Mar 2006

Talking Heads: Remain In Light

Darwin be damned! This is why we evolved ears. No “adapting to our environment” / “survival of the versatile” bullshit. The surround mix of Remain In Light on 5.1 speakers and big beefy bass acted as a ‘Strange Attractor’… a retroactive enchantment cast upon all of human history… shaping biology and culture backwards through the millennia – coaxing eardrums from the depths of our DNA – in order that this experience may exist.

By which I mean, this is a good album.

Remain In Light was the first album I ever bought. It’s still, to my ears, one of the finest albums ever recorded. Which is a lovely stroke of luck. My first single was Ray Parker Junior’s Ghostbusters.

Remain in Light

Aaaanyways, Remain In Light was first released in 1980 and for me is the band’s finest achievement. Which is not to say they went downhill after they stopped working with Brian Eno, merely a different direction. Indeed, as 1981’s My Life In The Bush of Ghosts demonstrated, the direction being taken by Eno and David Byrne had its logical extension in something that wasn’t a Talking Heads record. And although the close collaboration between Eno and Byrne (to the point where Eno is co-writer of the album, and is an instrumentalist or vocalist on pretty much every track) led to friction within the band, Remain In Light is still very much a Talking Heads record… the natural next step after the previous year’s Fear of Music.

But why am I reviewing it now? It was released in 1980, and I bought it in 1986. Is there anything beyond it being “a good album” to justify this entry?

Digitally Remastered and Remixed in 5.1 Surround Sound

Really? And that’s good then is it?

Oh yes. Dear Lord yes. I’ve often thought to myself when listening to The White Album, or Astral Weeks, or Horses or Remain In Light… “wouldn’t it be amazing to hear this again for the first time?” And now, thanks to the wonders of modern sound mixing technology, I damn near can.

Remain In Light, with the entire Talking Heads back catalogue, has been re-released. Now, I’m often sceptical about re-releases (Bowie, for instance, is on the verge of taking the piss) but there’s no doubt that the sound reproduction on early CDs was often very shoddy, and remastering using the latest technology can overcome that. Plus, when coupled with a complete remix by a member of the band (i.e. someone who was present at the original recordings and has an idea of the sound they were trying to achieve), the process can radically improve an album, lifting individual instruments out of a muddy wall of sound and giving them the clarity and definition they had during actual recording.

As with the other albums, Remain In Light now consists of two discs… a CD and a DVD. The CD contains the digitally remastered version, plus a handful of unreleased tracks / outtakes. The DVD contains the original album, digitally remastered and remixed in 5.1 surround sound, plus a handful of previously unreleased performance videos. All in all it’s fair to say they’ve tried to offer enough additional material to justify buying the albums a third time (if, like me, you started buying music in the era of vinyl and cassette).

Certainly I’m a big enough (or foolish enough) fan to buy the re-issues on the strength of the remastering alone, but even for casual fans the audio quality is noticeably and significantly better and the bonus material is excellent. The four unfinished outtakes on Remain In Light‘s CD do fall a little short of “new songs”. But close to twenty minutes of new music from some truly historic recording sessions isn’t to be sniffed at… from the super-tight Fela’s Riff; the intensity of which leaves no space for vocals; to the Eno dominated Unison and the sublime Right Start which – judging by the presence of that bassline – was the seed that grew into Once In A Lifetime.

Hardcore fans of the band will be fascinated by what amounts to a glimpse of the creative process in action. Others will just dig the grooves.

It’s difficult to put into the words the difference in sound quality. Words like “richer” and “warmer” convey a sense of the change, but don’t really capture it. Everything is clearer – with entire new lyrics emerging from beneath layers of instrumentation – yet nothing is out of place. The songs don’t fragment into mere collections of channels, but hold their cohesion despite being opened up so radically. It’s a testament to the talent of Andy Zax; producer on the re-issue project; that this is the case.

Hearing something like The Overload in 5.1 surround sound is an unspeakably sublime musical experience. I was sceptical that a technology originally developed to allow positional sound for Hollywood action blockbusters would genuinely add anything to an album or piece of music. But add it does. If I were to say something like, “it allows you to feel like you’re inside the music”, I’d just sound like a brochure for 5.1 technology. You simply have to hear it for yourself… assuming you have the appropriate speaker setup.

But what about the songs?

Even though the reason for this review is the remastering, remixing and rerelease, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to say something about the album itself. Just what makes this one of the finest albums ever recorded?

Remain In Light marks the end of Talking Heads transition from spikey New York art punks into the most intelligent and eclectic band of their era; drawing influences from Africa and South America as well as from closer to home; mixing rhythms from around the world with soul, jazz, rock, pop, funk and country… and adding a generous dash of European motorische / krautrock to the mix.

It’s remarkable that such a dark and brooding wash of electronics as the album’s final track The Overload could exist without incongruity on an album that also contains the sheer funky exuberance of The Great Curve with its glorious refrain… “The world moves on a woman’s hips / the world moves and it swivels and bops / the world moves on a woman’s hips / the world moves and it bounces and hops”. The Overload is like Joy Division at their very best, while The Great Curve is like… well, like nothing else you’ve heard, but if Sly and The Family Stone ever did punk, it might sound a little bit like it. That Remain In Light still makes perfect sense as a complete album blows me away every time.

The aforementioned My Life In The Bush of Ghosts can be heard emerging from several of the tracks on Remain In Light, not least the famous swirling “preaching” of Once In A Lifetime. Of course, although the lyrics of Once In A Lifetime are all lifted from sermons that Byrne heard on evangelical radio stations, the song isn’t about preaching… it’s about epiphany, about the moment of revelation.

And if the album had a common lyrical theme (it’s stretching it a little to claim that it does), then it would be just that… revelation, epiphany, realisation… unexpected understanding. The album’s heart lies in the two tracks Seen And Not Seen and The Listening Wind which foreshadow the approaching Overload. In The Listening Wind we are presented with a glimpse into the heart of an anti-American / anti-capitalist terrorist, Mojique… planting bombs and lying low waiting for news of the explosions. Yet Mojique’s story is told with empathy, warmth and even romance…

Mojique sees his village from a nearby hill
Mojique thinks of days before Americans came
He sees the foreigners in growing numbers
He sees the foreigners in fancy houses
He thinks of days that he can still remember… now.

Mojique holds a package in his quivering hands
Mojique sends the package to the American man
Softly he glides along the streets and alleys
Up comes the wind that makes them run for cover
He feels the time is surely now or never… more.

The wind in my heart
The wind in my heart
The dust in my head
The dust in my head
The wind in my heart
The wind in my heart
(come to) drive them away
Drive them away.

Mojique buys equipment in the market place
Mojique plants devices in the free trade zone
He feels the wind is lifting up his people
He calls the wind to guide him on his mission
He knows his friend the wind is always standing… by.

Mojique smells the wind that comes from far away
Mojique waits for news in a quiet place
He feels the presence of the wind around him
He feels the power of the past behind him
He has the knowledge of the wind to guide him… on.

The wind in my heart
The wind in my heart
The dust in my head
The dust in my head
The wind in my heart
The wind in my heart
(come to) drive them away
Drive them away.

The Listening Wind | Lyrics: David Byrne

Even back when Remain In Light was released, the notion that terrorists could be viewed sympathetically in popular music was an uncomfortable one. These days it’s positively subversive. But Byrne has never shirked from tackling the uncomfortable subjects… indeed it seems to be where he’s at his best; paradoxically where he’s most comfortable. Even today, with direct attacks on the Bush administration in songs like Empire (from his most recent album, Grown Backwards) and even more direct attacks from his blog, he’s – thankfully – not an artist ever likely to be cowed by political pressure.

Just prior to The Listening Wind, however, is the unsettling Seen And Not Seen… exploring the alienation and psychosocial distortion created by the mediation of culture and experience… the song is a gloriously hypnotic bass and percussion line, over which Byrne blankly recites the words… the creepiness of the opening lines… “he would see faces in movies, on TV, in magazines, and in books. He thought that some of these faces might be right for him.” never lets up. Right to the final few words left hanging within the relentless rhythms… “He wonders if he too might have made a similar mistake…….”

Just left hanging there.

There’s not a single bad track on Remain In Light. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that there’s not a song on the album that isn’t a classic. The handful of albums which qualify as “essential” often – though not always – possess that quality. If you don’t already own this album, then this new release is the perfect excuse to check it out. And you can trust me when I say that from an audio-quality standpoint, it’s a huge improvement over the original release.

For those who already own Remain In Light, it’s a little more complicated. By themselves, the extra tracks probably don’t justify the cost unless you’re a big fan. Don’t get me wrong, the bonus material is great to have, but it’s not the reason to buy the rerelease (I’ve spent far, far more time listening to the original album on 5.1 speakers than I have listening to the extra tracks or watching the videos). I would say this though; if you believe it’s a great album, then the remastering is worth buying it again for. It’s almost like hearing it for the first time.

8 comments  |  Posted in: Reviews » Music reviews

Mar 2006

The madness of anti-Americanism

Tony Blair has just called me “mad”. What a bastid. And talk about your pots and kettles!

Also, I notice he flew all the way to Australia to do it. Clearly decided to put some distance between us before unleashing the insults. Probably afraid I’d lamp him. And lamp him I would if I were ever within arms-length of the freakin’ psycho.

Y’know, when Orwell was asked – soon after the publication of Animal Farm, and his subsequent leap in fame – why he’d changed his name from Eric Blair, he is quoted as replying that he had “a premonition” that “one day the name Blair will be associated with infamy”, likening it to “… Hitler or Stalin. And what writer would like to see his work beneath the name Eric Hitler?”*

Many moons ago, on a blog not unlike this one, I wrote a piece entitled “Why I’m anti-American”. I shall reiterate the main points of that, as I feel they bear repeating on a day Tony Blair dismisses those who disagree with him as clinically insane (and presumably in need of sedation) rather than worthy of engaging in debate.

Firstly, let’s make it clear what being anti-American is not about. It isn’t about disliking Americans. There’s already a word for that… “bigotry”. Disliking or discriminating against someone because of their nationality or skin colour just means you’re an obnoxious tosser. It doesn’t make you “anti-American” in the sense I’m using the phrase.

And because anti-Americanism isn’t about disliking people, there’s thankfully no danger of it ever manifesting as a desire to murder a whole bunch of Americans indiscriminately. So I utterly reject the idea that anti-Americanism of itself has a logical extension in what happened on September 11th 2001. What you had there was anti-Americanism mixed up with a whole bunch of other stuff. The anti-Americanism chose the target, but it was the other stuff that chose the tactics.

Needless to say, I favour different tactics, and I’m just as opposed to the other stuff; the stuff that justified thousands of murders in the eyes of extremists; as Dubya Bush and Tony Blair are. But that “with us or agin us” crap? It doesn’t wash with me. My enemy’s enemy is not always my friend.

“Anti-American”ism / Anti-“Americanism”

Most people would agree that there is a genuine difference between being anti-Islam and being anti-Islamist. No such distinction currently exists in our language between anti-American and anti-Americanism. Though perhaps one should.

Whatever the intentions of the Founding Fathers and a succession of constitutional scholars may have been; in the eyes of much of the world the United States no longer stands for what most Americans are taught it stands for in school. Schoolchildren throughout the days of Empire in Britain were taught that colonialism was all about bringing “civilisation” to the savages. The savages saw it as rape, murder and the theft of their land and resources. These days it’s America and not Britain, and it’s “democracy” and not civilisation. The savages still use the same words though.

And that’s very much part of the problem. The whole “we confer upon you lesser people the right to rule yourselves” thing. It’s so much bullshit. And it’s transparently bullshit. There’s no moral high ground here.

The Iraqi people know that for half of Saddam Hussein’s rule he was supported by exactly the people who ousted him. And the Iraqi people, more than anyone, know just how brutal he was during that time. The Iraqi people also know that when – after the first Gulf War – they were urged to rise up against the regime, those who did were left dangling by US forces ordered not to help. And finally, after more than a decade of crippling economic sanctions causing poverty, misery and death; reducing a once-functioning nation to a “failed state”; these same erstwhile friends of Hussein decided that Shock And Awe, followed by a three year occupation – launched from corrupt and compliant dictatorships next door – was the best way to help the poor Iraqi people who can’t run their own affairs… and shepherd them towards democracy.

If I were Iraqi, I’d probably mutter something about how if you’d only left us alone 100 years ago, then maybe we wouldn’t be in this mess. And how being carpet bombed and subjected to a further period of occupation is probably NOT WHAT WE NEED RIGHT NOW! Although that said, the average Iraqi is probably too busy trying to track down enough fresh drinking water without being blown up or having his head chopped off to be thinking very much about historical context. Life in Baghdad is probably focussed very much on the next few minutes, rather than the last hundred years.

What Tony Blair is unwilling to admit or too thick to understand is that the vast majority of people who he’d describe as anti-American are actually anti-Americanist. They may have American friends and love a lot about America but they are against what America has come to stand for. Not what it says it stands for; but what its actions demonstrate.

Americanism is a kind of rapacious, aggressive capitalism willing to ignore all ethical concerns in the desire for global dominance. Americanism is a willingness to unilaterally use a military machine unrivalled in all of human history to reduce entire nations to rubble which it designates, falsely, to be a threat. Americanism is the arrogance of power… “freedom is occupation”… “democracy is compliance”. It’s all a bit You Know Who.

And speaking of Orwell, can I just cite a short passage from Politics and The English Language to better illustrate this point…

The words democracy, socialism, freedom, patriotic, realistic, justice, have each of them several different meanings which cannot be reconciled with one another. In the case of a word like democracy, not only is there no agreed definition, but the attempt to make one is resisted from all sides. It is almost universally felt that when we call a country democratic we are praising it: consequently the defenders of every kind of régime claim that it is a democracy, and fear that they might have to stop using the word if it were tied down to any one meaning. Words of this kind are often used in a consciously dishonest way. That is, the person who uses them has his own private definition, but allows his hearer to think he means something quite different.

I wonder has Tony Blair ever read that essay? I don’t imagine Dubya Bush has, but you’d think someone might have sent a copy to Blair by now. After all, it was written in 1946.

The point being that when Blair accuses anti-Americanism as being “mad”, he’s essentially saying that anti-Americanism translates as anti-freedom and anti-democracy. But the freedom being exported by America is the freedom to have US corporations make billions off the back of Iraqi misery. And the democracy is limited to electing those approved by America.

It’s Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay for crying-out-loud. It’s secret “rendition flights” shipping suspects to central Asia for torture. And because these are not ‘blips on the radar’ or ‘a few bad apples’, but instead clearly represent the policies of modern America, then it is necessary for all those who believe in a world without state torture, secret police and “the military option” to label themselves anti-American.

In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible. Things [… that] can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of political parties. Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness. Defenseless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification. Millions of peasants are robbed of their farms and sent trudging along the roads with no more than they can carry: this is called transfer of population or rectification of frontiers. People are imprisoned for years without trial, or shot in the back of the neck or sent to die of scurvy in Arctic lumber camps: this is called elimination of unreliable elements. Such phraseology is needed if one wants to name things without calling up mental pictures of them. Consider for instance some comfortable English professor defending Russian totalitarianism. He cannot say outright, “I believe in killing off your opponents when you can get good results by doing so.” Probably, therefore, he will say something like this:

While freely conceding that the Soviet regime exhibits certain features which the humanitarian may be inclined to deplore, we must, I think, agree that a certain curtailment of the right to political opposition is an unavoidable concomitant of transitional periods, and that the rigors which the Russian people have been called upon to undergo have been amply justified in the sphere of concrete achievement.

The inflated style is itself a kind of euphemism. A mass of Latin words falls upon the facts like soft snow, blurring the outlines and covering up all the details. The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns, as it were instinctively, to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish squirting out ink. In our age there is no such thing as “keeping out of politics.” All issues are political issues, and politics itself is a mass of lies, evasions, folly, hatred and schizophrenia.

* That paragraph is a lie.

2 comments  |  Posted in: Opinion

Mar 2006

Charles Taylor to face trial

I must admit to having mixed feelings to the news that former Liberian president Charles Taylor is being repatriated to face war crimes charges. This is despite the fact he’s almost certainly guilty of widespread atrocities in two nations in West Africa. Despite the fact that when Desmond de Silva, chief prosecutor of the war crimes court in Sierra Leone, describes Taylor as “one of the three most important wanted war crimes suspects in the world”, there’s probably not a lot of hyperbole involved.

My family lived in Nigeria for a couple of years, and I tend to take a slightly greater interest in news involving that nation than I might take in news from other places. There’s nothing particularly unusual about that… for a period of my life, events in Nigeria affected me directly. Much more than events in – say – Angola or Ecuador or New Zealand. So I kept abreast of the Nigerian news, and as happens with a politics junkie like myself, I became quite interested in the subject so that even now – after my family have left the country – I tend to keep an eye on the major developments.

Also, the fact that Nigeria is a politically unstable major oil exporter puts it on the map for anyone interested in energy issues.

Anyways, a brief summary of the Charles Taylor situation for those who aren’t familiar with recent West African affairs: Taylor led a rebellion against the government of Liberia throughout the 1990s. By 1995 the nation was in a state of all-out civil war. By mid-96 the government could no longer be described as “governing” in any sense, and – with the backing of the major regional power, Nigeria – called elections. In 1997 Charles Taylor was elected. The poll was a sham. It’s hard to say which side did the most voter-intimidation… though in the end Taylor seemed most effective at it.

Which brings us to Taylor’s tactics, and the fact that during the entirety of his Liberian rebellion, Taylor was spending at least as much of his time plundering diamonds from neighbouring Sierra Leone (a nation in a near-permanent state of civil war thanks, largely, to the diamond mines). During his longtime involvement in the conflict diamond trade (which dates back at least until 1991, but probably started even earlier), Taylor inspired fear by ordering his fighters to hack off the hands and feet of anyone in an area suspected of collaborating with his enemies.

This often extended to entire villages.

Needless to say, the international war crimes tribunals currently in session with regards to Sierra Leone consider Charles Taylor to be their most important suspect. He, more than anyone, escalated the civil war in Sierra Leone… in order to fund his civil war in Liberia. He, more than anyone, is associated with the committing of widespread atrocities. And his involvement in his neighbour’s war didn’t end when he’d seized power in Liberia either. For the next half-decade, until French-led international forces intervened and things degenerated into all-out civil war at home again, he continued to plunder diamonds and fan the flames of conflict.

So it seems rather perverse to hold mixed feelings about his extradition to face these charges. And I should point out that I’m not suggesting that there’s some kind of ‘stitch-up’ of Taylor in the Western media. There’s not much doubt that this is a man guilty of some truly terrible crimes.

However, and here’s where I have the problem, the long civil war in Liberia would almost certainly still be going on had Taylor not agreed to exile in Nigeria. Certainly he had lost his grip on power by then, but there’s no reason to imagine he wouldn’t simply have become a rebel leader again – a role he exulted in for more than a decade – and continued to spread conflict throughout the region. Indeed he threatened as much… demanding a cushy exile in exchange for a promise not to plunge the area in further chaos.

And despite the arrest warrant from the Sierra Leone tribunal, the Liberians and Nigerians agreed that – from a purely pragmatic standpoint – letting the man live out his years in silent exile was the best option. They didn’t want him to return to being a rebel and probably didn’t much relish the idea of giving him an international platform like the tribunal either. So they made a promise. Taylor got a lovely villa in Nigeria and all the imported luxuries his ill-gotten diamonds will buy.

And for the first time in almost two decades the conflict in both Liberia and Sierra Leone began to ease off. To describe the situation in either country as far from perfect is akin to describing the sun as far from cold. But it’s getting better. Slowly, painfully it’s getting better.

I certainly don’t think that Taylor deserves to get away with it. And yes, it is a staggering injustice that he should live out his life lighting cuban cigars with burning hundred dollar bills, when he helped cripple two entire nations in order to do so. And I agree fully with the argument that such a fate for Charles Taylor sends all manner of destabilising messages to the region and the wider world.

Yet part of me still believes that a deal is a deal. And when the outcome results in progress towards ending two terrible conflicts, then perhaps there’s an obligation to hold up your side of the bargain?

2 comments  |  Posted in: Opinion

Mar 2006

Biofuels – The fuel of the future

Biofuels are the fuel of the future claims the Green Party of Ireland. Let’s hope they’re wrong.

I was heartened to see that the Greens are an influential force in Irish politics. While the latest polls suggest they’ll only get 7% of the vote in the next General Election (probably next year, though theoretically it could be called early), Ireland’s proportional representation system means that they could very well – given current party alliances – find themselves holding the balance of power. Whichever of the major blocs wishes to form a government for the next five years will have to offer the Greens something significant in order to do so. A genuine bidding war between the two major centrist parties over who can offer the most environmentally sound policies would be nice to see.

Hardly revolutionary I grant you. But it’s a step in the right direction.

I just hope the Greens don’t squander the opportunity by demanding support for the biofuels strategy. Environmental organisations in Ireland, and throughout the world, need to be attacking private car use as the absurd and obscene waste of resources that it is. What they shouldn’t be doing is reassuring people that the future can be business as usual, just by different means. It may be a less popular message, but it has the advantage of being the truth.

Though perhaps it’s foolish to believe that should count for anything.

According to Nationmaster (a godsend for those of us who habitually like to pepper our writing with statistics) who cite a 2002 World Bank report, Ireland comes 18th in a survey of car-ownership in developed nations. There are 272 cars per 1,000 people in Ireland which is significantly below the developed nation average of 437.3 per 1,000.

However 272 cars per 1,000 people still amounts to almost 1.1 million cars in a nation of 4 million people. And it’s a pretty small island.

Now, if we are to believe the RAC, the average distance travelled per car per annum in Ireland is 16,000km, with an average engine efficiency of 10.55km per litre. So Ireland’s private automobile fleet gets through – back of the napkin calculation – 1,650,000,000 litres of petrol per year. 1.65 billion litres. Which is a lot of fuel for a pretty small island. And that’s private automobiles (Ireland has 359 motor vehicles per 1,000 people; I’m concentrating only on cars here).

How many litres of biofuels would be required to replace 1.65 billion litres of petrol? And how much arable land would be required to grow all that biomass? Have the Green Party worked out these numbers? I suspect not. Certainly they don’t publish them on their rose-tinted website. And where do the Greens stand on the subject of biodiversity Vs monocultures? Championing biofuels would suggest a side of the fence I’m not comfortable on.

Plus, rather importantly, the ERoEI of biofuels isn’t well-established. There’s been few studies, and fewer still large-scale experiments. David Pimentel (a professor at Cornell) published a study in the Encyclopedia of Physical Sciences and Technology (a peer-reviewed journal) which created significant controversy by claiming that ethanol from corn (one of the most widespread biofuels) has an ERoEI of less than 100%. In other words, claims Pimentel, the planting, harvesting and conversion of corn into ethanol uses more energy than gets generated by burning the end product.

Note: Energy Returned on Energy Invested (ERoEI) is sometimes referred to as Net Energy Ratio (NER). Although the two have slightly different definitions, with one being expressed as a percentage, the other as a decimal ratio; they are nonetheless similar enough to consider them the same thing in all but the most technical of discussions. I’m pointing this out because I’ve noticed both terms beginning to crop up in the mainstream media for the first time, and I figured some of you might want to know that they’re near-as-dammit interchangeable (though I’ve encountered pedantic scientists who fly into quite colourful rages for suggesting such a thing).

Anyways, quite apart from Pimentel’s study – which is still causing some consternation and throws the averages right out the window – I’ve read a few papers on the subject, and even contributed my number-crunching skills to one of them. It wouldn’t be out of order to suggest that ethanol can be generated with an NER of between 1.38:1 and 2.62:1. Plus the US government has a new study underway which it believes will give a return of 5:1 (though it concedes in that case “much of the energy gain comes from generating electricity by burning the co-product lignin, rather than from the ethanol itself”, so it should be discounted as a great leap forward in liquid fuel production).

But let’s say we pretend to be optimists for a moment and take that 2.62 and roll it in a little bit of the US government’s 5.0. Let’s say, given optimum conditions and efficiency, you can regain 3.5 units of energy from ethanol for each unit you input into growing and producing it. That’s still a long way off crude oil’s 40:1 to 100:1 (depending on the well). So far off that I’d hesitate to suggest one as a substitute for the other even without calculating the arable land required. You just know it’s not going to be good, right?

Pimentel’s study suggested that 97% of all of America’s arable land would be required to fuel the private automobile fleet of that country (again leaving aside freight, air travel, military and government usage, etc etc). And while America has a lot of cars… it’s also got a lot of arable land. What would it be like for Ireland?

Well, if you were to do a genuine like-for-like comparison, and insist that the biofuel industry pay for itself energy-wise in the same way as the fossil fuel industry does, then we should scale up the number of litres of fuel required by the same amount as the NER is scaled down, even though the energy contained in the ethanol isn’t necessarily quite that much less than that contained in petrol. In which case, let’s use the government 5:1 (as we can assume that the electricity generated by the co-product can be channelled into biofuel production in some way).

So using the optimistic biofuel NER of 5:1 and the most pessimistic crude oil NER of 40:1, it suggests that Ireland would require the production of 13.2 billion litres of bioethanol to fuel the current private automobile fleet. I’ll also use the most optimistic litres per hectare number I can find (an Indian company, Ammana Bio, has claimed 7,000 litres per hectare from sorghum; far more than the 1,500 litres / hectare that is often quoted when discussing UK / Northern Europe biofuel production) in order to get a highly conservative estimate of 1.88 million hectares.

Again using Nationmaster we discover that Ireland has a total of 1.05 million hectares of arable and permanent cropland. This suggests that if Ireland were to make the transition to biofuels without a significant parallel reduction in car usage, we’d need to dedicate the entire arable surface of the nation to growing high-yield stock for bioethanol, and still import 45% of our fuel. Quite how this squares with the Green Party’s insistence that “the poverty of two-thirds of the world’s family demands a redistribution of the world’s resources” is anyone’s guess.

Let’s stop talking about biofuels. Start talking about fewer cars.

10 comments  |  Posted in: Opinion

Mar 2006

Even Your Rapture Is Waiting

Like most writers, I’ve turned my hand to poetry on occasion. With mixed results it must be said. I seem to have a small talent for very short poems, and have an (unpublished) book of haiku lying around somewhere on a CD labelled “backups – writing”. However, apart from a couple of half-decent political poems, as soon as I try to go beyond a few lines, I find one of two things happen. Either it turns into sub-Byronic cliché-ridden quasi-Romantic sludge, or it turns into a bad pop song. Often both at once.

I’m not bad at limericks, but that’s “humourous verse” not really poetry. No, for me, haiku are where it’s at. So it is thanks to the Japanese – and Basho in particular – that I can, with a degree of honesty, call myself a poet.

This – my first ever serious haiku – was written as a thankyou to Basho, whose poetry is one of those things you encounter in life that makes you think… “well, no matter what else happens… being on this planet was worth it for this”.

My heart yearns to glimpse
within springtime’s first blossom
the meaning of life

Another poet who helps make this world a more worthwhile place to spend a lifetime is my dear friend Mahalia. I don’t regularly attend modern poetry slams, but have been to a few over the years (which, I suspect, is “a few” more than most people, sadly). And I don’t read much modern poetry, but the fact that I read any at all probably puts me in a tiny minority (the title of my book of haiku is “Echo of a Falling Petal”… a reference to a quotation from Don Marquis; Publishing a volume of verse is like dropping a rose petal down the Grand Canyon and waiting for the echo.”)

All of which is to say that I’m probably as well placed as most people to have an opinion on the finest poet of our generation. And in my opinion, it’s Mahalia. His three volumes; Doubting, Surrender and Love are all the best book of poetry you’ll ever buy.

However, it’s not always enough to merely read a poem, though in practice it is as close as most of us can get to poetry these days. When poetry first began it was an entirely oral tradition. Writing them down came later. And I feel that one of the reasons we lost our cultural appreciation of poetry is because we’re not listening to it any more. Well, that’s not entirely true… our better singer/songwriters can sometimes trick millions into listening to a poem through the ruse of declaiming it over a catchy tune. The reverse of David Byrne’s maxim that “the words are just there to trick people into hearing the music”.

But that’s not quite enough. We’ve probably had songs for as long as we’ve had poems. The two have always been separate despite their similarities, and when you hear a great poem being read or recited then you know why… you want nothing distracting you from the words. George Orwell’s wonderful essay, Poetry and the Microphone, goes into this in much more detail, and should be read.

However, before you do that, I’d like you to download and listen to Mahalia’s reading of Even Your Rapture Is Waiting. Don’t do it if you’re in a noisy or distracting environment. Save it until you can give it your full concentration. It’s from Surrender, and requires neither preamble nor explanatory notes from me. [mp3 | 2.5MB].

6 comments  |  Posted in: Media » Audio, Poetry

Mar 2006

Wind power

Hallo folks. Sorry I’ve been a bit quiet this week (I promise, by the way, never to use this blog’s title as a jokey excuse for lackadaisical productivity… y’know, some kind of crass remark like “Well what did you expect from the QUIET road, eh? eh?”). I’ve had one of those weeks where you think to yourself on Friday afternoon, “Haaaang on a second; wasn’t it Sunday just now? What in the name of god happened to the week?”

My great fear is that I’ll be lying on my deathbed and I’ll think “Haaaang on a second; wasn’t I sixteen years old just now? What in the name of god happened to the last fifty years?” Something tells me though, just as the light finally fades forever, we all think that.

So what have I been thinking about this week?

Well, I was going to write something about how publicly listed corporations, through having a legal obligation to maximise the return for their investors, are forces for evil in the world. It’s a common theme in my writing, and this week the thought was sparked off by reading about Body Shop being taken over by L’Oreal. However the impetus was mollified (for this week) by reading Merrick’s excellent piece on the subject. So on that subject… “what he said!”

And talking about Merrick, you should probably read Iceland: Greenpeace’s Shameful Silence for news of a new spin on an old environmental issue… hydroelectricity and the uses to which we put this so-called, self-styled “green” energy.

Which brings me onto the topic of today’s sermon… wind power. Y’know, I’m scared witless that someone’s going to discover some great environmental problem with wind power. Turns out that wind-turbines slow down the earth’s rotation… killing all the bees or something. In my view, that’ll be the final message from this planet that we’re just not wanted anymore.

Oh, and those of you who object to the things on aesthetic grounds can piss off. Sorry, but there you have it. I think they look lovely. But then, I think power pylons look lovely too… and I don’t hear anyone objecting to them as long as they can watch Big Fricking Brother on Satellite Television! So when the wind-farm protesters start demanding the removal of the pylons (starting with the ones connecting up their towns), I’ll start listening to their objections about aesthetics.

And no, the “bird deaths” thing doesn’t wash either. Clearly there will be certain areas where a wind farm would be particularly destructive to migrating birds (Altamont in San Francisco turned out to be one such area), and they should be avoided. But then you hear about a wind farm located – many would say foolishly –

… at the San Gorgonio Pass […] near Palm Springs. A 1986 study found that 69 million birds flew though the San Gorgonio Pass during the Spring and Fall migrations. During both migrating seasons, only 38 dead birds were found during that typical year, representing only 0.00006% of the migrating population.

There will be those who say that 38 dead birds is 38 too many. But when you do put that number into perspective, it becomes a no-brainer. I have to wonder where the people who say “38 is too many” stand on the issue of the 130 million killed by power lines in the US alone each year? Or the estimated 1 billion globally that die simply from colliding with glass windows? Do they still drive cars despite the 70 million or so birds that are killed by US automobiles each year?

And let’s not forget the toll from those oil spills and other fossil-fuel pollutants that gets replaced by the wind farms. Mike Sagrillo (from whom I stole all the stats, read his article) points out that even the heavily criticised Altamont farm would need to operate for up to 1,000 years to kill as many birds as one oil tanker spillage.

There are huge issues with wind power of course. It’s inefficient when compared with fossil fuels (but it does pass all the ERoEI tests… in simple terms, wind farms produce more energy than it takes to manufacture and maintain them). It’s not an “always-on” energy source. But frankly, we’re going to have to start understanding that the way we treat energy usage has to change.

And here’s my proposition (or part of it)… I’m concentrating here on Ireland and Northern Europe… other parts of the world will need other solutions. It’s all about localisation.

Simply put; we need a two-tier electricity grid.

The first tier is for essential services. Hospitals obviously. Plus public transportation. Also I propose some kind of facility which would provide – among other things – refrigeration for the local community, plus other non-essential but useful electricity services (charge points for mobile phones and laptop computers; that sort of thing). This tier will be kept going – using a combination of tidal, existing hydro, sustainable biomass, and batteries charged during times of “wind surplus”. Which in northwest Europe will be pretty frequently.

The second tier is for the rest of us. Once there’s more electricity in the system than is required for essentials, then – for those not in a position to have their own small home wind-turbine (tens of thousands of which will be feeding their own surplus into the grid during windy days) – lights and televisions can start coming on across the country.

It will require a huge investment in infrastructure, but we’ve probably still got a few years of cheap oil left if we decide to manage it sensibly. And it will require a huge shift in attitude, a huge change in lifestyle, a revolutionary approach to the next two decades. Maybe I’ve been reading too much Orwell of late, but as he would say; there’s no question that we have the physical tools at our disposal… all it requires – and I use the word ‘political’ in its broadest sense here – is the political will.

3 comments  |  Posted in: Opinion

Mar 2006

Mission accomplished

Mission Accomplished
A major military operation targeting insurgents and foreign fighters in northern Iraq is continuing into a second day, the US military says.

4 comments  |  Posted in: Opinion

Mar 2006

A History of Violence

Incidentally, unless stated upfront, I’ll never reveal anything about a film that can’t be gleaned from the trailer and advance publicity. There may be occasions where I want to discuss some vital element of the plot. In those cases, I’ll always provide a clear spoiler warning. This review does not contain any spoilers…

A History of Violence

I’ve been impressed by every David Cronenberg film I’ve seen to date. Because I’m intensely irritated by Jeremy Irons, I’ve never bothered watching Dead Ringers (it would be wasted on me), but aside from that I’ve seen almost everything Cronenberg’s done since Shivers and have yet to be disappointed. A History of Violence is no different.

A History of Violence

I would say this about it though… whereas in the past I’d argue that you could either love or hate a Cronenberg film – there’d never be any middle ground – now I suspect that’s changed. I could imagine people being ambivalent about A History of Violence. Which is not to level criticism. I’m anything but ambivalent about the film. But it does lack something of the viscerality that typifies Cronenberg’s previous films.

That said, the relatively small amount, given the film’s title, of on-screen violence is nonetheless extremely realistic and graphic. Also typically of Cronenberg, the two sex scenes are long enough and intimate enough to merit an ’18’ certificate in these liberal times. And his handling of those sex scenes is truly masterful, highlighting the radical changes occurring within the film’s central relationship.

The film’s plot is deceptively simple. We are introduced to two sadistic child-murdering hoodlums. Then we are introduced to Tom Stall, close to being a stereotype out of America’s mythical Golden Era. He’s an honest, upstanding family man. He owns and runs Stall’s diner on the highstreet of a one-diner town somewhere in the midwest. We meet his wife and family… she’s beautiful and devoted and very much in love with her husband. Their son is in highschool and is having trouble with bullies, but he’s essentially a good kid. Tom’s daughter is much younger… a pretty blonde girl about the same age as the child we saw murdered in the first scene.

The hoodlums roll up at Stall’s diner and try to rob the place. Tom Stall (played far far better than I expected by Viggo Mortensen) tries to placate them… does all he possibly can to prevent violence… but when it becomes inevitable, he reacts explosively and leaves them both dead. The local community hail him as a hero – and indeed there’s not really any other way to interpret what happened… the fact that it was so cut-and-dried a situation makes what transpires next all the more intriguing.

As mentioned earlier; pretty much all of this can be gleaned from the film trailer (with perhaps the exception of just how nasty the men he kills are). As can the arrival of a very sinister Ed Harris looking for Tom Stall, who he believes he’s recognised from the media frenzy surrounding the diner incident.

What follows is an intricate deconstruction of how violence changes everything in a person’s life. The film is also a study (and it’s here that Mortensen’s performance is truly mesmerising) of the impossibility of ever completely escaping the past. Rarely have I seen inner-conflict so successfully portrayed, both by Mortensen himself and by Maria Bello who plays his wife.

As I said, this is probably not a film for the squeamish. It’s a long way from being a violent film, but the violence is portrayed – quite rightly – as both horrific and shocking, and one extreme image in particular will stick with me for a while to come I suspect. Despite this, I cannot recommend A History of Violence highly enough. Cronenberg has abandoned neither his philosophical curiosity nor his willingness to shock. He has merely blended both far more subtly than ever before into a film that can pass as a mainstream thriller if you don’t pay too much attention.

So when you tie all that up with a host of amazing performances, you’re left with a film that’s both philosophically compelling and highly entertaining. How often does that happen?

6 comments  |  Posted in: Reviews » Film reviews

Mar 2006

Blood for oil

Thanks in large part to Oliver Kamm (see previous post) I’ve spent the last few hours thinking about the Iraq war and the various justifications put forward by those in favour of it. My ex-flatmate, Gyrus, and I used to play a game whenever we watched the news… each time a politician or authority figure (police chief, army general, etc.) made a statement; we would imagine that they meant the exact opposite of what they said. The number of times this little thought-experiment would result in the news bulletin making far more sense became really quite frightening.

Anyways, I have no doubt that there are many people out there (for example Jarndyce… see his comment on my last post) who are not “pro-War” per se, but who feel there were valid reasons for us to invade Iraq. Jarndyce’s position (and correct me if I’m wrong on this) is essentially the “humanitarian interventionist” one. In the case of Iraq, the ongoing humanitarian crisis could be attributed to the historical actions of Western imperialist policies (starting with our division of the region into administrative zones / nations that suited us, rather than the people living there; all the way up to our installation and support of undemocratic royal families and dictators). It was our meddling in the region that brought the situation in Iraq to a crisis-point. Therefore we had a moral obligation to set things right. This could never be achieved with Saddam Hussein or his sons in power, and we were the only ones who could remove them.

I fundamentally agree with the assessment that our historical involvement in the region is in no small part to blame for the hardships faced by the Iraqi people under Saddam Hussein (even ignoring the issue of economic sanctions). I also agree that this fact does indeed place upon us an “obligation going back decades at least” (to quote Jarndyce). Where I disagree is in the belief that this obligation would best be served by an invasion of the country.

I am also convinced that those who planned and executed the invasion did not have our obligation to the Iraqi people fixed foremost in their mind. Indeed, I’d go so far as to say that their only interest in the Iraqi people was ensuring that they didn’t kill so many of them that it became a Public Relations disaster as well as a humanitarian one. To those who call me cynical, I have just two words to say… “cluster bombs”.

No invasion of a country which involves the use of cluster munitions has got the interests of the general populace at heart. And that’s not being simplistic. No matter what the benefits of cluster bombs may be from a military standpoint, if you are planning an operation aimed primarily at the liberation of a people; i.e. one with a large humanitarian component; then the very first thing that gets said at the very first meeting must be “Well, put your heads together folks, we need to find a way of doing this without cluster bombs.” If that isn’t the first decision, then please don’t stink up my air with bullshit about humanitarian intervention. Er, not you Jarndyce… the people who decided that cluster bombs (or even that wonderful neo-napalm they’ve got that’s absolutely not napalm) were OK.

Y’know there was talk – in the interests of accuracy – of renaming “cluster munitions” as “child killers”. Apparently someone in the marketing department of Bombs Inc. vetoed the idea though.

War against change

This war, like so much of what gets done by those in power, happened for exactly the opposite reason than was claimed. It was not carried out to rid Saddam Hussein of WMD. It was not carried out to free the Iraqi people from tyranny and deliver them unto democracy. It was not carried out for any reason that had anything to do with Iraqi people or the Iraqi leadership at all. It was carried out entirely because of Iraqi geology.

In other words, the war that was billed as “bringing change to Iraq” was neither about “bringing change” nor “Iraq”. It was actually about “preventing change in America”. It was a war to ensure free-market (read: US) access to Iraqi oil reserves. A war to keep Americans in their SUVs for an extra half decade or so. A war to maintain the status quo in the last major oil basin on the planet.

Shifting US bases out of Saudi Arabia and into Iraq and Afghanistan is precisely what I would do if I believed the world’s oil reserves needed to be secured by military force. Afghanistan though not itself oil rich, presents a convenient buffer between China (the great military competitor when it comes to oil) and the Gulf States. Also, US bases in Afghanistan have a tactical sphere of influence that includes much of the Central Asian gas fields.

Saudi Arabia will remain pro-American so long as the House of Saud is in power. And pulling US troops out of Saudi was a necessary step towards ensuring that occurs. Pouring them into Iraq on the pretence of self-defence / spreading democracy (hang on a second, weren’t we spreading democracy from bases in non-democratic regimes? How does that work?) was an obvious move. It removes an antagonist from the area, places the troops on top of the second largest oil reserves (but remaining next-door to the largest), while also putting the squeeze on Iran… another antagonist and oil-rich nation.

Is it just me, or is it wildly coincidental that the precise strategic moves that are required to bring Gulf oil almost totally under US military dominance happen to be the same moves that we need to take in order to spread democracy to those poor downtrodden Arabs?

We Western oil consumers are just lucky that way I guess.

And yes, I’m aware that the market economists will jump in and insist that these ideas are fanciful… after all, why seize the oil when we can just buy it? To them, let me point out that this essay is written – as is everything here – based upon my belief that the theory of an imminent or recent peak in global oil production is correct. But perhaps more importantly, I’m not the only one who believes it.

In September 2005, the US Army produced a report entitled Energy Trends and Their Implications for U.S. Army Installations (PDF – 1.2mb). One of their conclusions was “The days of inexpensive, convenient, abundant energy sources are quickly drawing to a close.”

In summary, the outlook for petroleum is not good. This especially applies to conventional oil, which has been the lowest cost resource. Production peaks for non-OPEC conventional oil are at hand; many nations have already past their peak, or are now producing at peak capacity.

The same report points out that “there is no viable substitute for petroleum” on the horizon.

So can it really be a coincidence that the US military (the single largest consumer of global crude oil products) which believes that a time is imminent when energy supplies will need to be secured by means other than economic, just happens to be implementing a policy in the Gulf which appears designed to secure those very reserves by force of occupation; yet is really all about improving the lives of the locals?

All this despite singularly failing to improve the lives of the locals, yet oddly spending a huge amount of time securing the oil infrastructure.

4 comments  |  Posted in: Opinion

Mar 2006

We were wrong to invade Iraq

Todays Guardian sees the publication of a column by Oliver Kamm entitled “We were right to invade Iraq”. Regular readers of my writing may be aware that some years back I had a bit of an online altercation with Mr. Kamm. He became abusive and nasty, and I decided that the man and his views were entirely loathsome. Once in a blue moon I encounter something of his linked to from somewhere I regularly read. To date he’s written nothing to counter that “loathsome” judgment. He’s Stephen Fry without the wit, the looks or the charisma.

Anyways, there I was perusing the columnists in today’s Guardian (Tuesday is George Monbiot day, incidentally, so you should check out his piece when you get a chance). To my disappointment there was nothing by Zoe Williams – another Tuesday regular – but there, listed in her place, was the name “Oliver Kamm”.

A travesty.

Kamm’s essays always have a slightly surreal note to them. They’re so close to being clever parodies, that in the past I’ve suspected he’s actually a deep-cover Discordian. The column in the Guardian is no different… it’s so witless and filled with gaping intellectual holes that it’s almost difficult to believe that it’s meant to be taken seriously.

Recall also the alacrity with which some commentators attributed the 7/7 bombings to the provocation of the Iraq war. Disgracefully, the New Statesman carried a cover picture of a rucksack with the caption “Blair’s bombs”. But containment would have meant persisting with what most outraged Osama bin Laden: western troops in Saudi Arabia – and Bin Laden urges “Muslims to prepare as much force as possible to terrorise the enemies of God”.

Kamm appears to be suggesting that the London bombers were pawns of Osama bin Laden. That they were merely tools of his desires. That what “most outraged” bin Laden would also be the motivating factor for the bombers. But that’s just ridiculous. Certainly these men will have heard bin Laden’s broadcasts and watched his tapes. But their outrage was clearly aimed at the British government. These young British men did not kill themselves and murder dozens of Londoners as a protest at American troops in Saudi Arabia.

They did so as a protest at British support of – what they saw as – US imperialism in Iraq. To suggest that they would have committed the same outrage had UK policy been the same as France or Germany is to ignore both the evidence (the tape left behind by the bombers) and common sense. Certainly it requires a little more proof than a blasé assertion by someone desperately trying to justify an obviously disastrous war.

Those pesky WMD

But quite aside from his mentalism with regards to the July 7th bombings, Kamm’s main reason why “we were right to invade Iraq” is – astonishingly – that to have done otherwise was to invite Saddam Hussein to strike at the West with his Weapons of Mass Destruction.

Yes, you heard it right. Three years on, Kamm is still peddling the line that even the Dubya Bush administration abandoned as being too bloody embarrassing. He’s still waving non-existent nukes at us and telling us to be scared of The Bad Man.

See what I mean when I say it’s difficult to believe we’re supposed to be taking this at face value? I’m assuming the Guardian published it as satire. For example, can anyone tell me what this line is all about… “The absence of WMD was a huge intelligence failure; so it is fortunate that we are no longer reliant on Saddam’s word.”

To the best of my knowledge we were never reliant on Saddam’s word. Seriously, wasn’t that the reason we went to war in the first place; because we didn’t take his word on it, and our intelligence was wrong despite his word being – in this case – perfectly right? We never ever relied on Saddam’s word. To suggest otherwise is to engage in shameless historical revisionism. We invaded his country precisely because we refused to rely upon it.

Kamm also namechecks George Galloway. It’s a cheap and easy shot. Try to put a discredited “celebrity” face to the anti-war movement in the hope of making it look a bit silly. Galloway is – in my view – a fool. I don’t know of any intelligent anti-war writer who takes him seriously. To paint him as the figurehead of the peace movement is cynical and, ultimately, fruitless.

But as for his “crime” of shaking Saddam Hussein’s hand and saying nice things about him…? Even Kamm must admit that his only real crime was doing it after it was fashionable. We’ve all seen the video footage of Donald Rumsfeld warmly greeting the “psychopathic despot”, so I hardly need to track down a still to illustrate the point.

It is intellectually dishonest – yet it is something the pro-War crowd determinedly stick at – to criticise Galloway for cosying up to Hussein just a few years after the hawks in the US administration were doing the same. Did we think he was a Nice Man then? Did we think he was going to treat his people well and offer them the democratic reforms that are so very important to us now? We did not. We knew, just as Rumsfeld knew, that he was shaking the hand of a psychotic despot, but it was politically expedient for him to do so. So he did.

But when a left-wing loon shakes the same hand, just a few years later, for exactly the same reason (political expediency), then it’s knives out. And call The Senate to session. I guess Galloway’s real crime – ironically enough – is that he didn’t bring home lots of oil money upon his return. He didn’t sell any guns or poison gas or fighter jets to the psychotic despot. Clearly he should be lambasted for that failure.

Oliver Kamm is ultimately suggesting that it is “right” to wage war on a country based upon what we suspect they might do at some future date. It is an abandonment of hundreds of years of European rationalism. Embracing feudalism and mindless savagery, it hints at a Divine Right of leadership… that the dangerous suspicions, foolish whims and outright lies of our leaders, when acted upon, are nonetheless moral and just.

11 comments  |  Posted in: Opinion