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Music Review: Miocene – A Perfect Life With A View Of The Swamp (1st attempt)

I like writing album reviews. Music is a near-bottomless source of topics to write about, just to write. I’ve recently been struggling with a review for probably my favourite album. Below is my first attempt. It was fun but frankly a train wreck. I post for posterity. I’ll follow it with the final, completely re-written version. 

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I brought this album back in 2006 on the basis of a review simultaneously name-checking Tool and Squarepusher – if the same works for you then by all means listen on that basis alone. Go now; it’s even recently popped up on Spotify. It’s superb.

But this is no genre-hopping patchwork doll sown together by gimmick and superficiality. IDM-style drums are not botched onto stabbing riffs as an afterthought – “Look, arpeggiating synths and an Amen break! This defies genre…” (hello Enter Shikari) – rather, they feel like two sides of the same coin. Stacked up against one another the glitching soundscapes are the machine cousins of the heavy, staccato guitars that characterise the more exclusively metal passages, and kick and snare are in the same constant exchange, a la DnB, whether programmed or live. Moreover, the juxtaposition of the two cast each in the other’s light, the guitar-heavy sections, dispensing with verse-chorus banalities, recalling the developing, linear structures of IDM more readily than structurally equivocal Prog Rock. This effortless marriage of styles works because all comes from the same place; angst and paranoia and, in answer, defiance. This is an album that bubbles with punk anger and disillusionment – “An elemental *** you/ To my traditional contemporaries/ The peddlers of self-parody/ And intellectual cowardice” – and every moment speaks to this same notion.

Tonally it feels closer to RATM than to Tool or much else. Take ‘Harvest’ in the 11 minute, four-part ‘i) Youth ii) Zenith iii) Harvest iv) Dissolution’ as a case in point. Seguing from the rolling, expansive ‘Zenith’, the band find a new, propelling tempo and a crescendo builds. A two-tone drone is snuck in under the grinding guitars and furiously spoke rap approaching breaking point – “I’m past caring about how loud I shout, or who shouts me down” – finally splintering into a cacophony of distortion and release, a scream an octave above the drone cutting through the anger beneath. Think the final verse in ‘Ashes in the Fall’ where Morello’s abrupt, piercing opening riff explodes into full, unabashed life but here the release is a heavier thing, delicately foreshadowed for all of six and a half minutes and more satisfying for it, though it is over too soon. This is one of the few criticisms that can be made, that moments like this are too fleeting, but in truth it seems unfair when most bands would sacrifice all for a moment this hot. Supplant RATM’s funk grooves with soundscapes and IDM-inspired passages and you’ve got something approximating what A Perfect Life With A View Of The Swamp feels like. Or possibly, think Refused meets Tool.

Let me try to find words for the scope of the album. The opener, ‘A Message From Our Sponsors’, is tumultuous vocals, pure live guitars and drums, retching with distortion for 1:41. It’s successor, ‘Colloquial Drug Terminology’, carries the same tonic note into a jittery slice of electronica, programmed drums chattering away with the same intensity as the track before. Midway through the track drops to downbeat live drums and keys sketching gorgeous, fluid melody. ‘Autopia’ through to the penultimate track bring the same tension and release, alternately all lungs and frenzy and thin, reflective synths and drums. Track 7, ‘Misogyny vs The Common Rules of Misconception’ twists this midway into mangled 4/4 Hip-Hop, drums fighting to escape from the one and rap doused in fuzz. In passages, ‘Autopia’, ‘The Fall’, ‘Dionysus’ and ‘i) Youth ii) Zenith iii) Harvest iv) Dissolution’ validate the Tool comparison, vocalist Ben Edwards slurring lines over bars similarly to Maynard in beautiful, elusive melodies. Elsewhere vocals are snatched, punctual, brittle. And then after nearly an hour of expectations stretched, allowed to rest and then stretched again the album offers a retreat from anxiety, paranoia and siege, just a simple root-fifth acoustic guitar refrain and the blues sang with nostalgia, promising to close out the album with resignation after so much defiance. Mangled machines burst into frame one final time just a fraction before resolution to the tonic – this is modern life, without respite, and this should have been Miocene threatening more (A Perfect Life With A View Of The Swamp was their only full-length). The fifth of the final chord, though unplayed on this final occasion, is the D that the album opens with and that is the drone throughout much of the album; new affront is never far from calm, but my God it feels good to shout and scream at the world once in a while, such is a perfect life with a view of the swamp. 

This is an album to be listened to as an album, start to finish, loudly and preferably in headphones, again, again and again. It consumes me on every listen, a thick, engulfing storm of clattering electronica and distorted guitars, punctuated by spat disobedience, building to gross catharsis and then falling away to nothingness, insistently chopping between time signatures and accents, surprising and challenging but remaining always whole. The band never toured this album and was effectively disbanded by the time I’d stumbled upon them. Perhaps that’s a tragic shame but perhaps its fitting – a single CD representing a perfect crash of disparate inspirations and directions. Perhaps such an intricately crafted album just took too much to repeat. Eight years later A Perfect Life With A View Of The Swamp is, to my mind, still unparalleled in its marriage of electronica and metal so naturally into a cohesive, maddened whole. Again, go now, it’s on Spotify so there’s no excuse.

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Music Review: Miocene – A Perfect Life With a View of the Swamp (Final)

Miocene’s A Perfect Life With A View Of The Swamp is a nightmare to review; it ties me in knots with its diversity, its scope, its structure, its lyrical depth and its immaculate craft. Crudely caricatured, its a collision of IDM-style and downbeat electronica, cyclical, droning guitars weaving complex, knotted structures, and punk disobedience recalling Rage Against the Machine and Refused. It rejects contextualisation, even in terms of the band’s earlier efforts with neither of the 2000 and 2003 EPs Refining the Theory and Cellular Memory attempting the same coherence that is essential here. Nor was it followed – the band disbanded almost immediately after the release of this album, not even touring it first. But it is deep, challenging and expertly realised. It is socially aware and engaged and seems to have something important to say. It feels unjust that it resides in near-obscurity and now that its on Spotify it seems unnecessary that it should. It’s no word of exaggeration that no other album has remained so consistently close to the top of my playlist since.

In his superb book This Is Your Brain On Music, Daniel Levitin suggests that much of the enjoyment of listening to music comes from subtle subversions of our anticipation that surprise and delight us, and that our anticipation is shaped largely by patterns of tension and release. A Perfect Life With A View Of The Swamp shapes our anticipation at a fundamental, emotional level, painting in broad strokes – loud, soft, loud again – just like rock music should do, providing an accessible catharsis, and yet it entirely rejects hackneyed tropes that limit the possibilities for the subversion that gives music its depth and interest. Whereas pop music leads us through tension to release by a restrictive pattern of verse-of-multiple-of-eight-bars building to chorus and repeat, structurally A Perfect Life With A View Of The Swamp develops linearly, like prog or IDM. ‘The Fall’ and ‘Dionysus’ start relatively straightforwardly, a ‘chorus’ seemingly standing clear between verses but on repetition this notional chorus is moved on and in keeping with the general movement of each track both introduce multiple new ideas before plateauing with extended outros. Within phrases riffs elude hooks, rolling on and on as in ‘Autopia’, and staccato stabs pepper bars unevenly, refusing to fall into predictable patterns, as in the instrumental ‘Sympathy for Gordon Comstock’. Nor does it at any point becoming tiring to listen to, as I find some ‘prog’ music; I can find no fat here, no indulgent wankery. Rather, there is enough textural and instrumental scope and diversity that the album avoids becoming a predictable, endless cycle of simplistic tension and release wrought of the same sounds and tired ideas. More straightforwardly metal moments are broken up by IDM and Downbeat sections and track 7, ‘Misogyny vs The Common Rules of Misconception’ even rages in mangled 4/4 Hip-Hop, drums fighting to escape from the one and rap doused in fuzz.

Refreshingly, for all its diversity the album doesn’t ever veer from its tonal core or burst its seams for guilt of being sown together by gimmick and superficiality. The disparate influences play from the same fake book and with from the emotional root, just with new instrumentation and emphasis. The sparse, cold soundscapes populated by thin pads, and winding, slowly grinding guitars alike share the same feeling of anxiety. Drums crackling and juddering in increasing pandemonium respond to that anxiety with the same defiance as the stabs of heavy distortion and guttural screams that constitute the band opening out and letting rip. These are knitted together with a subtle care that makes the album a cohesive whole. Take, for example, the opener, ‘A Message From Our Sponsors’, retching with guitar distortion for 1:41, and its successor, ‘Colloquial Drug Terminology’, half programmed beats chattering away impatiently, half downbeat live drums and keys sketching fluid melody. The same tonic note is carried between the two tracks, harmony rarely venturing far in both, and the same intensity is maintained from track 1 to track 2 by their similarities; glitching drums become the machine cousins of their precursory angled guitars by inhabiting the same rhythmic tics but this movement means that the drop into a spacious half-time pocket is entirely natural despite the polarity of the start of track 1 to the end of track 2.

There are exceptional moments to be had here; this is not a Jack of all genres, master of none. The 11 minute, four-part ‘i) Youth ii) Zenith iii) Harvest iv) Dissolution’ is highlight. ‘Youth’ opens, rolling, progressive, vocalist Ben Edwards recalling Maynard in beautiful, elusive melodies slurred between bars – a little tension -, and then it dissolves into ‘Zenith’; minimalist, half-time drums and clean guitars – release. ‘Harvest’ finds a new, propelling tempo – snare, snare, snare and rapped vocals. A choral two-tone drone is snuck in under the grinding guitars and Edwards demands breaking point – “I’m past caring about how loud I shout, or who shouts me down” – before finally splintering into a cacophony of distortion and release, a scream an octave above the drone cutting through the anger beneath. Think the final verse in ‘Ashes in the Fall’ where Morello’s opening riff, originally sounding like some cold, mechanistic factory call, explodes into full, unabashed life. But here the release has been delicately foreshadowed for all of six and a half minutes, via numerous subtle tones, and is all the more satisfying for it. It’s the kind of moment that you want to keep hold of or re-experience again and again.

Two criticisms can perhaps be made of the album but I’ll swallow both entirely on account of the context within which they lie and a greater point that I take the album to be making. The first is that the perfect moments like the beautiful peak of  ‘i) Youth ii) Zenith iii) Harvest iv) Dissolution’ are too fleeting. The medicine tastes so good it feels unfair for it to be rationed so. The second, relatedly, as we shall see, is that the lyrics at times begin to feel a little crude in their social and political indignation. There are “corporate thugs”, a “brave new world of propaganda”, and higher echelons “drunk with power” aplenty and we are angry. But in their sweet song, rich in sound off the tongue and picture painted, metaphors quietly hide a superficiality. Where is the subject in: “Lost in the distance/ Fate placed between us/ Feeding the demons/ Fear put between us”? So, our contemporaries are “the peddlers of self-parody and intellectual cowardice”, but how are they or are these just names we call? Are we the erudite revolutionary with a direction and a purpose or are we but a little in love with the romance of being anti-establishment for its own sake? Then again, perhaps this is what music, rock music especially, should be. Perhaps it is for the essayists to craft an argument and a theory and for songs to simply feel; who am I to demand that they say anything? “[…]we’ve had a little too much/ Sweet fucking reason.” And so I wonder if the fleeting peaks and the pure, left-unjustified anger are precisely the point; the release is pure and necessary after so much tension wrought by the world but it is unsustainable, will not stand to reason, a release, not the status quo. There is an interview with the band that I’m sure I’ve read but can’t find with a line about skinny middle-class white kids who go to gigs finding a release in music like this. The juxtaposition between middle-class comfort and anarchic outrage is striking. Then there’s the title – ‘A Perfect Life With A View Of The Swamp’; because we want to be close enough to see, smell and taste the pure, nihilistic stench of freedom bought of saying ‘fuck it’ – we want a view of the swamp – but we would rather not live it. The album is a picture of despair at a modern life that is always impatiently demanding, suffocating, unethical and dulled by soulless corporations and capitalism. We need a release and this is what rock music gives us (and my God it feels good to shout and scream at the world once in a while). And yet you’d be a fool to throw everything away for the freedom nothing buys. Instead we content ourselves with a release for just long enough, and then on Monday morning we return to work, a little less tense than before. Not that this will last either. This is modern life, always demanding our attentions and testing our morality. The album ends promising a retreat from the angst and anxiety borne of an hour’s expectations stretched, allowed to rest and then stretched again, a simple root-fifth acoustic guitar refrain accompanying the blues sang with nostalgia. Mangled machines burst into frame one final time just a fraction before resolution to the tonic. The fifth of the final chord, though unplayed on this final occasion, is the D that the album opens with and that is the drone throughout much of the album; just as anger must recede into reality, new affront is never far from calm. Tension and release works in cycles, in music as in our lives as we try to resolve our indignation at the system with our need to operate within it.

This is an album to be listened to as an album, start to finish, loudly and preferably in headphones, again, again and again. It consumes me on every listen, a thick, engulfing storm of clattering electronica and distorted guitars, punctuated by spat disobedience, building to gross catharsis and then falling away to nothingness, insistently chopping between time signatures and accents, surprising and challenging but remaining always whole. Lyrically it is frequently gorgeously poetic and its thematic repetition and occasional over-abstraction can surely be forgiven for its implied self-awareness of the sufficiency and importance of base release as rock music’s raison d’être. Ironically given the claim made in ‘Calliope’, that it is the free improvising musician who escapes the demands of the cultural and commercial system that denies the worker their freedom, the album finds wonderful freedom from context by virtue of the care given to its composition. Eight years later it is, to my mind, still unparalleled in its marriage of electronica and metal so naturally into a cohesive, maddened whole. Surely its worth a listen.

Review: Ghostpoet – Some Say I So I Say Light

Ghostpoet’s follow up to the impressive Peanut Butter Blues and Melancholy Jam, is every bit as elusive as it’s fleeting title, Some Say I So I Say Light; it’s also gorgeous, rich, thick and considered, if possibly an album away from tantalizing heights of near-perfection.

For those not familiar with his previous work, Ghostpoet’s vocal delivery is unique. The common, lazy characterization places it somewhere in between Mike Skinner’s [of The Streets] naked spoken word and Roots Manuva’s deep, rolling rap but at the intersection between the two it finds it’s own distinct identity.  Rhythmically, whereas spoken word casts words free to be heard and then to die, syllables here are held on the tongue as words roll into one another with insistency, a constant rumble of pitched breath and murmur. Despite his rebuttals of characterization as a rapper or an MC, this sustenance allows a crafted rhythmicity – a rapper’s flow of sorts. Sure, barely a half-rhyme ties lines together and it is rare that anything lands tightly on the one but nonetheless words fall delightfully into relevance with the beat, if not in step with it. The constant push just past the beat has lines hang and then fall just-late, like Pino Palladino on D’Angelo’s Voodoo, percursory, or perhaps precursory, but knowingly so.

Carried in the flow, subtly, half-mumbled wireframes of melodies reverberate like half-remembered refrains echoed on the train, occasionally erupting up a fifth or so into a clear but fleeting hook before dropping back down again. Melody is far too carefully handled for parallels with most rap, though Eminem possibly approaches its use in his more inspired moments, and yet, the force of the contrast between rap verse and rap hook is mirrored, forays into higher registers gaining interest for their rarity. If anything Some Say I So I Say Light would benefit from more of these moments. The faintly recognisable (a feeling common throughout listening to the album) soaring refrain accompanying “And I don’t wanna go down that road” in Them Waters, for example, delicately and beautifully punctuates the line as the sole expression of a want against a background of passive, reactionary narration and timidity (“Cos if I stop to think/ It may open floodgates that no key can ever lock”). With similar melodic success, on Meltdown, bright verse melodies build towards Woodpecker Wooliams’s light, ethereal chorus, in effective juxtaposition to the contemplative breakup carried by the same words, and in Plastic Bag Brain, powered by Tony Allen’s kinetic drumming, a positively acrobatic chorus melody by Ghostpoet standards maintains an album peak for sheer movement across the track.

Lyrically, Some Say I So I Say Light, is superb throughout. Meltdown, for example, is poignant and representative of the whole album. It could be the companion piece to Skinner’s Dry Your Eyes, painting break-up not in clear tones of plain anger or sadness but honestly, as a more complex thing – near compatibility, perhaps missed opportunity: “Maybe if I looked afar/ I could stop the catastrophe”. By the end something conciliatory and beautiful is sought in nostalgia: “Now it’s love that soaks my heart/ I contemplate the dark/ And superglue the memories and better days/ The times that made you laugh”. Grounding this rich lyricism across the album is a knack for a cute simile – “Bitter like old tea/ And unloved Grandmas” -, and memorable imagery – “I think I’ve got a problem but the mirror says ‘no’/ And the wallet says ‘yes’ more drinks I guess”. Tonally Some Say I So I Say Light is reflective and drenched in metaphor to sink into over time, elusive like the scraps of the melody, the just-missed beat and the shadows of some harmony or melody once known.

Behind the vocals lies music parts Trip-Hop, parts Electronica, parts some live-instrumental take on the above, but always nightscapes, quiet city life, gradual and enveloping. There are whispers of the sullen, snowy mood of Burial’s dub-step but this is tempered by a greater activity. Reverb is laid on thick but selectively, giving space to a snare here and a guitar there but not diffusing all urgency. The presence of live instrumentation provides a sense of organic immediacy contrasting with the greater dominance of hip-hop rigidity in the first album – Sloth Trot even concludes with something resembling a guitar solo. At times the production is electric – in the captivating MSI MUSMID a single cyclical chord progression recalling Radiohead’s Hail to the Thief – somewhere in between 2 + 2 = 5, minus the crazed drop, and Sit Down. Stand Up – fuels an incessant, glitchy jitter forward as we are warned, “But upping up tempo leads to upping up mistakes”, and then forward and forward still.

However, it’s typical of the album that the great mistake in MSI MUSMID never comes – there is no crash, no drop, and as predictable – perhaps tediously so – that it would have been, on every listen I can’t help but yearn for a descent into madness. I wonder if therein lies the album’s biggest missed opportunity: like a whispered commentary or instruction, the minimalism so central to Ghostpoet’s sound beckons the listener in close to appreciate the finer details but perhaps remaining so retrained in its excess it also cheats itself of the truest of highs and lows. Some Say I So I Say Light is at it’s best when momentarily casting aside its modesty and pretence to being for the listener to interpret as they so wish, such as in the melodic refrain in Them Waters, in the sheer force of forward movement of MSI MUSMID, in the formidable syncopation in the vocals of Sloth Trot. Clearly it’s a headphone album for the early hours, for considering the world quietly in wonder and reflection but I couldn’t help but find tracks like 12 Deaf and Dial Tones a little too flat, as listenable as they certainly are.

On the closer, Comatose, the album concludes when a darkness typical of much of the album dissolves into a hopeful string crescendo. It’s brief, more of an endnote than a final paragraph, but it’s indicative of a feeling not of optimism but perhaps of an acceptance of the darkness felt in life, an end to the catharsis of recollecting it, perhaps a proclamation: that was I, me, but this, this new moment, this is light, as of yet uncorrupted. Some Say I So I Say Light‘s beauty lies in its habituation of this liminal place between darkness and light, between spoken word, rap and melody, between this beat and the next and between the warmth of organic instruments and the cold of its dub-step and hip-hop roots. Although it’s not perfect it is absorbing, unique and a step forward for the artist. A follow-up could be seminal.

The EU problem: Big Democracy

I enjoyed reading Nigel Lawson’s piece in the Times today calling for Britain to leave the EU. Regardless of the pro’s and con’s of membership which entirely lack any consensus and, as far as I can tell, any convincing, supported argument one way or another, he implicitly highlights two conflicting ideals; ‘Big Democracy’ and small. I suggest that any inevitable tread towards the former entailed by membership to the EU is reason enough for an exit.

Let us first be clear: the EU is not anti-democratic it’s just in favour of a larger democracy than the one governing our meagre little isles. The anti-EU crowd, of which UKIP is the crystalline example, loudly condemns the laws and regulations forced upon us by faceless technocrats in Brussels who care not for the wants and needs of the British public. But theoretically, the EU is broadly democratic. For the most part, ‘we’ vote for those faceless technocrats. At the least, if, as Lawton argues, the EU is marching unerringly towards what would effectively be a United States of Europe, there is no indication that it would seek to be anything other than democratic. The stated aim of the Lisbon Treaty, for example, was “to complete the process started by the Treaty of Amsterdam and by the Treaty of Nice with a view to enhancing the efficiency and democratic legitimacy of the Union and to improving the coherence of its action.” Thus, those opposed to EU membership on the basis of conceptual concerns about sovereignty have little reason to suggest it is for the sake of democracy, rather it is a preference for our smaller democracy over a wider European one.

I’m inclined to agree that ‘Big Democracy’ is inherently undesirable and that EU membership, if it does inevitably lead to a European ‘super-state’, is a bad idea. The value of society is in the fact that working together, with the help of Government supervision and regulation, we can all be stronger. Indeed, the clearest benefits to membership of the EU lie in its potential for facilitating a close working-together with a large body of countries. Membership makes trade, travel and security within the EU easy because we work together with other nations, according to a common set of laws and regulations, to standardize processes and eliminate the need for bespoke solutions to problems. It also brings the potential for our voice to be heard loudly across the European community, which those outside the community should find attractive. However, with size necessarily comes greater demands on the efficacy of democracy. Democracy – ruling by approximate consensus of the population – is hard at the best of times, just within the population of the UK, let alone the combined population of all of Europe. The proportion of a population that is happy with the decisions made by a democratic government is a function of the degree to which the population agree on key issues and the more people, the less agreement is likely. It would be interesting to consider the proportion of a population voting for a single party in relation to total population size. I suspect some kind of significant negative correlation exists. In any country there are a number of standpoints which are uncontroversial even within a large population where they are infused into a nation’s self-identity. In the UK, for example, few argue against the existence of the NHS, and in the USA, the second largest democracy in the world, the vast majority share support for a fairly narrow ideal of pro-capitalism, anti-‘socialism’. I suggest that these points of agreement persist in spite of large populations, the result of deeply instantiated aspects of national identity. A EU super-state, in contrast, would be a patchwork amalgamation of cultures and conflicting identities comprising of over half a billion people. It could operate according to the most perfect form of democracy possible and still sickeningly vast swathes of the population would be unhappy at any given policy. A European super-state isn’t profoundly undesirable because it would likely be undemocratic but precisely because as a democracy, it would be unwieldy and would breed mass dissatisfaction. For all its just accolades, democracy is famously the worst form of government, except for all the other forms of government that have been tried. That is reason enough to not wish to test it any further than is absolutely necessary.

Let me return to the more pragmatic question of whether membership is beneficial. This blog was partly intended as a vehicle for threshing out an understanding of issues opaque from reading alone but on this question I’ve struggled. I’ve read of a fabled “cost-benefit analysis” which would cast some light but which the Government(s) have failed to carry out and in its absence there are only conflicting opinions and projections based on assumptions difficult to swallow. However, I think I’m leaning towards an ‘out’ position. The clear benefits of membership that come with the size of the EU that I have already mentioned – trade, travel and security (putting aside for now the less tangible notion of diplomatic leverage) – should be broadly achievable, at least to a degree, by negotiation with the EU from outside. The main benefit of membership – trade – certainly seems attainable outside through free trade agreements, as Switzerland have shown. If Lawson is wrong on the eventual federalization of the EU, if Cameron somehow Jedi-mind-tricks his way into the repatriation of powers, then perhaps the EU can be a successful union between democracies to the benefit of all, but I’m not convinced the force is strong in that one. The Lisbon Treaty has already taken significant steps towards the democratisation of the EU and so as long as the remit of the EU continues to infringe upon national matters I would suggest that we are already involved in too large a democracy. The not insignificant unhappiness at laws and regulations ordained upon us by the EU – the difficulty of deporting Abu Hamza, for example – is a clear example of a significant section of the greater European population being unhappy with the rules of a broadly democratic body.

I think that Cameron is probably right not to rush into a referendum until it is clear what kind of EU an ‘in’ vote represents, but I’m not hopeful. Either way, I sincerely hope that we get a referendum whatever political party is in power in 2017. As always I’ll happily be convinced otherwise but as it stands I’ll likely be voting against membership. Democracy is far from perfect and we should not over-test it.

Impressions of the Surface RT

I finally took the plunge and brought a Surface RT. Yes, that’s the half-baked, app-graveyard one, not the Surface Pro which is apparently a couple of weeks away in the UK. As it’s broadly had a bad rep, part of the reason it’s taken me this long to get one, I thought I’d share a few ‘first impressions’ and explicate what on earth motivated me to buy.

First impression out of the box is that the hardware is beautiful. It’s less soft corners and inviting, hold-in-one-hand form factor than the iPad, more angular and sleek, understated but beautiful. The form factor of the tablet on its own felt a little jarring at first as if stretched too wide, but attach a cover and it finds a natural symmetry. Closing the cover you appreciate the book-like form which was supposedly central to the design process. Where a laptop feels rigid, the Surface cover feels free and fluid, inviting you to flip it open even if just for a second, literally like the front cover of a book. There’s also something unobtrusive and un-‘gadget’-like about the book form. I found a similar feeling with my Kindle where I prefer to carry it in it’s leather cover despite the added weight, and not for any worry about protecting the screen. It’s the antithesis of any Apple product, which constantly feel to be fighting to be noticed – Look, I’m an iPhone. I care about design. I ‘think different’. I think that sense of understatement ties in with the feeling that it’s a productivity machine not a consumption machine (or more sneeringly, a ‘toy’). I don’t want to attract a crowd, I’m trying to get some work done. The Surface RT is a surface for doing so, a tool that should sink into the background, a facilitator.

Work is what I brought the Surface for. I’m at University (still), drowning in papers to be read for essays to write and sitting in front of a desktop screen in my room was taking its toll. Our mood, and mode, are hugely shaped by our environment and I wanted the portability to be able to place myself in fresh environments at will. A laptop would have been inappropriate because so much of my study involves reading PDFs, but I needed a proper Office suite and accessible file structure for essays and presentations. Ideally I’d be able to run proper data analysis in SPSS and adjust Matlab code but the technology to do his without sacrificing battery life or portability simply doesn’t exist. I’ve got a desktop for this kind of work anyway and it takes up a fraction of my time in comparison to research and writing.

The Surface RT meets these needs perfectly. The supposedly 10 hour battery life (though I haven’t explicitly tested it) is enough to not need to jump between power sockets. After literally a couple of hours of adjustment to slightly smaller shift, tab and enter keys I was typing as quickly on the Type Cover as I do on any other full size keyboard. The built-in Office suite and file explorer in the ‘Desktop’ view facilitated a 16 hour essay marathon on deadline day a couple of days ago and the track pad on the Type Cover makes navigating the desktop  view as easy as on a laptop. Unclipping the cover I have a convenient PDF reader for the train, garden or sofa. A note on reading: I’ve read a lot of reviews drawing negative comparisons with the iPad because the elongated form feels strange to hold vertically. It might seem slightly strange at first but the RT is light enough for it to be comfortable and it perfectly fits a full A4 page on screen at once at a comfortably readable size, without side margins. The extra width is also a distinct advantage over more traditional tablet aspect ratios when multitasking in laptop form, snapping Word to one side of the screen and the internet to the other. The only thing obviously missing is a PDF reader in the desktop side. Flicking between a full-screen PDF reader and Word is a pain – it’s the sort of thing you would expect from an iPad where the emphasis is on full-screen apps rather than multi-tasking but on the Surface it feels like a missed opportunity.

The elephant in the room in any positive review of the Surface RT is the lack of apps. With the Surface Pro this isn’t a problem, the limitless catalogue of professional-class  ‘legacy’ Windows software available but it’s true that the app-store to which you’re restricted in Windows RT is bare, especially compared to the Google or Apple varieties. That I miss, there’s no iPlayer, no Lovefilm, no official Facebook app, no Spotify. These will all come in time though and until they do, pinning the web versions to the start screen isn’t a bad compromise. On the iPad there’s an app for everything but in truth how much do we need? The iPad is a consumer trap, creating and fulfilling our wants, not our needs. There’s little on the Surface that I can show off to my friends but it meets my work and study needs nearly perfectly.

In an ideal world the Surface Pro would have an all day battery life and the weight of the RT and, finances allowing, I’d have brought that. For a long time I was going to wait and get the Pro. I had visions of running Football Manager and touch-optimized Civilization V off the same portable machine that I’d use to work. I also loved the idea of the stylus which I could use to annotate PDFs and fill lecture notes with arrows, bubbles and tangential thoughts. I thought the RT would only seem second best, it’s stunted ‘desktop’ a compromise. But its a compromise in the same way that Apple took a look at most people’s computer usage and decided that a full, desktop-like OS was wasted on the majority of users and that ‘apps’ in an approachable, tablet form would be enough. The RT is a compromise on what is superfluous to my needs. For occasional computer gaming and processor intensive analysis I have my desktop computer. I’ll keep my Kindle for reading novels as the e-ink screen is a step above anything else. I wouldn’t want a thousand variations on angry birds, or novelty media apps because if I’m going to spend my time relaxing I’ll spend it on quality media – films, or games of some substance on a dedicated console. When I’m working, whether it’s managing emails, researching, reading or writing, I’ll use my Surface RT and I’ll do so where I want, unbound to a desktop or to a power supply. For my uses, I don’t believe a better option exists.

Prising Apart Greed from Ambition – Why I Don’t Understand the Need for Corporation Tax

Can we not limit personal financial greed without restricting ambition?

I have in mind the ubiquitous arguments along the lines of, ‘If we tax the rich more, they’ll just leave the country and take their business elsewhere’. A perfectly sensible argument all else being equal, but must ambition and potential for personal wealth be equivocal? I fail to believe that even the richest, dirtiest, greediest capitalists of the world pursue ever larger bank accounts for some inherent value that they see in money. Rather, in the life they have led, money is simply a proxy for success; more money = more success.

No one should want to discourage success. Reject the value of financial gain entirely if you like, lead a life dedicated to the pursuit of happiness through other means – kindness, communality, love – still you pursue success of some sort, just as much as a banker does. For me creating something of value represents success, creating something that improves society, and my pursuit of that is my ambition. If a Government decided to place a tax on that then I too would likely up and leave for freer, greener pastures.

Which is why I don’t understand the need for Corporation Tax, and this bothers me because it’s something that a lot of people seem to get very angry about. I get that Starbucks, Amazon, Google, eBay and so on ‘avoiding’ tax is immoral on the basis that smaller companies without the scale to do so are comparatively disadvantaged. But it seems to me that the utter failure of the government to do anything about this beyond wagging a disproving finger suggests that there’s something not quite right about the system as a whole.

‘Corporations’ don’t pay tax anyway. Necessarily, someone – some person – has to pay. Corporations don’t live in this world, producing and consuming, workers, shareholders and customers do. And you can argue that it’s this or that individual that shoulders the burden all you like, but you’re probably wrong. Just like the question of how best to solve the financial crisis, no one knows the answer and if they claim to their confidence is misplaced – it’s just too complicated and interconnected a system. 

It’s not a new argument. Corporation Tax is a tax on business and business is good, employing people and producing things and such, so we shouldn’t tax it. What has surprised me most is how difficult it’s been to find defensible arguments against this position. I expected to be quickly knocked down as my naivety was exposed. Now I just don’t think there are any good arguments in favour of Corporation Tax. I found just one argument that convinced me for a moment, but I’m not so sure even it is valid:

We need it to prevent Corporations from having too much power (relative to the state)

Reuven Avi-Yonah, via Peter Coy, makes this argument: “excessive accumulation of power in the hands of corporate management, [is] inconsistent with a properly functioning liberal democratic policy.” The claim is roughly that taking money from corporations and giving it to the state tempers the potential for corporations to get involved in social and political issues that might undermine the democratically elected government.

Two points in response:

1) It doesn’t work. The involvement of big business in politics, through lobbying or more obviously through the media’s pressure on politicians is testament to the fact, despite present Corporation Tax.

2) Giving the taken money to the government doesn’t give the government any additional weight against the corporations. In a liberal democratic society the government can’t start spending now public money to fight against corporations, their position has to be neutral as long as the laws of the land are abided by. If the laws aren’t abided by then the justice system can step in with or without money from corporation tax. So Corporation Tax adds nothing.

That’s it. That’s all I could find. Nicholas Shaxson claims  ’10 reasons we should tax corporations’ which kindly operates as a compilation of some other crap claims made ‘in favour’ of taxing corporations. Some of these are inferences rooted in the ‘fiscal illusion’ – “the misguided belief that corporations bear the burden of the tax, while every economically literate person knows that taxes can only be borne by natural persons”, to again quote Avi-Yonah, via Peter Coy. Others are spurious arguments as to why the reasons for not taxing corporations are bad (Corporation Tax doesn’t work, cutting it would pay for itself), and some psychological speculation that corporate managers can’t focus on running good, productive businesses when they’re too busy worrying about tax avoidance (come to think of it, this would be wonderfully solved by simply removing Corporation Tax). Hardly the “10 solid reasons why we should tax corporations” claimed at the top of the article.

Arguing in favour of cutting corporation tax feels very much right-wing from my left-wing upbringing, letting business, and by implication, the ‘fat cats’ at the top of business, get on with things without having to worry about tax and such, while the rest of us do. But it need not to be.

My simple argument is this:

Tax the income of individuals and tax those at the top hard – nobody needs a luxury yacht and a dozen houses when others are struggling and starving. But remove the barriers to business so that Britain is the destination of choice to create and to be successful. Those worried about their personal millions can leave and good riddance – they’re too fixated on personal wealth as a proxy for success – they’re the bad eggs. But those who are ambitions, who want to create, who want to achieve, can do so without strangulation by the state.

It would take significant hikes in personal income tax to make up for the deficit previously filled by Corporation Tax. Shifting the burden so significantly onto the shoulders of the rich would also significantly reduce the number of capitalists funding business with their personal wealth but I’m not sure this would be a bad thing anyway. If you needed capital to start your own business you would have to go the banks or other large companies but they would be more likely to invest than at present as they wouldn’t be drained by a tax on their profits.

If it worked clearly every country would remove Corporation Tax and thus Britain would lose any initial competitive advantage. But all that would do is remove an inefficiency – instead companies would choose countries based on more defensible criteria such as infrastructure and education, recalibrating the system according to criteria of actual relevance to a company’s potential for valuable output.

Excuses not to blog

Three posts in just over a month. I suppose that’s not unforgivable but nor is it prolific. Admittedly I have been genuinely busy but aren’t we always? And admittedly my last post came to over 2000 a words pieced together in spare moments over several days. But that shouldn’t have stopped me from posting additional shorter posts since. So here sir, am I excused?

 Excuse no. 1 – Desktop computers are hardly conducive to moments of inspiration

I haven’t had a laptop since an old dell inspiron finally passed away a couple of years ago. There are two ‘productivity’ screens in my life. My phone (HTC desire, rooted and still going strong) and my desktop PC. One is generally ill-suited to anything longer than a text or a short email, though I nevertheless write this on it late at night. The other was built primarily as a workhorse for music production and occasional gaming. It’s a juggernaut; noisy and anchored to my desk in my cluttered room (the same room in which I sleep and work). It’s sheer bulk and the redundancy of its power for something as supposedly airy as blogging weighs heavy.

Just as the shape of the written word defines it’s meaning, the form of the tool of creation defines the content made. Would I ever have written a 2000+ word essay on the games console in the living room from my phone? Could I ever bare to release my linearly structured murmurings to the world rewrite-free from my workstation PC? (My HTC’s measly 3.7 inches is especially constraining to linear thought given that it only shows a single line of text above the keyboard in Evernote.) A laptop or a capable tablet would no doubt breed different tendencies. I offer that they would be numerous and each better. It could be with me always, small in footprint and dissolving from a cookie cutter shaper of thought into a transparent lens for the world around me, allowing a richer context to guide my words, not just the (6?) thick walls of my room. Shaping is good. It constrains the infinite to a more comprehensible size. But just the two shapes of my two screens with their bold presence in my writing is limiting. Think of all the potentially created never found, the seedlings never fed or provided a direction in which to grow which lack of a transparent and inviting form factor has allowed to whither and die. (Oh for the money for a Surface Pro.)

 Excuse no. 2 – I haven’t had time

It’s true, I haven’t. But when do you ever? When do you ever have time to run, or to read, or to learn? What we want to have done is always still to do as we always reach beyond. The question is whether adding something else to the equation makes the process of forging towards an end any richer. I will never finish all the things I want to do so I may as well add blogging to the list too.

And for tonight, two excuses is excuse enough not not to blog but to publish.

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If the above seems contrived, it is. But that need not make it completely valueless and there is certainly value for me just in writing something today, to spite my deadlines looming.

The Living Room Wars Will be Won by a Games Console, not an (Apple) TV

Too much talk of the battle for the living room, which nearly always implies an inevitable Apple victory, misses a fact that should be obvious enough: video games are massive. Apple possess every piece in the puzzle necessary to launch an Apple iTV as the nucleus in a nexus of devices except this final piece. Long they have watched from the sidelines, frowning at the infantile display in television that has persisted too long with their uniquely arrogant air, expecting to stride into the marketplace and clean up. But as it stands, I wonder if they will find themselves too slow off the mark, pipped to the post by one of the older stalwarts of gaming: a validated Microsoft or a resurrected Sony.

The TV is the vital form factor for consumption of non paper-based media, the centre of the living room in our home lives. You could pack 4k pixels into a tablet or a laptop and I would still feel it a compromise. It is also a form factor very much in a period of transition, both in terms of content and delivery. Traditional TV – channels arbitrarily numbered and programmes scheduled at specific times, monopolised by the subscription TV companies – is the dead still walking. The control over our viewing that has been enjoyed by subscription TV companies like Sky and Virgin Media for so long needs little more than an intelligible UI and integration into our wider ecosystem of devices to resign it emphatically to its grave. Sky at least seem to recognise this, their SkyGo service seemingly an acceptance of their inevitable new role as mere content providers rather than gatekeepers or deliverers of content themselves. Virgin Media by contrast look achingly behind the curve and have a nightmarish UI on their set-top boxes to boot. As the subscription TV companies fade into the background the true battle for the living room is in delivery.

It is often assumed that when Apple eventually arrive with their long rumoured iTV they will have dictatorial control simply handed to them. And why not. They so beautifully own, literally for many and certainly as the cultural archetype for most, almost every vestige of our digital lives. They have wormed their sly way into our pockets, our bags, our living rooms, our offices, everywhere, persuading us that we want what they proclaim we need. Even if we think we’ve resisted their marketing juggernaut we are seduced by their innovation, instead buying their closest copycat competitors. They are less Kim Jong-un, more Plato’s Philosopher Kings. The TV, as vital as it is, is only another screen and must play nice with it’s fellows, and Apple are the Heavyweight Champions of the digital ecosystem. We want to have emails and social media synced effortlessly across mediums, calls that can switch between phone and television in an instant and media accessible everywhere so I can start watching a film on the TV and finish watching it on my tablet on the train, or vice versa. Apple’s ‘hobby box’ – the current Apple TV set top box so under-marketed that most consumers seem to barely know it exists – does a fine job of addressing this demanded for interconnectivity with AirPlay, effectively outsourcing content delivery to the iPhone. But it is short of the Apple ideal for complete seamless integration which only an actual TV could provide.

This brings me to the problem that seems to loom large in the background for Apple, or Samsung, or Google, or whoever wishes to own our TV viewing: video games. The games industry is a huge $50 billion industry “bigger than movies” and with blockbuster titles like Black Ops 2 grossing $1 billion in its first 15 days. Long gone are the days when it was the reserve of geeks and teenagers – as of 2011 the average age of a game player was 37 and the ratio of male to female ever closer at 58:42. I am now equally as likely to spend a night in with my girlfriend playing Borderland 2 as to watch Saturday night TV or rent a movie. And yet, Apple have next to nothing here.

An Apple iTV would certainly bring with it a mass of high-quality casual games (I’m sure Angry Birds would be twice the experience on a 55 inch TV) but this would be no committed move into the video games market. Steve Jobs may have been voted most influential man in video games (26% of 1000 people) but only by a sample taken ahead of a conference focused on cloud and mobile gaming. Despite the proliferation of mobile and casual games, they account for only 10% of the $50 billion industry. The iPhone has been instrumental in breaking ice on the previously impervious market of people to whom games were obtuse, expensive and overly demanding of their time but the significant growth in the casual market should not be misunderstood as indicative of a trend away from hardcore gaming. The attraction of casual games is in their accessibility but just as gamers’ tastes have become more and more sophisticated in time, so too will the casual games crowd. There is no principled reason why video games, as a medium, cannot contend with TV and film for our time and if we can afford to commit 90+ minutes not to the newest Hollywood blockbuster but to a video game then we’ll need something with a little more depth than Temple Run. Equally, once consumers are turned on to the potential of games, a £40 title offering 50+ hours of entertainment is some of the best value available. If anything, Apple’s rather accidental (though superbly executed) progress in the casual games market might in time validate Steve Jobs’s title as most influential, but only indirectly, for introducing not just a generation but an entire population to gaming in general. Perhaps even this is too generous, the Nintendo Wii making similar strides into casual gaming and pre-dating the original iPhone by more than 7 months.

For me, and this is the crux of my argument, dominance over the living room simultaneously requires, in addition to basic content delivery and a strong UI, both an ecosystem of multiple devices and a proper commitment to gaming. Apple have the former but not the later. In contrast, Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo clearly have the pedigree for the later, between them selling ~252 million current (7th) generation consoles and with significant first-party development teams, but not obviously the former. The Nintendo Wii-U’s two-screen design (the TV and a second, tablet-like controller) would suggest a recognition of the need for multiple devices but realistically they are playing a game of catch up they can’t ever hope to win alone, lacking any presence in markets beyond video games. However, Microsoft, with Windows Phone 8, Windows 8 and the Surface, and Sony, with the impressive new Xperia Z range, their VAIO computing range and a unique trump card in the Vita, both have the groundwork for a successful ecosystem. In addition, they are both due to release next-generation consoles this year that should address the remaining UX problems of the current generation and finally integrate gaming into a wider ecosystem in a more seamless and persuasive way.

My immediate reaction to the recent PS4 event was to be broadly underwhelmed – a reaction shared by most of twitter it seems – but many of the features announced actually change it as a proposition in ways subtle but potentially deeply important to the future of the living room.

As others have suggested, Sony’s challenge was to prove relevance. By focusing so strongly on the games I felt they did so successfully, at least for a first presentation. Gamers (read: consumers, if I am right about the importance of the industry) want games, and developers want new hardware to continue to innovate and push the boundaries of what can be done. The PS4 provides a significantly powerful piece of hardware, interesting potential for new forms of control in a game and an x86 architecture which should make development easier, especially for smaller or indie developers. These latter two points should also allow the PS4 to make greater headway into the casual end of the market, potentially sucking more and more new gamers into the market without having to wait for Apple to do it for them. The Xbox 720 (or whatever it is eventually called) should make similar progress with integrated Kinect meaning that small-time developers will be able to rely on users having access to what is, technically, without a doubt the most impressive innovation in human-computer interaction since multi-touch. It is ideal for casual gaming, it just needs commitment from Microsoft to make development for it attractive. But ‘proper’ games will still be at the centre rather than likely left handicapped by an Apple iTV. Both next-gen consoles will have traditional game console controllers with the accuracy required for hardcore games that touchscreen control lacks. And Sony will also offer remote play through Vita, providing a proper games controller and top end games in tablet form. Where Apple (and Google) hope that the transposition of simple games across from tablet to TV will appease consumers, the Vita as powered by the PS4 is a indication of the importance that Sony give to games, both pushing  boundaries with vastly improved hardware on the TV and completely blowing current ‘portable’ (around the house) gaming out of the water, expensive gaming laptops possibly excluded.

The innovations less obviously heralded in the PS4 event are even more important for potential control of the living room. The touch pad on controller will ease menu navigation presenting an opportunity for a vastly improved UX for navigating to multimedia content, whether games, TV or films. It will still lack the immediate feedback of touching the screen itself which Airplay gives the Apple TV but apps on phones and tablets, which Sony can ship already installed, and for Microsoft, Smartglass, should plug this gap. Moreover, integration with tablets through these channels will allow for the kind of multi-device consumption of other media that will be essential. Potentially Microsoft could bake such integration directly into their phone, tablet and PC OS’s thus not even requiring the launch of a discrete app for seamless switching between devices. The ‘always on’ chip the PS4 should allow for the immediacy of switching on a TV and having content that is currently a decisive barrier for current generation consoles hoping to direct all our TV consumption. It remains to be seen how far ‘always on’ is taken but literally providing content from the moment the TV is switched on, perhaps loading our favourite TV playlists immediately would be a real sign of intent. The pre-download of games before the user has even asked for them is another confirmed move towards this kind of immediacy and will take away the need to know what you want  to watch or play before reaching content that traditional TV also benefits from.

In short, next generation consoles will be easier to navigate, integrated within a wide ecosystem of devices and closer to the immediacy of TV. Content will be provided by the likes of Sky, iPlayer and Netflix, all available through the console. And games will not be forgotten. In such a scenario, what extra value does a ‘smart TV’ offer? Why would I use apps on a Google powered, Samsung made TV when I can get all the same through my PS4 or Xbox 720, plus games that actually offer some depth. What extra value does an Apple iTV seamlessly connected to my iPhone and iPad offer? Why would I choose to buy into an Apple ecosystem for TV and film when I’d still have to buy the living room nucleus of a Sony or Microsoft ecosystem for games. The Apple ideal is a purging of all redundancy but without a proper commitment to video games Apple themselves risk being redundant in the face of competitors who offer all they do and more.

Of course Apple could plough a portion of their obscene cash pile into the games industry proper and offer a real threat. Although rumours of meetings between Tim Cook and Valve last year turned out to be false, something similar might be the foot up Apple need to compensate for their lack of weight in the games industry. This would seem to imply a need to compromise on their ideal of an all-in-one Apple iTV as integration of significant games-capable hardware into a TV would send costs rocketing. Alternatively, Apple could attempt to fully embrace the iCloud, streaming high-quality games similarly to OnLive, but I think Sony’s Gaikai supplemented approach is still more appropriate given the infrastructure costs of running and streaming high quality games bespoke for each and every active gamer and variable consumer internet speeds. Either way, it would require quite some commitment from Apple in terms of bringing developers on-board and designing controllers and interface, especially from a standing start.

The Living Room Wars will be won by a games console. And that console probably won’t be an Apple iTV.

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 A footnote: The above is less a blog than a relatively structured essay. It didn’t start that way but it seems I struggle to let blatantly unsupported arguments fly the nest. Will try harder to let go next time. C-. 

On the other hand, writing is writing. 

I’d like my politicians with a side order of expressed opinion please

Catching up on Thursday night’s Question Time got me thinking. Why is it that so many, myself often included, are apathetic about party politics and yet deeply concerned with political issues? I even genuinely believe that most politicians are in politics for the right reasons, that they have conviction of political ideas, that Tories are real people with valid beliefs too, not just heartless lizards. So if the politicians care, and I care, then why am I so apathetic about what they say? Somewhere along the way there’s a line not quite joining up.

It doesn’t help that they seem allergic to actually saying anything. Sure, there’s a place for diplomacy in the world, but when our political system relies entirely on the public differentiating between parties by their policies public political ‘debate’ is not it. Question Time should be the place for politicians to connect with the public. It’s profoundly imperfect without a doubt, but it gives politicians a rare chance to tell us what they want in more than a single line quote selectively chosen by the press, often couched in a paper’s own political rhetoric. It’s straight from the horse’s mouth and into a couple of million households. It also seems to be a nesting ground for some of my chief political pet hates.

Political pet hate no. 1: public figures who righteously proclaim “we need a public debate on this” in situations of public debate, only to withhold any semblances of an opinion.

And so, culture, media and sport secretary Maria Miller on the 10p tax rate, concerned about how it will be paid for, kindly points out that “every single household in this country would have to be revalued”. Diplomatically she’s saying, “10p tax rate, yeah, seems like a great idea but we’ve got to realise that it’s not that simple”. Well politics isn’t simple but it gets a whole lot more tractable if you actually engage in the debate rather than lauding the need for debate. Does she offer an actual opinion? No, of course not. (And for the record, I could have used elucidation because as far as I can see, if your house is going to be valued higher after a revaluation then that means it’s wrongly valued now. Wouldn’t things be more ‘right’ if that was corrected?)

Political pet hate no. 2: politicians who refuse to say anything that can be disagreed with.

Probed on whether she would personally like to see the 10p tax rate reintroduced, Maria Miller floors the audience with a slice of inspired controversy, setting out a vision for the future equal parts bold and well-reasoned. “What I’d like to see is proper tax regime in this country which actually supports people on lower incomes.” Cue critical headlines: “Government tax raid on poverty – WE SAY NO”, but this Tory doesn’t back down at the sight of a little media frenzy, hell no. She’ll argue voraciously until the world sees the value in a controversial idea.

Right? Because a politician wouldn’t waste an opportunity to argue on an actual political issue? No. Wanting a proper and supportive system, all else being equal, is about as inarguable and consequently vacuous as anything. We pay and vote for politicians to take some of the load of forming a functioning society off our backs – they’re meant to be experts. So why the cowardice and inertia? Too often they seem to float a policy with the papers and swiftly reject it at the slightest sign of dispute. There’s been exceptions, sure, but the famed ‘U-turns’ are a symptom of a politics too scared of ‘public opinion’, whatever that is (usually whatever the papers say it is), to actually grapple with real ideas.

Political pet hate no. 3: politicians who will happily express an opinion, but only so long on an idea they had first.

Lib Dem peer Susan Kramer this time. “I’m not going to water down what I’m talking about and what my colleagues are fighting for in order to do a sort of pettiness of the Ed Miliband”. Bare in mind that the 10p tax rate is supposedly a policy that the Lib Dem’s support. Presumably Susan doesn’t think it’s a bad thing, but when pressed she seems to have a violent allergy to agreement with a good idea. The question wasn’t “choose 1: the 10p tax rate or a more significant policy”, she just doesn’t want to support a Labour policy. Clarity of party brand identity dominates over actual politics.

I get that identity in politics is important and parties want to seem to be singing from the same hymn sheet, but I can’t help but think that it’s at the expense of diluting the expression of actual political direction from the politicians. Surely if the many pieces of a political party are just feature-less mouthpieces for the centralised narrative then the pieces become somewhat obsolete. Can’t the public be trusted to understand that different people have slightly different opinions and act efficiently together? Indeed, our system of voting for individual MPs rather than the party as a whole seems to assume that they can have differences of opinion.

By the way, Labour are at it too. Take, for example, the following, slapped across the homepage of Labour’s own website (accessed 15/02/2012 – it’s been updated with 10p tax stuff now):

“My mum recently got a promotion in her job, only to see most of the increase in her income wiped out in real terms by tax credit cuts and the child benefit freeze, not to mention the rise in VAT. It seems trying to do the right thing and get on in life is not valued by this Tory government.”

There’s some pretty dry reference to actual policy in there – real-term cuts, benefit ‘freeze’, rise in VAT, and that’s all fine, they’re policies that Labour disagree with and it might be useful for me to know that if I disagree with them also. But they don’t present direction, only a clamour for change. The (anti-)policy is then held within Labour’s central narrative at the moment, fairness for the good, honest, ordinary people just trying to get by. It’s about modest aspirations being crushed by Tory toffs. It’s barely hidden at all in the final line: Tories do not value ‘trying to do the right thing’ (but we do). That’s not politics, that’s Tory stereotype fortification. Those damn Tory lizards. Or to be more generous, it’s an anecdote held up to say ‘this is what the people think and we are with you on this one’. Good old Labour, looking after the little guy.

But perhaps it works a little differently for the opposition. Perhaps it’s some grand strategy of bland Ed’s, playing dead for the media whilst building a degree of trust in political identity by simply being not-the-government. Perhaps he’ll leap into action (perhaps the 10p tax rate was the first step) as the election draws closer, proposing real policies after 5 years of a Government who can’t agree and don’t have the balls to follow through on their ideals. And so the cycle goes on. The party in power are scared of losing power, constantly deferring to the party line, and the opposition waits for the public to decide “let’s get the other lot back, they can’t be as bad as this bunch”. Oh for politicians who will actually express an opinion, all term round, and even on TV.

Consumption, creation and identity

Why blog?

I’m not trying to sell anything. I don’t have a topic to neatly guide my posts in some coherent direction. I don’t even (currently) feel the need to establish an online ‘presence’ – for the moment I’ll keep my cowardly shield of internet anonymity thank you very much.

But it is about time I took some steps to readjust my consumption-creation balance. Drastically. In fact since last playing regularly in any kind of band (2 and a half years ago) my sum ‘extra-curricular’ creative output has been a handful of private scribbles hidden away in the depths of my hard drive. And the more I’ve thought about it, the more I’ve realised that it’s a problem. I consume plenty: Google reader funnels and endless stream of content to my phone every morning; I am constantly carrying around my Kindle with at least one book on the go; university decrees that there is always a paper for some module or another to read; I go to the cinema almost every week; I’ve just exhausted season 4 of Breaking Bad in the space of barely 3 days. However, with an end to study quickly approaching I’ve also been devoting not inconsiderable time to the Great Presentation of Self-Identity that is the CV and its made me think about things a little. If we are defined by what we do then I am certainly someone, I have done enough, but its not necessarily someone I recognise. I hate telling others ‘about me’ anyway and always have, ever since MySpace. There are few turn off’s worse than someone who places themselves into a box and tells others how to judge them. Self-identity according to the things we like is slightly better but ultimately it’s boring. You aren’t the amalgamation of ‘likes’ that Facebook presents you as, you are the great human potential to do something today which you have never done before. The sad truth is that if I resist self-identity by my likes and interests – things I react to – then my identity in the world simply isn’t particularly consequential. This blog is a means of creating something, not just consuming the things others have created. It’s time I made waves!

Okay, so maybe just small ripples. But that’s an improvement on watching from the sidelines, right?

Yes, but why blog?

And why not before. I like to write, but I don’t, not enough. It’s not that I don’t have any interesting opinions or original thoughts (I do, honest), I just haven’t felt like I’ve had anything to say. But I’ve realised that’s an entirely self-defeating way of thinking. Whatever feelings or intuitions I might have are profoundly inconsequential if left just that, as non-explicit feelings and intuitions. It is through the shaping of our thoughts in language, whether of words or pictures, that gives them their meaning, their context, or to paraphrase Wittgenstein, a post where they can be stationed amidst all of the meaning that the world has already prepared. So in giving my thoughts form hopefully the ideas, observations, critiques, or whatever else a blog is made up from will emerge organically. And I’m biting the bullet. Instead of hiding words away from prying eyes the internet can respond, criticise, or ignore if it deems fit. It will be what it will. Hopefully it will continue.

Until next time. Cirque du Soleil awaits.