Archive — Culture

JoggingRichard Dawson

2020 cover

A song I heard on the radio this week that made my ears prick up. I wasn’t previously aware of Richard Dawson. But this is a brilliant song — dark, funny, meaningful, relatable, of our time. Once again I’m beginning to think that the most interesting music is actually coming from rock music for a change. Consider the album pre-ordered.

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Why did the UK become a failed state?Simon Wren-Lewismainly macro

This post is about how a policy (crashing out of the EU) that will do nearly everyone harm and some great harm seems to have considerable, albeit still minority, support…

You either have to assume that a third of the population has gone mad, or instead see this as a fundamental failure of information. The UK is a failed state because the producers of information have made it fail.

According to Simon Wren-Lewis, this information problem is being facilitated by the media.

In one sense, the idea that people don’t have enough information to make an informed decision is nothing new. As I’ve written in the past, ignorance is inevitable.

But there does seem to be something particular going on in Britain right now that is causing something even worse than mere ignorance.

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Photo — 2019-08-18

Continuum by Bridget Riley

Continuum — Bridget Riley — on exhibition at the Scottish National Gallery.

It’s Bridget Riley’s only ever 3D work. Entering inside it, I perhaps understood why. It wasn’t quite tall enough to fully immerse me.

I highly recommend you visit this if you can. It is a very comprehensive exhibition of her career, spanning more than 70 years, including paintings from this year.

Bridget Riley study

The room containing her black-and-white works of the 1960s are of course a highlight. I am constantly in awe of how these static paintings can appear to be moving at great speed.

Bridget Riley studies

But I was also fascinated by the room containing her studies, where you can see her working out how to create these incredible mind-bending paintings.

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Photo — 2019-08-13

Bowl of white chocolate Coco Pops, looking just like Rice Krispies

White chocolate Coco Pops are the greatest/worst invention because it looks just like you’re eating Rice Krispies.

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Note — 2019-08-02

My Omnichord normally gathers dust in the corner of a room. So when someone retweeted into my timeline Karine Polwart asking if anyone in Edinburgh had an Omnichord she could borrow for some filming, I was happy to help, and to see the Omnichord out of its case for a change!

It makes its little appearance in this video for her cover of Chance by the Big Country.

This is part of her new album of Scottish covers, Scottish Songbook. It’s out today on lovely red vinyl.

My name on the back sleeve of Scottish Songbook

I had always wondered what it would take to get a ‘thank you’ on the back of an album. Now I know. 🙂

Hopefully one day I’ll get round to playing the Omnichord more often myself…

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RainbowBattles

Mirrored cover

Their single Atlas may have got the most attention, but for me it was Rainbow that was the centrepiece of Battles’ extraordinary 2007 album Mirrored. It mixed cartoonish melodies with prog rock hardness.

I first came across Battles on the release of EP C/B EP, a compilation of their early EPs. Hearing SZ2 for the first time was hugely exciting. It felt like exactly the music I was looking for all along, without ever knowing it.

So even though Mirrored was their first album, it already represented a surprising change in direction. The chin-stroking post-rock had been superseded by Pinky and Perky vocals.

It was confusing. But listening to it for a second time, it felt as vital as their early material. In time, more so.

Their live performances were genuinely mind-boggling. They did things with live loops and sampling in ways that no-one else dared.

At the height of their powers, Battles made music in a way no-one else was making it. Watching them live was like watching four people walking a tightrope simultaneously. It could go wrong at any moment, and watching them push themselves and cope with it or recover from going wrong was a marvel.

Brian Eno counted himself as a fan:

When you see a band you really like, the reason you really like them is because you wish you’d had that idea. And I saw them and thought, “dammit, why didn’t I think of that?”

Have a spare ten minutes? Treat yourself to the slowed down version someone’s uploaded to YouTube.

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Photo — 2019-07-19

Assembly instructions with detail of Thom Yorke's Anima record packaging

I do enjoy the Ikea-style assembly instructions included when you buy a fancy Radiohead / Thom Yorke record.

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VexationsErik Satie

Erik Satie portrait

Erik Satie’s Vexations is shrouded in mystery. It was not published during Satie’s lifetime. It’s thought it was composed in 1893. But it went undiscovered until 1963, when John Cage first performed it publicly.

It is just three lines long, but is accompanied by this ambiguous instruction (translated from French):

In order to play the theme 840 times in succession, it would be advisable to prepare oneself beforehand, and in the deepest silence, by serious immobilities

While this is usually interpreted as an instruction to repeat the music 840 times to complete a performance, it’s not clear if this was actually Satie’s intention.

The tempo instruction is “Très lent” — very slow. In the words of Wikipedia, this “could mean anything”.

Cage’s first performance lasted over 18 hours — longer than he had estimated. The CD recording I own lasts only 23 minutes — a tiny fraction of the full experience. The liner notes to that CD flags up the following:

A 70 minute performance (40 repetitions) of Vexations by Alan Marks is available on the CD Vexations (LTMCD 2389)…

Despite the repetitive nature of the music, it never seems to get boring. There is something disturbing yet irresistible about it. I always imagine falling very slowly towards an uncertain destination. It feels like being trapped in an Escher painting.

This piece predates muzak and ambient music by at least 50 years. The CD liner notes say it “provided minimalism with an important historical precedent.” It even predates Dada.

This YouTube video contains a full performance, albeit one performed seemingly too fast.

You don’t hear this on adverts quite as often as Gymnopédie 1

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The RapanthemModeselektor

Hello Mom! cover

In retrospect, this tune (from 2005) sounds a little dated. A little bit too heavy on the post-Boards of Canada glitchy hip-hop influence. Bbbbutttt… it’s still pretty good.

I remember listening to this album a lot when I was studying at the University of Edinburgh, taking lunchtime walks round the Meadows. 14 years on I find myself taking the same lunchtime walks, working for the university. Crazy days.

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I’m 49Prefab Sprout

I Trawl The Megahertz cover

I’ve been aware of Paddy McAloon’s 2003 album I Trawl the Megahertz for a while. While I’d always meant to pick it up, I never got round to it. In a sense it’s just as well, as this year it was re-released, remastered, and repackaged as a Prefab Sprout album.

Suffering with health problems, Paddy McAloon spent his time at home, listening to radio phone-ins. This formed the basis of the material on the album. The stunning 22 minute long title track features a splicing together of fragments of these broadcasts to tell a story in spoken word.

Most of the rest of the album is instrumental, but I’m 49 returns to the radio broadcasts, this time sampling them directly.

As pointed out by Paddy McAloon in this reissue’s liner notes, it’s not the first time the musicality of found voices has been exploited by a musician. He namechecks Gavin Bryars’ Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet. Steve Reich’s Different Trains also springs to mind. Musically, the albums seems to take a clear cue from American minimalist composers.

The story of the making of the album — centred around Paddy McAloon’s ill health — also reminds me of how Brian Eno is said to have pursued ambient music. It is said that Brian Eno was in bed, unable to get up to adjust the volume of his radio, and ended up being inspired by the sparseness of the resulting sound.

I Trawl the Megahertz has a melancholic vibe. “I’m 49, divorced.” What makes ordinary people bare their souls to radio hosts? This seems to be the question asked by the album. But the album also provides an answer — to adversity. Faced with illness, like Brian Eno, Paddy McAloon created some wonderful music.

Now I only wonder why it took me until now to discover it properly.

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DivineSébastien Tellier

Sexuality album cover

I woke up this morning to BBC Radio 6 Music playing a remix of Kilometer by Sébastien Tellier. It is quite some way to be introduced to the day.

But with the Eurovision Song Contest this weekend, it put me in mind of the fact that Sébastien Tellier is in fact responsible for my favourite Eurovision performance, Divine.

France’s 2008 entry was controversial, because Divine was sung in English, which France’s powers-that-be don’t like. So Sébastien Tellier had to re-write part of it in French.

As you can see, that was only the start of the weirdness. The bearded women, the golf cart, the weird locked-off camera angles. And who else would have the audacity to consume helium in the middle of what would probably be the biggest performance of their life?

There was no doubt where my vote was going in 2008. It came 19th. That result was at least better than their previous three entries.

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Scapegoating user experience designKhoi VinhSubtraction

Stylised photo of a Nest camera

An article published yesterday in The Washington Post demonstrates the danger of design’s failure to broaden popular understanding of our craft.

The article pinpoints Nest’s focus on reducing friction as the reason for their cameras’ weak security.

Khoi Vinh points out that…

…the concept of user experience writ large is not to blame here; what’s actually at fault is bad user experience practice.

The point being that good security is fundamental to good user experience. As any good designer would know, they are not in conflict. Quite the opposite, in fact.

It strikes me that Nest are using ‘reducing friction’ as a poor excuse for not implementing better security. I’m sure they’re not the only ones guilty of this.

On another point, this article got me thinking about journalism. Khoi Vinh refuses to blame the Washington Post’s perspective on “lazy journalism”, perhaps correctly.

But any time I read a mainstream/non-specialist journalist write about a topic I know a little about (motorsport, the web, whatever), I’m always astonished at how many basic errors are made. It’s a challenge if designers want the help of journalism when “explaining what it is that we do to the world at large.”

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Sybil´s DreamBeautify Junkyards

The Invisible World of Beautify Junkyards cover

A recent slice of hauntology from the collectable Ghost Box Records. I have to admit this album, The Invisible World of Beautify Junkyards, has taken a while to grow on me. But my, has it grown.

As much as I love it, some Ghost Box material can get a bit samey. Perhaps it’s inevitable (or intentional?) given that it showcases a type of dark nostalgia; mal-remembered pasts. (Or, in the label’s own words, “the misremembered musical history of a parallel world.”)

Beautify Junkyards breathes new life into the ghostly universe of hauntology. They are Portuguese, but seemingly take cues from British acid folk music. Unashamedly inspired by an imagined past, but adding adding new dimensions to create something uncannily new. And with a songwriterly quality that isn’t always at the forefront of a Ghost Box project.

It almost takes us full circle to the early material of Broadcast, in many ways the genesis of Ghost Box.

If Sybil´s Dream didn’t do it for you, try Ghost Dance.

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Want to see what one digital future for newspapers looks like? Look at The Guardian, which isn’t losing money anymoreJoshua BentonNieman Journalism Lab

"The Guardian (actually makes money now)"

How the Guardian finally started making a profit, in three steps.

With a functionally infinite supply of free news available, the relationship your reader has to you has to be a lot more like the one public radio listeners have with their favorite station. They’re not buying access; they’re supporting a cause.

I’d also add that the Guardian has one major advantage over almost every other publisher in the world. They uniquely decided not to go down the rabbit hole of autoplaying videos, pop-up adverts, and other infuriating ways of getting in the way of what the readers actually came for.

This week I visited the Scotsman website, and one of the ads inserted a nasty redirect that my browser told me was taking me to an untrustworthy site. There are lots of news sites that I simply can’t trust for this reason. The Guardian is one I can still trust.

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RecallPlaid

Polymer cover

A surprising* new dimension to Plaid’s sound — glitchy and hard-hitting.

The publicity surrounding their forthcoming album, Polymer, says:

The problems and benefits of Polymers felt like good themes for this album, their repetitious strength, endurance and troubling persistence, the natural versus the synthetic, silk and silicone, the significant effect they have on our lives.

Plaid make good music, but rarely have they seemed quite so vital as this.

* I say surprising, although it had previously been revealed in this little-seen video collaboration with Laura Buckley called Repel Darker:

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The cave paintings of BrexitDavid Allen GreenThe Law and Policy Blog

Cave painting

David Allen Green explains how the usual sources of information on British politics have been useless at explaining Brexit.

A Brexit historian with access only to the front parts of UK newspapers and to government publications would be like the classical historian convinced that the Romans were pre-occupied with crockery.

He notes that Brussels correspondents have been more informative than their Westminster counterparts. His point about Irish journalism providing better insights resonates with me as well. They’ve seemed much more switched on about certain aspects of the Brexit shitshow.

British politics is in a huge a mess at the moment. Is part of that down to the fact that British journalism has got stuck in a rut?

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15 months of fresh hell inside FacebookNicholas Thompson and Fred VogelsteinWired

Mark Zuckerberg surrounded by Facebook icons

I enjoy Wired’s periodic long articles about Facebook. They avoid the shrillness that most media outlets exhibit when writing or talking about Facebook. This article is all the more powerful for it. And unlike many self-publicists who spend a lot of time writing basic stuff about Facebook and acting as though they’ve discovered the story of the decade, this contains genuine insights and new information.

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People in the CityAir

10 000 Hz Legend cover

A great song, really effectively set to footage from Koyaanisqatsi by someone on YouTube.

10 000 Hz Legend is not as well-regarded as Air’s first album, Moon Safari. But I personally prefer it. Moon Safari opened the floodgates to a host of cliched chillout albums by sub-par artists. 10 000 Hz Legend shook it all off, and carved a new path. I think it stands the test of time better as a result.

This one appears to be the official video, but for some reason using a rather weak live version of the song.

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Close to the EdgeYes

Close to the Edge cover

Prog rock has a bad name. Prog rock by Yes perhaps has a particularly bad name. But sometimes, a 19 minute long wig out is what you need. It accompanied a lunchtime for me last week, and my afternoon felt better than my morning. What a song.

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Could Brexit break the BBC? The tensions, the bewildering question of ‘balance’ — and how to get it right — Mark Damazer, Prospect Magazine

Could Brexit break the BBC? The tensions, the bewildering question of ‘balance’ — and how to get it right — Mark Damazer, Prospect Magazine

An impressively thoughtful piece from the former Radio 4 controller, on why the BBC is struggling to remain unbiased amid Brexit.

One senior presenter put it like this: “We should encourage debate… while being more militant about our core approach—that we are fact-based, and question and test all sides of the debate. We should not be doing vanilla ‘on the one hand’ versus ‘on the other hand’ journalism. I am sympathetic to the arguments about the danger of ‘false equivalence,’ and think we should be clear about the weight of arguments. But if a substantial number of people believe, so to speak, that bananas are blue we have to treat that seriously. Seriously, but robustly.”

This article also briefly covers some of the limitations of TV news bulletins, and explains why in some aspects radio performs better. I do find it difficult to watch a bulletin like the 10 O’Clock News (I think I even watched the piece he mentions from Mansfield, with my head in my hands). In that format, it is impossible to cover anything in real depth — and that seems to be the true problem at the moment.

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Note — 2019-03-06

I hate to be that guy, but the latest update to the Pocket Casts Android app has completely destroyed it.

Overnight, the player widget was erased. But worse still, all the playlists I have created have disappeared and there appears to be no way of recreating them. The playlists feature has vanished. There is a mysterious new ‘Filters’ option that I can’t make head nor tail of. Whenever I try to create a new filter, it crashes.

I’d move to Google Podcasts, but that doesn’t support playlists either… Ugh.

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Halogen — Kelly Moran

Ultraviolet cover

I was introduced to Kelly Moran by her first album on Warp Records, Ultraviolet, released a few months ago. For some reason (OK, maybe the Warp thing) I had assumed it was electronic music. So I was astonished to learn from this video that it’s actually a live prepared piano. Stunning stuff.

From that, I moved on to watch a performance of an older track, Limonium. Although short, it is perhaps even better than anything on Ultraviolet. One to watch no doubt, and I’ll certainly be investigating her back catalogue.

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Autechre make 19 previously unreleased live recordings available to buy – Scott Wilson, Fact Magazine

Autechre

Autechre make 19 previously unreleased live recordings available to buy – Scott Wilson, Fact Magazine

I totally have 19 spare hours to listen to all this right now.

thisisfine.jpg

These 19 newly released files are from the same tour as the 9 that were unveiled a few years ago, so it’s not new new. But I’m listening to the Orlando one right now and there’s enough new stuff going on to justify the £1 per MP3.

This makes me a bit more hopeful that something from their 2016 tour will one day emerge as well. The poster hangs on our living room wall.

Autechre 2016 tour poster in our living room

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rightclick — Mira Calix

utopia cover

It’s more than ten years since Mira Calix last released music, with her career having taken her in a more multidisciplinary artistic direction. I’ve found her music in the past to be a bit hit-and-miss. But when I heard rightclick I ended up being quite excited for the release of her new EP, utopia.

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Samaritans — Idles

I’ve become obsessed with this song. It contains an important message that is beginning to be heard, but still needs to be heard more widely. This is a song for now.

Discovering Idles has felt a bit like discovering Pulp when they released Common People. Although 9-year-old me didn’t really understand what appealed to me about Pulp, now I think I do. Distinctive-sounding music, yes. But also lyrics that are interesting (a rarity in and of itself), and important, and for right now.

The first time I knowingly heard Idles it was when another song was played on the radio in the morning, Great. I remember sitting up in my bed, astonished at the lyrics. You don’t often hear songs that are so political, especially ones that actually hit the nail on the head — and say what I would want to say, but so much better.

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A love letter to high street music shops — Lis Ferla, last year’s girl

Image from last year's girl

A love letter to high street music shops — Lis Ferla, last year’s girl

Another perspective on the troubles faced by HMV. Lis Ferla echoes my thoughts on why bricks-and-mortar record stores of all sorts are a vital part of the music ecosystem.

But for me, it’s about the ceremony. The owning of a tangible product. It’s the reason behind the hall cupboard stacked high with CDs I lack the immediate capacity to play, and the records that take pride of place in the living room. It’s why I’ve never gotten on board with streaming, preferring the relative “ownership” of a digital download when it’s the cheapest, easiest way to get my fix.

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Windowlicker — Aphex Twin

Windowlicker cover

The other day we heard Windowlicker by Aphex Twin being played on BBC Radio 6 Music in the morning. On the one hand, this is very excellent. On the other, it has made it less likely that Alex will let me set the radio alarm to wake us up with 6 Music in the new year.

Needless to say, Windowlicker is a masterpiece. At the time it was mind-bendingly futuristic-sounding. 20 years on it still sounds pretty fresh and exciting.

It was also the last thing Aphex Twin released before Drukqs, which might explain why the album got mixed reviews.

When the video for Windowlicker was featured on one of those Channel 4 top 100 programmes, it resulted in this fantastic TV moment, featuring Frank Sidebottom.

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The hurricane web

Screenshot of the text only version of the NPR website

The hurricane web

This post really underlines how media companies have taken the web in totally the wrong direction.

It shows how media organisations like CNN and NPR brought out lightweight “text only” versions of their websites to help hurricane-stricken areas with low bandwidth.

…in some aspects, they are actually better than the original.

Most importantly, it’s user friendly. People get what they came for (the news) and are able to accomplish their tasks.

It reminds me of the GDPR compliant version of the USA Today website, which many noted was actually a far better experience than the standard version that was filled with trackers and ads.

Think how brilliant the web could be again, if people removed all the crap from their pages and focused on what users actually need.

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Technology changes how authors write, but the big impact isn’t on their style

Writing ball

Technology changes how authors write, but the big impact isn’t on their style

How technology affects the way we write — but not necessarily in the ways we expect. I was particularly struck by the idea that one of the biggest changes has been how the “distinction between revision and composition began to erode entirely” with the advent of computers.

See also: The tools matter and the tools don’t matter

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TalkRadio host kept suicidal caller on phone until ambulance found him

Iain Lee

TalkRadio host kept suicidal caller on phone until ambulance found him

Radio host Iain Lee kept a suicidal caller to his show on the line for half an hour while emergency services tracked him down after he revealed he had taken an overdose.

I didn’t hear this particular call. It sounds like it must have been an extraordinary piece of radio, handled brilliantly by Iain Lee and Katherine Boyle.

This is another example of why Iain Lee’s Late Night Alternative is one of the most important programmes on radio.

Mental health has been a running theme of the programme almost since day one. I have probably learnt more about mental health from the Late Night Alternative than anywhere else.

But above all, it’s a programme about life.

Last week, one highly amusing caller talked about how her family had accidentally walked in on her father masturbating. The next caller apologised for making a clunky gear change, before talking about how his wife had died that day.

How extraordinary to think that people in this sort of position would turn to a radio show. Iain Lee sets out to provide an alternative to endless Brexit phone-ins. Continually, this programme demonstrates why we need that alternative.

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