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Jeremy Williams (Luton)
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The Family Tree: The Roots
The Family Tree: The Roots

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars My favourite album of 2011, 12 May 2012
Ben Cooper is a prolific independent artist and musician who releases music under a whole range of identities, Electric President being perhaps the best known of them. Radical Face is a rather different and largely acoustic solo project, lovingly crafted out of piano, finger-picked guitar and multi-tracked harmonies.

Cooper doesn't have the strongest voice, but like Mercury Rev or Elliot Smith, that works in his favour in the musical and lyrical setting that he has created. The Roots is the first in a proposed trilogy of albums exploring a fictional family tree, and it gives the album a set of characters and its own internal mythology. (It's a trick that works for Midlake) Songs are stories, cryptic and intriguing, full of dreams and visions, tragedy and exile. It's haunting and imaginative.

Those stories reveal themselves over repeat listens, but it's the music that has to guarantee those repeat listens and it does so with ease. The album opens with the hushed intro 'Names', and then flowers into the piano-led 'Pound of Flesh'. It's a good example of Radical Face at its best, a beautiful song with a hint of something sinister. 'Black Eyes' hammers that old piano, 'Always Gold' drops to a single one-finger piano line and ticking, then bursts into harmonium. My personal favourite is 'Ghost Trains', which boasts a lovely rising piano riff and a handclapped chorus - hand percussion being one of the distinctive recurring sounds here.

The Roots is a strange and beautiful album, but what makes it one of my favourites of the last couple of years is the coherence of its vision. The music and the lyrics work perfectly together. It exists in a world of its own, right down to the faintly echoey production, no doubt the entirely deliberate result of recording it in a tool shed. It's a real work of art.


Competition Friendly Protectionism - How a Certain Kind of Protectionism Could Temper and Improve Globalisation
Competition Friendly Protectionism - How a Certain Kind of Protectionism Could Temper and Improve Globalisation
by Ronald Stuart
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.00

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Release the power of positive externalities, 12 May 2012
Competition Friendly Protectionism is a sideways look at globalisation. It's not anti-globalisation, as there are plenty of benefits to our global trade systems, but it is critical. Globalisation doesn't quite work as well as it should. It isn't delivering on its promise. Perhaps if we could look at it a little differently, we'd see some opportunities to make it better.

For that alternative perspective, Stuart takes inspiration from two key economists, Erik Reinert and Ha Joon Chang. Building on their work, he explains the limits to export-led growth as a development strategy. Since the global total of exports has to match the total of imports, it's simply impossible for every country to be exporting their way to growth at once, and yet that seems to be everyone's default plan. Global trade becomes unbalanced as countries vie for limited opportunities, gaming the system by protecting their markets to subsidising their industries, hoping to achieve that ellusive export surplus.

There has to be a better way to distribute trade in the global economy, but that still preserves the efficiencies of competition and keeps markets free and fair. Stuart suggests that 'competition friendly protectionism' is possible when you look at the correct scale. Sectors can be protected when the scale of the domestic market is large enough to allow internal competition. The sectors you want to protect are the ones where there are the biggest positive externalities, in the form of networks, skills and infrastructure. "GDP generated by nominally growing economic activity alone is an empty, perishable and reversible activity if it does not engender solid, irreversible steps of positive externality growth."

Despite the name of the book, it's actually on positive externalities where the book is at its best. Synergistic relationships are an economic secret weapon waiting to be discovered, Stuart suggests. "The field of mainstream economics does not typically frame positive externalities as a primary source of progress and development, as this book suggests." It is this insight which is the key idea here, rather than protectionism, which is more of a means to an end.

Competition Friendly Protectionism has a lot of ideas, from technology to postgrowth economics to game theory. Unfortunately it doesn't quite showcase the best of them. It's a little unfocused and tangential in places, and by the author's own admission, it is a work in progress. That's not a bad thing, as long as you know ahead of time that to read it is to engage in a speculative conversation. If you want your economic theory cut and dry, this isn't for you. If you're prepared to explore a promising and neglected avenue of economics, give it a go.


Happy to You
Happy to You
Offered by Todays Great Deal
Price: £3.47

4.0 out of 5 stars More to this dance-pop record than meets the eye, 28 April 2012
This review is from: Happy to You (Audio CD)
I quite enjoyed the first Miike Snow album. They don't really sound like anything else, with a distinctive twist to the dance-pop genre. With all three members in demand in other projects, I didn't really expect a second album, but here it is.

The sort of yelping into to Enter the Jokers Lair is not an auspicious start. Within 30 seconds however, a twinkling little synth noise emerges, grows, and runs away with the song. It's delightful. Second track The Wave sets the palette for what's to come - a martial beat, piano riff and a bed of synths, with glossy treated vocals over the top.

The pace doesn't drop off as the album progresses either. Bavarian #1 has fabulous dueling synths that segue into strings, a military rolling drumbeat and whistling, and the distinctive vocal distortion that defines Miike Snow's sound. Pretender employs the same trick in the chorus, while a bass sax grumbles away in the background.

For me the only dud is Black Tin Box, for it's rambling vocals. "I bought you a black tin box" mumbles Andrew Wyatt, "...but it struck me as the property of the childless." Really? Then again, I've heard others say that with its darker tone, that's their favourite track, so each to their own.

What I appreciate about Miike Snow is the depth of production. The songs are catchy and immediate, but repeat listens reveal little musical touches and new layers. There's always more going on beneath the surface.


Carl Warner Food Landscapes 2012 Wall Calendar
Carl Warner Food Landscapes 2012 Wall Calendar
by Carl Warner
Edition: Calendar

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A real talking point, 17 Aug. 2011
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Quick disclaimer - I haven't seen this 2012 calendar, but I have the 2011 calendar on the wall downstairs. It's a real conversation piece and we often catch guests staring at it in the hallway.

In fact, I spend plenty of time staring at it myself, admiring the cheese buildings, salmon oceans, and broccoli trees of Carl Warner's imaginative edible landscapes. The images are so detailed, the more you look the more you see, making this a real treat to turn over when a new month begins.

A great calendar to hang in your kitchen, or an unusual gift for a food-loving friend.


Overconnected: The Promise and Threat of the Internet
Overconnected: The Promise and Threat of the Internet
by William H. Davidow
Edition: Paperback

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A counter-cultural and timely study of overconnection, 17 Aug. 2011
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Books about the dangers of the internet aren't likely to get much of an audience right now, and some might be tempted to dismiss them as neo-Luddite scare-mongering. But a book about the downsides of online connectivity written by an insider, a venture capitalist and former VP of Intel, well, that might just get a little attention.

William Davidow watched the development of the internet from the ground up, overseeing the development of the microprocessor chip at Intel and part of a circle of Silicon Valley pioneers. He now believes that the internet has pushed us from an ideal state of being `highly connected' to the unstable state of being `overconnected'.

Why? Because the greater the number of connections, the greater the amount of feedback, and the greater the chance of things spinning out of control. Practically speaking, that could be an inflammatory Danish cartoon prompting riots in Muslim countries, for example, or a stampede against a currency that brings down an entire economy. "The internet has created a world where speed erases the ability to reflect" says Davidow. "The actions society takes have become so complex and interwoven that the simplest ones have effects far beyond what we imagine."

Overconnected explores the idea of overconnection historically, comparing the development of the internet to that of the railways in the US. It compares the 2007-08 financial crisis with previous investment bubbles to see the effects of the internet. Davidow also addresses risk management, engineering, economics and culture, in a diversity of perspectives that suggests a wide-reading author with a curious mind.

By way of solutions, there's really no way to undo the internet, nor would anyone want to - there are too many benefits. Davidow has a handful of suggestions for making things more stable though, mainly around re-regulation and ways to apply brakes to panicky situations, and assuming that accidents are inevitable and planning accordingly - a plea for `caution and forethought' as we try and make the best of our overconnected world.


Young Pilgrim
Young Pilgrim
Price: £5.99

6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Unexpected and well worth a listen, 17 Aug. 2011
This review is from: Young Pilgrim (Audio CD)
Putting aside the day job with Fightstar, Charlie Simpson has released his first solo album. It's an unexpected set of largely acoustic pop songs. He's a great songwriter, and this is a style that lets his songs shine. It also showcases his rough and distinctive voice. Freed from the thunder of its usual emo-thrash backing, it turns out to be rather versatile.

Young Pilgrim starts with a great one-two in the soaring Down Down Down and Parachutes, both obvious singles, and there are plenty of other fine moments besides. It's reminiscent of Get Cape Wear Cape Fly at times, American singer-songwriter Howie Day, or even I Am Arrows in the bounce of Cemetery.

Songs build out of simple guitar lines and drum patterns, adding strings and piano, and rich multi-tracked vocal harmonies. For the most part it works well, except for one or two occasions where Simpson's careworn voice seems out place in overly pretty arrangements, such as the falsetto crooned chorus of Thorns. As an album it dips in the middle a little as the tempo slows for too long. Fortunately the countrified Farmer and His Gun, complete with harmonica, injects a little energy that keeps the album from tailing off at the end.

Overall, this is a fine debut solo album, blessed with a sense of melody and with a handful of great songs. Let's hope it's not Simpson's last foray into this fruitful territory.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Aug 21, 2011 6:47 PM BST


Consumer Detox: Less Stuff, More Life
Consumer Detox: Less Stuff, More Life
by Mark Powley
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.99

9 of 11 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars How to outlive consumerism, 3 May 2011
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Living well in our modern culture requires us to navigate consumerism on a daily basis, and 'Consumer Detox' is a handy guide to the mixed blessings of a consumer culture. Using a mix of personal anecdotes and cultural theory, it unpicks how consumerism works - the promises it makes, the way it plays on our fears and aspirations, breeds discontent and pursues novelty.

It then goes on to suggest some defence strategies against the always-on, never satisfied attitude that consumerism encourages. There are natural rhythms to life, Mark argues. Times of boredom are not always bad. Waiting can be a good thing. There is an art to being fully present, and to being absent too. The off switch is your friend.

All useful stuff, but Powley saves his trump card for the last section of the book: the best way to disarm and subvert consumerism isn't to live a life of virtuous nay-saying, but to embrace a life of better things than consumerism can possibly offer - generosity, thankfulness, community. And that makes consumerism a spiritual issue.

"Consumerism is a religious phenomenon" says Mark. "It's not just about shopping and it never has been. It's about how we find identity and make meaning." Drawing on the gospels, the book explores the entirely different set of priorities of the Kingdom of God. If we invested our imaginations in this alternative of love and selflessness, we'd find that "simplicity isn't having a smaller life; it's having a bigger vision."

'Consumer Detox' is a great book, full of insights into consumerism and how it can be decoded, subverted, and outlived. It is wise and profound. It's also very funny.


When a Billion Chinese Jump: Voices from the Frontline of Climate Change
When a Billion Chinese Jump: Voices from the Frontline of Climate Change
by Jonathan Watts
Edition: Paperback

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Making sense of China in an age of climate change, and a great travel book too, 3 May 2011
China overtook the US as the world's biggest emitter of carbon this year, and has doggedly stood by its rights to develop and industrialize, and nobody is going to tell China what to do. At the same time, China has more installed solar capacity than any other country, has the biggest high speed rail network, and is pioneering green technologies from carbon capture and storage to electric car batteries.

'When a Billion Chinese Jump' is the book that makes sense of China's role in a world of climate change, and what an excellent book it is too. The title comes from the author's childhood fear that if everyone in China jumped at once, the earth would tilt off its axis. Now, he reasons, a billion Chinese have jumped - economically speaking - and the earth needs to rebalance.

The book is written as a travelogue. Jonathan Watts makes his way across the country from West to East, investigating a variety of environmental issues along the way. It's a great travel book in itself, full of local characters and exotic places, both pleasant and unpleasant. Watts travels to disaster zones, goes down coal mines, and is shown around eco-city building sites and model communist villages. Each chapter in the book covers a different region of China, and also a different issue: deforestation, pollution, erosion, conspicuous consumption, carbon emissions. It is at times a little terrifying, more often tragic - the price of China's industrial success is misery for millions of ordinary people.

Watts puts this all in its historical context, from the peasant culture of rural China to Mao's 'Great Leap Forward', and teases out the cultural trends behind China's actions. He also sees China's role as crucial to the future of the planet. "The planet's problems were not made in China," he writes, "but they are sliding past the point of no return here."

China can never extend an American way of life to every one of it's billion citizens - the climate would be destabilised in the process, and resource limits breached. If it is to succeed, China must re-invent industry and follow a different development path. With its huge reserve of labour and remarkable ability to pull off national projects, it may well pull it off. Through that great project, the book's tagline suggests, `China will save the World - or destroy it'.


A Week in December
A Week in December
by Sebastian Faulks
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Interesting ideas, not sure it works, 3 May 2011
This review is from: A Week in December (Paperback)
'A Week in December' follows the lives of a handful of people in the city of London over seven days in December 2007. They include a tube driver, a snotty literary critic, a North London trophy wife, and crucially, a city banker and an Islamic militant.

Those latter two are both plotting something terrible, and the book follows their comings and goings as they prepare for their respective big days. We eavesdrop on secret meetings and communications, but also meet their families and their friends. Their plans begin to unfold, the various other characters' stories gradually intersecting and weaving together, the later chapters building up a real tension and a sense of looming disaster.

It's an interesting compare and contrast exercise between socially destructive elements, the Islamic terrorist and the hedge fund manager. Some enemies of the people we tolerate and others we don't. Both of them have their own ends, and a view of the world that justifies their actions. Is either one more deluded than the other? Or more evil?

Another character is addicted to a Second Life style online game, another is schizophrenic, and Faulks contrasts these constructed realities, one chosen and one unchosen. Other characters open up questions about competition, wealth, and consumerism.

Like most books that follow multiple stories, you'll warm to some characters more than others, and some of the caricatures will ring more true than others. And they are caricatures. The banker John Veals is practically a pantomime villain - he never smiles, we're told.

'A Week in December' is a novel that attempts to capture a way of life at a certain point in history and at a specific time, London in 2007. (London readers will certainly appreciate the setting, it's a real London novel) It's also a historical turning point of sorts, one that's not yet resolved. It's an interesting idea to explore through fiction, but I did not find the key characters sufficiently believable to carry it off.


Ecological Debt - Second Edition: Global Warming and the Wealth of Nations
Ecological Debt - Second Edition: Global Warming and the Wealth of Nations
by Andrew Simms
Edition: Paperback
Price: £14.99

4.0 out of 5 stars Joining the dots between the converging crises of the 21st century, 3 May 2011
Ecological Debt is an unusually wide-ranging book, from a writer who understands that climate change, debt, resource depletion, development and lifestyle are all intricately bound together. To do justice to one issue, you have to follow the threads through them all. That could have resulted in a complete tangle of a book, but the idea of ecological debt serves as a locus that keeps it from unravelling.

Ecological debt is basically taking out an environmental overdraft, either on the earth itself or on somebody else. If we assume that everyone has an equal right to emit carbon, for example, then some countries and individuals are using more than their fair share of the atmosphere. That creates climate debtors and climate creditors, and the usual roles of debt are reversed. We are used to thinking of poor countries as heavily indebted, but "it is the inescapable debts of the rich that threaten our collective future".

That's the radical notion that Simms explores here. The richest countries in the world owe both an environmental debt to poorer countries, and a historical one, through colonialism and conquest. Considering that future development is constrained by limited resources and the climate, he argues that we should re-consider the idea of economic growth in rich countries, and start sharing the wealth better: "There is no more fundamental issue than the distribution of wealth in a climate constrained world economy".

That is of course a pretty unwelcome conclusion, but the idea of 'ecological debt' allows Simms to repackage a message that would otherwise be freighted with unhelpful ideology. Economic rebalancing is a moral imperative, neither charity nor socialist idealism - it would be righting a wrong, and repaying a debt.

The book does pack a little too much in - this is the updated 2009 edition, and the last few chapters lose focus a little. Overall however, this is a powerful and creative exercise in joining the dots between the several converging crises of the 21st century.


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