Friday, August 28, 2009

Schatrax - "Aliena's Journey"

There's an interesting conversation going on over at Little Detroit at the moment, regarding the benefits or otherwise of faceless or anonymous artists, something which has long happened in dance music.

I'm not sure how I feel about it - on the one hand, some labels (and it's difficult not to think of the peerless Underground Resistance and related labels when talking about this) have made some astonishing music working behind anonymous artist monikers.

But often some of the greatest music has been written by people not even working behind artist aliases, but behind label aliases, with not even a hint of which or how many artists were involved.

One of my favourite of these labels was Schatrax, which (as well as being one of the coolest sounding label names ever) over the mid-90s issued 10 separate releases, all simply labelled with the Schatrax logo, and with tracknames scratched into the runout groove. I stumbled into one of the releases at the late vinyl section of Fopp on Byres Road, Glasgow back when Lars lka Funk D'Void was doing the ordering. I was instantly hooked on the Schatrax sound, and I think it's one of only three or four labels I ever deliberately collected every release on.

With loping synthetic drums, immensely warm but lonesome synth textures, and a big sense of techno soul, Schatrax was probably one of my favourite labels of all time.

Here, from the final release of the original 10, is "Aliena's Journey".

Friday, August 21, 2009

Glenn Underground - "Beyond"

Another one from the Chicago Relief/Cajual stable - this one from the more housey Cajual side. It's a lot happier than the tracks I normally play (it's got a trumpet tune of sorts!), but there's just no arguing with how good it is. I do find it a bit scary that this was released in 1995 - it seems odd that tracks this vital should be nearly 15 years old, but I guess time stands still for noone.

This was a huge tune down at the Sub Club in Glasgow back in the day, and it really fits that small special place perfectly. Deep as you like, with synths (sounds like FM to me) that alternatively circle and break in to huge stabbing breaks, hanging string lines, a great portamento synth lead line, and what can only be described as a bumping house beat. It's amazing for lifting an atmosphere anywhere - club, bar, party - and if you can stay up long enough in any location, then this track somehow perfectly bottles that sensation of dancing into a new day while the rest of the world is asleep. A perfect sunrise record.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Beyond reasonable doubt in Scotland

Today, the Scottish Justice Secretary announced that Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi, the man jailed for the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 was to be released “on compassionate grounds”. After serving years in jails in Scotland al-Megrahi, who has terminal cancer, will fly home to die.

Who coordinates how public discourse is shifted? The news of his release happened only today, but already it is well established by the media that we are not to discuss whether he committed the crime in the first place, and we are not to discuss whether he should have been imprisoned. We are not to discuss the huge holes in the evidence, and we are not to discuss the fact that even a cursory reading of the judges verdict would have led you to believe that this man should never have been convicted.

The only question we are apparently supposed to discuss is: should this dying man have been released “on compassionate grounds”?

To assess how reliable the conviction was, it’s instructive to go back over excerpts from the transcript of the original trial verdict.

One of the key factors in the conviction of al-Megrahi was his identification by a Maltese shopkeeper called Tony Gauci. Gauci gave evidence that al-Megrahi purchased clothing from his shop, later allegedly found in close proximity to bomb components from flight 103. From the trial verdict (with my emphasis):
A major factor in the case against the first accused is the identification evidence of Mr Gauci. For the reasons we have already given, we accept the reliability of Mr Gauci on this matter, while recognising that this is not an unequivocal identification
In other words, the judges acknowledge the crucial importance of the identification by Tony Gauci (a Maltese Shopkeeper) of the accused, and then go on to say that while it is not an “unequivocal” identification, the judges accept its reliability. And why do they accept its reliability? From earlier in the judgement, they explain the sequence of events (edited here) with Mr Gauci that leads to them judging this identification as reliable:

Gauci is first interviewed by police on 1st September 1989, where he describes the gentleman he sold clothes to as 6 feet tall or greater, with a big chest and a large head. On 13th September. Gauci clarifies the man’s age as “about 50”. On 14th September, Gauci is shown 19 photographs, and he indicates that one of the photographs (which was not al-Megrahi) is of a man who appears “similar” to the man who purchased the clothes, but is too young. On 26th September, Gauci is shown 24 more photographs, and he indicates that the man he sold the clothes to is not present, but that one man in the photographs has the same shape of face and style of hair, and three other photographs are of men of the correct age. On 6th December, Gauci is shown another selection of photographs, and does not identify anyone from them. Some time around the end of 1989 or the beginning of 1990, Gauci’s brother shows him a newspaper article about the Lockerbie disaster, which contains the word “bomber” across a photograph of the wreckage of Pan Am 103. In the article are also images of two men – one of which was also marked with the word “bomber”. Gauci thought that one of the photographs showed the man who had purchased the clothes from his shop – the man he identified in the paper was Abo Talb. On 10th September 1990 (a year after the first interviews), Gauci is again shown 39 photographs, and does not identify anyone from these pictures – stating that he has never seen a photograph of the man who bought the clothing. On 15th February 1991 (a year and a half after the initial interviews), Gauci is shown 12 photographs, and says none of them are of the correct age. When asked by police to look carefully and allow for age difference, he pointed out one of the photographs, saying the face was “similar to the man who bought the clothing”. He also said “It’s been a long time now, and I can only say that this photograph 8 resembles the man who bought the clothing, but it is younger”. The policeman concerned (DCI Bell) later gave evidence that the person in photograph 8 was al-Megrahi.

So this is the eyewitness that is “reliable” in the opinion of the judges – an eyewitness who after at least 6 separate interviews and identification sessions, and being shown over 94 photographs over a period of 17 months, is only able to say that a single face is “similar”, and “resembles” a man who bought clothing in his shop. On this account, the entire case hangs.

So how were the judges able to take this “reliable” account, and plug it in to a watertight prosecution case?

From the judgement again (with my emphasis):
From his [Gauci’s] evidence it could be inferred that the first accused was the person who bought the clothing which surrounded the explosive device. We have already accepted that the date of purchase of the clothing was 7 December 1988, and on that day the first accused arrived in Malta where he stayed until 9 December. He was staying at the Holiday Inn, Sliema, which is close to Mary’s House. If he was the purchaser of this miscellaneous collection of garments, it is not difficult to infer that he must have been aware of the purpose for which they were being bought. We accept the evidence that he was a member of the JSO, occupying posts of fairly high rank. One of these posts was head of airline security, from which it could be inferred that he would be aware at least in general terms of the nature of security precautions at airports from or to which LAA operated… It is possible to infer that this visit under a false name the night before the explosive device was planted at Luqa, followed by his departure for Tripoli the following morning at or about the time the device must have been planted, was a visit connected with the planting of the device.
In other words, al-Megrahi could be the person that purchased the clothing. And he was staying in Malta, close to the clothes shop. And if he bought the clothes that ended up in the bomb, he probably knew about the bomb. He might know about general security arrangements at “airports”. It’s possible his visit to Malta was connected with the planting of the device [bomb].

Do the words “beyond reasonable doubt” keep ringing in the ears of anyone except me?

A matter of perspective

I've a habit of keeping half an eye on the NHC site from June to November. I don't know why - there's something fascinating about the genesis of hurricanes, and the way they track across the oceans, rising and falling in strength, appearing, disappearing, occasionally reforming, and so on.

Anyway I was checking out Hurricane Bill this morning (a juicy cat. 4 hurricane), which having crossed the Atlantic westwards as a depression from Cape Verde (actually part of a tropical wave, but let's not be picky), is currently veering North-Westwards in front of the Leeward Isles, and looks like it's going to spin offshore right up the East Coast of the US. Incidentally, this track is ideal for spewing out high-quality swell on to the East Coast of the States - and what made me laugh this morning was the difference in the take on this depending on where you read about it.

The NHC's latest bulletin (my italics) warns:
Anyway, what made me laugh was a trip over to Magic Seaweed to check out how the forecast for Europe is shaping up. And so how did MSW herald the potential arrival of the "extremely dangerous surf" and "life-threatening rip currents"?


Friday, August 14, 2009

Percy Grainger - "Irish Tune from County Derry"

This is a departure, but it's a deserving one.

Back in school, we had a couple of regional bands, and one of the tunes we played was Percy Grainger's masterpiece "Irish Tune from County Derry", known world wide as "Danny Boy".

Here's a rendition by the Illiana Wind Ensemble in Illinois that's very similar to the wind orchestra version that we did. After running through about 20 youtube versions, I chose this one for several reasons. Firstly, it doesn't involve strings, and I think strings strangely take away from this piece. Secondly, the balancing of the instruments is really nice on this version - some of the others are bit brash. It's not quite as buttery smooth as I remember us playing it, but that might be rose tinted spectacles, or it might be down to us having the most astounding conductor who gave me (and hopefully everyone else) a sense of grasping for perfection in a way that nobody else ever has.

Or it might be the phrasing - and for that, this is the best performance of it that I can find by a mile. I remember our conductor actually instructing us that he wanted us all to take a sniff at the end of the long phrases, and really put that silent gap in on the first beat of the bar. I think he actually started us sniffing out loud, then told us to do it silently later - and you can really feel that gap here, like a chunk of silence driven right through the heart of the music. It makes it special.

And finally, the whole piece has great shape. It's one of the recurring themes I keep coming back to across all genres of music - is there shape? Is it going anywhere? Well this does, and it does it subtly, gently, despairingly and hopefully.

Here it is - four breathtakingly emotional minutes of an orchestra pleading with you.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Green shoots, turkeys, and endless deleveraging

Back to the talk of “green shoots” in the economy – this is getting talked up a bit both in the US and Europe at the moment, and it’s worth taking a look at how valid it might be.

Counterpunch and many of the writers on it have really been hitting the nail on the head the last couple weeks – start with Dave Lindorff, who explains that the collapse in house prices in the US has destroyed the equity that consumers were able to borrow against. In effect, much of the economic activity in the US in the last decade was spending done with borrowed money – money borrowed against houses on the understanding that the price rises would stick, and money borrowed on credit cards on the understanding that jobs could be used to pay off the balance down the road. Now that jobs are being shed indiscriminately, and the real estate market is shelled, how can real spending-driven economic activity recover?
Where is the consumer spending supposed to come from that used to represent a whopping 70% of economic activity in a United States that long ago stopped making things? The answer is: nowhere.
Lindorff also refers to the fact that consumers simply could not borrow if they wanted to – the banks are not lending. Do they know something they don’t want to tell us? Lindorff again (my bold):
That’s why card companies like American Express and many Visa and MasterCard issuers, instead of just charging a late charge when card-holders miss a monthly payment deadline as in the past, are now just jacking up the interest rate they charge, --in American Express’s case to 28% or over 2% a month! That’s not the action of a bank that is expecting to get repaid by a valued customer—it’s the extortionate action of a usurer that wants to extract as much money as possible from a borrower that it expects to have go bust.
The ever reliable Mike Whitney also talks eloquently about the Federal Reserve in the US pumping money in to banks with the full knowledge that this will likely result in stock market speculation, driving the recent rally in the States. This means that the run up in the stockmarket stateside is not based on any fundamentals (employment, housing market, spending by joe public) whatsoever, but is simply the government funnelling money to financial institutions knowing that it will likely end up in the stockmarket, inflating values against the fundamentals – a game that can have only one conclusion. To add to that, Whitney highlights another problem that has been bubbling under for some time now – that is the trouble that the US is starting to experience in getting foreign governments and central banks to participate in the auctions of US dollar bonds. This (auctioning off US government bonds) is how the US has been funding its astonishing national debt for some time now, but unfortunately it does require confidence on the part of foreign governments and investors that the dollar won’t collapse, rendering the bonds they have purchased near-worthless.

As the fundamentals of the US economy get in to worse and worse shape, the likelihood of a dollar collapse gets closer and closer. Foreign governments would prefer not to have a sudden dollar collapse – they (China particularly) have so much money tied up in the US that a sudden collapse would be catastrophic for them also, so there is an element of chicken and egg. However, while nobody wants to be the one to cause the panic and run for the exits first, people (similar to the end of a large sporting event) are starting to put their things in their pockets and silently slip on their coats, hoping that nobody notices and they can be out of the door before they get trampled in the stampede and lose everything. The day of reckoning comes ever closer.

Finally, Whitney talks here about the roots of the destruction of the US economy – something that should have resonance in every other economy with over-extended consumers, rising unemployment and a housing market crash (here’s looking at you Iceland, Ireland, the UK, Spain, Eastern Europe, who knows where else):
A careful reading of the FRBSF's Economic Letter shows why the economy will not bounce back. It's mathematically impossible. We've reached peak credit; consumers have to deleverage and patch their balance sheets. Household wealth has slipped $14 trillion since the crisis began. Home equity has dropped to 41 per cent (a new low) and joblessness is on the rise. By 2011, Deutsche Bank AG predicts that 48 per cent of all homeowners with a mortgage will be underwater. As the equity position of homeowners deteriorates, banks will further tighten credit and foreclosures will mushroom.
In other words, the borrow-to-spend game relied upon the public having confidence that they would have the money from a job to pay back the borrowings, and that they would remain in a position of strength to pay back their mortgage in a house rising in value. There is now no confidence, for many people there are no jobs, and for many there is nothing but a vast collapse in house prices.

It’s going to take a very long time for the public to start to pay off the debts that they have personally accumulated, and until that time, it seems unlikely that they will be willing to stimulate the economy by spending unnecessarily. The game is up.

On a related tip, there’s a slightly heavy but quite interesting article here by hotshot of the month Nassim Nicholas Taleb, exploring the limits of statistics as a tool and parts of life where statistics are used with disastrous results. It’s particularly interesting because he talks at length about banks using statistics methods to analyse risk, without really understanding the statistics or the risks.

Here’s his somewhat hilarious metaphor for a turkey using statistical methods incorrectly to analyse it’s own risk:
A Turkey is fed for a 1000 days—every days confirms to its statistical department that the human race cares about its welfare "with increased statistical significance".

On the 1001st day, the turkey has a surprise.
Which begs the question - if we are the turkeys, is day 1001 in our past - or is it still to come?

Friday, August 07, 2009

Metro Area - "Miura"

I was going to post something a bit more morose today, but I had a great moment in the shop this morning on the way to work that completely changed my mind.

I was in getting the infamous Irish breakfast roll on the way to work (no canteen any more, which means no fryup on a Friday - out/insourcing is not a victimless crime!), and standing at the counter in the motorbike gear with the roll and a drink waiting to pay, the guy behind the counter asked if I was going on "a long drive".

No, unfortunately I'm off to work I said. He responded "Ah". Long pause. "Nice day today though. Long drive, you get a bit hungry, stop the bike and have some of the roll and a drink."

I couldn't argue with the simplicity of his vision. One man, the motorbike, the road, the sun, and a breakfast roll. Emerging into the bright clear Dublin sunlight, suddenly there was only one tune for today - the retro-disco of Morgan Geist and freinds from a few years back.

Classy stuff, and a reminder of how easy it is to change someone's day.