2013- It’s All About Albums

January 1st, 2014

It  doesn’t seem like THREE blog posts since I last did my annual list of albums, but it is. As  many as three completely different people asked me if I was going to do a list this year, I admit I prompted two of them into asking me. With that sort  of readership I felt compelled to sit down and think through the many albums I’ve bought this  year.

Overall this year  has been a bit different as most of my listening hasn’t really been focussed on new music. I’ve been working my way through Robert Dimery’s 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die, it’s turned out to be considerably more of a commitment than I thought it would be. It’s also something that deserves some sort of blog  post  on its own, something that I planned to do at 500 albums but then forgot. I’m at 576  at the  moment so there’s probably an imminent milestone in there somewhere.

Back to this year, there have been some great albums in 2013. It’s helped that as I sink into middle age I’ll pretty well listen to anything though that shouldn’t undermine my list, there is some sort of quality threshold. My list this year seems to have less new bands on than previous years, again probably indicative of latent conservatism.

So, in reverse order:-

White Lies – Big TV - This  is White Lies third album, I’ve always quite liked them, usually giving their albums a few listens, but this is the first that I’ve really liked. They are a band that owe a lot to the stream of post 2000 bands that sound a bit like Joy Division, Editors being the best example. Whilst Editors pretty well stagnated after their first album (though are brilliant live), White Lies seem to have gone from strength to strength. There are a few songs that seem to wing it on a shouty chorus but I’ll let them off as it’s their most complete collection of songs so far.

Public Service Broadcasting – Inform, Educate, Entertain – I’m still not sure about including this as it’s an album I only came to late in 2013 after hearing it on 6 Music in their albums of the year list. Though I have heard Spitfire a lot, as it’s become a staple of BBC filler music. They seem to be a band that pull together old film clips and make songs around them, very much of the  like  Lemon Jelly or The Avalanches, except much less electronic. One of the big selling points for me is they’re not scared to throw a bit of banjo in there, banjo boldness, whether appropriate or not should be rewarded with recognition.

Foals – Holy Fire - Isn’t there supposed to be a thing about difficult third albums? Again, I’ve bought all of Foals’ previous albums and quite liked them but this was the first that made me go straight back and listen to it again. The stand out thing about this album is the best guitar sound I’ve heard in years, in parts just  like a steel drum. You’d have to listen to it yourself, that’s rubbish description.

Daft Punk – Random Access Memories - It would be hard to avoid the hype of Random Access Memories, a perfect storm of Niles Rodgers coming to tour the UK and Daft Punk making their catchiest song in years, all coming together to make a pretty well unstoppable media event. It seems to have split the people I know who like Daft Punk, into most of them that don’t like it and a few of us that do. It’s a classic pop album that churns out songs perfectly designed to hook people in. I like that Daft Punk have tried to redesign themselves with each album and I think Random Access Memories will be one of those albums that will still be being played in ten years time.

Janelle Monae – The Electric Lady – I didn’t have any idea who Janelle Monae was, I completely missed ArchAndroid from 2010. But a concept album about lesbian androids featuring Prince? I would be stupid not listen to that. I love this album, again a perfect pop album but with brilliantly well put together songs that at no point take themselves  too seriously. I went back and bought ArchAndroid that would have definitely made it onto my 2010 list if I’d known.

David Bowie – The Next Day - And another album that came in on a wave of hype. Hype that I dismissed out of hand expecting a  limp attempt to cash in one last time. I’d even go as far as to say when I first heard Where Are We Now I hated it. When the album  did get round to to being released it turned out it was a bit of a classic, it is reminiscent of Low but that’s not a bad thing. Well done David, you could have done so much worse.

These New Puritans – Field of Reeds - I listened to this after reading something about how some bands are completely redefining the structure of music, that turned out to be self indulgent nonsense but it is one of the best albums of the year. Hauntingly nice to listen to with quite jarring parts that shouldn’t work, but do. It doesn’t redefine music but it’s one of my favourite albums.

Foxygen - We Are the 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace & Magic - Unusually, for  these lists, this is the first of my favourite albums that I bought based on a Pitchfork Review. I don’t seem to read as many reviews on Pitchfork as I used to, mainly because their website is a nightmare to use these days. I bought this based on their recommendation, listened to it once, hated it, didn’t bother again. Then I found it on my phone a few months later and thought it was worth giving one more go and absolutely loved it. It’s Lo Fi stuff and sounds quite a bit like Bob Dylan in places. Almost every song seems to have two parts to it that incongruously work. It’s also got a great title. They seem to be the sort of band that will collapse in irreconcilable musical difference, but worth listening to before they do.

John Grant – Pale Green Ghosts - I included John Grant’s first album, Queen of Denmark, on my list a few years ago. This album is massively better than that one. Whilst the first owed quite a bit to the folky rock connection with Midlake, this album is much more electronic and cleaner. It’s a funny album, and I like to think, painfully autobiographical. I know nothing about John Grant so can’t say if it is or not. This is a must buy album of 2013.

White Denim – Corsicana Lemonade - There wasn’t really any competition for my album of the year. White Denim’s 6th album is epic. Though I think I’ve reached the point in liking them that almost anything they do would be on the top of some sort of list. I still think of them as being the natural evolution of the Allman Brothers which does them a great disservice  as I don’t really like the Allman Brothers. Probably not to everyone’s taste but easily my album of the year.

There were a few albums that deserve a mention, British Sea Power’s From the Land to the Sea Beyond almost made it in, mainly because I’ve unintentionally seen them twice this year and they are really good live. 

Also a special mention to The Weeks, unexpectedly my favourite gig of the year, they had been supporting Kings of Leon and did a gig at the Hare and Hounds. There weren’t many people there but it was a stunning gig. They were touring on their new album, Dear Bo Jackson, I was a bit disappointed in the album but as they’re each only 15 I think they’ve got a quite a few albums left in them. If they come back to the UK go and see them.

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Social Network

August 29th, 2013

I’ve been thinking for the last week or so that I should write something to follow on from my post about how bureaucracy finds it difficult to engage with people  and other organisations. I was thinking about writing something about social networks. I was wary because even mentioning the words social network usually elicits three responses, either:-

I think the third  response is the only really legitimate one but having used the words social network you inevitably lose some people or disappoint others. I mean social network in the broadest sense of how society forms a network to facilitate social interaction. So, no more exclusively Twitter than the Church of England, both mediums for facilitating social interaction.

In thinking about how organisations can best use an understanding of how social networks function in order to engage with people and each other I came across an article that pretty well explains everything an organisation needs to understand. This article from Foreign Policy is the story of how Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal took control of Special Forces Operations in both Afghanistan and Iraq. An unlikely source for inspiration in public engagement and the conclusions I drew from it were entirely unexpected. A word of warning about the article, it’s long, all of it is interesting but not all of it is relevant and Foreign Policy want you to pay for articles so you don’t get very many attempts at reading it.

I’d like to pick out some of the points that I found most relevant to how organisations get to understand social networks. When Gen McChrystal began operations in Iraq his instinct was to map the insurgency in order  to better understand what they were trying to fight. This proved difficult because the insurgents in Iraq didn’t organise themselves along any formally recognised military doctrine. Instead they were a loose alliance based about family and where people lived; there appeared to be no formal system of promotion, people achieved notoriety through self selection, either through perpetrated activity or  claimed activity. It was an exceptionally flexible system that could use existing lines of communication (and social media) to spread information throughout the entire organisation.

Well if you were looking for a military organisation then this might have come as a surprise but for many people that have worked in communities  you begin to recognise this is just the way that social networks inherently self organise. Society always self organises in order to coalesce around an idea, be this around shared social action or even to  build a military insurgency. The techniques that are used are very common, as a re the results.

One of the most interesting parts of this article is the response that was made to this new understanding. I think this is the point where we can really begin to learn, the US response was necessary because they had a very tangible consequence if the response was inadequate; when we fail to understand how our social networks work the consequence tends to be less explicit.

The first recognition is that the network is organic and changes form to suit situations. This renders the desire to constantly map structure pointless. We need to have a greater recognition of this, although our social networks are likely to be more stable, the desire to map means we are taking a snap shot in time. The resource implication of mapping means we tend to only recognise those established organisations that fit into a formalised service delivery model. We instinctively rail against the self selecting people (frequently discounting single issue topics) whilst  not recognising the influence they can have in the network. Thus our mapping is always out of date and lacks the sensitivity to truly appreciate what makes the network function.

There is a fantastic analogy in the article that it easy to understand an enemy when it marches towards you in good order and in plain sight. In many ways this matches our experience of engaging with people and organisations. We like them when they meet our preconceived idea of what a community should look like. They should have a formal structure, ideally being a traditional voluntary and community organisation that fits into the structures that surround that sector. It would be nice if this was the case but the reality for most communities is that their day to day lives don’t fit this neatly.

Gen McChrystal took a very interesting decision based on this understanding. Recognising the lack of influence he had over the way the insurgency organised itself, he decided to organise his resources in a similar loose network. I can’t imagine this ever being the response of a public sector organisation in the UK, merely because I think there will always be a residual belief  that there is a possibility that we can  force communities to organise themselves in a tidy fashion.

The network developed in Iraq had some very interesting properties that I feel are basically a blueprint for how we should organise ourselves to work with communities. Thus a  network should have:-

A shared purpose being the most obviously but I’d say the single point that is most frequently overlooked. A free flow of information, I think implicitly means a flow in both directions, all too often we forget that engagement is about building relationships and that only happens if communication contains some content that has value to both sides.

All too often when we try to get organisations to work together we instantly gravitate towards the mantra that representation should be by “decision makers”. I like the tacit recognition that although an employer might confer the ability to make a decision, this only actually happens if it is matched by the competency to make a decision, this isn’t always the case.

The last two point feed into themselves and really are the basis for most of this post. In order to react to situations raised by the public then all organisations must become more adept at working much faster. Harvesting views quicker and in a less formalised way, understanding the intelligence, formulating a response, implementing a response and beginning the cycle immediately.

The examples in the article can give you a real sense of how an organisational network can function efficiently; all parties engaging properly with the purpose of the network mean its cycle can replicate itself many times in a single night with planning being entirely informed by the previous cycle. Can anyone else that has worked in a public facing role say they’re used to working with that level of freedom to plan and implement with only a loose purpose to guide them? I doubt it.

This method of working is likely to be uncomfortable and needs good levels of safeguards but it is important to better respond to the challenge that complex social networks pose to us. Changing our understanding of the people we work for and the way we work for them will inevitably have massive implications for parent organisations but in a sense that’s the world we live in so we better respond to it.

The military comparison is inevitably difficult but I think the messages and the lessons are eminently translatable in the way that we work with people.

 

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Harkive: My day in music 9th July 2013

July 11th, 2013

I really liked the Harkive idea of trying to catalogue how people listen to music these days. You can, of course, click on the link but for the lazy; they asked people all over the world to submit a whole days worth of music listening stories. It looks like people have contributed in many different ways. I decided to write it all down here.

This is less about what I’ve been listening to and more about how I listen to things and, more importantly, how I seem to be able to keep a really accurate record of what I listen to with no effort.

One of the things I noticed on thinking about the 9th was trying to make a really conscious effort to not listen to things I wouldn’t ordinarily listen to,  that turned out to be quite hard.

I also noticed that other people have made an effort to keep a record of extraneous music they listened to; I haven’t done that, I’ve kept to stuff that I sort of chose  to listen to.

pureSo starting the day I ended up listening to Sean Keaveny on 6 Music whilst I was having a shower. We’ve got a little Pure Oneflow  radio in the bathroom which I bought fairly recently. I bought it because it has a DAB radio but it also accesses our network via wifi so I can stream all music off of our server. As it turns out it’s a bit rubbish and it only just about functions as a DAB radio, I bought two of these before I noticed that they’re a bit rubbish.

Sean played me Dirty Water by the Standells and Dark and Stormy by Hot Chip. Neither really left a lasting impression, I’ve never heard of The Standells and I actively dislike Hot Chip. You can claim to have invented an indie rock/dance music hybrid  all you like but if  you can’t do either particularly well then just try and concentrate on one of them and practice. The only point of note here is how I know I listened to both of these.

Fortunately I managed to find a web site (http://nowplaying.jameswragg.com/) that’s keeping a track of everything that’s playing on 6 Music. I used to use the what’s playing on 6 Music twitter account but that seemed to stop on the 15th April.

I would like people to note that Sean talked a fair bit so I did have a fairly reasonable length shower.

I was made redundant recently so have had a fair amount of time to listen to music and that will also explain why I wasn’t at work on a Tuesday. I’ve also been trying to work my way through 1001 Albums to Listen to Before You Die. As of Tuesday I was utterly in the middle of 1975 (actually as I write this I’m still utterly  in the middle of 1975) so much of what I listened to was fairly dictated to me. The whole album listening thing was going to be a series of blog posts but I haven’t got round to it yet.

Just about everything I listen to sits on our Synology Server, every device in the house can access the server and every device records everything I listen to on my Last FM profile. It does mean it’s a fairly easy to go back and look at what I listened to, and when I listened to it.

conservatoryMuch of my music listening these days seems to be  through the stereo in our conservatory, it’s stupidly hot and it’s just  like sitting in the garden. We moved quite recently and I found an old Cambridge Audio amp and some Eltax speakers in the loft of our old house. They still seem to work and I’ve added a Denon Media Streamer to be able to access the network and Last FM.

Part of listening to albums from a book is you get a bit of a surprise when something you weren’t expecting (and something you know very well) turns up. My first album of the day was Led  Zeppelin’s – Physical Graffiti, a true giant of an album and one I’m sure I haven’t listened to in years.

After getting that out of the way I went over to Harborne to meet someone I used to work with. That meant getting in my nuclear heated car.

When listening to music in the car I stream it straight off my phone. I’m probably alone in this but I think the A2DP Bluetoooth profile is one of the pinnacles of human ingenuity. For me it means that whenever I get in the car, my stereo detects my phone is close and automatically resumes playing music off of it.  At the beginning of the week  I tend to set up a really lengthy queue of music and just work my way through it as I travel about.

powerampI use Poweramp to listen to music on my phone. It’s the only App I’ve found that works with A2DP properly and it has a really good pre-amp built into it.

Going over to Harborne I got  to listen to the end of Vampire Weekend’s new album, I bought it based on recommendation and seeing a bit of the gig they did at Glastonbury. They’re a band that I’ve never really understood and on listening to this album I’d say I still don’t. That was followed by Frank Turner’s Tape Deck Heart. I bought this months ago and just never got round to listening to it before. I wish I had, it’s great. I’m still not quite sure  why I own it, I imagine it was an Amazon £4.00 deal on the day it was released and I just took a chance on it. To be honest I’m not sure I even know who Frank Turner is either.

A trip to Harborne and back doesn’t quite cover two albums but I got through a fair bit of Frank Turner.

Having devoted a fair amount of time to listening to 1001 Albums I’ve realised that it is really rare that you get to listen to something truly amazing that you’ve never heard before. Surprisingly I got home to get just that. I don’t think I’ve ever heard Keith Jarrett before (on reading about him I realise I must have heard him many times on Miles Davis records) and I’d certainly not listened to the 1975 Koln Concert before. An hour of improvised jazz that, in parts is astounding.

At the beginning of the 1001 Albums chronology it was almost all jazz (it starts in the ’50s) but as I’ve hit the ’70s there has been less and less, it was nice to get some back.

Over the next week Moseley will be hosting its annual festival (one of three festivals, we really like festivals) and I had agreed to post programmes through doors. This was a really stupid thing to volunteer for as the temperature and my level of fitness are not conducive to carrying and walking.

It did give me an opportunity to listen to more stuff that’s queued on my phone. I have a pair of Sennheiser headphones that also use A2DP, so when I turn them on they instantly find my phone and resuming playing where the car left off. I love these headphones and can’t stress to you enough that you should get some.

Whilst walking about I listened to the end of Frank Turner and Snarky Puppy album GroundUP that  I bought at the weekend. I’d never heard of them until Sunday, but they played at the Mostly Jazz festival and were one of my highlights of the weekend. An almost perfect blend of jazz and funk, GroundUP is a great example and you should buy that as well.

Another band I’d heard of, but wasn’t that familiar with was the The Haggis Horns but I got their Keep On Movin’s album and listened to it. Again, really good.

My trip delivering stuff was slightly more jazz funk than I was expecting but that’s not dangerous, is it?

Getting back to 1001 Albums was another album I hadn’t listened to in years, Aerosmith’s Toys in the Attic. They’re not a band I’d really consider listening to these days but Toy in the Attic is about their best. Walk This Way and Sweet Emotion are why they still get away with it. It doesn’t seem right that it came out 38 years ago.

My last musical contribution of the day was David Bowie’s Young Americans, a much underrated album with a  truly horrendous cover of Across the Universe on it.

There you go, my day. It was more interesting listening to all that  than it probably was reading about me listening to it

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An Engaging Bureaucracy

June 21st, 2013

It’s been a while since I’ve been able to write anything more interesting than the CDs I like, but I’ve recently managed to extricate myself from the turmoil of NHS reorganisation via the medium of redundancy. It also means I’ve got a fair amount of time on my hands to write things.

The recent widespread news coverage of the latest horror  story to hit the Care Quality Commission (CQC) focussed me to try and sum up what I’ve learnt from the last few years of NHS reform, and even further back over ten years working in patient engagement. The problems being experienced by the CQC are not surprising, in many ways  they are illustrative of problems that  the entire health and social care system has being storing up for many years. I don’t believe it is a failing of individuals, I can see that those directly affected by the decisions of the CQC have a right to expect some justice but the wider problems are  more endemic.

It is obvious that the system of  regulation we have  created  does not have the capacity to do the job that is needed. I say obvious because it seems to be publically failing on a fairly regular basis. Having said that, sizeable sums of public money are supporting this system of regulation and the  public have  a realistic expectation of a return on that money.

I believe the system of regulation is failing in the UK because it has been designed to fail, it is a system that has been created by a bureaucracy to police itself. The failure of design and delivery stems from one common point, a  lack of appreciation of what quality actually means.

The delivery of health and social care in the UK has historically been delivered via a bureaucracy, patients do not choose to take their health needs elsewhere  thus the subjective element of quality analysis has been consistently removed from planning processes. This post isn’t advocating an imposition of market dynamics on health care, it merely points out that, sometimes, the way markets are constructed gives an added level of feedback that is crucial in understanding quality.

The subjective element of quality  is the  part  that all of our systems of regulation fail to appreciate. The resource constraints on the CQC forces it to focus on inspection through objective analysis  of  data  without testing it against real patient experience. This is understandable, there  is a beautiful binary aspect to the delivery of healthcare (people lived or died) that makes a lot of this quite easy to do on a large scale with limited resources, but it doesn’t draw a very good picture of quality.

It’s simplistic philosophy but Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance gives a good overview of the competing elements of quality, though Pirsig’s fascination with calling them “romantic” and “classical” probably won’t find a comfortable home in NHS redesign. I prefer objective quality and subjective quality.

To fully understand the quality of services delivered, in the absence of  people withdrawing their custom, there needs to be a wholesale change in the culture of how health and social care services are delivered.

I’m not advocating a change in structures, structures are easy to change (though the last two years might not substantiate that). Our bureaucracy needs to fully understand that  it will only truly appreciate quality if it can better develop transparency and engagement.

Engagement has been a consistent mantra in public services for many years but has never been properly developed. There are a number of reasons for this, here are a few of them:-

Engaging with people is a slow process, you need to build trust for relationships to work, quite often that makes it look like staff that are very good at engaging are actually just sitting about chatting. The public sector has never been comfortable with staff that can’t maintain the illusion of frenetic (if useless) activity. Because it is slow it is expensive, because it is slow and expensive we often look for short cuts. Those short cuts  lead organisations to institutionalise the very people we need to engage with. Simplistically this means organising meetings that reflect the bureaucratic nature of the organisation itself.

This means we create forums that reduce the potential for staff to be uncomfortable, it reduces  the public willingness to challenge and completely removes any notion of obvious transparency.

One of the worst examples of the institutionalisation of engagement can be seen in the adoption of the notion of the critical friend. This assumes that people in a position to challenge public sector delivery should adopt a position sympathetic to the organisation whilst  providing constructive criticism. This notion fails on two levels, it fails to understand the nature of the power relationship between the individual and organisations and it fails to appreciate what we all think about critical friends, we find them annoying.

This theory seems to stem from the idea that  organisations will not listen to robust challenge but need to know that the issues being raised come from a foundation of sympathy. This is ridiculous, it indicates that public sector management needs to grow up and talk to people like adults. This is a disparity in power between the individual and the organisation, often that disparity will manifest itself in anger and frustration, the organisation needs to both appreciate and accommodate this.

Public services need to open themselves up to challenge in all its forms, this won’t be pleasant but is the only way that they can begin to appreciate  the  subjective element of quality. They need to do this by meeting people where they meet in the community structures that already exist.

Those with responsibility for regulation, should understand that everything they need to know about how services are delivered  is in the communities that they are being delivered to. They have to find a way to get into those communities without subcontracting engagement out.

We are at  a point where the new organisations that have responsibility for health and social care have an opportunity to do things differently. Unfortunately the time to do this is running out and all the signs are that the new is merely replicating the old.

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2012 – My Year in Albums

December 20th, 2012

My consistent obsession with imposing a decimal format on my annual music buying is, as it turns out, a good opportunity to gauge my commitment to keeping this blog updated. A quick glance at the dashboard shows that, since my Albums of the Year 2011 post I’ve only managed to write seven updates, and none since July.

That obviously has nothing to do with what I’ve been listening to.

I always say this, but 2012 has once again been a great a year for music. It’s also been the year that I’ve moved to almost exclusively digital purchases. I must have bought about 6 or 7 CDs this year and I think my shelves thank me for the restraint.

I seem to have adopted a format for this now so here are my top 10 albums of the year, counting down to number one. It’s exciting isn’t it?

Grizzly Bear – Shields - I liked a Veckatimest a bit when it came out. I think I was always a little bit wary that I’d never be able to say it out loud so I’ve always avoided discussing Grizzly Bear in public. Shields is really easy to say and its been a excellent addition to my ever growing collection slightly glum American Lo-Fi.

Animal Collective – Centipede HZ - I think all Animal Collective albums seem to sound like nothing else but also all the same.  This isn’t that different to Merriweather Post Pavilion but I really liked that as well. My nod to electronic music this year.

Band of Horses – Mirage Rock - I’ve  always quite liked Band of Horses, I’ve worked my way through all of their albums and thought all of them were “not bad”. Mirage Rock surprised me, it’s rare that a band suddenly produce something very very good after having already made quite a few albums. It’s also odd that it isn’t that different to what they’ve done before, they just seem to have perfected it. It has all the spirit of the 70s Laurel Canyon stuff but doesn’t sound like a dodgy 21st century Eagles.

First Aid Kit – The Lion’s Roar - As I like to make clear every time I do one of these lists, I hate folk music. Every year it is getting more difficult to make this claim. This is obviously folk, or country folk or even just country, though I didn’t notice what it was the first few time I listened to it. I didn’t even notice it was two women either. I didn’t notice much about this other than it has nothing to do with lions.

Jack White – Blunderbuss - Jack White is consistent in making albums that I really like. I preferred his incarnations in the Ractonteurs and the Dead Weather to the White Stripes and I think his solo album is most like the Dead Weather. It’s one of those things that just grew on me over the year and was an easy addition to this list. He also gave me the second best gig I saw this year, an exceptional tour through pretty well everything he’s ever done. It would have been the best gig of the year but I saw Funkadelic in the park over the road from my house and there isn’t really a great deal of competition to that.

Django Django – Django Django -  There was much of the year where I was convinced that this would be my album of the year. You see I did start thinking about  this months ago rather than scratching my head in December trying  to remember what came out. It’s an album that weirdly has got a lot of publicity from the claim that nobody had heard it. As far as I could work everybody had heard it so I’ve no idea where that came from.

Cody Chesnutt – Landed on a Hundred - I loved Cody Chesnutt’s random The Headphone Masterpiece from 2002. It was an exercise in throwing any old nonsense onto a CD, of 36 tracks only about 20 really worked, but that’s still 20. Ten years later I was really looking forward to the sequel and it is great. Much more polished (clearly not made in his bedroom) and a real throwback to traditional soul (can soul be traditional? Who’s tradition?). A real mainstream contribution and hopefully one that makes him the money that I think he needs if he is going to stick to a once a decade release schedule.

Godspeed You Black Emperor - Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend! - This is just an exceptional album. It was always going to be a thing of note to see Godspeed You Black Emperor reform but I didn’t think they would be able to make something that is a substantial step better than their previous albums.
Chromatics – Kill For Love  - I was intrigued by this album as Pitchfork seemed really enthusiastic about it (not that unusual) and I couldn’t seem to buy it anywhere. I ended up getting it imported and it took weeks to turn up. I listened to it and then didn’t really like it much. I liked the Neil Young cover at the beginning but the rest of it was quite dull. Though I did stick with it and looking back it has just grown on me to the point that I know this is an album that in ten years time I will be listening to just as much as I do now.

Field Music – Plumb - Progressive rock from Sunderland. I’d like to just leave that there but I’m not sure it does justice to my favourite album of the year. I think this does single my acceptance that all those types of music that I grew up with, and tried to run away from are the things I still love most. I suppose that isn’t a great surprise but it is frank personal admission that I’m in my 40s and my musical highlight of the year is progressive rock. I don’t really need to say much about at as between the Mercury Awards and Six Music they have had more coverage than any band deserves in a year.

 

So there you go, my favourite albums of 2013. Interestingly no jazz this year. I’ve bought a lot of jazz and liked a lot of jazz but none of it quite as much as the stuff above.

Also looking back on the list I can tell my taste is becoming ever more conservative, there are no particular surprises on there and everything is eminently listenable.

So until next year when I fully expect I will once again be massively surprised at how good music is.

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My Adventure in Film

July 18th, 2012

I’ve been meaning to write this for a while but through the pressures of reviewing cats and entertaining people with the ukulele (entertaining in its loosest sense) I didn’t get round to it.

It seems that I’ve developed a new hobby, I didn’t expect to, and it’s only after doing it for about a year that I found out it had a name. Apparently I’m heavily involved in competitive film watching. I like it, now lying about, watching old film seems like it has a real purpose rather than…. lying about, watching old films.

Last year I completed a Facebook list thing called the Empire 500 greatest films. You know the sort of thing, you tick how many films you’ve seen and it compares it with your friends. This is a list that Empire Magazine put together in 2008 and, funnily enough, includes, what they consider to be the 500 greatest films. For the obvious reason this doesn’t include any films after 2008.

I ticked all the films I’d seen and came to 368 (I think, I wish I’d made a note of this now) out of 500 films. I was quite proud of that but was slightly miffed to see I was a bit behind Steve Coxon who’d got 382. It occurred to me that I’d only have to sit down and watch 132 films and I would have seen all of them, so I did.

Having something like Lovefilm certainly made this easier. I sat down and added as many of the films that I hadn’t seen as possible and then waited for them to turn up. I admit that towards the end I had to resort to a combination of expensive Ebay auctions and some piracy to get to see all of them.

One of the first things I’d learned was that the previous 300 odd films were there because I chose to watch them. Watching films based on an arbitrary list, from an arbitrary snapshot in time can be very hard work. In many cases I spent most of the film trying to workout whether it would have still made it onto the list if it had been collated in 2010.

Overall it is fair to say I saw some appalling films. I’ve learnt to hate 1960′s Italian cinema with a passion. I shudder when I think of anything that Ingmar Bergman was involved with. I took small pleasure in finding out my claim that Woody Allen’s career is a simple facade to cover the acts of a sexual predator was actually correct.

I did discover some things that I wasn’t expecting. I like Charlie Chaplin films. I like quite a few silent films as it turns out. The four hour epics, Greed and Napoleon filled me with dread but turned out, in their own way, to be quite entertaining.

One of the things I’ve been frequently asked as I’ve ploughed through the films I hadn’t seen is “which one has been the best?” I’ve found this really hard to answer, mainly because I’m being asked about my favourite film from a subset of a wider list that includes many of my favourite films. The fact that I’d never previously seen those 132 films was entirely random.

Having said that a few did really stick with me, Before Sunset and The Mother and the Whore being surprises as they are largely about French people talking at great length. There were also things like Requiem for a Dream and Almost Famous which were great films I’d just never heard of. If I have to pick one (which I don’t)  then my favourite would be High and Low, one of the best police films I’ve ever seen.

Overall working my way through this list did teach me something about film. I think I’ve got more of a sense of what makes a good story and how my preconceptions are not always right. I’ve learnt to watch films without knowing anything about them and actually relish the prospect of being surprised.

It also taught me that you better have a very good reason if you’re going to make your film longer than two hours.

Once I’d finished I was surprised to realise that I still had an appetite for seeing more. Fortunately James Cook pointed me towards Framerater which helps you to lump similar lists together and keep track of what you’ve seen AND has a leader board. This is the most important thing.

So I had a break, watched films with spaceships and Ninjas (separate films) and now I’m trying to complete the IMDB Top 250 of which  I have 33 to go. It’s not quite clear why Empire and IMDB have such different lists.

It took me almost a year to work my way through these but more importantly it gave me something to really bore people with.

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What’s the point of LinkedIn?

June 27th, 2012

It seems that once a year I have a bit of a go at working out what LinkedIn is for. I joined it years ago and I think it is fair to say that I’ve not mananged to achieve anything through being a member of it.

I can see a great deal of potential in having a social network that has a professional focus, but I’m not convinced LinkedIn is that platform. I have a lot of things to say that probably aren’t appropriate to my personal blog.

This has got to be down to one of two reasons. It is either because I’m doing it wrong or it is because it doesn’t work. Hopefully it is the first one.

I’d really like other people to tell me how they use LinkedIn and how I can try and get something out of it. I think it is telling that I’m asking this here rather than on LinkedIn itself as I’m not convinced of its reach.

I think I’ve got a fairly good handle on how social networks work. I use Twitter as my primary form of communication and have found that professionally it’s a useful tool for joining people together. I even have an attachment to Facebook, at least as a place for quickly storing links and keeping an eye on people that don’t use Twitter.

The critical success factor for networks, from my point of view, is whether they are carrying sufficient content and interest for me to invest my time in. My typical experience of LinkedIn content is people that have connected their Twitter account to their status or it is truly speculative employment agencies spamming inappropriate jobs.

This has made me wonder what everyone else expects to get out of it as I can’t see too many examples of conversation (obviously this could be peculiar to the way I use it).

Cynically I can see LinkedIn use falls into one of two categories, a naive hope that someone will be knocked over by your profile and have to bring you into their organisation or a voyeuristic interest in whether people you used to work with have still got jobs.

In their own way both of these are valid but they do not perform the function of a network. In reality this prompts people to treat LinkedIn as not much more than a grown up version of Pokemon.

I’ve always had a few self created rules about how I’ve treated different social networks. On Twitter I follow anyone that is interesting, I’m only Facebook friends with people I’ve met, Google Plus I add anyone but only to specific circles and LinkedIn only people who I have worked with.

I think I’m going to change my approach on Linkedin to include people who seem interesting to see if a similar approach, as I use with Twitter, makes it anymore functional.

There you go, I’m really interested in your tips or experience. I suspect that many responses are just going to be a mutual confusion but hope this isn’t the case.

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Home Taping

June 20th, 2012

If you’re as old as me then you probably remember when all the music died. Not Don McLean’s rambling nonsense about…. I have no idea what American Pie is actually about. I mean the 80s when home taping killed music.  Do you remember when there used to be music, but then it all stopped because everyone just nicked it and it wasn’t worth it any more so people didn’t play guitars, they just worked in shops?

I exaggerate.

Music didn’t die. Someone invented CDs and we were all forced to buy all the music that we previously owned on a different format thus massively increasing the income of both artists and record labels. It was a close run thing though. I understand at one point it looked like Sting might not be able to afford his tea.

As I do remember this it is with some amusement that I greet the protestations that the music industry is about to suffer a similar fate to that it suffered in the 80s, simply because, once again, all the music is being stolen.

I should probably clarify that I see a fundamental distinction between the music industry and musicians. I hate the way this entire debate is framed from a capitalist point of view, that defines success and quality of music to be entirely correlated against its ability to generate a return in cash.

I do have some sympathy that the free exchange of digital music is undermining some musicians earning potential. Equally the freedom of digital distribution and production has given many more artists the potential to earn an income where they otherwise wouldn’t.

My personal perspective from the 80s and 90s is that the free exchange of music massively increased the range of music I like and consequently increased the range of musicians that now get money off me.  I now spend much money on music than at any point in my life. This is because it is so easy to access. If I hear something on the radio I can download it to my phone (and pay for it in seconds).

I also give much more money directly to artist through things like Bandcamp and Pledge Music.

I have to say that of the 45,ooo (give or take) songs that sit on our home server I didn’t buy all of them. I have bought the vast majority and the shelves of CDs that never leave their case is a testament to that.

So that is a convoluted way of trying to justify my interest in writing this.

This morning I got to read David Lowery’s open letter to Emily White. This letter was in response to a post that Emily posted on the NPR Music Blog. Emily’s post is a quite reasonable explanation of how she believes her generation (which I assume is younger than me) is moving away from traditional, tangible music media such as CDs. David decided to wilfully misunderstand this and launched into a long old letter about how Emily owes musicians about $2000 for all the stuff she nicked.

This seems to me to be completely symbolic of how the music industry wilfully misunderstands the changing environment  they now live in. David might have a point about streaming platforms, such as Spotify, undermine artists. To my mind that is a failure of collective bargaining rather than yet another stick to beat the youth of today with.

For a different perspective on being a musician in todays world it is well worth following Steve Lawson on Twitter. I thought it would be useful to add a link to his blog as well as it is often interesting, though just searching for the link I noticed he has already written about this today. As I’ve already got this far I didn’t really have the motivation to delete it all.

I just don’t believe there will ever be a point where young people stop picking up guitars and stop trying and make music. That’s because the rewards that people expect from music are not purely economic. Music is also about confidence, wellbeing and credibility. BitTorrent will never take these from people.

We might live in a time where musicians are no longer able to buy islands but is that so bad? Do we want to continue to perpetuate a world where Bono has influence because his set over ran at Live Aid in 1985?

People aren’t advocating that we live in a world where all culture is free (even Emily, if you read what she actually said), we are living in a world where we are redefining how people will benefit from artistic production and hopefully stop the horrendous commodification of music.

 

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ZX Spectrum

April 23rd, 2012

I think this is a fairly unusual thing for me to write about, not only is it the second time I’ve updated this site in a week but it’s not a rant on a subject I know little about.

It’s also a surprise as I wasn’t expecting to write this. The news that the Sinclair ZX Spectrum has turned 30 shocked me a bit, not because I doubt they’ve figured it out correctly but because it made me think about the massive impact it had on my life and everything that came after it, essentially it defined most of the last thirty years for me.

Unlike many people I’ve noticed on Twitter this morning, I didn’t get hold of a Spectrum and become inspired to programme, it tweaked my interest a little but  I was much more interested in consuming anything that other people created. The Spectrum was my first initiation into video games and I think it’s fair to say it stuck.

Actually that might not be quite true, in the 70s I did have a Binatone Pong console thing, it was rubbish.

My launch into the world of home computing came as a complete surprise. I remember one rainy Saturday  in 1982 that the postman brought my Dad a curious brown box. I had no comprehension of what a computer really was, why we would need one or that one was on the way. I remember watching as it got set up on the portable TV upstairs (yes, we had a second TV in 1982) and some vague reassurance that it would help me with homework or something. With hindsight I now realise my Dad didn’t have a clue what a Spectrum was either.

The only software that came with the Spectrum was there Horizons tape. This gave you everything you needed for an insight into the powerful world of computing, once you’d figured out how to connect a tape player to the back and found that ridiculous, unique, combination of volume, tone and balance that allowed you to load software, life became easier once dedicated tape players were available but that first day was mostly guess work.

Horizons isn’t something I have much recollection of, mainly because most of it was rubbish. Much of it was tutorials that taught you how the Spectrum worked and some software. The obvious stand out was Thro’ the Wall, this was the thing that really opened my eyes to video games and made me realise why we needed a computer.

At the time there were very few other games about and those that were available didn’t tend to be in shops in Eastbourne where I grew up. The only two games that WH Smiths had in their embryonic games section were 3D Monster Maze and Meteor Storm. Looking at the Internet it seems like my recollection of 3d Monster Maze is wrong, all I can find is a ZX81 maze game, whereas the one I’m thinking of was a top down 3d maze with monsters in, maybe that’s why I’ve created my own unique memory of it. Meteor Storm was the most exciting prospect as it combined Asteroids and speech, yes it could talk. Every now and then it would shout “meteor alert”, or at least something like that. The Spectrum sound chip was so bad that you would only know there was speech if you’d already read the tape case.

There other problem I had was that games cost about £3.99 in 80s and that was a ridiculous amount of money to get together.

Consequently the only initial route to getting games was to type code into the Spectrum from a magazine. Sometimes pages and pages of code, generally pages and pages of faulty code. I remember my Dad really wanted a flight simulator, and the only one about was the most daunting thing that Your Computer had committed to page. I’m pretty sure it never worked, I think they were printing corrections to the code for months.

Many people will tell you that this experience of coding taught them how to become programmers. This experience of coding taught me I needed to find a more efficient way to pirate games off other people.

The next few years were devoted to perfecting the technique of tape to tape piracy and accumulating as many games as possible. As we fondly remember the Spectrum most people will not mention that 90% of the games released on it were truly appalling. I’d be surprised if there were many games that got much more than one or two hours play out of them. This was mainly because there were so many of them and nobody really had any concept of quality control. The 10% that were good were inspired and stunning example of what can be fitted into less memory than your average Word Document.

The birth of this new industry also caused an explosion in magazines devoted to games. The most influential for me being Crash Magazine. This was notable for me because the people who made it related to their customers in a way I’d never seen before or since. If there was part of a game that you couldn’t figure out you could just ring the magazine office and ask if anyone there had any ideas. It seemed odd to just have the people that wrote stuff I read, on the other end of the phone and happy to talk.

This was an attitude that seemed to be shared by many of the games companies themselves. Three or four years after the Spectrum was released I upgraded to the Commodore 64 with its colour palette and dynamic sound. Over the years I’d accumulated many games on the Spectrum that were now on the Commodore 64. After ringing round the companies that made the games I had most of them replaced in the other format for free. At the time I’d assumed this is what companies would do, now I realise that it was a strange but great response.

The Spectrum started my 30 year obsession with video games and my most consistent interest. It’s been a strange evolution in terms of technology and quality but has been universally good.

And to finish, my all time favourite Spectrum game was Combat Lynx, I’m not sure why but it had exact combination of freedom and helicopters that was all I wanted from a game.

It’s worth following Kebablog via Twitter today, he’s spending the day playing (or attempting to load) as many games as he can. He seems to have a lot of them.

Posted in Games | Comments (2)

Skills and Employment

April 19th, 2012

My home city, Birmingham, has recently embarked on a voyage of reflection to see how it can promote greater social inclusion. I don’t really want to comment on the process, I get a bit lost about how these things are supposed to translate into practical action. You can read about it on the Fair Brum site and come to your own conclusions.

One aspect of this that has caught my interest is a debate on what qualities (I can’t think of a better word than qualities and it isn’t quite right) are needed by employers. This is linked to a previous blog post that was on the Podnosh site about skills in Birmingham. I read this when it went up in January and was tempted to comment but the moment went and I just forgot about it. The latest post on the Fair Brum site has reminded me that I had something to say. I think it is worth mentioning that this isn’t really related to Birmingham as such, many of the issues are replicated in other cities.

I’m in danger of over simplifying the claim set out in both posts but it seems to be that economic improvement, and specifically the needs of employers, are addressed not through qualifications and skills but through communication and networks.

I would not discount the vital role of people having communication skills nor the ability to facilitate movement of labour via networks but in the overall scheme of things these are useful but not essential.

Over the last 20 years the thing that has become abundantly clear, in economic terms, is that investment in skills is the only factor that has a tangible effect on growth. The Chinese economy being the prime example of a revolutionary change from a low wage, low skill economy to a highly technical, highly skilled economy. Albeit one with relatively low wages. We can see from the German economy that investment in skills has allowed a seemingly unique area of economic prosperity that is contrary to the rest of Europe.

Simplistically this is because both countries have a lot of people that know how to do things that we don’t.

The original posts are fairly dismissive of qualifications, I think based on a misunderstanding of what a qualification is supposed to represent. Qualifications are a good method of conveying an aptitude to learn, in many cases the individual subject matter is a secondary benefit to knowing that someone can learn. The ability to learn and the tools that support learning are really the skills that employers should treasuring above all. Education is the process of learning to learn not acquiring knowledge.

Qualification are also a proxy indicator of ability. Whilst I appreciate that there is merit in to know individuals and valuing their enthusiasm this is not something that can be replicated at scale. For our economy to begin to thrive we need a sea change in our economic activity but also the scale we are doing it at. With the best will in the world the model of networks outlined is not going to be capable achieving large scale recruitment and ensuring there is consistency.

A system of qualifications that employers have faith in is the very least we need to support a minimum standard of recruitment.

The original posts are also fairly dismissive of skills, I think this is the part that I most take issue with. The original posts assume a level of skill transference which doesn’t seem credible. Whilst it is possible that in some jobs it is fairly easy for an employer to confer skills onto a new employee this is surely a minority.

The Fair Brum post makes the rather surreal claim:-

“There are of course career paths that require the “rubber stamp” of education and training; lawyers, doctors etc. But what about the rest of the workforce? Is further education really THAT relevant?”

The notion that doctors achieve skill through the “rubber stamp” of  education is bizarre. Doctors achieve skill through ridiculous amounts of structured training, not the least of which is years of monitored employment.

Would we also say that engineers are merely rubber stamped as well? If you are starting to build a plane do you start your recruitment based on someone who seems quite cheerful and assume they will pick it up as they go along? Well, you can do, but I’m not getting on your plane.

That might seem like a glib example but the reality is that skills are what add value to a product and are the barrier to anyone just replicating what you do because they just fancy it.

This is also not an efficient way for industry to act. We are not going to achieve economic development if it is always beholden on employers to equip their staff with the skills they need to do their jobs.

I can see that in some sections of industry the focus on soft skills are relevant but these are a minority. Focussing on communication and networks does a gross disservice to the young people  that are currently suffering from decades of disinvestment in skills and short termism.

This concerns me for two reasons. Firstly networks, as they exist in Birmingham can be exclusive, whilst they might circulate jobs amongst a connected elite they can exclude those sections of society that are the more vulnerable to poverty and worklessness.  This is a compelling argument to improve networks but first we must harness the potential we have in our population. An example, that might be peculiar to Birmingham, is the vast array of skills and life experience (practical and qualifications) that exist in our immigrant community. For example many refugees are the most qualified people of the countries that they are trying to escape, they are not plugged into our social networks and do not have the same access to employment.

Secondly I believe the notion that skills are easily transferred from one person to another, seemingly by osmosis, buys into the something for nothing society so loved by New Labour in the 90s. We need to produce things with worth and the transient nature of an ephemeral service sector does not do this. These are the ideals that created the financial apocalypse and the X Factor.

Sorry, I had to come back and edit this so it ended on a bombastic and ridiculous note.

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