No Such Thing As Free Advice

January 16th, 2017

This  is more related to business than the usual vague music and culture thing I’d blog about but I’m wary about putting it on my business site because….. well you never know. It’s nice to see that Birmingham appears to have achieved something in having one of the greatest increases in business start ups in the country. It’s always tricky to figure out whether these accolades are real or something the City has paid for purely for publicity. I’m happy to accept it on face value, after all, being the largest municipal area in terms of population then you would expect it have high levels of business start ups.

This is a warning to those people in that start up phase. At some point in your business development you will begin to engage with networks made up of other people in similar positions and a range of “business support organisations”. Many of these people purporting to provide business support are public sector organisations that will claim they can support you to find the right people in the public sector, or at the very least pass on their experience.

The public sector can be a confusing mess to people that haven’t been indoctrinated in the peculiar procurement rules that are often attached to contract opportunities. Help and support to navigate unfamiliar organisations is obviously welcome. Unfortunately these offers are frequently not what they seem.

Many of  the organisations providing this help and support are contracted via the European Regional Development fund who will reimburse them for the time they spend with you. The usual model for this is that you get invited to a lengthy presentation where vague allusions are provided to the level of support you can obtain. You will then be invited to a meeting where you can explain what you do. At that point you will be asked to sign a form agreeing that you’ve been given a certain level of support. Usually this is calculated on the length of the presentation and the meeting. On some occasions I’ve seen just a couple of meetings calculated at over £1000 worth of support.

Most SMEs are quite happy to sign this, on the face of it there is no loss to them. The support organisation can then claim the money for support back from the EU. Usually that’s the last help and support you will receive. You might get an email every  now and then trying to sell you training but nothing particularly tangible. In subsequent years you might be asked to go through the whole process again.

You might ask why this is a problem. It doesn’t cost the businesses much other than their time. You might actually benefit from the networking opportunities. What many businesses don’t realise is that there is a cap on how much funding you can get from the EU for these sort of things. If your business reaches its cap, signing it away to “business support organisations”, then it will not be able to apply for proper support that might be available in the future.

So, if you run an SME and get invited to one of these events; make sure you are fully aware of what you end up signing at the end of the meeting. It might be a nice little earner for the organisations apparently  providing support but it could have consequences for your business.

Posted in Birmingham, Misc | Comments (2)

Best Albums of 2016

December 13th, 2016

Well that was a year wasn’t it? A proper shit show as far as small minded politics and the fragile mortality of light entertainers goes. But a good year for albums, a very good year for albums. I’ve bought 125 albums that were released this year, more than any year I can remember. I’ve kept a track of the ones available via Spotify on my 2016 playlist, it’s a nice eight and a half hour trip through 2016.

Besides the albums this year’s been a personal musical odyssey through playing the ukulele at proper gigs and festivals with Moselele, to playing the banjo in public with We Ain’t from Alabama and releasing an album of my own stuff. My album didn’t make it into my top ten.

I managed to fairly easily filter 125 albums down to a top ten. So here you go, my favourite albums of 2016 in reverse order (Including links where available).

10) The Lemon Twigs – Do Hollywood – It’s difficult to write anything about The Lemon Twigs without having to mention how young they are or that they sound like a cross between The Beach Boys and The Beatles. It’s a shame, neither of these things really make a difference to how good this album is. I’d say this album owes more to Foxygen than many of the bands from the 70s that spring to mind. The Foxygen link isn’t such a leap as the album is produced by Jonathan Rado. One day The Lemon Twigs will have their quirkiness produced out of them and they’ll become a massive band for it, listen to this now while you can.

09) Ty Segall – Emotional Mugger – There’s no Spotify link to this album, Ty Segall seems to specialise in making his albums really hard to buy. You can probably find it on iTunes if you do that sort of thing. I’ve grown to love Ty Segall, his first few albums came across as a shambolic version of Hawkwind when they were a bit folky. That’s fine but I couldn’t be bothered to listen to them. This album has followed on from Manipulator, sounding very much like Marc Bolan. An angry Marc Bolan who hasn’t got time for songs about wizards and swans. I’ve seen this album described as “garage punk” and it does have a feel of something that they only had a day to make it and weren’t too bothered about how clean it sounds.

08) Black Peaches –  Get Down You Dirty Rascals – Black Peaches were formed by Rob Smoughton, the drummer from Hot Chip and Scritti Politti. I mention that because it makes it all the more surprising that this is a guitar album all the way through. Epic guitar solos over swirling electronic pianos and no fear of a seven minute song. There is a hint of the Allman Brothers in there. This is something that came up through Spotify’s Discover Weekly, thanks Spotify. Anyway, it sounds nothing like either Hot Chip or Scritti Politti.

07) The  Avalanches – Wildflower – It’s an album that everyone waited sixteen years for. Based on the hype I’d decided I wasn’t going to like it. I was wrong, it’s a great album. Unmistakably The Avalanches and, surprisingly, that still works.

06)  Venetian Snares – Traditional Synthesizer Music – I thought I’d put electronic music behind me at the turn of the Century. Apparently I haven’t. As I’ve spent a lot of the year mucking about with synthesisers I’ve noticed I’ve started listening to more stuff made with synthesisers. I’m probably looking for stuff to steal. This is Venetian Snares’ twenty third album and the first one I’ve listened to. Crazy time signatures and improvised analogue synths, this is sometimes hard to listen to I can’t stop going back to it. I’d try and nick something like this but every time I listen to it I’ve not got a clue what is going on.

05)  Anna Meredith – Varmints – Anna Meredith is apparently the composer in residence for the Scottish Symphony Orchestra and this album won the Scottish Album of the year award for 2016 (thanks Wikipedia). I’d go along with that, it’s easily the best Scottish album I’ve heard this year. What is the line between being a classical composer and programming stuff on synths? There’s probably a proper answer to that but this sounds like electronica to me. Especially as it uses that bass sound that goes wub wub wub.

04)  The Comet is Coming – Channel the Spirits – This album should have one the Mercury prize this year. It’s got everything from Sun Ra, to the Orb, to Fela Kuti in there. It makes no sense that this is just three people. There should be ten of them. I have listened to more jazz this year than ever before (and I used to listen to a lot of jazz). The Comet is Coming seems to be part of a trend to incorporate Afrobeat and electronic stuff together. I like that as a trend.

03)  Childish Gambino – “Awaken, My Love!” – Through out 2016 Donald Glover seems to have always been there doing things. Atlanta was easily the stand out TV series of the year but he still found time to make one of the best albums of the year. If George Clinton were dead then this album would be channelling him. As he’s not I think it’s a safe bet that Donald Glover really likes Parliament/Funkadelic, and so do I. It’s not a straight rip off, there are elements of early N.E.R.D in there. It’s just a great album and a real surprise having only been released a few weeks ago.

02)  Yussef Kamaal – Black Focus – I know nothing about Yussef Kamaal other than just looking them up. Two blokes from London, apparently, who play piano and programme drums. It’s another one where I don’t really know if it’s jazz or not. I want to say it is but there is so much of it that sounds like dance music. Usually when I have that sort of difficulty (pigeon holing things into genre) I play it someone that doesn’t like jazz and they tell me quite firmly that it is jazz. As I’ve been writing these I’ve noticed that I’ve stopped listening to things with words in.

01)  King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard – Nonagon Infinity – So, my album of 2016 is Nonagon Infinity. I knew this from the first time I listened to it. There seems to have been a resurgence of prog rock this year. At least I’ve bought a lot more of it than I was expecting, though this is the only obvious prog rock album that has stood out. This is basically one really really long song that is utterly relentless. Relentless to the point that if you listen to it on a loop it seamlessly goes from the last song back into the first. You can listen to it forever. This was also my standout gig of the year. When I first listened to this I thought there was no chance this could ever be recreated live, as it turns out it can. It can also be recreated live in a small pub down the road from me. Go and see them if they ever come back to the UK or, at the very least, listen to this album.

That’s my top ten albums of 2016.

There was one other album that I would have included but I think deserves to stand on its own. David Bowie’s Blackstar was easily one of the best albums of the year. Not just because it was an epitaph to his career, it stood up on it’s own as a great album for the few days we got to listen to it before we knew he died. It’s not often that someone gets to sum their career up so concisely and it’s not often that someone can make an album that sets the theme of many of the albums that I listen to for a year. Blackstar seamlessly incorporated jazz into typical Bowie songs and the crossover of jazz into other music has been the thing of 2016. This is a great thing.

As usual this is the point where I start to find out the hundreds of albums that I’ve missed this year.

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Is there an ethical basis for ignoring the Brexit result?

June 29th, 2016

flagsI’m not proposing a middle class revolution but I do wonder if there is an ethical basis for ignoring the EU Referendum result. So that’s my question, is there?

I’ve read many different blog posts setting out the potential legal hoops that might be brought into play to either avoid or hinder the leaving process. These don’t sit comfortably with me, as a process was put in place and ignoring it on a technicality seems anti-democratic. I’m also not a great fan of the second referendum petition, just because asking the same question over and over again until you get the right answer will only feed into the divide in this country.

Protecting the democratic process is essential if we hope that people will engage with it in the future. Whatever many people believe about the current constitutional arrangements, the UK Parliament is sovereign and it created this situation.

As far as full disclosure goes, I did vote to stay in the EU. I have a business that depends on remaining in the customs union. It doesn’t look like any new model will allow that to continue so I’ve got a high vested interest.

Where does an ethical objection to the result lie? Seventeen million people have expressed an instruction that we leave the EU. Although a small majority, it is a majority and, without the safeguards more sensible countries would put on an issue of constitutional significance, it should stand.

The ethical dimension to this is based around the question of whether those seventeen million people all voted for the same thing. It is clear that leaving the EU covers a wide number of options. Remaining in the European Economic Area, accepting free movement of people, contributing to the EU budget and being bound by EU legislation is one option. Being completely removed from the EU and limited access to the single market is another. There are other variations that might be negotiated that sit somewhere between those two.

Will any of those options satisfy all of the seventeen million people who have voted to leave? Does the simple interpretation of the vote mean that any situation where we do not take part in the decision making process of the EU satisfy the majority?

Once we progress to the formal process of leaving, what do we do if negotiations throw up a situation which does not satisfy the 52% of the country that voted to leave? Some will not tolerate continued free movement, some will not accept restricted access to the single market and some will not accept being bound by EU legislation. I can’t envisage a situation where all three of those conditions exist. We’ve been told repeatedly that there is no option where those three conditions will exist.

An example I can think of is fishing. Going through all of this just to find you out you end up in the EEA with the same quotas but no influence over policy is surely not what they want.

To an extent I’m assuming that any negotiated situation is not going to satisfy the 48% who expressed a desire to remain in the EU decision making progress.

The upshot is that unless a perfect solution is negotiated then a significant majority of the country are not going to be satisfied.

A number of people have raised the proposition of a second referendum once we know the negotiated future. I have some issues with that proposal. As far as I can see, in all of the opinion of the Article 50 process to leave the EU, there is no way to go back once it is invoked. Once implemented we do leave. It’s just about how we leave.

If a negotiated solution comes out of the Article 50 process, and is put us in a new referendum, then not accepting it probably won’t mean returning to business as usual. It is likely to mean the most extreme separation from the EU with limited access to the single market.

I don’t have any answers to this and just pose it as a question. Will the implementation of the referendum result actually cause a high level of dissatisfaction with the majority? Does that matter and do we need to implement the referendum irrespective of the future situation?

I do know this is the most desperate of liberal appeals to logic and as a result don’t see it as mattering one way or the other. I think the referendum result will be implemented as it stands, the title isn’t really much more than click bait to be honest.

Having said that I would be really interested to hear from people who did vote to leave on how they see their interests developing through a negotiated future, and how competing interests can be satisfied.

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What are the benefits of the EU?

June 11th, 2016

world-1264062_640One of the consistent things I keep seeing about the EU referendum is that there is a lack of people setting out what the benefits of staying in the EU are. I think there are a number of things that affect this. There’s an assumption that people understand what is already in front of them. Though we should be aware that, as a nation, we do make a point of not really understanding what is going on. But also because people gravitate towards the negative.

I thought I’d have a go at listing some things that are really beneficial to us as part of the EU. Not all of them have an impact on us as individuals but they do have an impact on us as a country.

 

Medicine – We’re members of the European Medicines Agency. Incidentally it’s based in London so is very much a part of us. This is a great thing. The EMA evaluates pharmaceuticals for use across the EU. This makes mass production of medicine easier and cheaper. If you don’t need to be authorised in every country within the EU then putting medicine into production is much much quicker. This also provides us a benefit in early access to new types of medicine. Pharmaceutical companies like to test the viability of any drug in a part of the market. The NHS provides an easy way to carry out testing so the UK is a good place to start before drugs are rolled out to the rest of the EU.

Getting Ill – Have you ever been ill when you’re on holiday? Accessing medical services in other countries can be massively expensive. Don’t go to the US without insurance. As part of the EU we have access to the European Health Insurance Card (EHIC). If you become ill in an EU country then you get access to healthcare.

Education – As we’re in the EU we have access to the Erasmus Programme. This annual 14 billion Euro programme pays for our students to go and live, work and learn in other countries. It supports education and training programmes across the EU. There is an obvious benefit in us learning how other countries work if we want to sell stuff to them.

Free Movement – All of the EU debate that I’ve seen so far has focussed on free movement of people being purely about immigration. That completely forgets the other part of it that means any of us can go and live anywhere in the EU. Any of us can go and buy property in any EU country and live in it or just go and visit it. This also means that if everything gets really bad in this country then we can go and work somewhere else in the EU. Remember in the 70s and 80s when we lurched from one recession to another and people from the UK went to work in Germany?

Manufacturing – Membership of the EU has enabled the UK to take part in building things like Euro Fighter, alright it might be a bit obsolete these days but it’s unlikely any single EU member would be able to construct anything as complex these days. One of our key manufacturers is Airbus, the second biggest aircraft manufacturer on the planet. Building planes across the EU has created well paid, high-tech jobs within the UK.

Peace – The EU has played a massive part in maintaining peace in Northern Ireland. The PEACE programme has invested billions of Euros across Northern Ireland and Ireland to give people an incentive to live together.

Space travel – We’re members of the European Space Agency. At the very least this gives us access to blasting satellites into space but it also calls on the expertise of our universities to create really good jobs.

Science – In the EU we’re part of the Horizon 2020 programme. Over seven years this will invest 80 billion Euros to bring scientists and industry together to invent things.

Culture and Art – As part of the EU we are a member of Creative Europe. This is 1.4 billion Euro programme to fund art and culture. You know all those films you’ve seen with the EU stars at the end? They were funded through programmes like this.

Volunteering – Did you know that any person aged between 18 and 30 can go and do voluntary work for up to a year in any EU country? Well the European Voluntary Service will fund them to do it if that’s what they want to do.

Development – European Regional Development Fund was set up because the UK demanded it as a condition of joining the EU in 1972. The fund targets the poorest areas of the EU and invests in them. The UK has many areas that are amongst the poorest areas of the EU so we tend to get a lot of investment from the ERDF.

There is a comprehensive list of ERDF funded projects here.

Buying things – Have you ever bought anything from Amazon? It just turns up doesn’t it. You have no idea where in the EU it might have come from and there is no reason why you should. On the other hand, try buying something from the US or even Norway. More than likely you will get an extra bill where a courier company has randomly calculated how much customs duty is due and then holds it to ransom until you pay up. Being part of the EU means we don’t have to worry about customs duty.

These are all really positive things and they are the result of us deciding to pool our resources with nearly half  a billion other people.

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Sovereignty

May 17th, 2016

As the EU Referendum gets closer  the one point of  contention that is most irritating me is the question of sovereignty. One of the main platforms of the Leave campaign is the insistence that membership of the European Union has meant that the UK has somehow reduced sovereignty and lost the ability to make its own laws. This is just not the case. The fact that the European Union passes laws that we have agreed to be bound by does not diminish our ability to make law or choose which laws are applicable in our country.

To illustrate this I want to use an entirely spurious household analogy. I hate household analogies but they seem to be popular.

In our house, my wife (Emma) and I, have the same conversation on a daily basis. Well really it’s less of a conversation and more of a question, “what are we having for dinner?” In my fantastic analogy, it’s more than possible for me to randomly shout “you sit there, I’ll make dinner”. It could happen.

At  this point I could leap to my feet and cook up a tasty prawn curry. Now I know Emma doesn’t really like prawns which leaves her with a dilemma, she can eat it up, she can tell me she doesn’t like prawns (again) whilst eating it up or just refuse to eat it. In all cases she has maintained her sovereignty to make the final decision whether or not to eat it. In terms of diplomacy it might not be tactful to just refuse to eat it because a consequence might mean I just refuse to ever cook again. That would clearly not be to her long term advantage. On the other hand lodging a protest makes clear she has the option to not eat my lovely prawns and begins the negotiation about eating better food next time

prawnsAs an added complexity if I decided to try out my new method of cooking prawns, warming them on the window sill for a day and then rubbing sauce on them, then it is clearly in her interest to refuse to implement dinner in its present form. In our house we have managed to agree basic common standards in cooking that each of us won’t wilfully poison ourselves or each other. So far it’s worked. Though in the future if I decided to persistently poison my wife she would not be compelled to keep eating dangerous food, her sovereignty means she can decide that the risk of death outweighs the benefits of free dinner.

This is how the European Union works. At any point, as a sovereign nation, we can decide we don’t want to do this any more. In fact the referendum itself is a manifestation of that.

The claim that we have detrimental legislation imposed on us just doesn’t stand up. The majority of legislation that comes from the EU relates to making common standards for trade. For example, in the UK we might hit on an epic ruse to make cheap paint. We could sell loads of it really cheaply if we get kids to make it and pump it full of lead. We know kids like working and poisonous paint isn’t so bad if you hold your breath. This is isn’t a position that the EU agrees with. We decide to go ahead and pass the Kids and Paint Act 2016. Excellent we now have cheap paint and busy kids.

The EU is faced with two options. It can prevent us selling our cheap paint in the rest of the continent. It can also explain to us that the standards of child welfare and not killing decorators is not compatible with EU membership. We then weigh up how much we like cheap paint against the benefits that being a member of the EU brings us. If each time we think being a member of the EU is better than walking off then we stay and we let the EU law take precedence. “We let” is the most important part of that sentence. We as a sovereign state make that decision.

phoneThere are practical reasons why we need standards. Take mobile phones for example. It makes absolute sense for there to be a European wide standard for phones. Even the most ardent Europhobe isn’t suggesting that we shouldn’t be able to talk to our Euro friends. The simplest method to achieving this, is for all European members to agree a standard based on the most benefits and least disbenefits and then pass it into law for all of us, with each having a say in the debate.

The alternative would be for a small group to agree what looks like a good standard and then expect 28 individual parliaments to go away and talk about it and hope we all come back with the same one in a time frame that means we can all start setting up phone masts.

In many cases where trade occurs across borders it makes more sense for us to agree to let another body make decisions for us.

Which raises the issue of laws being imposed on us. As a safeguard to letting the EU pass some laws for us we have put in place a process that they must be passed by elected EU representatives (people we vote for). As an interesting aside the UK actually writes the majority of legislation that passes through the EU parliament, we’re good at it. Equally around 85% of legislation that goes through the EU parliament has historically gone with the UK vote.

PX*2956596That does leave a somewhat smaller percentage where laws we have opposed have been passed. But in reality that is often our own fault. For years now we have made UKIP the largest party that represents the UK in the EU Parliament. They  don’t vote. It’s tricky to get laws passed in your favour if you refuse to take part.

Also the Conservatives some time ago decided to join the far right coalition of parties. It’s difficult to get your view taken seriously in the EU if you’re perceived to be speaking on behalf of the far right.

So to summarise too many words. We choose to let another body pass laws on our behalf  because in the long run it is too our benefit. And we can’t make false claims about legislation being imposed on us just because we decide not to take part in votes.

We are still, and always will be, a sovereign nation.

 

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Where does our tax come from?

April 6th, 2016

taxAs we, rightly, get vexed about the scale of tax avoidance uncovered by the Panama Papers I think it’s about time we turned our attention to the problem with the tax that is paid. Whilst there is clearly an issue with some people earning income within the UK, and shifting it off shore to avoid tax, this is minuscule to the amount of money that is being removed from the developing world. In the decade between 2002 and 2011 it’s estimated that nearly $6 trillion was extracted from developing countries.

That is a staggering amount of money.

All of that money went somewhere. The simplistic story we have about the use of tax havens is that people take money, they don’t want to pay tax on, and it gets squirrelled away into foreign accounts where it just sits there doing nothing. Money never does nothing. Once that money has been”cleaned” it gets legitimately passed through hedge funds and investments vehicles and finds its way back into our economies.

It buys property in London propping up a housing bubble, it buys our football clubs, it hoovers up businesses and restructures them to become profitable and it becomes intrinsically entwined with our pension funds.

We know, from initial revelations, in the Panama Papers that the secrecy in Panama (and willingness to be complicit) led to the cleaning of the ill-gotten proceeds from the Brinks Matt robbery in 1983. Ethics aren’t playing a significant role in all of this.

The reason the UK needs to be most concerned about this is because we play a significant role in how clean money is moved around the globe because we take a cut. It should come as no surprise that much of the money that moves around the world passes through Crown Dependencies or British Overseas Territories. These tiny population areas account for massive financial transactions purely because we have tolerated a very lax regulation regime. These are all areas that if we don’t have explicit dominion over we do have a lot a of influence.

The City of London is the largest global centre for financial transactions and is closely linked to the operation of these financially ambiguous areas of the world. The financial sector in the UK accounts for around 9% of national output. It’s a greater proportion than manufacturing. Consequently it pays massive amounts of money into the UK as tax revenue. The is is tax revenue that is extremely vulnerable.

This shouldn’t come as a massive surprise. 2008 pointed out to us that a significant amount of our tax take was based on the illegal activities of banks. That’s why we have a deficit.

We don’t seem to have learnt from that and are still massively dependent on the tax income from financial services.

So what do we do if the world does tighten up its act? What if the massive amount of cash stops pouring out of the third world and into international investment vehicles? Simplistically less money gets invested and our tax revenue goes down. The UK has ridden on a wave of asset stripping from the Soviet Union and Africa for many years now and this won’t last forever, hopefully. We need to get ready for that and diversify where we get tax from.

We need to understand that a fairer world is going to cost us.

 

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Rubbish Savings

March 2nd, 2016

binsYesterday Birmingham City Council passed a budget for 2016/17 intended to take another £90 million worth of cuts. That’s an eye watering number but to be honest it’s so large and has happened every year for over five years now. I can’t really comprehend how such cuts can be made each year without us moving to the point where we just pretend we have public services and hope that nothing ever goes seriously wrong in our lives.

As the Government continues its relentless attack on public services there is still a need for some basic functions to be delivered.

But.

Birmingham City Council needs to meet us half way with this and learn to work a bit better. So here is my micro example of how you can save some money by simply being a bit more competent and working as a joined up organisation.

Sigh, this is about bins again. I hated myself for writing about bins this time last year. As an aside, the Council refused to be flexible about that so we’ve largely given up recycling. Leaving an extra redundant bin outside of our house. Today we got another bin we didn’t ask for. We’ve got a lot of bins.

The opposition in Birmingham to the garden waste charge is legendary. Variously labelled as a tax on owning a garden or simply the last human right the Conservatives would leave us with; there is a belief that all waste from your garden should be taken away within the Council Tax. I’m not really bothered, if we’ve got to make massive cuts to social care then I will stump thirty odd quid a year to have some leaves taken away. In the scheme of things it’s not that important.

That doesn’t mean the whole thing doesn’t infuriate me.

Being a conscientious citizen, and being the proud of owner of ton of leaves from last year, I eagerly went to renew my garden waste subscription. Clicking on the link in the friendly Birmingham City Council email it wasn’t hard to find out how to do it.

renew

Eagerly clicking on the link I knew it was only a matter of time before I could once again get to use my only genuine skill. My ability to remember all of my payment details without once having to look at a card.

That was until I met this form.

form

What are you supposed to do with this? It knows I have a bin registered at my property but insists I have to pick a number for an additional bin. As it was only days from the next collection I assumed that some step must be in place to filter renewals from additional orders. Be that some sort of psychic check or even someone just ringing me up.

Apparently not. Today I got my new bin to add to my collection of increasingly redundant bins. Not to worry I thought (this is completely untrue I was actually irritated like I haven’t been in years), a quick call and this will all be sorted. Except there isn’t a contact number anywhere. Fifteen minutes on the City Council web chat won me the right to ring waste management. I was told that there is a wait of twenty working days to remove a bin delivered in error. Yes, a full calendar month.

Now this could be a story of amusing incompetence but I think it points to a symptomatic flaw.

That web form was clearly designed for new customers, little thought (or I would maintain no thought) has been given to renewals. In the third year of the garden waste charge renewals are going to be the predominant users of the form. That means my error is going to be repeated.

There is an obvious and simple solution. Just amend the web form so that the drop down has an option of “Just renew”. Or if that is a particular programmatic challenge just add a zero at the top of the list. Maybe half an hours work.

But things aren’t that simple at Birmingham City Council. Because of the separation between the supplier (Service Birmingham) and customer (whatever the waste management directorate is called these days) this simple change is something that is likely to have a significant cost implication to it. I’ve no idea what the cost to get a simple change to a web page might be but I assume it must be greater than the cost of :-

All of this, times the number of people this has happened to. Of course this could be pure hysteria on my part. It’s entirely possible that as the orders come in the waste directorate can instinctively tell a renewal from a new order. But I would suggest the cost purely to deal with my issue has to be greater than paying someone to add a zero to a drop down menu. At least I would hope so.

Interestingly if you look at my bullet point list above you might notice that the webchat and call centre are managed by Service Birmingham. Theoretically that means they will get paid more money because I’m forced to engage through two channels (it’s the jargon) in order to clear up their error.

It’s simple things like this that save money and make the Council less irritating.

Posted in Birmingham, Politics | Comments (0)

How Do You Buy Music?

January 22nd, 2016

supportI don’t think I’m carrying out a survey which means I might only have a passing interest in how you buy music. This is more of a rant about how buying music is becoming increasingly difficult and I’m not really sure who this benefits.

I like to buy music as I want something that I know I own and I want to see artists that I like being obviously rewarded. Having said that my preferred way of listening to music is Spotify. The app has all the functions I need and it’s much quicker to find things than sorting through my file structure. Even though I tend to stream most things I still like to buy albums so I’ve got an electronic copy of them. I don’t buy CDs any more after noticing they turned up, I ripped them to MP3 and then they sat on a shelf. That’s a waste of precious plastic.

My difficulty is that the majority of big sellers for MP3s are increasingly hiding behind Apps that I have no interest in and pose a barrier to buying things. I don’t use iTunes because all I want to do is download files. I don’t need anything to manage my files, I don’t need anything to listen to stuff on. The alternative for a while has been Amazon. They have a big library and are quick and easy to buy things from.

They used to provide a handy download client and when you bought stuff it would help you choose where you wanted to put files and then leave you alone. Now Amazon insist that you use their player to manage the music you buy. The player insists that it needs to sync with your music. I’ve been there before, syncing over 600gb of files can take around a week. I don’t understand why Amazon needs to know what I already own before I can buy anything off them.

Having compelled you to use their App they also impose a limit on how many devices it can work on. If like me, you forget to deauthorise old phones, in a couple of years you can find that you hit the limit of 10 devices. This happened to me this week when I was told by Amazon that if I wanted to set up their App on a new PC, and download an album I’d just bought, I needed to wait for 30 days. This is a limit imposed by rights holders. Note I don’t want to use their App, it’s a clunky mess, I just want the stuff I’ve bought.

Google Music similarly insists that you use an App. It does provide you an option to download things you’ve bought twice but it really wants you to have the App. But Google Music has some massive gaps in albums you can buy. It’s not that practical.

The only system that works is Bandcamp. They understand that downloading the things you’ve bought is most important and then provide an App to stream purchases as a bonus. I’d buy everything on Bandcamp but not everyone puts their stuff on there.

This means that more and more I’m being pushed into just using Spotify and not buying the back up copies of albums. If you want to create a sustainable market don’t make buying things massively more complicated than streaming, or even just stealing.

You can tell me how you buy music if you want but I think I just wanted to rant.

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2015 – Albums of the Year

December 21st, 2015

bop_englishAfter dabbling with bending the format last year with 12 albums, this year I’m back to the conventional decimal format with 10 albums. It’s taken me quite along time to try and figure out what 10 I’d go for this year as I’ve been making more of an effort to pay attention to everything I’ve bought. I’ve been keeping Spotify playlist of everything I’ve bought (one song from almost every album) just so I’ve got a record.

Though forgetting I’ve bought an album surely must be a sign that it wasn’t all that good.

It’s been another great year for albums, notably with a much more diverse range of music. These ten are only a small section of the things I’ve spent the year listening to, but these are the best bits.

So in reverse order (including Spotify links to albums), because you need an element of suspense.

10) Grimes – Art Angels – I didn’t really get Grimes first album, I liked listening to it but it wasn’t something that I went back to more than seven or eight times. I’d also heard that this new album was less accessible than the first. I really don’t understand that description. This is a great pop album, really nice accessible pop. Featuring Janelle Monáe it was always likely to win me over and it did. This is probably the most “pop” album I’ve loved this year.

09) BC Camplight – How To Die In The North – This was one of the first albums I bought in 2015 and I think I spent most of the year thinking “It’s all right”. But it really grew on me. I was looking forward to seeing him play at the Hare and Hounds in February but because of our stupid immigration laws he wasn’t allowed into the country. I’m not sure I ever got a refund for tickets. Oh well. There are some classic songs on here that you’ll hum forever.

08) Deafheaven – New Bermuda – I’d never heard of Deafheaven before this year, I’m still not really sure who they are. If you love ridiculously well made 10 minute black metal songs (I’m not even sure this is a real thing) then you’ll love this.  This is probably some sort of concept album, I’ve no idea, I can’t understand a word he sings, but don’t underestimate how epic this sounds.

07) Kendrick Lamar – To Pimp a Butterfly – One of the main things I can’t explain about this album is why I’ve only made it number seven. Every time I listen to it I’m surprised quite how good it is. It’s actually a bit draining getting all the way through it. Kendrick Lamar is 28, I can’t really fathom how good his albums are going to be in the future.

06) Leon Bridges – Coming Home – I love Leon Bridges story. After being heard by Austin Jenkins, from White Denim, they helped him make an album. And it’s a great album. He sounds like all of the classic 60s soul singers all rolled into one, but still sort of unique. It doesn’t sound like an album from 2015 but there is a freshness that means it doesn’t sound like the 60s either.

05) Holy Holy – When the Storms Would Come – I heard You Cannot Call for Love Like a Dog early in the year and instantly bought an advanced copy of their album. It’s everything I thought it was going to be. Clashing guitar solos and well made songs. It’s got a bit of Midlake about it and that’s no bad thing.

04) John Grant – Grey Tickles, Black Pressure – John Grant just keeps making albums that get better each time. Nobody else makes songs that are this melodic yet make you laugh. It’s not a weird comedy thing, it’s a real album. Definitely a step up from Pale Green Ghosts and that’s one of my favourite albums ever.

03) East India Youth – Culture of Volume – East India Youth’s first album was good, I still listen to it every now and then, but I don’t think I ever seriously considered putting it on my 2013 list. This album is amazing. I sort of knew that this was one bloke making it up as he goes along but it was only when he was on the BBC Glastonbury coverage that I realised he could make really intricate songs happen all by himself. There are quite a few of my favourite songs of the year are on this album. I genuinely think that there isn’t anyone that won’t love this.

02) Kamasi Washington – The Epic – One of the things that fell out of Kendrick Lamar’s album was discovering Kamasi Washington, who had done much of the musical arrangement for To Pimp A Butterfly. I’m not sure how true it is that record companies suddenly became interested in him and then he “remembered” that he had The Epic sitting around ready to release. I doubt anyone forgets they have a triple album of jazz on a par with Giant Steps sitting about unreleased. I don’t think the John Coltrane analogy is over the top, this is the most amazing jazz album I’ve heard in years. Certainly the most amazing jazz album that I’ve heard that’s been released in my lifetime.

01) Bop English – Constant Bop – The first time I heard this I knew it was going to be my album of the year. Ten months later and it still is my album of the year. It’s another spin off from White Denim. I suppose that the fact my top ten albums have two White Denim linked albums in it shows how much I really want another White Denim album. This album has a little bit more psychedelia in it than I had expected but it works. I was also lucky enough to see them playing in my local pub, making my best gig of the year and my best album of the year nicely linked.

So that’s 2015. Another amazing year for albums.

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Are you sure you want to bomb Syria?

November 27th, 2015

“At this moment, for example, in 1984 (if it was 1984), Oceania was at war with Eurasia and in alliance with Eastasia. In no public or private utterance was it ever admitted that the three powers had at any time been grouped along different lines. Actually, as Winston well knew, it was only four years since Oceania had been at war with Eastasia and in alliance with Eurasia. But that was merely a piece of furtive knowledge, which he happened to possess because his memory was not satisfactorily under control. Officially the change of partners had never happened. Oceania was at war with Eurasia: therefore Oceania had always been at war with Eurasia. The enemy of the moment always represented absolute evil, and it followed that any past or future agreement with him was impossible.” – 1984

It seems bizarre that it is only two years since the Government lost a vote to get permission to drop bombs on Syria and yet it looks like there will be another vote. This time, of course, we’ve decided to bomb the other side. I’m not sure there has ever been an occasion where we’ve quite so explicitly changed sides in a conflict.

My stance on bombing Syria is a bit ambivalent really. In the scheme of things the UK deciding to bomb Syria will have little impact. We have seven Tornado jets that were built in the 80s trying to cover an area of 20,000 square miles. At any time we can only have two of these flying and as you’d expect with old aircraft they’re prone to break down. We do have drones but as we found out recently we’ve already been bombing Syria with drones for the last year.

Coupled with there already being well over a hundred aircraft  in the area we wouldn’t be doing much. We know that after a year of bombing the US have effectively run out of things to blow up so the majority of their missions return without doing anything. Russia are actively bombing things but they seem to be largely destroying the moderate rebels that David Cameron thinks will surge into the centre of Syria to replace ISIS.

My objection to bombing is based on having no clear idea which side we are proposing to be on. Everyone involved in the war in Syria wants something different and I’m far from convinced that ISIS is much of a priority to most of them.

 

Why on earth would you throw yourself in to the middle of that without any clear idea of what success would look like?

We decided to launch air strikes on Libya and the place is immeasurably worse for it. It is entirely possible we can make a terrible situation much much worse. It isn’t worth the risk of doing that just to make us feel like we’re doing something. Sometimes doing nothing is doing something.

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