Sympathetic Stupid

Monday, November 14, 2005

Kate Bush: Aerial

Make no mistake, this is a beautiful album. But is it a great album? For me, at the moment, it just misses that mark.

King Of The Mountain is the single and opens Side A, and gives a good taste of what to expect from the rest of the recording. Production is flawless, absolutely clean and smooth and leaving room even on the busiest tracks. This space is required, of course, for Kate's voice; it's as pure as ever, but more languorous and relaxed than before. She's always at the top of the mix, except on the great closing track Aerial - being set back here seems to give more freedom to her vocals, the highlight in the peculiar yet charming section where she sings a duet with a bird.

There's plenty of variation in the tracks. Bertie, while sickly-sweet on first taste - "Lovely, lovely, lovely, lovely Bertie" - eventually resolves into a baroque romp with harpsichord and a great cello line complementing the vocals. How To Be Invisible is practically country, tasting like a much less-angry Neko Case. Sunset swings jazzily with cool upright bass; the pulsating bridge (in 6?) makes the track. Somewhere in Between has new-school R&B overtones and shows off the incredible restraint in Kate's vocals this time around. Nocturn is seriously soft-rock - again, a decent bass line helps the track to the climax.

There are sundry unexpected bits. Prelude, opening side B, is Kate playing accompaniment to bird-song samples - before being joined by someone I can only assume is Bertie (without the CD cover in front of me). This works, surprisingly. Less successful is An Architect's Dream, leading into The Painter's Link, a pair of "concept" tracks about a street painter whose work is washed away by rain. The music is fine, but the half-spoken, half-sung stream-of-consciousness "painter" interludes are simultaneously too obvious and too metaphorical.

Then there's Pi, my favourite track. I was initially turned off by Kate's beautiful, full-range recitation of the digits of pi, but before long my inner geek embraced the track. Another in 6, it has a brilliant wandering bass line and shuffling groove under organ, guitar and a transcendental Kate.

Overall? Really good, but not great. Much as I like Pi, the album lacks true highlights. It never reaches the spectacular stratosphere of Wuthering Heights or Sat In Your Lap's euphoric abandon. There's nothing which gives me goosebumps like the urgency of Hounds Of Love. Why? Well, as with many artists, I reckon she's got too happy and her art is suffering.

Saturday, November 12, 2005

Anansi Boys - Neil Gaiman

American Gods was great, a harsh, unforgiving tale of the clash of gods in a dirty world. Anansi Boys is nominally a sequel, but couldn't be more different. All that stays the same is Gaiman's gorgeous writing style and his Gods-as-special-humans framework.

Anansi Boys is a "funny" book in the same way that Terry Pratchett's Discworld books are "funny". The description, often aimed to belittle, misses the point completely. The humour and conversational tone are a spoonful of sugar; the incisive points about human nature and modern society are the medicine, which slips straight down.

Anansi Boys is the story of Fat Charlie. His dad, apparently a god, dies, and an unexpected brother enters his life. Spider inherited the godly portion of his father while Fat Charlie apparently inherited the flawed, mundane bits. Spider wanders in and starts effectively living Charlie's life for him, only much, much more successfully. This resonates with me. It's about all those situations where, if only you were someone else, you could've done so much better; could've kissed her, could've taken charge of the meeting, could've scared the mugger away, could've approached them with the plan. But being me seemed to rule 'em all out.

And the comparison with Pratchett was anything but accidental. This book of Gaiman's is remarkably similar to the best of Pratchett. Indeed, a couple of bits seem almost lifted from the Discworld - compare the voodoo ladies with the Ramtops witches; or Maeve Livingstone with King Verence in Wyrd Sisters; or Grahame Coats with any Discworld villain. Not to mention his use of unrelated witty footnotes, which given another six or eight books could become almost as prevalent as Pratchett. This is all said without rancour - I love Pratchett, and I loved this book, but the feel remains solidly, wonderfully Gaiman's own. The mythic passages, especially, are so light yet well-drawn, otherworldly without becoming dense description, and seamlessly blended with the text.

A truly excellent read.

Friday, November 11, 2005

Ken Saro-Wiwa

Yesterday was the 10th anniversary of the hanging of Ken Saro-Wiwa. He was an activist in Nigeria from an ethnic minority known as the Ogoni, whose traditional homelands are in the Niger Delta; an area rich in oil and long exploited for this fact. Saro-Wiwa led a nonviolent campaign against the environmental and social damage caused by this, especially the activities of those perennial villains, the multinational oil companies.

Saro-Wiwa seems to have been one in a million; successful in everything he tried, as an author, businessman, TV producer and even in bureaucracy and politics. His biggest task, however, was to lead the aforementioned campaign at the head of the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP), attacking the Nigerian Government and the multinational oil companies. The oil companies pulled out. The Government arrested and executed him.

Corruption, exploitation, degradation, racism, heroism - this story has many timeless aspects. Read more on Chippla's Weblog and on Black Looks.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Fairy Tale Power?

A too-good-to-be-true story from Alok Jha in the Guardian:

Randell Mills, a Harvard University medic who also studied electrical engineering at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, claims to have built a prototype power source that generates up to 1,000 times more heat than conventional fuel.

Wow! And zero emissions.

The problem is that according to the rules of quantum mechanics, the physics that governs the behaviour of atoms, the idea is theoretically impossible.

This is hydrino energy.

In a recent economic forecast, Prof Maas calculated that hydrino energy would cost around 1.2 cents (0.7p) per kilowatt hour. This compares to an average of 5 cents per kWh for coal and 6 cents for nuclear energy.

When I hear "1,000 times more heat" and "1.2 cents per kilowatt hour", I'm excited - but unfortunately also pretty sceptical, especially with "theoretically impossible". It brings to mind unreproducible cold fusion claims and unexploitable zero point energy theories. This is certainly the tone taken by the Guardian article.

The scepticism thickens when it's revealed that Mills first made these claims in 1991. In 1999 he started BlackLight Power, picking up a lazy $25m from investors - and planned to get a hydrino "plasma"-powered car on the road in California within months. I can't find any further evidence of the car, but hey, at least the company still exists, which is more than can be said for most late 90s companies.

It's probably not really surprising that this has taken so long, though, if only for commercial reasons. The majority of the physics world seem to think this guy's nuts, so it's probably hard for him to get over due diligence hurdles and actually get development cash. In the early 90s, the cold fusion backlash was well in place, so it's not surprising this similar idea was ignored. But in the late 90s there was money everywhere, so that was a good time to go commercial. And now, with oil prices high, alternative energy is all the rage - so it's back on the agenda.

So is it a mirage? Well, after fourteen years, the idea seems to be kicking on despite efforts to tear it down. The hydrino itself is a new form of hydrogen, with slightly less energy; so creating it from normal hydrogen releases huge quantities of energy. The problem is that it pretty much destroys all established quantum theory (not to mention strings and other unified theories), apparently favouring a deterministic model of the atom instead of the probabilistic. But it explains some things that quantum theory can't, especially to do with dark matter, the 90% of the universe we can barely imagine. And also some anomalies of the Big Bang Theory.

As is traditional in these cases, Dr Randell Mills is not a physics PhD - he's actually an MD, with training in biotechnology and electrical engineering. Also worrying is that many articles talk about his charisma. The Village Voice said his "cadences are more often like those of a motivational speaker". But there seems no doubt that he's smart - he got his MD from Harvard and the rest of his undergrad from MIT.

The collective wisdom of the Internet is that he's nuts. And this still seems the easiest thing to believe; after all, if the technology worked then the commercial applications are far too compelling for it to sit on a shelf. The opposing view is that it's damn hard to challenge the established order, and that the development of completely new technology is long and fraught with difficulties.

But it's such a seductive idea.

Saturday, November 05, 2005

A Day Of Kate

I currently have in my hot little hands a copy of the new new new Kate Bush album, Aerial. (And in my hot little ears - I'm up to track 3.) This is exciting. That is all.

(And incidentally, there'll be a new Belle & Sebastian album - The Life Pursuit - next February. Which is also exciting.)

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Copyright vs Genocide

At ...My heart's in Accra, the tireless Ethan posts on the contrast between a protest on DRM and a protest by refugees from Darfur.

Do people care more about DRM than Darfur? Definitely, is my immediate, cynical response. People as self-interested agents means you obviously care more about the songs on your iPod than the dead bodies on the other side of the world. There is, however, probably more to it than that. Maybe it seems like DRM can be fixed, with a moderate amount of action, whereas the problems of Africa seem intractable. Maybe there's no easy target; blame the record companies for being tight, but whose fault is poverty and corruption in Africa?

But I reckon it's more to do with comparative visibility, which then comes back to the role of the media. Darfur appeared in the public consciousness for a week, maybe two, and then dissolved into the background noise. It gets a passing mention once in a while, but I don't think most people realise there are still problems. Why is it no longer mentioned? The media is notoriously fickle, but that's not surprising, because so much else has happened in the 30-odd months since the conflict began. Not just Makybe Diva, either.

Ethan thinks this is where the blogosphere should come in, but that it's ineffective because the blogosphere focuses on technology. There's no doubt that most people with blogs are geeks, but probably also that most people who read blogs are geeks. My Mum, for instance, wouldn't know what a blog is, let alone where to find one. Maybe 5% of people in the developed world regularly read blogs (if that), so how useful can they be?

Anyway, read his post and think about it.