Sci-Ence! Justice Leak!

Scott Walker, The Zombies, Edgard Varese, Small Faces, Serge Gainsbourg… Spotify Playlist For This Week

Posted in music by Andrew Hickey on May 29, 2009

This week’s playlist, which I’ve titled Misty Rosary, doesn’t have an organising theme like the other ones I’ve done recently, it’s just seventeen songs I really like right now. I hope you will too…

Misty Roses by The Zombies is a live performance from the Odessey And Oracle 40th Anniversary CD/DVD, and actually only features Colin Blunstone of the Zombies, plus touring band member Keith Airey and a string quintet, recreating the arrangement of the Tim Hardin song from Blunstone’s first solo album. One of the most gorgeous things ever in pop music, seriously.

Mr Bellamy by Paul McCartney is the best thing by a long way from his most recent solo album proper, Memory Almost Full, and the most interesting thing he’s done in a long time – it sounds like nothing so much as Sparks, but Sparks covering Love In The Open Air (the love theme from The Family Way, which McCartney wrote in 1965).

Guilty As Charged by John C Reilly is from the film Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story. I was put off that film for a long time by its promotional material, which made it look like the kind of thing that Will Ferrel would be in, but in fact it’s a very sharp, funny film – a parody of rock biopics, but particularly Walk The Line. But the music’s what makes it – it has the best original soundtrack since A Mighty Wind. This one’s a spot-on Ring Of Fire Johnny Cash with a spot of Secret Agent Man thrown in. Reilly is a great vocalist – not just ‘for an actor’, he’s an astonishing singer by any standards – but what makes this soundtrack is the attention paid to production details. All the songs sound like they could have come from the time they’re set, and that’s a much harder thing to do than people realise.

Ionisation by Edgard Varese is a wonderful piece of atonal percussion music, hugely influential on everyone from Pierre Boulez to Frank Zappa. The present day composer refuses to die!

If I Could Have Her Tonight by Neil Young is from Young’s eponymous first solo album, still my favourite of all his albums. Back then, Young had quite an unusual sound, somewhere halfway between the psych-pop of Love and the country-pop of the Byrds or solo Mike Nesmith, and while much of his later stuff’s good, it’s less interesting than the music he was making then.

Tin Soldier by The Small Faces is possibly the best rock (as opposed to pop) single ever made. Everything about it – the dynamics, Steve Marriot’s vocal, those Jaws piano chords at the start, is about as perfect as it gets.

Smoke Gets In Your Eyes by Serge Gainsbourg is a fairly straight rendition, but from an album, Rock Around The Bunker, which was pretty much what it sounds like…

Do Nothing Til You Hear From Me by Billie Holiday is a cover of the Duke Ellington song, originally titled Concerto For Cootie.

Take Me In Your Lifeboat by The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band features Del McCoury and two of his sons, making it essentially a Del McCoury Band track. Which means it’s by some of the best bluegrass musicians today.

High Coin by Harpers Bizarre is written and arranged by Van Dyke Parks, in a very similar style to his work on Song Cycle (which I must write about at some point).

You Don’t Know Me by Ray Charles is from Modern Sounds In Country And Western Music vol 1 (my copy of which, bought second-hand, was the best 50p I ever spent). One of the greatest vocal performances of all time, this is one of a very small number of songs that can reduce me to tears.

Golden Days by William Grant Still is an excerpt from The American Scene, one of Still’s last major works. For those who don’t know him, Still was ‘the black Gershwin’, going from arranging for WC Handy and playing with James P Johnson to being the first African-American to conduct a symphony orchestra. He’s a sadly underrated figure in American music, and fans of Gershwin, Ives, Copeland et al could do worse than check out his stuff.

Another Time by Curt Boettcher is a lovely gentle soft-pop song. In the mid-60s a sort of informal collective of people centred round Boettcher and Gary Usher recorded about six albums worth of soft-pop stuff which mostly remained unreleased til the 90s, and has since been released on several different labels under several different names – the same tracks can be found as by Curt Boettcher and/or the Ballroom and/or The Millennium and/or Sandy Salisbury and/or Sagittarius, depending on the reissue. These are all worth getting, but the stuff released as by Boettcher or Salisbury solo tends to be the best.

Oh Bondage, Up Yours by X-Ray Specs is here for three reasons – firstly that there are too many slow songs in this list, secondly that there aren’t many women, and thirdly because it’s fucking great. “Some people think that little girls should be seen and not heard, but I say… OH BONDAGE, UP YOURS!”

Lyke-Wake Dirge by Pentangle is actually only my second-favourite version of this old song (after that by The Young Tradition), which is surprising because Pentangle were one of the most interesting bands of the late 60s, fusing traditional folk and modern jazz. It’s an old Yorkshire song to be sung at wakes, and the lyrics (which can be found here) talk about ordeals of purgatory, saying that after you’re dead you have to go through various trials, and will only have to protect you the things you gave to the poor in this life – you have to walk over thorns and can only wear shoes if you gave shoes to the poor, and so on. Quite an inspiring, hopeful but earthy take on things, as tends to be the way with Yorkshire religion.

You Set The Scene by Love is an alternative mix of the track from Forever Changes. The amount of invention in this song – the number of different melodies, and the strength of them – is astoundng. Just listen to the section starting ‘this is the time in life that I am living’ without shivers going down your spine. I DARE you.

And Rosary by Scott Walker is from Tilt, his ‘comeback’ album, and (along with his more recent The Drift and …And Who Shall Go To The Ball? And Who Shall Go To The Ball?) possibly the strangest records ever made by a major figure.

League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen (Warning – might be triggering and also contains spoilers)

Posted in comics by Andrew Hickey on May 28, 2009

Before I start the review proper, a note about an issue I’ve got with this…

My problem with this comic isn’t so much with the comic itself, as with it being yet another exemplar of a rather worrying trend in Alan Moore’s work – in a large, large proportion of Moore’s work – the overwhelming majority of it, in fact – there is a rape scene or other scene of seualised violence. There are exceptions – his Superman stories, as one obvious example, and I’m pretty sure Tom Strong has nothing like that in it. But From Hell, Watchmen, all four League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen volumes, V For Vendetta, The Killing Joke, Lost Girls… all have rape or attempted rape scenes. If you pick up an Alan Moore comic, you can expect there to be a scene involving someone trying – or succeeding – to rape someone else.

Now, in most cases Moore judges this pretty well – it’s never portrayed as anything other than a hideous, violating act perpetrated by odious individuals (the exception being in the first League volume, where it’s treated as a bit of a joke), it’s almost never used in the way rape is usually used in comics – to give male characters motivation (with the exception of The Killing Joke, which Moore disowns now) and it’s often coupled with an explicitly feminist message, as in From Hell.

And I wouldn’t want to suggest that Moore should avoid the subject altogether – rape does, unfortunately, happen, and to exclude any part of human experience from art is a bad idea. Certainly, something like From Hell – a story about Jack The RIpper – couldn’t possibly have been created under such restrictions. In each individual case it works – after all, Moore is a truly great writer, and very aware of the issues involved – but still, after a while it becomes problematic.

In fact I suspect it’s precisely *because* Moore is aware of the issues that the problem exists. The way rape is used in Moore’s stories strikes me very much as Moore doing something I often do myself – trying to overcompensate for his own privilege. He’s very aware of the misogyny of popular culture, and tries a bit too hard to show he disapproves, shouting “Look! Isn’t this terrible?! Rape is very bad! Treating women as sex objects is bad! Don’t do these bad things! It’s wrong!” to the point where it looks like he protests too much – his own good intentions making the work more problematic than it would be if he just avoided the subject.

It also makes the work more problematic for a reviewer – firstly because it has to be recommended with caveats (an unfortunately high proportion of my friends have been victims of some kind of sexual violence and would rather not be reminded of it, hence the warning in the title here, and I unfortunately suspect my friends aren’t especially anomalous in this) rather than unconditionally, and secondly because it means there are things I can’t do that I want to do. League is meant to be a fun romp, albeit one with dark moments, and I wanted to write this review as pastiche Brecht lyrics (much of the story in this volume is narrated with rewritten versions of Threepenny Opera lyrics), but I got two stanzas through rewriting The Ballad Of Dependency as a complaint about Moore’s over-use of rape in his comics before I realised how utterly offensive that could be…

But other than that, how did you enjoy the play Mrs Lincoln?

It’s actually rather fascinating – Moore and O’Neill seem to be incorporating Moore’s own previous work into the fiction they’re referencing in League – we almost have an ‘Alan Moore greatest hits’ here. The main reference is From Hell – here Jack The Ripper is ‘Jack MacHeath’ (MacHeath – Mack The Knife/Mackie Messer – from The Threepenny Opera), we have Crowley-substitutes and Iain Sinclair’s Mr Norton talking about psychogeography, and O’Neill does a spot-on Walter Sickert pastiche on the back cover. In fact this comes very close to being a sequel to From Hell in terms of subject, theme and mood.

But we also have a text feature in the back featuring a superhero created by Mick Anglo (this one used by permission), and the whole comic is a pirate story based around the Black Freighter (here renamed the Black Raider). The characters bursting into song also echo V For Vendetta (although there Moore was also echoing Brecht of course). It seems as if Moore is ostentatiously trying to say his own work is as much material for him to mine as anyone else’s.

(Incidentally, once again I appear to be talking about the writer to the exclusion of the artist, because I know more about writing than art. However, O’Neill’s surpassing himself here – just look at the cover design, or the back cover painting. And some of the panels of Suki singing directly to the reader are just scary. Also, given that the League members have now taken to wearing question marks all over their clothes, I am going to hereby declare, whether it’s Moore/O’Neill’s intention or not, that The Doctor joined the League between seasons 17 & 18, which would explain the stupid question marks he wears thereafter).

In itself, the story doesn’t give much to talk about other than spot-the-reference, which Jess Nevins already has covered, telling two parallel stories – of Janni the diver becoming Pirate Jennie while Jack Macheath is back in town and killing again, and of Mina, Raffles, Quatermain, Carnacki and Orlando investigating plans by Oliver Haddo to create a Moonchild. While it’s a satisfying issue in itself, this is mostly setup for the next few Century issues.

I may write more on this when I’ve thought about it a little more…

D’Hondt Forget To Vote

Posted in politics by Andrew Hickey on May 26, 2009

With the European elections coming up, many people are thinking, as one of my friends put it today, “I don’t know who to vote for and everyone whose political opinions I respect is partisan.”

Now, as no-one could possibly respect my political opinions, based as they are on blind ignorance, anger and a belief that everyone else is a complete bastard, I thought I’d tell you all how to vote.

Now, I am partisan, in that I am a member of a political party, but I’m not going to tell you to vote for the Liberal Democrats (even though I’m going to vote for them, and campaign to get other people to vote for them). In fact, if anyone takes my advice it will probably make them slightly less likely to vote Lib Dem. I’m going to give honest advice here.

Firstly, I’m going to assume if you’re looking for advice that you don’t have an absolute preference. If you’re Gordon Brown, then you’re probably going to want to vote Labour. Secondly, I’m going to assume that you do have *some* opinions – because you’re capable of reading this sentence, and thus qualify as a sentient being, so you probably have some preferences as to how you’d like to see the world run. And thirdly, I’m going to assume that you don’t support the Bastard Nazi Party (or their well-dressed cousins UKIP) , because supporters of fascist dictatorship voting would be hypocritical, wouldn’t it?

So given that, it’s reasonable to assume that you’re probably trying to decide between two parties – very few people are thinking “Well, I’m in five minds here – the Conservatives, the Socialist Workers, the Greens, the BNP and Plaid Cymru all have their good points…” – so once you’re in that position, the choice is actually simple – vote for the less popular of the two parties you’re trying to choose between, so long as they’re a ‘proper party’ (one of the ones that get mentioned, at least occasionally, in newspapers, not the Bring Back The Birch And Legalise Heroin Party or something). The reason you should vote for the *less* popular party is because the Euro elections use a ridiculous voting system called the d’Hondt system, which could almost be designed to give proportional representation a bad name.

(Please note, incidentally, that my advice here only works if not everyone takes it – if this post gets sixty million hits and the Greens or UKIP sweep the board because they’re ‘less popular’, don’t blame me).

Now, the way the d’Hondt system works is this – everyone votes for a party rather than a candidate, and the party with the most votes gets a seat. Simple so far. But then you halve the number of votes that party has, tot them up again, and see who now has the most votes. And going through the number of seats you have to allocate, each party’s votes count as 1/(n+1) votes where n is the number of seats the party’s already won.

Believe it or not, that’s the simplest way to explain it. The system’s absolutely horrible and gives PR a bad name (Lib Dems generally want multi-member STV which is a nice, simple, representative system which gives control to voters). Let’s have a look at how it works in practice. Suppose you’re one of only twenty-five voters, choosing between five parties (which we’ll call Red, Blue, Yellow, Green and Bastard). Now the other twenty-four people have voted:
Blue 9 Red 7 Yellow 4 Green 2 Bastard 2

Ignoring your vote for a while, that would play out as follows:
Blue win the first seat, so they now have 9/(1+1)=4.5 votes and one seat
Red win the next seat, so they now have 7/(1+1)=3.5 votes and one seat
Yellow win the next seat, so they now have 4/(1+1)=2 votes and one seat
Blue win the next seat, so they now have 9/(2+1)=3 votes and two seats
Red win the next seat, so they now have 7(2+1)=2.333 votes and two seats
Blue win the next seat, so they now have 9/(3+1)=2.25 votes and three seats
Red win the next seat, so they now have 7/(3+1)=1.75 votes and three seats
Blue win the next seat, so they now have 9(4+1)=1.8 votes and four seats

We now have Red with three seats, Blue with four, Yellow with one, and Yellow, Green and Bastard all tied for the last seat.

Now we add your vote in. If you’d voted for any of Yellow, Green or Bastard, then that party would get the extra seat. In the case of Yellow, your vote would count as half a vote in giving the yellow party its second seat. If you voted Green or Bastard, your vote would count as a full vote in giving those parties their first seat. On the other hand, if you’d voted for Blue, your vote would only be counting as 0.2 votes for the final seat, or 0.25 if you vote Red. In both cases that would only bring them up so it was a four-way tie, rather than the three-way one it is at present.

So the smaller the party you vote for, the more your vote counts as the system allocates the last few seats. Now, one of the big things that’s happening in this European election is that the BNP are trying very hard to win a seat. In the North-West, for example, where I live, they’re running Nick Griffin, their leader. And with the current anti-politics mood in the country, it’s a real possibility that they might win.

Now, there are a variety of voting tactics that can be used to try and stop the Nazis getting a seat, and they all revolve around what happens at the low end of the scale. The Greens have been campaigning on this quite strongly, pointing out quite rightly that they only need to increase their share of the vote by 0.8% (assuming the BNP don’t increase their own share) to beat the BNP. This strategy is criticised here, which suggests that the best party for an anti-BNP vote would be UKIP (however, having seen their repellent propaganda about ‘unlimited immigration’ and ‘taking control of our borders’ I must say that they’re using the same racist rhetoric as the BNP and should be treated the same way) but also that ‘the most likely scenario’ would be the Lib Dems picking up a second seat (we only have one seat in the North West at the moment, but that’s because of a turncoat bastard who got elected as a Lib Dem and then took his seat as a Tory, which given that he was elected, as all MEPs are, on a party list system, meant he was depriving his supposed constituents of representation – they voted for the Lib Dems, not for him).

So if you want your vote to *matter*, vote for a small party. I’d obviously prefer it if you voted Lib Dem, but I could easily see a strategic vote for the Greens making sense in this election. Of course it helps that the Greens are the only party other than the Lib Dems I could consider voting for myself…

(BTW PLEASE note that the d’Hondt system is so completely fucked-up that there is no sensible way to predict in advance who’s going to win a seat, so this isn’t advocating that you switch your vote – if you want to vote Labour (though God knows why you would) don’t switch to the Lib Dems or Greens to ‘keep the BNP out’, just vote Labour. Tactical voting with d’Hondt is a fool’s errand. But if you’re honestly trying to choose between, say, Labour and the Lib Dems, or the Tories and the Greens, then the vote for the smaller party may well be of more use).

Ecological Debt by Andrew Simms

Posted in books, politics by Andrew Hickey on May 26, 2009

I was recently sent a review copy of this book by the publishers, Pluto Press, and it has put me in rather a difficult position. I want to review the book here – that’s why I’ve got it, after all – but all I can really say about it is that it makes a lot of sense and that many of the conclusions it comes to are pretty much those that I’d already reached on my own, though the book presents much of the evidence in one place.

The main thesis of the early part of the book is that we need to start looking at environmental problems in social justice terms – that while we’re (for values of ‘we’) campaigning to get third world debt dropped, we’re building up a much greater debt to those in the third world, because they will be disproportionately affected by the environmental problems caused by first-world consumption. Simm presents several examples of third-world countries that are already under threat from rising sea levels and other effects of climate change, and argues, quite rightly, that we have an obligation to these people to at the very least rectify the damage we’re doing to them.

However, half-way through the book, give or take, the focus shifts to our own economies, and what should be done once it is recognised there are real limits to economic growth imposed by the physical world (and even those of you who are climate sceptics must be aware that we are nearing peak oil, which will have as catastrophic an economic effect as climate change is having on the environment), as well as what should be done to ameliorate the effects of environmental damage.

While Simms takes some of his ideas from Cuba (though the ideas do actually sound perfectly reasonable, I tend not to trust anything that comes out of a dictatorship) much of what Simms talks about, especially a focus on mutual societies and co-operatives, should be of interest to liberals. I like his idea of an economics focussed on ‘dynamic equilibrium’ rather than on growth, though I disagree with him somewhat that growth can or should be stopped overall – what we need is a greater focus on ephemeralisation, doing more with fewer resources (which is something Simms mentions, to be fair, but in passing).

Simms is a director of the New Economics Foundation, and many of his ideas are linked to their Green New Deal and 100 Months campaigns (though now unfortunately their 100 months timeline is down to 91 months without significant progress…) and I shall be investigating their ideas more thoroughly over the next few weeks – economics is not my strong point, and I often think odd ideas are plausible until I investigate them in detail – but at first glance he seems to know his stuff.

This isn’t an essential book breaking new ground – if you’ve read the Guardian (or, until its imbecilification, the Independent) over the last few years you’ll probably be able to hum along – but it’s a very good summary of the problems we’ve got, coupled with a less-convincing but worthwhile attempt to work out how to fix the problems, and as such it’s definitely worth a read.

Ecological Debt: Global Warming And The Wealth Of Nations by Andrew Simms is available from Pluto Press. I received my copy as a free review copy, but was under no obligation to write a review, favourable or otherwise.

Linkblogging for 24/05/09

Posted in comics, computing, linkblogging, music, politics, science by Andrew Hickey on May 24, 2009

I have many posts that need writing over the next few days (review of LOEG: Century 1, a post about why Lib Dems should support unions, a review of Ecological Debt, my next BFAW), as well as putting together the Newniverse site, and providing some more comment to a Special Secret Project coming up soon, but I’m having trouble organising my thoughts in a coherent manner, so for now have some links:

Planet Perl, a perl blog aggregator, has started having some very interesting stuff on it recently (rather than its normal stuff about data types and suchlike). As well as some stuff on Dreamwidth development, it’s also got a proof that the stable matching bipartite problem leads to polyamory as the stablest option (with the unfortunate side-effect of suicide), a demonstration that the word ‘wank’ disproves a theory in linguistics, a post on removing the phrase ‘known to man’ from wikipedia and a simple disproof of some bad statistics on the net, none of which involve Perl anything more than very tangentially, but all of which are written by Mark Dominus, whose posts I’ll have to look out for in the future. His blog is here, and I’ll be adding it separately to my feed reader. I urge you all to check it out…

Over at the Mindless Ones, The Beast Must Die has a great post about Fighting Fantasy books (I was amazed how clearly I remembered most of the ones he talks about), and they have another round-table ‘annocommentation’ of Seaguy.

Tucker completes the thirty best albums of 1978 countdown with a look at Parallel Lines (which has coincidentally become Holly’s favourite album in the whole of this week, though I’m still obsessing over Blunstone’s first two solo albums).

People have been linking all over the place, quite rightly, to James Graham’s post about the Telegraph, Guardian and BBC being misogynist arseholes towards Jo Swinson. However, Jennie also rightly points out that she and Caron had brought the subject up earlier to much less response, and wonders if it’s the ‘blokeosphere’ in action.

And a lot of people have been writing about electoral reform. I won’t link to everything, but Alix at Lib Dem Voice, Andy at Wouldn’t It Be Scarier and Costigan Quist have all had interesting things to say.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 200 other followers