia Story (1940)
Dr Strangelove (1964)
Dark Star (1974)
Warriors (1979)
Pepe Luci Bom (1980)
Dark Habits (1983)
Blood Simple (1984)
Tie Me Up Tie Me Down (1990)
Desperado (1995)
Live Flesh (1997)
Taxi (1998)
Bend It Like Beckham (2002)
Hero (2002)
Sky Blue (2003)
Lost In Translation (2003)
Appleseed (2004)
Saving Face (2004)
Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey (2005)
Helvetica (2007)
Elite Squad (2007)
The Duchess (2008)
Gomarrah (2008)
Wall E (2008)
Sunshine Cleaning (2008)
A Prophet (2009)
Sherlock Holmes (2009)
Inglorious Basterds (2009)
Up (2009)
The Infidel (2010)
RED (2010)
Submarine (2011)

31 films, 31 days, ten conclusions.

1. European crime films are much harder hitting than American ones, but American ones have more guns.
2. Pixar make amazingly beautiful films with excellent plots.
3. Amazingly beautiful Japanese/Korean animations usually have a pile of fluffy sci fi bollocks where the plot should be.
4. Katharine Hepburn is amazing.
5. Helen Mirren + machine gun = good times.
6. Eleven of the films were subtitled, three were partially subtitled, Dark Star was so mumbly it should have had subtitles, and Wall E showed dialogue wasn’t entirely necessary anyway.
7. Documentaries about typefaces can be fun.
8. Keira Knightley isn’t that irritating when she’s allowed to be sassy.
9. Three of the films featured directors acting, although I would never voluntarily watch a film directed by Eli Roth.
10. Submarine has the best mullet ever in it.


April 01, 2011

Solitude

Stumbled across this at the start of a movie the other day, it’s a poem by lord Byron.

There is a pleasure in the pathless woods,
There is a rapture on the lonely shore,
There is society, where none intrudes,
By the deep sea, and music in its roar:
I love not man the less, but Nature more.


March 16, 2011

Bone Marrow IV – The Five Year Gap

Sign up to donate marrow here – www.anthonynolan.org/

Later in 2006

The razor sharp amongst you might have noticed that much of this story so far took place in 2006. Signing up, getting told I was a partial match, and giving test samples of blood all took place over a relatively short period five years ago. And then… nothing.

I didn’t donate marrow in 2006.

After the samples were sent off I waited and waited, albeit in a very passive sort of way. As so often in the process I simply shoved it to the back of my mind, although it crept forward occasionally. Each step forward was harder to shake, harder to ignore. Signing up to a register is ultimately a very impersonal act, but getting tested to see if you’re a match to another person, there’s nothing abstract about that. Somewhere out there is a person who is sick, and though I don’t know them, I’m not so totally incapable of empathy that I can’t appreciate that theirs is a desperate state to be in.

No one I am close to has, to my knowledge, had leukaemia. People have had other cancers. It’s shit, shit and unfair, and strikes people who don’t deserve it, don’t need the pain and the danger. But I don’t need to tell you that. You know. It makes people very very ill, and both the treatment and the disease itself are harsh and painful.

And so it was that when I got the letter, I assumed the worst.

I was never officially told I was the match. There was no phone call or piece of paper saying “Congratulations, your jelly is just the flavour our party requires”. Or perhaps there was and I managed to miss it. The tendency of students to move around constantly, have a new address every few months means post is often lost or left on the floor of a house you used to live in, whilst the incumbents walk past it daily, each time promising they’ll sort it out tomorrow. I don’t know. I do know I got the follow up letter.

The follow up letter was addressed to a match. It was addressed to me and presumed I knew I was the match, that I knew I was the one with the marrow that offered the most. But it wasn’t telling me to get ready or to start preparing to produce stem cells or any of that. It was a relatively short letter which seemed to speak of a tragedy I was only peripherally aware of. It informed me that the transplant recipient was too ill to have the transplant.

Everyone I have ever told this story to reacts in the same way at this point. There’s something in those words which strikes a chord with people. The great unspoken between the lines. If you are ill enough to require a life-saving transplant, then you are really ill. If you are too ill to have a life-saving transplant, then things must be even worse than that. Without the bone marrow, went my thought process, this person will die, but they cannot have the bone marrow. Not unreasonably I assumed they had died.

Three people a day die in the UK because they need a transplant and the organs (not just bone marrow) aren’t available. It’s a statistic used in drives for organ donation because it says nothing of the personal tragedies behind the stat, but it doesn’t need to. It’s a lot of people, and some of them may well have lived long lives if they’d had a chance.

It didn’t feel good to have that letter. Neither myself nor the people at Anthony Nolan had done anything wrong, hell, no one had done anything wrong. The enemy was that blasted disease, and it seemed it had outpaced us all.

March 2011

I sometimes tell the story of the bone marrow donation which wasn’t. Ok, I tell a lot of stories, I talk a lot. But that one is one I tell because I kind of hope it might have a positive impact. It’s not particularly funny and it had a sad ending. It won’t get people into a partying mood, or raise spirits, or make good dinner conversation. But it sometimes felt right to tell it because they need those men and those non-whites to sign up. If my experience was anything to go by they need white girls too.

I told the story again in the middle of February 2011. Just another recital. Nothing too serious. Then on the evening of 28th February my phone decided to play silly buggers and refused to receive any calls. I didn’t know this until I got home from work to find it hadn’t rung and someone who had then left a message. The message started somewhat unexpectedly, “Hello, this is a message for Holly Cruise, this is [name] from the Anthony Nolan register, the bone marrow register, can you please give me a call on [number] tomorrow, thank you”.

Twice? The white girl no one wanted was needed again? For another person? Was I a really good match cos Celtic women were particularly prone to leukaemia or was it coincidence?

Naturally the next day couldn’t come soon enough, I needed to know what was going on. So I rang back and spoke to the lady from Anthony Nolan. I was needed. I was a match in 2006 (which I’d worked out) and I was needed because the patient was sick again and needed the transplant this time.

Wait. The patient was sick again. The girl (I think I heard them referred to as “she” during the conversation) had been too ill for a transplant five years earlier, but was now in need? Had she been that critically ill for five years, too sick for a transplant the whole time? Had she recovered suddenly to the point of not needing the marrow but had now slid back into a bad state? I wouldn’t wish either on anyone, although I hoped it was the latter. Five years of being critically ill is a nightmare no one deserves.

It wasn’t even a question really when the lady asked if I was still willing to go through with it. Of course I was! I thought this girl was dead. I didn’t even know her and I was delighted she wasn’t. I would definitely help out. Definitely give what I could, which in this case was more than just platitudes and wishes, it was actual, useful jelly. Was I willing to help? Yes/ Was my health still good? Yes. Was I aware of what it would involve? Yes (stabbity stabbity).

The lady said it was up to the surgeon now to set the dates. I would receive more information in time. She emailed me the information leaflet. I read it, then panicked that I’d made a mistake and that the liver ‘condition’ I was diagnosed with in 2008 might be a problem. Yeah, I’m a teetotalitarian with a liver condition. Said condition is Gilbert’s which has virtually no symptoms and rarely impacts on the lives of those who have it, but I was worried it might impact here. I needn’t have worried, it wasn’t a problem.

So now I’m just waiting for dates. I keep thinking maybe I should tell them when I’m on holiday, or that if illness on my part will cause problems that we need to avoid September/October, the months which take quite a toll on those who work at universities, as the students come from all over the world bringing as many versions of the cold/flu as they can muster. I even decided to write about it, here, because I thought it might be interesting.

I don’t know if I will get as far as donating this time. I hope so if only because I don’t want this mystery person to die. It could be months before anything happens, I’m sorry I have no more narrative than this to give you at this time. But if anything more comes up I will write about it. There might even be pictures this time, or at least pictures of the actual process rather than the slightly random ones I’ve used so far. I might use the word “stabbity” a bit more as it has proven strangely popular. Or I might not. It might go no further once more. But in any case, I want at least one of you reading this to sign up to the register. Please.

It’s the least we could all do.


March 09, 2011

Bone Marrow III – The Big Needle

Need I include the disclaimer that I don’t normally write about my real life? Well, I don’t, but I don’t normally let people take my internal organs out for use elsewhere…

Sign up to the registerhttp://www.anthonynolan.org/

2006, summer and 2011, March

People are fascinated by the Big Needle. The Big Needle is a symbol. The Big Needle is a celebrity. The Big Needle is only part of the bone marrow donation process anyone seems to know about. Both in 2006 and now in 2011 it’s what I hear most often from people when I tell them what I am doing.

“Doesn’t that involve a Big Needle?”
“I hear it hurts when they use the Big Needle.”
“Wow, I wouldn’t do that, not with that Big Needle.”


Stabbity.

The Big Needle appears to be the iconic element of the process, a sharp, stabby certainty, headed straight for the hip bone of those willing to give. I knew about the Big Needle when I signed up for the process, but like all the unpleasant elements of donation I blithely ignored it because I really didn’t think I would ever be called upon to donate and thus worrying about the specifics wasn’t worth it. I do a similar thing with my legs – I have one leg longer than the other and my hips are out of alignment. A doctor once told me there was a good chance I might need a hip replacement at a relatively young age (40s?!) but they weren’t sure. They could be right, but there’s no point fretting about it if it’s not certain. And merely being on the bone marrow list wasn’t a guarantee that Big Needle would be part of my life so I ignored it.

And when I couldn’t ignore it anymore, I discovered that as with so many icons, the Big Needle had lost relevance in recent years.

Ever had tuberculous cervical lymphadenitis? Probably not, it’s more commonly known as scrofula, and is the sort of disease which modern historians get to read about and modern doctors don’t get to treat very often. When it does pop up it gets beaten down with antibiotics. In the old days the cure was more elaborate, the monarch of the day was required to touch the sufferers. Scientific advances ensure that we don’t need Elizabeth II to high five the contagious, and funnily enough scientific advances have resulted in the Big Needle losing some influence in the world of bone marrow extraction.


“I cannot believe I have to touch you scrubbers. Helen Mirren wouldn’t stand for this shit.”

I found this out courtesy of the booklet Anthony Nolan sent me. It was full of happy smiling pictures of donors and recipients. How can anyone refuse a process where the outcome is glossy smiling photos, complete with inspirational captions? Ok, I’m being flippant, but these booklets will have been market tested and designed to perfection, they are precision tooled to make the donor feel less apprehensive about the process, to banish Big Needle.

There are two ways of donating.

I didn’t know this. The other way was even presented as the preferred method. Above Big Needle. The fearsome beast wasn’t even first choice, it was sat on the medical substitute’s bench, kicking its heels and periodically running up and down the side of the hospital, waiting to be called on. A plan B.

Plan A was much more futuristic. The donor would be injected with human growth hormone to make their marrow overproduce stem cells. The spongy mass of the marrow is less important than the tiny parts of marrow yet to come. After a few days the recipient would travel to a hospital where they would be hooked up to a machine, one tiny needle in each arm, with blood drawn out via one tube, filtered through a machine to remove the stem cells, before being put back into the donor’s body via the second tube in the other arm. I may or may not have made this up, but I came away convinced the process involved a centrifuge, with the prospect that my blood would be spun around, with stem cells flying out of it into the collection point, before being returned. The idea that my vital fluids might enjoy a ride as part of the process sounded fun.

The Big Needle was for when this didn’t work. No problem, I thought, if it happens I’ll just produce lots of stem cells. I’ll sit at home, producing really hard. In 2006 I figured I could study in the library, but produce stem cells at the same time. Essays and stem cells. Not a problem, and you don’t even have to footnote the stem cells. Now, in 2011, I’ll produce them while I work, or while I stand outside as the fire alarms go off, a strangely frequent event at work right now.

And hey, even if the Big Needle was needed, there was general anaesthetic for that.

stabbyneedle
Actually, the Big Needle is pretty big when you put it like that…

Knowing the procedures made them less scary. Is this what my ancestors felt the first time they found a dead boa constrictor and thought “Wow, I know it’s eaten half the tribe, but look, it’s just a tube with a silly face, that’s not scary”. Mind you, my ancestors ended up in Ireland, one of only two countries worldwide with no native snake species, so perhaps that’s a bad example.

Whatever, even if it did involve the Big Needle the equation was simple: stabby needle-induced hip pain for a week is less painful than dying of leukaemia. There is no other way to look at this. If I was a match I would do it, no matter what the short term pain. The person who needed marrow needed it more than I needed a pain free week.

But I would probably whine about the pain anyway. I’m not a saint.

And in the ebbing days of summer 2006, the last really good summer I remember us having in Britain, I waited to see if that one-in-four chance was going to come in. Was I the match? Would I meet the Big Needle or have to sit in the library producing stem cells?


March 07, 2011

Bone Marrow II – Twelve Small Pots

Once again I must protest that I’m not keen on blogging about my actual life but after the first of these posts it turned out a friend had made it to this stage too, so maybe it’s more common than I first thought. I dunno, it’s never been the topic of any polite dinner party conversation I’ve been part of to talk about marrow donation, although I’ve been to about two polite dinner parties in my life (once by mistake) so it could be common.

Do not lose sight of the importance of this linkhttp://www.anthonynolan.org/

2006, a few weeks later

I’m scared of donating blood. Yes, I know this is about the other donation, the one with the HUGE needles, and I know donating blood involves small needles. I have no issue with needles. I wasn’t the kid in my secondary school who reacted to their BCG jab by turning green and passing out. I used to watch the injections as they went into my arm, fascinated by the vanishing liquid. No, it’s not the mechanics of blood donation which bother me.

No one knows what causes migraines for sure. Like all migraine sufferers I know roughly what triggers them, but how extreme stress or not-so-extreme food deprivation translate into blindness, splitting headaches and projectile vomiting is a mystery. All a doctor has ever been able to say to me is that it might be related to chemical levels in the blood.

So far, despite my massive clumsiness I’ve never lost a significant amount of blood in any incident. Even the time I sliced my thumb in half (yes, I am an idiot, I know this) it wasn’t a bloody as it could have been. Well, it didn’t cause my blood-phobic housemate to pass out, so it can’t have been too bad. It wasn’t Ichi The Killer levels. The upshot of this rambling is to say that I’ve never donated blood because I’m worried it might set off migraines. It’s irrational, it probably won’t, but I don’t know. Perhaps once I’ve given marrow I should make it a target to give blood within six months to prove it. Who knows.

Thumb and Blade
The aftermath of my thumb slicing incident. Blood all cleaned (except the stuff we couldn’t clean so we put furniture over it so the landlord wouldn’t notice.

But my other worry is I don’t have enough blood. And this is where I find myself back in the summer of 2006.

When people need bone marrow donations their family is screened first. It makes sense, you’re more likely to find a match with close relatives than random strangers* like us names bobbling around on the Anthony Nolan register. But sometimes it doesn’t work out and then it’s pot luck. To the register. To sign up we gave small pots of blood, not enough to run more than a couple of tests. So when a person in need of a transplant comes to the register they tend to test a few partially matching people more closely to find the best match.

It had been only a few months since I had left the students’ union after signing up. I’d already put it to the back of my mind and can you blame me? I was a white female. They didn’t need white females, they’d said so. Had there been any men or any non-white people I would have been sent away. I’d have gone home to Leamington and wondered why I still had no feeling in my thumb (the sliced in half one, the feeling still isn’t more than 40% today, five years later). I’d have watched TV, done my essay, eaten. I wouldn’t have been one of the four people on the register that were a rough match to an ill person somewhere in Britain.

I laughed when I found out I was a partial match. “They said I wasn’t needed!” I told blood-phobic housemate, “And here I am, a partial match”. It was a one in four chance I might be the best match, which are good odds if you’re betting on horses and bad odds if you’re betting on football (yeah, I worked in a bookies for a while).


Like these but twelve of them.

To find the best match involves tests. Tests require blood. I was sent a box of twelve small pots, like the first small pot from signing up day. Only this time there was twelve of them. I took my box of goodies to the doctor’s clinic to be filled and the nurse laid them out. They had different coloured tops. They looked like pieces from a strange boardgame which only served to make it even more surreal as the nurse put a needle in my arm and filled them one by one until all were fu… no, wait. The last three or so weren’t full. We couldn’t fill them. She prodded my arm once or twice but for the last three (look away squeamish folk) my blood merely dripped in, rather than leaping forward with enthusiastic abandon as it had done initially. The nurse smiled and assured me it was normal, and maybe it was. Maybe twelve pots is a lot to ask. But my irrational side was in its element, “Look! You can’t possibly donate blood, you don’t have enough for yourself! How could someone as pale as you possibly have enough blood”. I am very pale it’s true. Even other Irish people think I’m pale. I tried to ignore the irrational voice, especially as the nice, rational nurse said it was quite normal not to fill all twelve pots.

My blood was posted to London to be prodded and probed. I didn’t have a migraine. I didn’t feel any change at all, which at least reassured me that no one was performing any voodoo on my platelets which was nice of them. So I went back to work. It was summer and time to work my arse off because that’s the lot of many students these days. Work work work whilst they bleed you dry. At least I’d been bled (slightly) dry for a slightly better cause.

And now it was time to wait and see who was the best match…

*Reading about family matches and donations I found the fascinating case of Karen Keegan, an American who needed a kidney transplant. When her children were tested to see if they were matches the results said they weren’t even her children. It turned out she’s a chimera, one person with two sets of DNA made when two fraternal twins fuse in the womb to grow as one person. Her womb and her blood were produced from different embryos but lived in one body. Biology is interesting.


March 04, 2011

Ideas For New Bank Holidays

Writing about web page http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-12640636

The government wants to move the May Day bank to either St George’s day a week or so before, or to ‘Trafalgar Day’ in October. Now there are some who might suggest that targeting the May Day holiday, a strongly socialist and pagan linked date, rather than the other May bank holiday is a bit ideological. Perhaps it isn’t. but it ignores one simple and undisputable fact – we don’t get enough days off compared to the rest of Western Europe.

The TUC have complained about this for years, saying in 2001 that with a European average of 10.8, Britain still only had 8, a number which would have been part of the European average, thus dragging it down.

So why not let us have another bank holiday without ditching an existing one? Some suggestions:

Pankhurst Day, 14th or 15th July

“Votes for my homegirls or else!”

Emmeline Pankhurst’s birthday. Why not pick a suffragette? Was her struggle, and those of the 50% of the population she fought alongside and for, any less significant than that of Nelson at Trafalgar? The uncertainty of her birth date means we can choose, shall we synchronise with France or strike out on our own? Plus mid-July is a good bet for some half decent weather.

Armada Day, 18th August

“Michel Pez said the weather would be lovely, what an idiot!”

Why Trafalgar Day? Why not another battle? Most WWI and WWII events were over longer periods of time, or are rather more international in flavour, so why not pick a military event which really sums Britain up – the Spanish Armada whose defeat was a combination of British blood mindedness and the weather. Mostly the weather. 18th August is the New Calendar date of Elizabeth I’s “heart and stomach of a king” speech, which is one of the best in British history. The downside is it would be quite close to the existing August holiday.

Reform Act Day, 7th June

George Cruickshank’s depiction of the Peterloo Massacre, a significant event in the history of democracy in Britain (and a possible contender for a bank holiday in its own right).

We don’t really do revolution in Britain, do we? The one time we did, overthrowing Charles I and the ructions that lead to Cromwell taking over, it was reversed within a few decades. Britain has long been the country of incremental changes, so why not celebrate one of the most major incremental changes? The Reform Act 1832 wasn’t perfect, it left a lot of people still disenfranchised (women and poor people mostly), but it was a significant step away from the still borderline feudal world we lived in, towards a slightly more democratic future. We could celebrate the day by going to Old Sarum and pelting effigies of crooked politicians with eggs.

First Association Football International Day, 30th November

Scotland’s 1872 team, great moustaches.

If we want major events that happened in the last three months of the year, currently underserved by bank holidays, forget Guy Fawkes Day (might upset Catholics), Halloween (might upset non-pagans/people who hate costumes and having their houses egged), or my birthday (apparently I am not significant enough, humph). What we need is something which celebrates Britain’s biggest cultural contribution to the world. Which celebrates British innovation and ability to apply rules to anything, even something which essentially used to be an excuse for a fight. Which celebrates the way England and Scotland just love to get one over on each other. The first ever official football international match, a 0-0 draw between England and Scotland. Considering the game involved men with amazing names like Cuthbert Ottaway and Reginald de Courtenay Welch, it seems rude not to celebrate it. (Wales and Northern Ireland can have a day off on the day of the first Wales vs Northern Ireland match).

Any other similarly genius/insane suggestions?


March 03, 2011

Bone Marrow I – Signing That Register

I don’t normally blog about my personal life for the simple reason that my personal life is really rather dull. But at the moment it isn’t. It’s not extraordinary, but it’s not dull, and I think it needs to be told because what I’m currently doing could and should be done by others. Maybe even you.

This is the (sort of) diary of a (potential) bone marrow donor.

These are the people you need: http://www.anthonynolan.org/

2006, one afternoon

Campus universities are a great source of bodily fluids it would seem. No, get your mind out of the gutter; I am referring to substances like blood and marrow. At one stage during my time at the University of Warwick it was a weekly occurrence to see the blood donation lorry parked in the grounds waiting for passing students to drop in. A worthy cause, it almost seemed a shame that they would come on Tuesdays as many of the sports teams played on Wednesdays and I knew of more than one sporty student who wanted to donate but didn’t want to do so on a Tuesday – “I can’t be weak for the match!”. You would sometimes also see members of Warwick Pride protesting at the ban on blood donations by men who have had sex with men, often accompanied by a groups of lesbians who would go and give their blood, whilst commenting loudly that their male friends couldn’t. It was a good way to protest.


From www.warwick.ac.uk

It wasn’t just the blood people who came to visit. Anthony Nolan would come too.

Anthony Nolan is a charity that supports research into leukaemia, and which runs a register for bone marrow donors. As with all such charities it relies on volunteers to join its register and be matched up with sufferers of leukaemia and other blood disease who are in need of a transplant. Interestingly, in light of what I observed about the blood donation truck at Warwick, Anthony Nolan allow gay men to join the register and donate with the same restrictions as heterosexuals. As one Anthony Nolan representative said “If they are practising safe sex with a trusted partner then we are more than happy to accept them.”

And so it was one afternoon that Anthony Nolan nurses took over a couple of rooms in the students’ union at Warwick.

Students make a great target market for such drives. One could flatter the altruistic nature of students by saying their increased social awareness and tendency towards idealism makes it likely that they’d sign up for this sort of thing, to positively intervene in the lives of others. One could also point out that they have a lot of free time and a tendency to be distracted by anything which looks vaguely interesting and unusual, like a queue with some nurses at the end of it. For me, it was a combination of the two.

su
Warwick Students’ Union, image from Wikipedia

There was a queue of people in the students’ union building. I was on a free afternoon (in the sense that I probably should have been in the library somewhere, reading something important and relevant and historical) and with mates. A queue leading to a room which wasn’t usually occupied was an invitation to go and join it. Is there any act more British than joining a queue just because it’s there? Who knows, I’m only half British so maybe I should have only half joined it.

It turned out to be a queue to sign up for the Anthony Nolan bone marrow register. At this point we could have wandered off again, in search of queues with less bloodletting at the end of them. But we didn’t. Call it that student conscience or whatever, but we decided a bit of queuing, form filling and blood sample giving was a good use of our time.

By this stage it was late in the afternoon, and the nurses were anxious that they would have to leave soon. One stuck her head out of the door to the room and announced to the queue that they were finishing soon, and that they would be prioritising certain groups of people.

Men and ethnic minorities.

She explained briefly that there weren’t enough of either on the register, and that they were wanted for this reason. From their website I later discovered the following:

It is a priority for us to recruit more male donors because men can generally provide greater volumes of blood stem cells than female donors. This helps faster engraftment and the reconstitution of the immune system post-transplant. If there is a choice of donor for a patient in most cases a male donor will be preferred.

Ethnic origin is important when matching donors and patients. The ‘markers’ that are tested when searching for a suitable stem cell donor are genetically inherited and often unique to a particular race. A patient in need of a transplant is more likely to discover a suitable donor amongst groups of people who share a similar genetic history to them. In practice this means that an African-Caribbean patient, for example, has the greatest opportunity of finding a donor within his or her own ethnic community. There are still too many patients in the UK from black and ethnic minority communities for whom we are unable to find a compatible donor.

The nurse looked up and down the queue. A queue made up entirely of white females. Resigned to the fact she couldn’t get any more of the rarer groups that day she indicated for the next girl to come into the room. Jokingly I turned to my mate and wondered if being Celtic (as in I have three Irish grandparents, not that I am a football team) was enough of an ethnic minority to make a difference. Probably not we concluded. There’s so many British people with an Irish grandparent that it must be pretty common. How else do you explain the 1994 Irish World Cup squad?


Ray Houghton scores for Ireland against Italy at 1994 World Cup. He was born in Scotland. Watch the glorious video here.

The rest of the process was speedy. In we trooped, one by one, to give a small sample of blood and fill in some forms to say we weren’t injecting heroin into our eyes and having unsafe sex with as many hookers as we could (even though the University of Warwick is located in Coventry, it’s hardly close to any particularly mean streets). And we left. It didn’t feel particularly significant. The whisperings about how they get marrow (“a HUGE needle”) didn’t really seem that pressing. The lady had said they weren’t really looking for white females and we were all white females. They wouldn’t need us, surely?

Surely?


January 10, 2011

Is Babel A Twit Or A Menace?

Writing about web page http://www.guardian.co.uk/football/2011/jan/09/ryan-babel-howard-webb-manchester-united-liverpool

It seems to be a bit of trend at the moment for footballers to launch their toys directly out of the pram (do not pass go, do not blackmail your club for £200,000 a week) about refereeing decisions affecting Manchester United.

Now obviously in some cases these tweets are just inane and gormless. Wojciech Szczesny, a man who desperately prays every night that he’s at Arsenal because he’s capable of breaking their crap goalkeeper tendency rather than being another exponent of it, tweeted after the West Brom game about Gary Neville’s foul “How can you not get frustrated with decitions [sic] like that going ALWAYS Man Utds way?! Its a clear pen and sending off!”. Bless, you cannot really blame him for having completely failed to notice that mere days earlier United had had to settle for a draw after a Birmingham goal which involved a foul, a handball and a marginal offside decision from Brum. Or the many decisions which have gone against United in recent games with Chelsea. It’s really not been a particularly good 18 months for lovers of the ‘United get all the ref decisions’ conspiracy.

Anyway, so Ryan Babel’s the latest to have a go, tweeting several tweets (thus expending more effort on whining than he has done playing for Liverpool since they signed him) including this good-idea-poor-execution picture of Howard Webb MBE.


He’d still have been better than half the Liverpool players out there on Sunday.

Now the question is, are the FA right to charge him with one of their arcane rules about saying things and being interesting? They didn’t pick on Szczesny, although as he has to play behind Koscielny and Squillaci you have to wonder if this was the FA thinking “He’s suffered enough, leave it”.

It’s tricky, cos Twitter’s just a run of ephemeral ramblings, does it matter what people say on there? But on the other hand no one likes it when players rush up and surround the ref, is Twitter another way to harass the official, albeit one where the can’t respond with a quick red? Plus lots of people were, rightly, outraged by Glen Johnson’s dreadful remarks about Paul Merson on his Twitter page, so is Babel’s comment really harmless banter or should it slapped down?

It’s a hard one – I hate the media managed, say nothing nature of players, but at the same time I also hate the way they surround and harass refs. Is the post match social media thought-blowout an extension of the pitch or not?


January 04, 2011

Cocktails For Teetotalitarians

My friend Dawn of 101 Wankers fame and awesomeness is considering giving up alcohol for the entirety of 2011! This is either the best idea ever or the most crazed scheme ever, more crazed than invading Russia or leaving the economy in the hands of George Obsorne. Oh.

Anyway, with this in mind, I wish to offer my 26 years of teetotalitarian experience with these exciting, non-alcoholic cocktails.


That’s not a natural colour for a drink, surely?

Mixer Surprise

Ingredients:
Whatever soft drinks are available at the party you are at
Other people who are drinking

To make Mixer Surprise arrive at the party early and pour yourself a cup of mixer. And another. And another. Feel free to mix it up a bit, have a glass of lemonade, then a glass of coke, then some fizzy orange. Repeat until all the mixers are gone. This will surprise the alcohol drinkers who will then drink even faster until they are drunk at 11pm and pass out in a heap whilst you spend the evening going to the toilet every 15 minutes.

Alcopop Emulator

Ingredients:
A soft drink or fruit drink (depending on whether you want it fizzy or not)
16kg sugar
Cough sweets
11kg sugar
Food colouring – neon if possible
21kg sugar
A subscription to a Hoxton fanzine

First take the soft drink or fruit drink and add some of the sugar slowly, being sure to mix it in. Melt the cough sweets over an open fire, mix them with sugar, and add it to the mixture. Add some more sugar, then introduce the food colouring slowly, mixing it with sugar as you go along. Finally make a label using pictures of twats and words from the Hoxton fanzine. Drink until the sugar absorbs all your internal organs and you vomit your innards over you skinny jeans.

Squash Roulette

Squash – any flavour
Water
Clear lemonade
Sugar infused water (lots of sugar)
Salt water
Water with a drop of fish oil it it

Pour out a glass each of water, salt water, sugar water, fish water, and clear lemonade. Turn your back whilst a mate adds squash to each then mixes them around. How many do you dare drink? Vary amounts of each type for added drama.

Tequila Sub

Ingredients:
Grape juice
Tabasco
Cabbage (boiled)
Lemon juice
Celery
Gummi bear

We all know what tequila represents. A chance to torture yourself, your tastebuds and your stomach in search of a mythical good time. No, all tequila ever induces is a headache, a burnt throat, a slight vommy feeling and a sense of mystery as to why the faff with the salt and the lemon. For the none alcoholic version, mix grape juice and tabasco with lemon juice and a hint of celery (healthier than salt) and glug it down in one. Then take a fistful of cabbage to simulate that just hocked up your dinner feeling and celebrate with a gummi bear instead of the worm at the bottom of the bottom. Repeat until amnesia.

Water

Ingredients:
Tap
Intricate system of sewage, water transportation and processing which represents arguably one of the greatest achievements of the Victorian era
An ISA

Pour yourself a glass of water. Drink. Repeat. Invest money you have saved from this free venture in an ISA which will yield a paltry rate of interest due to economic crisis but which will stand as a monument to your good intentions. Don’t buy bottled water because this will make you a twat and an environment trashing one at that.


December 30, 2010

Albums Of 2010 – 1–10

Ok, what’s this here? Two joint number 1 albums? Yeah, I honestly couldn’t call it between them, so different are they in style, place, time and arms-in-the-air-ability, that it was impossible to find a way to compare them in order to establish which, if either was better. So there you go. Just know that both are reasons to conclude that 2010 was a good year for music, no matter how much the charts made us cry hot salty tears of pain. Bah.

=1. Arcade Fire - The Suburbs


This is one of many options you can choose unless you’re mental and want to get them all.

Too obvious? Sod that, yeah they might be in almost every top ten of the year, in every magazine and newspaper, but far from being a sign of everyone being unimaginative and boring, it’s for the simple reason that this really is a stormer of an album. And an album it is. I honestly think that the best albums have, at most, 12 tracks worth having. This has 16, and 15 are worthy of a place in an album which works as a cohesive work, one which should be listened to in order and in one sitting. It’s something of a rarity these days, when skip functions and albums packed with ‘singles’ rather than a flowing set of songs are the norm. I’m as guilty as the next person when it comes to finding albums and listening to just the tracks I like best, but this one positively demands to be listened to in order. It’s also classic Arcade Fire, more like their superlative debut than the bitty and slightly dissatisfying Neon Bible which had individually good songs but lacked the feeling of a complete piece. The Suburbs has big choruses in unexpected places, the brief bellow of “Now I’m ready to start” or the jaunty loping “Sometimes I can’t believe it/I’m moving past the feeling”. Less frantic than earlier albums, it unfolds neatly, changing gears but always full of heart, perhaps too much of a slow burner for those seduced by the punch of the first two albums, but worth the time and effort. Lovely.

=1. Robyn - Body Talk


Robyn is the first pop star made of car air freshers.

At a time when every American pop and r’n’b star seems to have decided to put a bit of the Euro-pop thing in their records, it takes an actual European from the nation which pretty much owns pop, Sweden, to do it better than anyone else. Robyn’s grand experiment, releasing music as it was ready rather than to anyone else’s schedule has paid off in style. Body Talk is a pop record which pop fans can use against any accusations levelled at it. Shallow and plastic? How can you argue with the way she stalks and cries her way across the dancefloor during ‘Dancing On My Own’. Empty and meaningless? Try telling me that ‘Call Your Girlfriend’ isn’t packed with years of experience and insight into that most difficult of actions, breaking up with someone. Formulaic collaborations with bored rappers in a bid for credibility? ‘You Should Know Better’ is probably more a case of Robyn giving Snoop Dogg a credibility kick than him bringing her one. It’s also one of the funniest songs of the year. That’s what this album’s all about, the songs are either sad ones with arms-in-the-air moments, or smart arse ones which genuinely smart lyrics. Messing with the form when it suits (the metronomic ‘Don’t Fucking Tell Me What To Do’ isn’t far removed from a psychedelic drone record) or just doing something simple (‘Hang With Me’, ‘Indestructible’, most of the others). Plus it contains the lyric “I gotta lotta automatic booty applications” which is some sort of twisted genius. No really. It is.

3. Warpaint - The Fool


Ooooh, a mystical magic eye.

There’s little more tedious than guitar-bored asserting that girls can’t play guitar as well as boys. Give them this album. Give them the sparkling riffs, the intricate interplay between the guitars and bass. Give them Warpaint, who’ve melded the reverb soaked, fret climbing, late-night jangle of Interpol with the harmonious-but-tough girly vocals of Au Revoir Simone. But with better drumming than either. They’re the sort of band that make a mockery of the “radio edit” versions of singles. Yeah, so their songs are long and often take a while to unfold, but this is music for those who have time to invest in songs with layers and intricacies. Beautiful songs. Songs to lose yourself in. The guitar riff which kicks in part way through the eponymous ‘Warpaint’ the outro to the slow burning ‘Undertow’, the vocal interplay during ‘Composure’, these all give the impression of band who like to take their time in coming up with something special.

4. 65daysofstatic - We Were Exploding Anyway


Wait, neither of you are in the band! Get a room!

They’ve been mixing postrock guitars with techno rhythms and synths for a while now, but 65daysofstatic might just have done something very retro – making a truly great third album. Remember when bands were allowed three albums to get it right? Well it might not be the industry norm anymore, but this is evidence that it maybe still should be. Enormous tunes come crashing through the record; so confident are the band that they feel able to leave an excellent Robert Smith (yes, of The Cure) collaboration, ‘Come To Me’, towards the end of the record, and indeed the last track, ‘Tiger Girl’ might well be the best of the bunch, a thumping techno undercarriage bringing stabs of guitar along with it. Postrock without the slow build (the quiet bits) might sound like it has robbed the music of the essential contrast which gives it heart, but 65daysofstatic have found a way around this, via the dancefloor.

5. Foals - Total Life Forever


It’s important indie bands learn how to swim in time for the next downpour at Leeds fest.

If there was one complaint you could make about Foals’ pretty damn good first album Antidotes it’s that it was a bit cold, a bit remote, a bit hard to relate to emotionally. Enter Total Life Forever which is warmer, more ambitious, more elaborate and more intricate. Just more. Unafraid to let songs build from quiet, almost silent openings (‘Spanish Sahara’) Foals have taken all the elements of postrock which 65daysofstatic have discarded, and applied them to their jerky indie template. The result is lush guitars, bouncy rhythms, and expansive sonics. Oh, and nice vocal harmonies everywhere. And it does a fantastic line is endings. I love a song with a great ending, one where the whole song has been building towards that last minute or so. It explains my love of postrock in general. Total Life Forever has the best endings of any album this year. If we were judging albums solely on the last minute of each track then this would be top – ‘Black Gold’, ‘What Remains’, ‘Spanish Sahara’, all end in awesome crescendos of sound. If only this tiny review had a comparably good ending. But it doesn’t. Bah.

6. Crystal Castles - Crystal Castles II


Emo kid finds no sympathy from the dead.

My mate Bun hates this lot. He likes the Eagles and other beardy guitar bands, so it’s not really a surprise. And his main complaint, that Crystal Castles trade in ear bleeding noise, aren’t quite as fair on this album as their were on the first one. Yes, two of the first three tracks – ‘Doe Deer’ and ‘Fainting Spells’ – do sound like the first album’s main formula of throwing an Atari down the stairs onto a banshee, but it’s the track they sandwich, ‘Celestica’, which is more typical. It is, surprisingly, beautiful, ethereal, floaty… it’s not what you’d expect after listening to ‘Alice Practice’. It’s a good formula too, bringing dreamy, crackling synths, but still keeping some of the menace of previous records. ‘Year Of Silence’ perfectly sets the mood, taking one of Sigur Ros’s more upbeat vocals and layering them over a martial synth thud. It’s all still as unintelligible as ever – Alice certainly sounds like she’s singing “This is your potato” on ‘Baptism’, a track which sounds like something the KLF would make today – but if that puts you off then you’d probably prefer the clear diction of the Eagles, and that’s no fun.

7. Sleight Bells - Treats


Bet you didn’t know cheerleaders grew on trees.

Sleigh Bells could have been a sweet, melodic lo-fi band with a cutesy sounding lead singer, in the vein of the many boy-girl bands around at the moment peddling whispy but jaunty tunes. They could but for one thing – apart from Alexis Krauss’s cheeky, chirpy vocals, everything is loud to a point which would cause sonic nerds to collapse into gibbering heaps. That guy complaining that the age of the Loudness War http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Loudness_war is causing music to become distorted and painful? He will hate this. So will most people, but it’s actually a thing of beauty, noise twisted in on itself until it because pure pop again. Kind of like what Crystal Castles did on their first album, only with electric guitars and a singer who wants to lure you in, not batter you over the head and rip your limbs off. Oh yeah, and then there’s ‘Rill Rill’ where they show they can do a quiet but beautifully tuneful number, as if to prove that they know what you’re thinking – “All noise and no tunes? No, we have tunes, you just have to come to them, we won’t serve them up to you so easily”. Worth every sore ear.

8. LoneLady - Nerve Up


“Where’s the feckin’ light switch?”

If there’s any downside to the ever expanding cloud of success which has enveloped The xx it’s that they might have occupied too much of the same space as LoneLady to give her a chance of getting heard more widely. Sparse instrumentation, lyrics loaded with abstract emotional punches, and the voice of a vulnerable angel, ingredients which might sound familiar to those who follow the Mercury Music Prize winners, but Julie Campbell is no copyist. LoneLady constructs her songs with just a few pieces, a voice, a guitar or two, some drums. No bass, no fripperies. Just her sparkling cross of minimalistic indie, PJ Harvey and the terse atmospherics of many of the historic totems of Manchester music. Yes, it seems trite to bring her hometown into it, but this really is the most Manchester album released in quite some time, if by Manchester we mean the forward looking Manchester of the early 80s, not the retrogressive lad-rock bilge of the 90s. Deceptively danceable, music made for Julie Campbell by Julie Campbell which conveniently manages to be awesome for those who aren’t Julie Campbell.

9. Caribou - Swim


More mystic bollocks. Seriously, mystics have multicoloured bollocks, check it out next time one flashes you.

Ah, sad dance music. Kind of. Is this really dance music? Sure it can be danced to, but it’s almost a surprise to find it’s not from DFA such is that label’s formula of sad vocals, thumping bass, and arms in the air like you just do care in evidence here. That Dan Snaith decided to give away opener ‘Odessa’ as a free download earlier this year is impressively ballsy as it’s a strong contender for best song of the year and frankly if people won’t pay for something this brilliant then we should abandon money and live in a hole in the ground. Whilst listening to ‘Odessa’, natch. It’s all fairly similar in a sense, hypnotic and rhythmic, songs loop around themselves and wind their way to wistful places where bits of percussion float in and out of hearing on waves of sound. Yes, I know this makes me sound like a wanker, but it really is that good. Songs about divorce and upheaval never sounded so good.

10. Kelis - Fleshtone


Kelis takes her defeat to Janelle Monae in Hat Of The Year stoically.

Hey up, Kelis has discovered dance music. She’s got the chops for it, or specifically the voice for it, her husky tones languidly poured over some good quality dance. This isn’t David Guetta teaming up with some second division American r’n’b diva to do a big poo in your ear canal, this is at times understated, at times thumping tunes for waving your arms around to. There are songs addressed to her newborn which don’t make you wanna throw up (‘Acapella’ although I’ve heard people reckon it’s about God), and even some old school Kelis shouting (‘Emancipate Yourself’). ‘4th Of July’ is certified sultry dancefloor banger, even giving pounding house piano a good going over. Funny how it took an American to show European dance music how to occupy the dancefloor without being diabolical, although I’m not sure it’s quite enough to erase memories of ‘I’ve Got A Feeling’, damn you Black Eyed Peas!


Albums Of 2010 – 11–20

11. Marina And The Diamonds - The Family Jewels


Do you think she thinks she’s sexy? Is she?

Self referencing in the first song on your debut album? That takes some stones, and Marina Diamandis would appear to have those. Diamonds in fact. Whilst not the best pure pop album of the year (it’s two, maybe three tracks too long), this is a good debut made by someone unafraid to be both pop and smart. Clever clever wordplay, some of Kate Bush’s best vocal tics, and a great way with a song, she’ll wind up some, but for fans of pop with personality this is a definite album of the year (in years where Robyn doesn’t release records).

12. Delphic - Acolyte


Defy the smoking ban, get dropped from a building.

You know what, I couldn’t be bothered being clever clever and not referencing Manchester when talking about LoneLady, and I’m not going to try here. This sounds like a modern take on New Order. I bloody love New Order. And in parts I bloody love this. Yeah, like other albums here, it’s a bit too long and could lose a track or two, but my goodness they have some bangers up their sleeves. The only weak point is the slightly nondescript vocals, but when so many of the songs make you wanna swoosh your arms around why complain?

13. Yeasayer - Odd Blood


Horrible 80s graphics are horrible.

Confession, I really didn’t wanna like Yeasayer. They looked like twats and were pretentious as hell in interviews. But they’ve also made an album which dared to take all the worst bits of 80s music – slap bass, bad drum production, over emoting vocals – and make a good album from it. Loping and louche, it doesn’t seem to care how cheesy it is in parts, which is pretty much how you should revive the 80s, shamelessly.

14. Fan Death - Womb Of Dreams


Hmm, elephants do have very long pregnancies, it’s true.

It’s not often that NME’s habit of saying all new bands sound like x + y (and yes I am aware that I’ve already done an x + y comparison in this post) but they actually managed to get it spot on with Fan Death = Florence And The Machine + Hercules And Love Affair. It’s disco night down the goth club, and all the girls in floaty lace dresses are singing paeans to lost or impossible love (one song’s about Jesus and Pilate’s wife, but not in a blasphemous way) over stomping disco beats and stabby disco strings. Tastefully groovy.

15. Holly Miranda - The Magician’s Private Library


Why are you sleeping? We have Stella Artois for you.

Girl sings swoonsome modern folk songs as walls of sounds ebb and flow? Possibly, but it’s also quicker to say girl sings TV On The Radio songs. Ok, so Ms Miranda wrote these herself, but with Dave Sitek’s producer paws all over, this is a TV On The Radio album in many ways. What Holly Miranda has going for her is a willingness to let Sitek be a dictator and infuse her songs with a hum that is at times sad-happy (‘Forest Green, Oh Forest Green’, apparently not about the non-league football club), sad-sexy (‘No One Just Is’, the album highlight with its eastern strings), and sad-sad (pretty much everything else). She has a great voice and some great friends.

16. LCD Soundsystem - This Is Happening


James Murphy can also defy gravity.

Why mess with the formula when you’ve cracked it? Sure, this isn’t as good as its two predecessors, but I would be using the fingers of just one hand if I had to list albums from this century which are better than Sound Of Silver. Instead James Murphy serves up more of the same where the same is brilliant dance music, wry lyrics, and occasional doses of dancefloor heartbreak where hearts are broken not by partners but by the sheer elation of waving your arms in the air until you have to leave. And with that LCD Soundsystem leave us. Sniff.

17. Two Door Cinema Club - Tourist History


Generic indie band 2010 imagery #1 – a bloody cat.

TDCC don’t do anything revolutionary, and if their influence list includes anything beyond Franz Ferdinand, The Futureheads and Bloc Party then they’re lying. But they just so happen to write really good songs. Simple 00s style indie, it is probably easy to hate if you don’t rate the hit-hat friendly rhythms and wiry guitars, but I like that sort of thing when it’s good, and this is. ‘I Can Talk’ is one of the songs of the year, fact.

18. School Of Seven Bells - Disconnect From Desire


Runic bollocks. No really, they look like bollocks.

Swooshy guitars and punchier percussion than last time around, this isn’t a great leap forward, more a purposeful step in the direction of yet more lush soundscapes and indeed Lush soundscapes (mid 90s indie, not lovely soaps, duh). And if it occasionally sounds less like those mystical shoegaze and more like Donna Lewis’s ‘I Love You Always Forever’ http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O7NV52UApGY (I’m looking at you ‘I L U’) then that’s grand, a lazy summer afternoon in album form. Nice.

19. Skream - Outside The Box


FACE!

Have I got this wrong? Am I supposed to like Magnetic Man more? Well I don’t. I do like that album, but this one’s just a bit more engaging, especially the superb run of tracks at the end taking in ‘Listening To The Records On My Wall’ and ‘Finally’, the latter being one of the best things La Roux has done. Ok there’s no Katie B, but she’s only on a couple of Magnetic Man’s tracks anyway.

20.Beach House – Teen Dream


Zebras, Elton John style.

Bare with me on this as I admit now I might well be wrong. This could be much better than this placing. I came to it late, but it’s lovely, all dreamy but with hints of steel underneath. And Victoria Legrand has a great voice, which raises it where sometimes it feels like it might float away. So yeah, perhaps with more time I’d have placed this higher up. Sorry. Despite all evidence to the contrary I can’t listen to everything. Sadface. (A same conundrum exists with Janelle Monae’s album, which also sounds quite fab but which I need more time with).


December 29, 2010

Albums Of 2010 – 21–30

21. La Roux and Major Lazer – Lazerproof


Ripping off Iron Man is the quickest way to good artwork.

Huh, a remix album mashing up La Roux’s debut with Major Lazer’s arsenal of sounds, raps and tunes? Well yes, and it’s better than the sum of its parts. No really, sticking together the two has produced mashups like ‘Keep It Fascinating’ which are less shrill but still tense and nervy. Plus it can be downloaded for free – http://sub.maddecent.com/lazerproof/

22. Blood Red Shoes – Fire Like This


That’s a lot of hair gel.

In pretty much the same way as their debut, Fire Like This shows Blood Red Shoes only really have one trick, but it’s a good one. Frantic guitars and drums, you wonder what they have to do which is so urgent that everything has to be played at breakneck speed. Is the oven on? No idea, but the wide eyed mayhem of ‘Don’t Ask’ and ‘Heartsink’ rush along with glee regardless.

23. KT Tunstall – Tiger Suit


Washed out photo = srs bsns.

Confession: I’ve been hoping for this album for a good while. Y’see ever since that performance on ‘Later…’ I’ve suspected that Ms Tunstall has had a genuinely good album in her. Not a whimsical female singer-songwriter-fest as with both her previous albums. She’s got a great voice, and seemed in touch with the idea of looping and fiddling with her acoustic sounds. So rejoice, here’s an album which is 66.67% what I’ve been waiting for! Ok, it tails off a bit into mimsying, but the opening barrage of tracks – ‘Uumannaq Song’, ‘Push That Knot Away’ and ‘Fade Like A Shadow’ in particular – are punchy and danceable whilst still being largely acoustic. Nice one growly-voice girl.

24. M.I.A. – /\/\ /\ Y /\


M.I.A. is watching you watching Newport on repeat.

Hmm, it’s a bit like the LCD Soundsystem record again, listening to this I cannot help but think “The previous albums were better”. Still, in ‘XXXO’ she has an electro pop anthem which Gaga, Rihanna et al would kill for, and the balls to leave it unattended on an album of shouty noise pop (‘Born Free’) and unexpected shifts in gear. It’s disjointed but worth the effort. ‘Space’ is pure beauty.

25. Hundred In The Hands – Hundred In The Hands


Did you let a child fingerpaint over your photo again?

It happened again! Another late one, but this is lovely stuff, a little bit Fan Death, a little bit Warpaint, a little bit Beach House, it’s girly voiced indie but with a wide ranging remit and a strong melodic touch. And lastfm justifies its existence with one recommendation. I’m listening right now, in fact.

26. Everything Everything – Man Alive


Oh shit, that fox is about to get run over!

Why so low? I was a bit disappointed with this album. Having caught them live a couple of times and been very very impressed with the rush of ideas and silly vocals, and then hearing the brill singles ‘Suffragette Suffragette’ and ‘My Keys, Your Boyfriend’, it was a bit of a shame that the album seemed to lack… something. Hard to say what really. Individually most of the songs are strong, ‘Photoshop Handsome’ is hilarious, so it’s not a bad album. Oh well, best just see them live again.

27. Janelle Monae – The ArchAndroid


Hat of the year.

As I mentioned, I think this is probably a lot better then its placing suggests but I am, for shame, a late comer to it. Forgive me. On the other hand it means I do get to listen to it now, with its rich imagery and captivating variety of styles. ‘Cold War’ is great too. Give me time. For now be reassured that it sounds good on first listen and we should all stick to it. It’s about robots, forcrissakes, it cannot be bad.

28. Fight Like Apes - The Body Of Christ And The Legs Of Tina Turner


With a title like that the cover could have been totally shit and it wouldn’t have mattered…

I didn’t really like this when I first heard it, it felt like a disappointment after the debut. My main complaint was that all the songs sounded like two tracks off that debut – ‘Tie Me Up With Jackets’ and ‘Battlestations’. Of course all I needed to do was remember that those two tracks are ace, and an album of sound-a-likes, whilst not as good as the debut, was still good enough for me. And that’s the best album title of the year, nay ever. Ever.

29. Jonsi – Go


Technicolour dandruff.

In which he… sings in English. It feels so wrong, the elves shouldn’t be singing in the same tongue as Liam Gallagher. Ah well, here’s a bunch of songs which sound like Sigur Ros speeded up, right down to being slightly higher pitched than those roaring postrock guitars. It’s all very sparkly, if a little lightweight, but good fun all the same. Put it on your ipod when you so to Mt Doom to dispose of troublesome rings.

30 Salem – King Night


Possibly trying too hard.

It’s hard to listen to more than a few tracks without the dark sludginess leaving you in need of some light, but if for no other reason than the title track this is worth dipping your toe into the darkness for. Vocals rinsed through a million evil effects, everything slowed down to a lurch. Embrace the darkness, if only for a track or two at a time. Rarr.


December 10, 2010

Higher education funding

So the vote is through the commons, and it’s likely that future students of higher education will have to pay up to £9,000 a year in fees. Student bodies have of course opposed this, with predominantly their own self interests at heart. Yet no-one really seems to have an alternative. So what really is the protest about?

Let’s look at the problem. Higher education is expensive, and needs to be paid for somehow. Traditionally, this funding (for UK students at least) has predominantly come from the government. In past times where student numbers were low, this was a sustainable model – the brightest and best went to university whilst everyone else got by with O-Levels, A-Levels, HND’s etc. Then it all started to go wrong with the drive to increase student numbers. In an attempt to fund the previous government’s frankly ridiculous target of sending 50% of people to univesity, in came tuition fees to much protest. Initially around £1,000 and then raised to the current £3,000 a year cap, much has been made of this fairly modest contribution by students to their education.

Now, the party is over and the public money has run out. The UK, like many western economies, has built up a massive debt and deficit, which must be curbed in order to avoid economic catastrophe. Most areas of public spending must come down in order to achieve this, and higher education must do its bit. What previously was seen as a right to free education for all now looks like a luxury that we can’t afford. With the numbers of people now attending universities, the lines must be redrawn.

So, the question really is, why is it everyone’s right to free university education? Free education up to the age of 18, few would argue with. But by the age of 18, young people are perfectly well equipped to go forth and start work, learn a trade or a profession. University has traditionally been the route for those who wish to take on the most challenging careers in law, medicine, science or academia. These career paths demand abilities and skills that require academic learning beyond the A-Level stage. The principle beneficiaries of these educated people are the students themselves, who go on to command higher than average wages, and the instituions that employ them.

Aha, you are probably thinking at this point, but not everyone who goes to university does benefit financially. Well no, I wouldn’t dispute that. That’s because many people who go to university now don’t actually need their degrees to go on and perform the jobs they take on in society. But as the number of graduates exceeds the demand, employers can be picky and selective, giving preference to or even making a requirement that applicants have degrees that they don’t really need for their jobs. What we have is an over-qualified workforce.

Some of you will still be thinking that my arguments exclude those whose chosen profession really does need a degree, but leads to low paid work, for example in social work. My own opinion is that in a lot of cases, we should be exploring alternatives to the degree for such work – such as a system of work-based learning and part time study at further education college, which if well designed could lead us to have even better suited people in these professions than the academic degree route. The fundamental point is though, that any profession that requires a degree but isn’t offering the wages to pay for the tuition fees is receiving a public subsidy by the government, because they are not paying out for the level of education they need in their staff.

The current system is such that all professions essentially receive this subsidy. By increasing the fees charged to students, the true cost of higher education is being made more visible to students and their eventual employers. For many, their profession values their qualification as it should and it is only fair that as a well paid professional they should have to pay for the benefit of the education that they received, which is now providing them with a quantifiable financial benefit, and their employer is paying for the cost through their higher than average wages. If this is not the case, then that profession is receiving a subsidy and this should be achieved through alternate means, either by the government increasing wages for low paid public sector professionals who are in genuine need of a degree, or by directly subsidising the fees of students who take up these courses with a commitment to public sector work upon graduation. By having to pay what it actually costs, students will also re-evaluate whether they really need a degree to do their chosen profession, and in time student numbers will probably naturally come down a little from their current levels. This is the nature of supply and demand; to argue against this is to argue for the state to subsidise an over-qualified and under-paid workforce, which is a nonsence.

Many of you reading this will find my justification for tuition fees as abhorrent as the fees themselves. But what are the alternatives? Well, I see three main alternatives:

  1. Carry on as we are, keep fees at current levels or even reduce and abolish them. State subsidy for higher education will increase, the workforce will continue to be over-qualified for the jobs that they do, the government finances take the hit and other areas of public spending have to take a bigger hit to compensate for the spending. Not an ideal option in my opinion.
  2. Reduce student numbers and make higher education more academically exclusive, limiting to say the top 25% of achievers. I’d support this as an alternative, but many wouldn’t – not least the NUS would have a seizure. It also doesn’t have the neat supply/demand and visible true cost of education benefits that fees do, and the government still has to pick up the tab for those who go.
  3. Have a graduate tax. This isn’t actually any different to tuition fees loans for most people, except that you’d have to pay tax for your whole career instead of just paying back what you borrowed for your education. Thus, the best paid professions would be subsidising the least well paid professions. This option is attractive to liberal types, presumably because they see it as a great way of bashing corporate high fliers to subsidise a utopian dream of university eduaction free for all. The reality of this system is little different for all but the highest paid, who are effectively being actively encouraged to pay for their education elsewhere before returning to the UK for work, thus neatly avoiding having to pay the tax in the first place. Has little merit over fees in my opinion, whilst adding some flaws.

Of these options, clearly my view is that higher fees are likely to become a permanent feature of higher education, and rightly so. The idea that poor students will be deterred by going to university because of the debts shows either a fundamental misunderstanding of the terms of the loans – paid off by the state after 30 years, only paid back when earning over a very comfortable threshold, not a commercial loan in the strictest sense – or a liberal belligerence that refuses to accept that good quality higher education costs serious amounts of cash, and it’s not on for the government to indefinitely fork out for their benefit.


December 09, 2010

A Letter To My MP

I just wrote a letter to my Liberal Democrat MP, John Leech, who today voted against the tuition fee bill. I am glad he did, glad he kept his promises, and heartened that in his speech on the matter – he recognised that education can benefit the country as well as the individual, and that large amounts of debt are a bad thing. I wrote the letter for two reasons, one to communicate my pleasure that my representative in Parliament did as he said he would in order to get my vote, and secondly because I want to know where he goes from here. I want to know what those Lib Dems who kept their promises are thinking. I don’t know if I will get a response, but I thought it worth a try.

Dear John,

First of all I wish to congratulate you on sticking your election promise, and recognising that the raising of tuition fees in conjunction with the massive cuts to university funding will harm this country on many levels, leaving the young of today facing obscene amounts of debt, hurting our institutions’ abilities to deliver world class teaching and research, and damaging the knowledge economy which remains probably the only thing this country truly excels at now the financial sector has been shown up as a house built on false promises.

It is encouraging also to see that not all politicians will sacrifice their promises, and by extension their electorate, at the first sniff of power.

However I would like to ask a question – how can you continue to be a part of a party some of whose leaders and members have shown themselves to be spineless and treacherous? As things stand, despite my admiration for your stance, I do not feel able to vote for the Liberal Democrats ever again. The trust is gone, and whilst individuals such as yourself have shown that there are those who will keep their promises, I feel distinctly uncomfortable that my vote in a way helped contribute to the passing of a policy which I think is wrong by giving the Liberal Democratsthe clout in Parliament to form this coalition with the Conservatives which has clearly turned the heads of a large number of your colleagues.

How do you intend to proceed knowing your leader is new widely, and in my view correctly, viewed as a two-faced liar? What reassurances, if any, can you offer your constituents about your future stances and that of the Liberal Democrats? If this party is asking you to vote against what you think is right, and you are willing to defy your leadership on a matter they deem to be crucial, can you see yourself continuing as a Liberal Democrat MP?

I do respect what you have done on this matter, which why I feel able to write this letter to you as I think your vote shows you are one of the Liberal Democrats still willing to listen to the people who elected them in the first place.

Kindest regards,
Holly


December 07, 2010

The Rules Of Cricket

My dear friend and lover of such things as knitting, ATP and cricket, Ms Dawn has been following the Ashes with me on my short-thought page (www.twitter.com/Hollyzone) and would like me write up a guide to the rules of cricket seeing as my explanations on the short-thought page were so enlightening or something. So here are the rules of cricket.
 
By “cricket”, I do of course mean International Test Cricket! This is the longest form of cricket and can take up to five days to complete a match, after which there will always be a winner, even if that winner is the weather and not one of the team playing. Other forms of cricket include:
  • County Cricket – look at the word “county”, it’s like “country” but small, and this applies in County Cricket which is only allowed to last up to four days, unlike International Test Cricket’s five, because countries are bigger than counties and deserve more attention (warning, do not point out that the county of West Yorkshire is bigger than actual countries like Lichtenstein or the powers that be will leak all your embarrassing photos to Wikileaks).
  • One Day Cricket – this lasts one day, except it actually only last half a day because 24 hour cricket would be hard on the cricketers who are clearly made of less organised and stern stuff than, say, racing drivers who can manage 24 hours at Le Mans.
  • 20/20 Cricket – this form of cricket is hated by purists, and is rather like 5-a-side football except without the bunching and people running into walls.
     
    The rules of International Test Cricket are pretty easy to follow.

The Pitch

The pitch is big and green. This is because it is covered in grass. The grass serves two purposes, it is cheap, and it makes hilarious stains on the cricketers’ white clothes so you can identify which cricketer has done the most spectacular diving/sliding catches.

In the middle is the Main Bit. This is where most of the stuff happens. At each end of the Main Bit is a pile of twigs with a small and very important twig placed on top. The teams will take it in turns to defend these twig piles. If the very important top twig falls off bad things will happen.

Cricket appears to involve breaks for tea. I am unsure if this means a cuppa or an evening meal. It also has a lunch break. These are clearly signs of civilisation.

There are two teams. They each take it in turns it to throw balls and hit the balls with sticks.


From the BBC – the Blimey Bouncing Cricket people.

The cricketers with sticks each stand in front of a twig pile. This means only two at a time get to be on the pitch and shows the importance of patience in the modern cricketer, although these days the other members of the team are probably playing FIFA or Halo on their X Boxes. This seems plausible as sometimes the TV camera will pan to the side of the pitch and you’ll see three of them sat there, pretending the rest have nipped inside for a pie and will be back any minute.

The other team then spread out across the whole pitch. There lots of names to describe the bits of the pitch, like Silly Mid Off, which sound so obviously made up that you suspect it’s all a joke. Suffice to say if they think the stick man has strong arms they will stand far away, whereas weaklings they will stand near. Sometimes they will make nasty comments to the stick man. This is called sledging which makes sense as sledging, luge, bobsleigh and skeleton are the sports most likely to induce swearing in those who practice them (“I’m sliding down a hill at 100mph, chin first…. SHIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIT!”).

One of the spread out team gets to throw the ball at the stick man. If he takes a very long run up he is a Fast Bowler even though his throws will take much longer than a short run up, or Slow Bowler, and so the game will not proceed very fast after all. There is a good explanation for this but it involves physics and the Large Hadron Collider.

The Scoring System

  1. You get 1pt for a mad, arm flailing, run from one set of upright twigs to the other. If you run back again you get 2pts, and so on. In theory you can run infinitely, but the throwing team don’t normally allow this unless they have been bribed by a dodgy betting syndicate (this only happens in about 30% of matches).
  2. You get 4pts if you express your disgust at the commercialisation of the sport by hitting the ball into an advertising board.
  3. You get 6pts if you give demonstrate a socialist attitude and liberate the balls from the grips of the authorities by hitting it to a pleb.
  4. You can also score 1pt if the thrower has a Victorian style attack of the vapours and hurls the ball in the wrong place, like America.


This man did not score enough points and nor did his friends. Sadface.

Unlike in rounders you don’t score a half rounder if the thrower guesses your height wrong and throws the ball at your knee/face.

Out

The stick men continue until they are out. There are over eight million ways to get out but these are the recognised ones. The other ways are kept secret for fear knowledge of them could destroy the world as we know it.

  1. Knocking the very important top twig off the twig pile. If you hit it with your stick or the other team hit it with their ball then you are deemed not sufficiently caring of the twigs to continue. This happens a lot when people run with their arms flailing wildly but the ball reaches their destination pile of twigs first. This is because balls travel faster than humans so one must deceive the ball and convince it one is not going to run rather than risk a flat race.
  2. When a field cricketer catches a ball hit by the stick man then the stick man is out as it’s probably not safe to hit a ball so close to a person, someone could get hurt.)
  3. LBW – no one knows what the letters mean but they are believed to relate to the practice of putting one’s leg before the wicket and letting the ball hit it. The leg is not a stick and should not be used as one. Stop it. Now.
  4. Hitting the ball twice with your stick will get you out. Kind of like volleyball, but fewer tiny shorts.
  5. Taking more than three minutes to get ready to face the thrower. This is common at junior level as it helps weed out youngsters who would be better off playing football as they will take over three minutes to gel their hair, adjust their snood and have an affair with a team mate’s wife.
  6. If the stick man handles the ball they are out. Why they would do this when they have a nice stick is unclear but it takes all sorts. People who do this should be redirected to tennis where handling the balls is acceptable and the balls are fluffy and nicer to touch.


It is not a requirement to look like you’ve shat yourself when you catch a ball.

Winning

When a team is all out, i.e. ten out of eleven of them have managed to fanny it up by doing one of the things above, then the other team gets to use the sticks. Sometimes a team with a really big score might decide to let the other team bat without all getting out – this is called Declaring and is basically the stick team saying “Your turn now” but in a really condescending way.

Each team gets two goes unless time runs out in which case the sun goes supernova and we all die. The team with the most points wins. This isn’t normally the end as there will probably be several games in the series and it’s important to win at least two of these, although five is best. If you win all five this is a Whitewash which is good because it means you can get all the grass stains out of your clothes.

These are the rules of cricket. Now go forth and care about it, at least for as long as England are any good.


November 29, 2010

Ferrero Rocher's New Advertising Campaign

I should work in advertising… or not…