Saturday, 31 December 2011

Top 10 (alternative) Albums of 2011

After what was a very disappointing 2010 alternative music seems to have hit back with a vengeance in 2011, in particular September, which saw 3 of my favourite 7 bands release albums, the lead singer of another release a solo album and my favourite release a documentary celebrating 20 years of them being together - here's hoping for 20 more years from Pearl Jam!  Overall it's difficult for me to chose between them as there are so many quality offerings, but here goes (in reverse order this time):

10. Sylosis - Edge of Earth
Not a band I've listened a lot to in the past, however I saw them live a while back I was very impressed.  Probably the heaviest band on this list and not what I'd normally listen to in my free time, there aren't exactly many breakdowns with clean sung chorus's but as far as their genre goes it's really bloody good!  A total of 14 tracks and 72 minutes means it's definitely value for money and really doesn't let up, it's strong all the way through - although not good for your neck with the amount of headbanging that you end up doing!  Although I wouldn't recommend it for anyone wanting a bit of easy listening!

 9. Alkaline Trio - Damnesia
Complete contrast to Sylosis - much easier to listen to.  I would normally scoff at putting a best of on this sort of list but Damnesia isn't your usual best of, 12 tracks have been reworked into semi acoustic format with the addition of 3 new songs.  With a back catalogue of 7 studio albums it's fair enough to be releasing such a thing but massive respect to them for not just lazily lumping a few together and hoping it sells.  Particularly love "Every Thug Needs A Lady" and ""Clavicle" - two of their classics beautifully reworked.

8. Skindred - Union Black
Skindred are really unique, I don't think there is anyone around like them.  The review linked to above says "You’ll read a lot about this album not living up to the Skindred live show, which is a fair point to make, but only true simply because Skindred are one of THE best live acts you’ll ever see", this is so true.  Benji's rastafarian rock vocals are just so unique and honestly I can't wait for their gig with Therapy? Next year.  For me this album is up with their Babylon album for quality.  

7. Bright Eyes - People's Key
Conor Oberst has one of those voices where when I hear it I just want to stop and listen.  As far as The People's Key goes it doesn't quite catch me as much as "I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning" or "Fevers & Mirrors" and it doesn't quite reach the heights of the critically acclaimed "Lifted or The Story Is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground" but that's just because these albums all set the bar so high.  His song writing is just as good really, if not better, he also manages not to be pigeon-holed whilst being everything at once.  It really is quite a gift.

6. Staind - Staind
Staind are my fourth favourite band of all time, so it would have been a massive surprise if they didn't make this list with an album - especially when it goes right back to what they do best and produced a really great album in the theme of their first two Tormented and Dysfunction.  There is only one reason why it isn't higher on my list and that is track 4: "Wannabe" (featuring Snoop Dog).  I really dislike this song.  However if you take that away it is a really awesome album that reminds me just why I like them so much 10/11 years on from when I purchased Break the Cycle.  

5. DevilDriver - Beast
It's as if they realised that their 2009 offering Pray For Villains wasn't their greatest album so they had to come back fairly quickly with a better offering and that they certainly did.  This album is just typical DevilDriver fair with their opening song "Dead To Rights" setting the pace from the word go.  Although I have to say Johnathan Boecklin on drums is the lynchpin of the band and Dez Fafara's lyrics are often lacking, however he makes up for this with pure anger!

4. Steven Wilson - Grace For Drowning
I may have been a little influenced here because I met him when he launched the album in Bristol (which means I own a lovely signed copy) but Steven Wilson is amazing at making beautiful music.  I have become a big fan of Porcupine Tree over the last couple of years and really like Blackfield too, so was a little disappointed by his first offering Insurgentes which, whilst good didn't capture me - it felt like the build up to something else.  Grace For Drowning however I had on repeat for about a month.  The album is all about loss, after being dedicated to his late father and you can feel it throughout the double disc edition.  My particular favourite is "Postcard" but the album is just so full of awesome tracks that you could argue for any.  There has been a lot of talk about Storm Corrosion releasing something in April next year, and I for one can't wait as this album from Steven and the latest offering from Mikael Åkerfeldt's Opeth have both blown me away... which leads me nicely into:

3. Opeth - Heritage
As embarrassing as this is to admit - this was the first Opeth album I have purchased.  After one listen through I knew it wouldn't be the last!  There is an awesome melodic structure to all of their riffs whilst Åkerfeldt's vocals are hauntingly good.  From the sounds of things this is not a typical Opeth fan's favourite album - too prog, however I am a prog fan so maybe this is why I love it!

2. Dream Theater - A Dramatic Turn Of Events
If you've heard one Dream Theater album you've pretty much heard them all.  You know exactly what you're getting as soon as you select play, exactly the same as their other albums.  But when their other albums are so good what's the problem?  There was the obvious worry that Mike Mangini wouldn't have settled in behind the drums and there would have been a gaping hole left behind by Mike Portnoy's surprising exit, however this is not the case.  The album is none stop awesome songs performed brilliantly.  "Build Me up, Break Me Down" is almost industrial in places and a refreshing change to have another Dream Theater song that I'd happily play at an Industrial/Metal night.  The stand out song though is the ballad at the very end "Beneath The Surface", when I heard this first I swear a tear formed.  This has become one of my favourite albums already, along with their previous offering of Black Clouds and Silver Linings.  It had to be something good to pip it for me...

How do you follow possibly the greatest metal album of all time in the form of The Blackening? Well if you're Machine Head you do this by making sure your next album blows any other album released that year out of the water.  The first 30 minutes or so are just pure blistering metal, there is hardly room to pause for breath.  Fortunately the chance to pause comes as the 5th song - "Darkness Within" starts.  On first listening this is not a Machine Head song, it doesn't seem to fit, however the more you listen the more you realise just how epic it is.  Their performance of it at Wembley Arena at the start of this month is something I'll remember for a long time. The song itself really resonates with me about how music can be there for you when you need it most.  The only disappointment for me is the use of the children's vocals in "Who We Are", however, as they are the band member's children I shall let them off this minor misdemeanor and thank them for what was a brilliant album. 

In short it has been an awesome year from my perspective for music, I hope it has from everyone else's point of view.  The only sadness for me was the passing of Amy Winehouse.  I know she was often criticised for her private life and often the butt of jokes but I thought she was wonderfully talented.  In addition to this the memory that will stay with me most from 2011 was the tribute to Slipknot bassist Paul Grey, RIP both.  Here's hoping 2012 will be just as good but without the need for any sadness.  

Tuesday, 20 December 2011

Monday, 19 December 2011

A woman's place is in the kitchen...

...according to the Metro at least:

I wonder what percentage of men manage to cook a festive meal without a mishap, how many of them make decent gravy, remember to defrost the turkey and know how long it should be cooked for.  How much of the pressure is also applied by men doing it?

I find it interesting that an article like this is published at the same time as a discussion in the letters page regarding a previous article and the attitude lad's mags have to women.  I feel that stereotypes like the one above are just as bad at demeaning women.  

That said, I think I'll try and be a little more helpful this year when I get back from having a drink with the men whilst the women are in the kitchen... just because it's tradition doesn't make it fair.

Thursday, 15 December 2011

Stoke should complain...

Last week Stoke City had the great achievement of reaching the knock out stages of the Europa League (unfortunately they have received a very tough draw).  Lots of people mock the competition, however I think it's great - not for the big clubs like the Manchester sides and Spurs (therefore I wouldn't give Champions League drop outs this "second prize") who could probably do without it, but for teams like Stoke.  It wasn't too long ago that Middlesbrough reached the final and being from the North East I thoroughly enjoyed watching their entertaining journey.  Fulham fans also seemed to revel in their achievement also reaching the final two seasons ago.  The competition is great for giving the smaller clubs a moment in the spotlight.  I genuinely hope that Stoke outlast City and United in this year's tournament (I do normally support the underdog but always support UK clubs in Europe).  I'm sure all Middlesbrough fans remember them knocking our Roma, it would be equally as impressive for Stoke to trouble Valencia.

I think Tony Pulis is doing an really good job there, yes they are a physical team with a habit of scoring goals from long throws and set pieces but I think their style of play has improved each year in the league and in the three and a half seasons in the Premier League they haven't looked like being relegated (having achieved 45, 47 and 46 points respectively and 24 from this season's 16 games despite the distraction of Europe).  

They are however wrong to rule out a complaint following the appalling treatment their players received in their final Europa league game away in Besiktas.  I understand that Pulis, like many managers, like to forge almost a siege mentality where the rest of the world seem to want them to fail but that is no reason not to follow the proper procedures when another club/their fans have broken the rules.  Nobody would find it acceptable to turn up to work and have objects thrown at you whilst you sit at your desk from people trying to injure you/cause your performance to suffer, so this shouldn't be acceptable on a football pitch when footballers are doing their jobs.  UEFA really should crack down on this irrespective of a Stoke complaint.  Obviously the benefits of playing at home include the familiar conditions and the home support, however there is a thin line between supporting your team and abusing the opposition.  If it was up to me I'd throw them out, take a zero tolerance and if it happens next time ban the club from European competition for a number of years - the fans would then soon learn not to do that.

I am pleased to see UEFA have taken action against Celtic for their "illicit chanting" and also that Celtic chose not to appeal.  There should be no room for this in society irrespective of it being at a sporting venue.  I don't feel that the punishment was harsh enough, playing behind closed doors or throwing them out would have sent a stronger message - especially as their fan's don't seem to have gotten the message.  I know this punishes the whole for a minority of fan's actions but this sort of thing should not be tolerated.  

At it's best sport brings people from different cultures and societies together.  This should not be threatened by a small minority who do their best to destabilise this/the opposition.  

NUS needs to stop scaring students...

I was appalled to read a story in the Metro this morning (well last week now) claiming that students are turning to work in the sex industry to meet the cost of their tuition fees.  There is an extended version of the story on BBC news which is a little more insightful.  Obviously it is terrible when people feel that their situation leaves them with no choice but to turn to prostitution, there needs to be clear advise and support to any student who finds themselves in such a situation - but no-one will be in that situation because of the level of fees as repayments are income contingent.

I got angry with this as it took what is a worrying story and politicised it by the inclusion of tuition fees when they should not be a relevant factor.  By perpetuating the myth and including it in such stories all that they are doing is putting more potential students off applying for University as they think they wont be able to afford it.  An good piece in the Lib Dem Voice a little while back highlighted how Scotland's free Tuition actually makes it harder on the students as in order to save money on fees they reduce the grants and loans (i.e. the support) that students receive whilst doing their studies.  Since no student pays fees up front and the level of support is higher the fees system actually is less reason for students to be "forced" to turn to the sex industry.

"The NUS also told BBC 5 live Breakfast it estimated about 20% of women working in lap dancing clubs were students."

This statistic doesn't surprise me at all.  I would have thought that a large proportion of women working in this (legal) profession are of typical student age, the hours would probably fit in well with their courses and it would be an opportunity for them to make really good money.  (I'd wager that the salaries/tips would be a lot better than working in a supermarket or just behind a bar).  As long as no woman is forced into the situation and sees it as a genuine choice I fail to see where the problem lies here and of course more people work in the industry as it's become more socially acceptable.  

The key issue is to make sure no woman (or man) ever feels that their only option is to go into a potentially exploitative industry (legal or illegal).  There is support available to them, the NUS would be better served advising their students of this support rather than trying to scare future students.  

Monday, 5 December 2011

For the Greater Good...

As a rule I am usually against data being kept on an individual for anything other than the purpose with which it was given.  Data sharing etc usually falls against this for me.  However I find the BBC's reporting of the NHS - Life Sciences partnership to be pretty poor as, unless I'm missing something, I don't see the proposed reforms to be "opening up to private companies".

As far as I am concerned, surely opening up anonymised patient data to private companies would be an excellent way for them to ensure that research is targeted where it is needed the most.  So their own investments can be put to their most efficient use and used to help treat as many people as possible.

A key part of this though is that it must be anonymous.  Patients don't want private health companies to have detailed history of their past ailments as this is open for massive exploitation.  As long as all unnecessary data is removed (leaving behind perhaps just that which may be pertinent to the problem) then there should be no worry about breach of privacy.  

I think many people are just concerned with other people making money out of their records.  I can also see how private companies suddenly getting a huge amount of data, potentially for free could seem exploitative, especially given the high cost that exists for companies to conduct similar research themselves.  However charging them for it would create barriers to entry which could limit some research.  Perhaps the best bet would be for the information to act as effectively a part payment against future drugs, reducing future costs to the NHS.

At the end of the day, as far as medicine is concerned, all I think people should care about is that as many people are treated as effectively as possible without prejudice.  If this helps increase the effectiveness then I'd be for it.

Thursday, 1 December 2011

Unison calling for a summarily sacking? #Clarkson

I really worry about people at times.  Unions do some great things protecting their workers and ensuring their rights are upheld, yet here they are coming out and demanding that a man is sacked for making a joke.  This isn't just a man making an inappropriate joke in the work place, this is someone who's paid to make jokes.  He was introduced as someone who makes controversial statements so surely if that is what the BBC are employing him for then if Jeremy Clarkson makes a controversial statement then they can't complain.  

I'd like to put the whole thing into context.  When asked his opinion on the strikes he initially said it was "fantastic" as it made getting around so much easier.  

"Everybody's stayed at home, you could wiz about, restaurants are empty..airports, people streaming through."

Then to follow this up he indicated that as this is the BBC he needed to be balanced and give the counter view (mocking the BBC's editorial guidelines here was probably his aim) and that is when he said: 

"I'd have them all shot.  I'd take them outside and execute them in front of their families."

The clip can be seen here:

Now I don't think anyone can say that these were sensible comments, personally I didn't find them particularly funny, but at the end of the day this was a joke that you can tell he was saying for effect.  In my mind there is a clear pause where he is sensing how the first part of the joke ("I'd have them all shot") went down with the studio audience (there was some laughter) before he decided it was good enough to expand on.

You can't go around summarily sacking people for doing exactly what you pay them to do just because one of their attempts to fulfil their job description isn't well received - even if it warranted it there is due process to be followed, something that Unions have spent years campaigning for.

David Allen Green has written an excellent post on his blog analysing the press release by Unison.  The key question he raises for me is that is it a good use of Unison's finite resources to be trying to get someone sacked - is this really in the best interests of their members?  

The other excellent post I've read on this issue was by Dave Gorman - "Jeremy Clarkson should be lined up and shot*" (Not really).  He is highlighting the hypocrisy of people, who would possibly have been defending the twitter joke trial where Paul Chambers was arrested for the following tweet:

 "Crap! Robin Hood airport is closed. You've got a week and a bit to get your shit together otherwise I'm blowing the airport sky high!!"

Getting the police involved (as has been suggested as a possibility by Unison) would be as ridiculous as the twitter joke case.  I don't think it should be a universal right to not be offended.  If it were then we'd still be living in a Puritan society as almost everything is going to cause offence to someone.  He was not encouraging people to go out and shoot any striker he was just trying to make a controversial joke, and oh look it worked - As David Allen Green said, he's turned the whole story (and Unison have facilitated it) to be about him rather than the aims of those who went on strike.  It would have served them better to treat him  as an irrelevance and perhaps made a complaint to the PCC.  

At the end of the day, Clarkson has the right to say what he likes, that's the great thing about freedom of speech.  I for one would hate to see that right watered down further.

Friday, 18 November 2011

If I lived in Iran I'd possibly think that they needed nukes...

There is an excellent, thought provoking piece on the Guardian's website by Mehdi Hasan "If you lived in Iran, wouldn't you want the nuclear bomb?"

Mehdi makes a very logical case, Iran is basically encircled by either the US's allies, countries the US are currently occupying/have a strong military force, or nuclear armed countries.  Also there is the potential nuclear power Israel just a missile launch away.  If you back someone into a corner then they are likely to want to fight back or at least have the ability to if pressed.  

He makes the valid point that Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya etc have faced military intervention from the West over recent years, yet North Korea who have small nuclear capability have not (now I'm not saying that this is the sole reason why not but it may be a contributing factor).  By obtaining nuclear weapons Iran would have a real deterrent against any action from a foreign country.  There has been so much heated talk between themselves and Israel that I doubt anyone in that region feels that peace between the two countries should be taken for granted.

Personally I am massively against nuclear weapons.  If it were up to me the first thing that would have been scrapped in the comprehensive spending review last year would have been Trident.  One of the reasons for having it is apparently to stop blackmail from nuclear armed states as we would have the ability to retaliate.  Surely this could therefore be applied to Iran, a state much more likely to face pressures from nuclear armed states.

I think it is massively hypocritical for countries who have nuclear warheads to then turn around to other countries and say that we need these to protect ourselves but you can't have them.  As such it is perfectly understandable that they would feel threatened by this and would want similar capabilities themselves should a situation come up where they require them.

Unfortunately we can't uninvent the nuclear bomb so we should accept the fact that other countries are going to want their own nuclear capabilities to go alongside those of the USA, Russia, UK, France and China as well as India, Pakistan, North Korea (?) and Israel (?).  At the end of the day though, there aren't too many conflicts as bad as India and Pakistan have been and they have both got the weapons without it ending up in a catastrophe.  It is a sad day whenever any country obtains the ability to slaughter large numbers of innocent people on mass, but when faced with the prospect that it could happen to them it is only logical and natural that they would want their own deterrent. 

Thursday, 17 November 2011

There is NEVER an excuse for racism...

(Any excuse for this picture)
Sepp Blatter has put his foot in it again.  Amidst the fact Luis Suarez has been charged with racially abusing Patrice Evra and the ongoing John Terry/Anton Ferdinand incident in an interview to CNN the president of FIFA has said the following:

"There is no racism [on the field], but maybe there is a word or gesture that is not correct.  The one affected by this should say this is a game and shake hands."

Then in a subsequent attempt to justify his comments he released a statement that included the following: 

"My comments have been misunderstood. What I wanted to express is that, as football players, during a match, you have 'battles' with your opponents, and sometimes things are done which are wrong.

"But, normally, at the end of the match, you apologise to your opponent if you had a confrontation during the match, you shake hands, and when the game is over, it is over."

All of this comes across as if he is saying that in the heat of battle racist abuse is justified as long as afterwards the player either indicates remorse or "no hard feelings".  This view is absolutely ridiculous - there is NEVER an excuse for racism.  There is never an excuse for any kind of abuse, whether in sport or anywhere else in society.  Anybody found guilty of such acts should feel the full force of the law - not just a sporting body.  

Yes in sport there will always be heated exchanges, as there is so much on the line for each person/team so much so that you can argue that things which would usually be punishable in society may only be punishable by the sports governing body, however you must draw the line and in this instance the line is perfectly clear, racial abuse should not be tolerated.

Wednesday, 16 November 2011

Just a smoke screen?

The British Medical Association are calling for a ban in smoking in cars.  Some facts to start the debate off:
  • Just over a fifth of adults in England smoke; the figure is slightly higher in other parts of the UK
  • It is estimated that between a third and half of smokers will light up while in a car
  • If they do so the concentration of toxins is much higher in a car than a smoky bar; some research has put it at 23-fold, although others have suggested lower figures
  • If windows are open, the concentration levels can be lower
  • Smoking is already banned in vehicles that are used for work purposes, such as taxis
  • As yet no part of the UK has banned smoking in private cars

The key point from the BMA's point of view is that the concentration can be 23 times that of a smoky bar and smoking in bars is now illegal.  

Now I don't smoke.  I would be very reluctant to get into a car where someone was smoking - the window would have to be open.  When I used to drive (haven't driven for about 5 years just for convenience reasons no other) there would be no chance of anyone lighting up in my car.  That said this is absolutely ridiculous.  

The difference with bars and cars is more than just one letter - a bar is a public place, people are employed there and diverse members of the public can often congregate in one place.  By allowing smoking in such places it penalises those who don't smoke - damaging their health should they want a job there (effectively ruling out a possible working opportunity for many).  Non smoking members of the public could take a seat in a nice fairly fresh place to find themselves right next to someone who then lights up.  The key thing here is there are externalities - quite a lot of them.  For the record, I would allow smoking bars - they would be licensed as usual bars but would be fewer in numbers, would require greater ventilation and extraction.  

The reason a car is different is that it is the owner's private property.  People who get into it do so at their own risk.  The individual has to be able to make such decisions.  The state shouldn't just ban things because they are harmful to the individual (hence my opinion on drugs legislation) as this would remove most chance of free will.  To create a hyperbole it's not just smoking in cars that harms people, driving them also does.  Plenty die each year on roads so lets just stop people doing that!  

If they are going down this route it can only be a preamble to making tobacco an illicit drug and controlling it as they do other narcotics.  They have already imposed so many restrictions on smokers that it is the next logical step - we've tried to encourage you to stop, you haven't so now we'll make you.  This will be a sad day for people's liberties.  

You can see where this is going really, I don't think the BMA expect to get this to happen... but they could get a watered down version which implies children being in the car.  Now I think anyone who is selfish enough to smoke around children (and cause them to intake stupid amounts of second hand smoke) deserves to be punished - they need to at least have a long hard look at themselves in a mirror.  But at the end of the day they are (probably) the children's parents (or at least there with their parents permission) and the Government can't stop every bad decision made by a parent in relation to their child, and nor should they.  You can't exactly force them to bring their child up in the healthiest way, it just isn't practical.  

I hope that this doesn't come anywhere legislation, we had 13 years of Labour trying to micro manage every last aspect of our lives, we don't need the Coalition to do the same!

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

Herman Cain uses the default political response when in trouble...

I haven't been totally following the race for Republican nomination but this video is kind of telling about politics in general.

The reason I say it's rather telling is regarding the stock answers he jumps to when he's struggling. 

Q: "Do you agree with President Obama on Libya or not?"

...(after struggling & trying to clarify things that happened) 
A: "I do not agree with the way he followed it for the following reasons, no that's a different one" ...
..."I would have done a better job of determining who our opposition is"...

Basically he was struggling to think about what went on so jumped straight into assuming that his opponent was wrong.  In my opinion it is quite clear that he didn't have an informed opinion on the conflict so decided the only way out of the question was to criticise Obama without knowing what he was talking about.

He alludes later to the fact that the President of the United States of America is privy to information that other people aren't, and once in possession of this knowledge a person's opinion may change.  This is a very sensible point, but the rest of this was handled terribly.  I wonder if his other controversies are having an affect on his performance.  Irrespective of this and whether or not it makes him fit to be President, surely the President of the USA needs to have at least a grip on current foreign policy matters?  Apparently this clip has "gone viral" one can only assume that it will damage his chances.

Saturday, 12 November 2011

Tuition fees change progressive?

I stumbled upon this rather interesting graphic on the net a few days ago (it is taken from the Browne review so not perfect but illustrates the gist of the changes):

One increases with income, one levels out, which would you say is progressive?

What this basically shows is the lifetime effect of the change in tuition fees policy on new students.  Bear in mind this is over their lifetimes - all students who earn over £15,000 a year will be better off in the short run (£9 per extra £100 they earn until they hit £21,000, a maximum of £540) - the only time they start to become worse off is when they eventually reach the stage that they have paid back the previous level of fees (at a later date than they would have paid them back).  The figures also are shown in Net Present Value terms - i.e. they have been discounted back to today's value as £1 in 30 years will be worth less than £1 today.

I think it's interesting to show that those who are hit hardest are the top half of graduate earners - surely these are the people who should be making the greatest contribution?  To me it shows the the current system is not very progressive at all - as long as you're not in the bottom 10% you'll contribute roughly as much to your education as those who are in the top 10% of graduate earners.  Some will say this is fair as it represents the price of the course - others will point out that the state shouldn't really be subsidising those who go on to be benefit greatly from their studies as they can now afford to pay.

Under the new system however, those who earn the most (the top 30-40% of graduates) will end up paying back considerably more than those who don't do so well following graduation.  In fact the bottom 30% or so are better off even in the long run from this change.  To me this looks like the definition of a progressive tax, those with the ability to pay more paying more than those who don't.  It is worth emphasising that all of these payments are only made once the student is earning money and only comes out of their incremental earnings above £21,000 (previously £15,000) so there will be no question of any of them being able to afford the payments.  

The more I listen to the debate the angrier I get at Labour and NUS for politicising this as it is a progressive change - yes free education may be a utopian ideal, one that I still think I'd like to see if possible, but that really is regressive.  I'd like to see the above graph showing the exact details as per the governments actual policy, I fancy that would be even more progressive.  

Friday, 11 November 2011

The Death of the CD?

Apparently by the end of 2012 (or earlier) the major record labels are planning on replacing CD releases with just download/streaming offerings, except for certain special editions. 

It is clear why they would want to do this as it massively reduces costs and therefore increases the margins that they can make on any one song.  They don't even have to have an artist churn out an album, just record a song and start marketing it if they like.  As soon as it's recorded and mastered then it can be ready to go - just a few clicks, contracts with suppliers etc and you're making money.  Selling CDs however requires stock, shipping and storage, all of which cost a lot of money - irrespective of whether or not they sell.

That said the thought of this makes me very depressed.  I still buy CDs, in fact I'd say I'll have spent hundreds of pounds on CDs this year.  It's not that I'd resent CDs being replaced, the move from Vinyl to Tape to CD has generally been progressive, ease of storage, longevity and improved quality are potentially some of the benefits of these moves.  Downloads however never seem to be the same quality as CDs.  Yes as soon as I buy a CD I rip it so I can have it on my iPod - so I can listen to it on the go, however when I'm at home I always have a CD on as the quality is much better than playing anything that's come from my laptop, or my parents PC when I lived at home.  

If the physical format of purchasing music was removed then the industry would lose so much money from me.  I find it hard to go into a shop that sells CDs and walk out without purchasing one.  Yes I'd get the albums I wanted as soon as they came out, (grudgingly) downloading them if that's the only option (yes Smashing Pumpkins I am currently looking at you - though hopefully you'll redeem yourself in Birmingham next week - although since their's are free I should let them off), but that's not much different from me now where I'd pre-order them if I wanted.   Where they make money from me is two fold:

  • I walk into a store, browse through all of the albums in my genres, study the artwork, the track lists and think about what I know about the bands, and then I take great pleasure in making my purchases - especially if I think I've found something fairly rare or a bargain (i.e. when I bought Temple of the Dog for £10 from a back street shop in Bristol).  I have been known to spend hours in them.
  • Birthdays and Christmas.  My mother asks me what I want, I give her a list of CDs.  Someone I know's birthday, or I'm buying a Christmas present, my first instinct is to think of their musical tastes and if there's anything there I can purchase for them.  Yes people buy vouchers, I've had them bought for me and they are a great gesture, but it's not the same as someone choosing something for you, when time and thought has gone into it.  I have no idea which CDs my mother will buy for me this year as my list has over 500 that I'm currently thinking of purchasing/will purchase if I see them for the right price.  Giving downloading tokens is much less personal.  
Can you sign a download?
Maybe I am just being sentimental.  Well I am almost certainly being sentimental, I don't do brilliantly with change.  But why shouldn't I be?  I like CDs, I like looking round my room and seeing the fact that I have hundreds!  With downloads you are totally reliant on a few bits of software and hardware, I'm sure you could have a problem, that could cause you to lose everything (my digital music is all on an external hard drive, so if my laptop dies I don't have to rip it again - however if that dies I've got hours of work ahead of me). However, with a CD, if you have computer problems, well my CD player and CDs still work - you just have more options.  I just always prefer a physical item rather than something electronic, it makes it feel more real and therefore in my head it feels more valuable.  Currently one of my favourite possessions is my Steven Wilson "Grace For Drowning" special edition CD, because the man himself signed it, I'd like to see him do that if I'd have downloaded it!

Also, the day bands stop releasing albums will be a sad day for music.  If every song has to be a hit (if record companies are releasing them individually only then they'll be trying to make sure each one is) then they will stop experimenting so much, you'll only see their most popular sides and you wont get a feel for what the artist is really about.  I'd say that on most albums my favourite songs are not the singles that get released, the songs that get promoted, but one of the other songs that they have written which may be less commercial but still has every reason why they are good.  You will either have this, or the complete opposite where bands take a scatter gun approach, record enough songs and hope that enough of them are hits, decreasing the overall standard of their product as they take less time to really work on their art. 

I know the day will come when I wont be able to buy any more CDs, however I'll be one of those customers still buying them until the very last day.

The FA was wrong about the Poppies...

Now before anyone jumps down my throat I want to point out I've been wearing a poppy for the last 11 days like I do every November.  In my youth as part of the Scouts I was proud to take part in my local parade every year.  I think it is a great symbol, it shows that we have not forgotten those who have fought and died for the freedom that we take for granted.  It also raises a lot of money for a very worthy cause and is something that I hope continues for centuries to come.  

Most who know me know how anti-war I am, it takes some very special circumstances for me to believe that young people risking their lives trying to end other young people's lives is a good thing.  However that does not mean I don't support the soldiers who are doing the risking of their lives.  

That said, in my opinion the Football Association, the Government and Prince William were all wrong to insist that poppies were worn by the England football team.  FIFA's official policy is that no religious, political or commercial adornment may be worn on the team's strips.  I feel this is a perfectly sensible ruling and allows the game to stay neutral - it helps cultures and countries to put differences aside and come together, even for just 90 minutes.  This is what I think sport can be good for.  

By giving this concession to England they are opening the door for other countries further down the line to request similar gestures that could cause friction.  It is impossible for the poppy to be untangled from religious and political connotations, to do so would be denying the fact that any previous war has been fought for either of these reasons - irrespective of your religion or political leanings the poppy has been politicised.  

It's not like the game would not have marked the weekend, there will be a laying of a wreath and a two minutes silence, which will give a chance for everyone to do what the weekend is for, remember those who gave their lives to improve ours. 

...For our tomorrows their today they gave, 
And simply asked that in our hearts they'd live. 
We heed their call and pledge ourselves again, 
At dusk and dawn - we will remember them...

Monday, 7 November 2011

It's just not cricket (3)...

Last week I booked tickets for myself and my father to go to one day of next year's test match between South Africa and England at Headingley.  I like to go to at least one day of a test per year - this will be my Dad's first ever cricket game (unless he ever watched some of mine in my younger days, I don't think he ever managed it and given how poor I was I hope he didn't!).  

The teams at the moment are ranked 1 (England) and 2 (South Africa) in the world in test cricket so it is all rather exciting and should be up there with the India series this summer for interest.  Yet for some reason this premium series has only 3 test matches allocated to it - two of which are in London.  London also has another with the West Indies playing there earlier in the summer leaving just three tests in total around the rest of the country for 2012.  It wasn't long ago that the ECB were talking about giving South Africa the same sort of billing as Australia - meaning 5 test series'.  I believe an agreement was signed in 2008 that said that it would be contested over 5 tests so how this has changed?  

What makes this worse is that there is an almost pointless one day series sandwiched in between.  As an English cricket fan I see the most important games as those against Australia yet I see no reason for a one day series against them when they are not touring for tests.  

I can't help but agree with Andrew Strauss when he says we are sowing the seeds of our own downfall.  

 "Even in traditional hotbeds of the game such as South Africa attendances are a long way below what we would expect them to be. I am very much aware that, if we are arrogant and assume Test cricket will always be there, we are sowing the seeds of our downfall."

As I mentioned in my blog last month this is really disappointing that the ICC appear to be backing down on plans to hold a test championship.  


Picture from the BBC website
My feelings on the game haven't changed despite last week three (former?) Pakistan cricketers were jailed for fixing certain points of a test match against England last year at Lords by bowling three deliberate no balls at precise points in the game (I've blogged previously that it's Not Cricket here and here.  In fact it was the day of the judgement that I booked my tickets.

The players were Salman Butt (the then captain - receiving 30 months imprisonment), Mohammed Asif (1 year) and Mohammed Amir (only 18 at the time and pleaded guilty 6 months).  The full judgement is interesting and can be read here.  I think the judge was about right.  He specifies that given his position as captain Salman was more culpable than either bowler and even holds him responsible for Amir's part in the corruption.  The most worrying part of the statement though is when talking about Mazhar Majeed (the agent also involved):

"What is clear however is that you were involved in fixing not only with the journalist but with others during the period covered by the Indictment. Whether or not what this court has had to consider is just the tip of an iceberg, is not for me to say and lies beyond the scope of the evidence I have heard, but, even allowing for your “sales talk” to the journalist, I am sure that there was an element of truth in what you said about past fixing."

It was imperative that having been found guilty they were sent to jail to act as a huge deterrent to anyone who undertakes such activities in future - particularly in England.  At the same time will anyone be able to look at the game in the same way again?  It's been over 10 years since the huge Hansie Cronje affair and other similar stories and it just seems that cricket hasn't learned.  I completely agree with Andrew Strauss (again) when he says the ICC anti-corruption unit is a "toothless tiger" - it is under resourced and under skilled to remove this cancer from the game that so many love.  What's worth even more of a read is Ian Chappell's opinion, it's amazing how naive the authorities appear to be.  What I was also shocked but pleased to read a leading commentator say was the following: 

"And if anyone thinks Bob Woolmer's death wasn't slightly suspicious and that Pakistan players are the only ones involved in this racket, I have a rewarding Nigerian investment opportunity you'd be interested in."

I remember blogging about my sadness of Bob Woolmer's passing and the unanswered questions at the time (that blog no longer exists) it was a shocking incident and surely even more people are questioning it now.

Throughout all of the commentary I've read following the verdicts though the best paragraph has been the following: 

"For me it is this loss of innocence which is one of the saddest aspects of this whole story. What I love about sport is the drama and the unpredictability. When I turn up at a cricket match I love the feeling that anything can happen that day.  Teams can fight back from seemingly impossible positions or collapse when looking impregnable. But will we now always believe it?"

Getty Images - Graham and Nasser
celebrate in the dark
This was said by Adam Mountford, the BBC's radio cricket producer and really reflects I think a common feel.  The reason I love cricket is for days such as Sri Lanka's collapse against England this summer, where I was sat in a pub not intending to watch the final dead day, but fortunately it was on.  Then days when teams survive when they shouldn't - great run chases/turnarounds such as England in Pakistan in 2000 and of course Botham's Ashes (which unfortunately I wasn't around for!)  But even that legendary game, players bet on England at odds of 500/1... now I'm not suggesting for a minute that there actually was any conspiracy there, but now there must be doubt?  I fear now that any remarkable feat by batsman or bowler/any below average performance could be questioned and this in itself will be enough to drive people away from the game which I honestly still love.  

Therefore Chappell is right when he says the ICC needs to get tougher.  Being found guilty of such a thing should end careers - mitigating circumstances (such as pressure applied to a player) could come into account and I feel that (without knowing the evidence) there may be enough to suggest that in five years Amir deserves another chance but the others should never play again.  

I just hope that this will be looked back on as either the darkest times for cricket, or the time which broke the back of corruption and cheating and lead to it's eradication from the game and not the start of it's demise.

Tuesday, 1 November 2011

Blog posts I've been meaning to write...

I've had a rather busy October and as such my time blogging has been rather on the light side, so here's a short version of my take on a few things I wanted to write about but didn't get round to (each of which deserved their own post):

Col Gaddafi 

Probably the biggest piece of news I failed to comment on was the capture and death of Col Muammar Gaddafi.  Mark Cole is spot on when he says that it is easy for us to judge sitting in our "comfy sofas" thousands of miles away but I can't help the fact I side with George Potter in the opinion that he didn't deserve to die like that. In particular the quote from Martin Luther King:

"I mourn the death of thousands of precious lives, I will not rejoice in the death of one, not even an enemy"

I've always loved that quote and found it quite inspiring.  Anyone who knows me knows I am against the death penalty and believe firmly in human rights.  No-one can deny Col Gaddafi did terrible, terrible things and the people of Libya had great and valid reasons to want revenge, however human rights have to be universal - he should have had a fair trial, then he should have been locked away for the rest of his days.  Human rights can't only apply when we think they should otherwise it gives too much scope for states to abuse their citizens.  

I found the media coverage particularly distasteful, many of the scenes/pictures I saw should not have been viewed outside of the watershed - and definitely not put on the front pages of newspapers.  I realise that this is seen as a victory, I have not shed a tear for Gaddafi's passing, but neither have I raised a smile.  

My main thoughts are with the Libyan people.  I hope that they manage to rebuild their country and turn into a fully functioning democracy.

European Union In/Out? 

I am unashamedly pro European.  I believe it is in the best interests of the UK to be as closely aligned to our neighbours as possible.  The world's population will hit 7 billion next week yet the UK's population is under 70 million - that's less than 1% and therefore not much influence .  However when combined with our neighbours that grows to over half a billion and is therefore in a much better position to be influential on the world stage.  There is also the trade benefits of no taxes and yes it may cost us some money, things like the Common Agricultural Policy has always been contentious and there appears to be too much bureaucracy and waste in the system itself but for me that means that improvements need to be made within rather than renegotiating our position within it.

I admit I wanted us to join the Euro and hindsight being the wonderful thing it is I can say that I was wrong.  However, my long run position is that we should join it, I am now just looking into the very long run, if it is ever settled, stable and the countries in it have fully adjusted to monetary union, making our entry smoother - admittedly this day may never come.  

All of that said however, I probably agree with Simon McGrath - our MPs should have voted for a referendum, not because it's right (any referendum would have far too much xenophobia flying around and too many people would not realise the full implications) but because it's what we said we'd do - and no get out clause of precise wording regarding "change" can change that, it's all about perception.  At very least I would have wanted them to be allowed a free vote - it's not as if we were bound by the coalition agreement and plenty of Tories were going to defy the whip.  Saying that, I would have been with Tim Farron and voting no - although I'd rather be doing it in defiance of the whip which should stick to the parties position.  Lets face it we aren't doing well economically so to give people the chance to put a great big wedge between us and our major trading partners would be ridiculously foolish.  I fear many would look at the ongoing catastrophe that Greek/Italy/Spain/Portugal debt situation and think that if we withdraw from the EU that would magically stop the problem effecting us - well it wouldn't!  (Notice by the way I didn't mention Ireland in there - they call for a single post dedicated to their recovery).  I also think that it is insulting to the other members of the EU for us to be talking in such a self centred way about this.

Woah!  That's a scary headline... have tuition fees increasing meant that 9% fewer 17/18 year olds have applied to university - if so this is worrying, lets step back and think these figures through.  Reading through the article it gets worse at one point, when they say that this includes an increase from overseas applicants, the actual figure from UK applicants is down 12%.  That is scary that tuition fees have had such an effect... hang on a minute though, applications from Scotland are also down 12% and their fee levels next year will be £0... something doesn't add up.  

Step forward Mark Pack with his excellent analysis on the real figures and his five questions.  

Intuitively there are reasons behind it, firstly, these are just preliminary figures (based on the fact that a minority of courses have a deadline of 15 October to apply), it may be that many are taking their time as this is such a big decision that has gotten even bigger.

The vast majority of the decline has come from mature students, this in itself is intuitive.  They were in a position to change their plans and advance their studies/might have decided against it.  

When it actually comes down to it there has been a 2.4% like for like drop on expected levels (based on 2009 figures) of 18 year olds applying to University... however in the school year in which they were born there was a 2.3% decrease in birth rate.  In other words, it is just a 0.1% drop in those feared to be most affected by the fees that can't be explained by birth rates.  

The true picture will emerge in January when the deadline passes, so for now we shouldn't be passing judgement - merely educating the potential students that they will probably be better off financially, not worse as the scaremongering is doing.  

Andrew Emmerson does a great comparison in his excellent blog, which is possibly one of the best I've read on the subject of tuition fees, suggesting that the new policy will save him circa £15k over his lifetime - I think most people would admit that that is progressive.  

Vince Cable

(Taken from the Evening Standard)
One story that has really disappointed me is that Vince Cable has landed himself a penalty for late payment of VAT.  I agree that this is most likely an oversight.  I don't think there is anywhere near enough knowledge in the country about VAT and I'm sure it catches out a lot of people who've started their own businesses.  

That said it is incredibly foolish  for the Business Secretary (granted he wasn't in that role when the earnings were made) to get caught out in such a way.  He should know the rules and he should abide by them.  Yes he rectified the mistake as soon as it appears that it came to his attention but it shouldn't have ever come to this.  It's not like he's not knowledgeable, he really shouldn't have gotten caught out in this way.  Fortunately though, it has mainly just been embarrassing and even Labour haven't been twisting the knife:

Mandatory Minimum Sentencing 

I was really dismayed to read in the Guardian that Ministry of justice is planning on extending mandatory sentencing.  I am against any sort of prescriptive punishment that takes away from a judge the ability to apply the facts of a case to the guidelines that they have upon sentencing.  Whilst it can be in no doubt that the sorts of crimes being discussed are serious I believe that each case should be looked at in it's own right with consideration of guidelines as well as president.  

One hope is that by introducing minimum sentencing for knife crime by 16 and 17 year olds is that it would reduce the number of knives on the streets.  I seriously doubt sentencing has any impact on this.  Of those who would carry knives I wonder if any would even be aware of the change.  The only way to tackle an issue with this is preventative measures and rehabilitative punishments if found guilty, I personally can't see locking youngsters up for four months will do anything to change the trajectory of their lives.

One good thing said by Mr Clarke is that he wants:

"to replace the "failed" IPP sentences with a more certain regime, adding: "We've got 6,000 people languishing in prison, 3,000 of whom have gone beyond the tariff set by the judge, and we haven't the faintest idea when, if ever, they are going to get out."

It can never be right or fair for a person to be incarcerated for longer than their sentence without committing another offence, this goes against their fundamental rights irrespective of their original crime.  


I guess since it is happening all over, including now in Bath I can't not comment on the Occupy movement.  Firstly I would like to point out that no matter how much I disagree with someone I will defend their right to protest and to voice their opinion (as long as it isn't hateful towards another person).  

I'll also start by defending them, lots of criticism has been aimed at the people for purchasing Starbucks or using their iPads whilst they are occupying as an anti-capitalist movement, however they are still living under the current rules that they wish to change so they will be living within it's boundaries.  You didn't see proponents of communism refuse to queue for hours to get their loaves of bread, pints of milk etc.  You didn't see those calling for privatisation refuse to use the services in the public sector - no thanks I don't want my water now.  

At the same time I guess this argument is that these conveniences (like the mobile phone technology, convenient coffee shops etc) wouldn't have come about if it wasn't for the capitalism that they are protesting against.  I don't think anyone would claim that it is perfect, I studied enough Economics at University to know that markets are far from the efficient ideal we'd like them to be.  It is also plainly clear that the game is rigged in favour for the ones who are at the top to stay at the top.  

For me this is one reason why I'm a Liberal Democrat.  They are always talking about social mobility, for me this is ensuring that a child's life will be of a better quality than their parents (not through the trickle down effect as this is an illusion).  When I look at my party, I'm proud to be a member, I may be naive but I really believe Nick Clegg when he says that as a party we are in nobodies pocket - be that the City and their Bankers, the Unions or the likes of Rupert Murdoch (they boycotted our conferences for long enough to make sure we stayed an insignificance) all of whom have a vested interest in keeping the people down.  People want to change the system, change the rules, the only effective way I can see this happening is from within the system itself - so like it or not I am still of the opinion that Nick is the best hope for the people in their tents to bring about any meaningful change but I admit we haven't yet gone far enough.