Top 5 albums (in 2010)

I’m a couple of days late, but was just thinking about my fave albums of 2010 and thought it would be nice to document them here for future reference.  This “Top 5” list is of music that I acquired during 2010 (not necessarily released this year) and is in a loose order, though it’s hard to distinguish some of them.

Bon Iver — For Emma, Forever Ago: I’m very late to this particular album, but since picking it up earlier this year, this album has resonated with me in a very deep way.  Absolutely beautiful and spellbinding.  Some may find it a bit depressing, personally I find it quite calming and uplifting.

Fionn Regan — The End of History: I first heard this album at a friend’s party, and managed to pick it up dirt cheap (for $2!) at a record sale shortly after.  The rawness of the acoustic arrangements appeals to me much more than his most current album.  Some lovely turns of phrase and atmospherically charged moments.

Brian Borcherdt — Torches (Side 2004/05): I downloaded this album for free from Brian’s site based on the recommendation of a friend and was immediately taken by it.  Another mellow acoustic set (what is it with me and mellow acoustic male singers this year?) — simple arrangements, but a lovely mood.  I’m a much bigger fan of Side 2004/05 than the second album from the sessions, and I’ve since bought his previous album on iTunes with much the same feeling.

Land of Talk — Cloak and Cipher: Ang and I have become fans of this band since getting their previous album Some are Lakes a little while back, and this new album certainly didn’t disappoint.  A much more polished affair than Some are Lakes, but still retaining the essence and energy of what I suspect is a great live band.

The Mercury Program — A Data Learn the Language: I found this band after hearing them on the cafe speakers at Berkelouw Newtown.  I chased them up on iTunes and grabbed this album (released in 2002) and loved it.  Very reminiscent of Pivot (now PVT), though pre-dating Pivot’s debut, and Tortoise.  Another great atmospheric instrumental, guitar melody-driven album to add to the collection.

There were also two “notable mentions” that came up for me when compiling the list:

Arcade Fire — The Suburbs: I didn’t really get into this band with their previous albums, but I finally caved into the hype and picked this one up after seeing the wonderful Google Maps mashup “video” that accompanied The Wilderness Downtown.  I think that really set the tone as it grounded the songs in my own childhood growing up in a Queensland suburb.  There are a couple of misfires on the album, but the standout tracks like Ready to Start make up for them.

Massive Attack — Heligoland: it’s been a while since I felt Massive Attack hit the mark — this one nearly gets there, but not quite.  It still has some great tracks on it and I hope is a signal of a return to form — really looking forward to the next one.

Cradle to Cradle

After having a late night coffee, I sat up last night and finished reading Cradle to Cradle by William McDonough and Michael Braungart.

I’d heard good things about this book, especially from the folks at work, and given I’ve been thinking a lot lately about where I want to go professionally, and eco-design being a big part of that thinking, I thought I’d borrow a copy and have a read.

It’s a fantastic book for anyone interested in eco-design (in the broadest sense of “design”, but especially product design). Although some of the core ideas are now finding wider acceptance (I first heard about the Cradle to Cradle approach through Worldchanging, and further via Joel Makower and Gil Friend) there are still many insights, ideas, methods and examples throughout the book that make it well worth the effort.

McDonough and Braungart’s vision is a compelling one. The basic gist of it (and I certainly can’t do it justice in a short review) is that we have an opportunity to rethink the way we design things – from architecture to products to systems – that work in harmony with nature, rather than just doing “less damage”. Not just doing “less bad”, but actually playing a restorative role – or moving from “sustainable” to “nurturing”.

They use the metaphor of a cherry blossom tree, and how in the tree and surrounding ecosystem – there is not concept of waste in nature. The “waste”, as it were, become nutrients to the earth and organisms around the tree.

They invisage a design thinking that creates products that become nutrients for both biological (e.g. can be safely buried) and/or technical systems (re-used in original form for industry etc.). They imagine buildings acting like a tree – cleansing water, purifying the air, creating habitat for local species (including humans). And if we have buildings that act like trees, they extend the metaphor to imagine a city acting like a forest.

As the book progresses they introduce additional tools and insight into how we might make this shift in thinking – from “eco-efficient” (less bad) to “eco-effective” (nurturing).

The book is not a “how-to” guide – it is very much putting forward the Cradle to Cradle. The examples serve to show that, in fact, it can be done – factories that clean the water that they use, that are net positive in terms of energy consumption (i.e. they collect more energy than they consume) – rather than demonstrating how it can be done.

Overall I was really inspired by the book and got a lot out of it. Even though some of the concepts were already familiar, reading them “first hand” really cemented some of the ideas much more solidly – I feel I now have a better sense of the nuance in the argument, rather than just the broad brushstrokes I had previously.

I’d highly recommend it – 5/5 stars – I really can’t think anything that could be improved…

Strummer and Once

This week I’ve been lucky enough to make it along to Newtown Dendy to see two music related films. The first was Strummer: The future is unwritten – a documentary by Julien Temple, probably best known for his pair of films on the Sex Pistols – The Great Rock and Roll Swindle and The Filth and the Fury. After the film, Temple took part in a Q&A session.

The film follows the rise and fall (and reprise) of Joe Strummer, lead singer of the Clash, and later in life Joe Strummer and the Mescaleros. I knew some of the more classic Clash’s songs, and vague bits and pieces about their history. I knew that Mick Jones, Clash guitarist, went on to form Big Audio Dynamite. But that was about it.

The archival footage in the film is amazing. Temple was a friend of Joe’s – and was part of the scene that gave birth to The Clash. During the Q&A we learnt that Temple lived in a squat near Joe, and helped to sneak the band into his film school at the time to record early Clash material.

The film flicks between this archival footage and interviews with people that knew Joe, from the early days in the 101s through to his final band, the Mescularos, and is punctuated throughout with segments from Joe’s World Service radio program, London Calling. What’s cool is that for the first 20 minutes or so of the film, all of the people interviewed had unfamiliar faces – they are the people who Joe grew up with, people like your next door neighbour. You do get an insight into his history and up-bringing, and some of the experiences that influenced his move into the punk movement.

The odd celebrity then appears, seeming almost out of place: Bono, Flea, Anthony Kiedis, Steve Buscemi, Matt Dillon, Johnny Depp, John Cusack and Jim Jarmusch all make appearances. At the Q&A session, Temple apologised when asked about the stars in the film. Not quite sure why, but perhaps he also felt they were out of place in telling Strummer’s story.

Through the film I got a real sense that Strummer had a kind of artistic rebirth – starting in London slums and joining The Clash, then joining the rave circuit in a tent around campfires then rekindling his musical passion over a decade after The Clash imploded.

Overall the doco was really inspiring and fascinating, but despite its depth I still don’t feel I really know “Strummer” all that well. But I certainly feel like I now have a little insight into what shaped his life and brought him to become the star he was – as much as any film can do that I suppose. I’d definitely rate it 4/5 stars.

The other film I saw last night was Once, featuring The Frames‘ Glen Hansard and Czech songstress Marketa Irglova. I have to admit, going into the film, I wasn’t familiar with Hansard’s work with The Frames, nor Irglova’s work as a solo artist and with Hansard. I’d read good reviews of the movie, and Dave at work had highly recommended it to me, so was keen to check it out.

By the time I saw the film I’d forgotten the plot line from the review I’d read and only had Dave’s comment that it was a loose musical of sorts – having seen the film I now know what he means – so I was pretty much going in without much expectation.

The film follows an unnamed “guy” (I didn’t realise he was unnamed until the credits – “Guy” and “Girl” are how the leads Hansard and Marketa Iglova are credited) as he meets “girl” when he is busking. They discover a shared interest in music and start writing together as we learn more about their lives.

There is a loose romance that is apparent between the two characters, but always at a distance. The plot is very loose – pretty much joining the various musical pieces together. We follow them on their journey to record a record and returning to their previous lost loves.

The film walks a fine line between becoming a naff parody and naive gem, but luckily falls on the right side of those two extremes. The music is great, written and performed by the two leads – I am keen to get the soundtrack after seeing the film. It’s a delightful film – another I’d recommend. 4/5 stars.

Downfall

Another really powerful film I saw a little while back was Downfall – a German film about the last days of Hitler’s reign leading up to his suicide.

The film has received many accolades, so I was looking forward to seeing it. It’s a pretty impressive film, if only through it’s restraint. Hitler is often portrayed as this larger than life, devil-incarnate character. This film portrays a man who is deeply troubled, and deeply flawed – but without the over-the-top dramatisation.

The film is set in Hitler’s bunker. One of the strange things I found is how everyone was going to great lengths to make the bunker feel normal. The decor was very much modeled after a house – not the concrete bunker I would expect.

But the other thing that I found amazing is that no-one topped him in those final days. As it’s portrayed in the film, it’s clear he’s completely lost the plot, and that even his closest allies realise it’s all coming to an end.

It’s a very good theme – I definitely recommend it.

Manufacturing Consent

A few months back now I rented the DVD of Manufacturing Consent, the documentary based on the classic book by Noam Chomsky and Edward S. Herman.

The production is pretty rough, but the substance is incredibly relevant even today. What I found most interesting about the film was how much of the “future of media” that was presented is now coming to fruition through blogs and internet-based activism. Anyone that’s read Jay Rosen’s PressThink blog probably won’t find a whole lot of new stuff here, but it’s still very good.

Chomsky, as always, is full of factoids and amazing examples that demonstrate the issues he sees in the media. But one quote really stood out to me. Unfortunately I can’t find an exact reference – but paraphrased, it went something like: history likes heroes – in history social movements are often attributed to individuals, but it is the social movements that make the individuals historically significant.

In other words, heroes are often born out of mass social movements, the heroes don’t create them – but our history presents things the other way around. Maybe if I get the DVD out again I can find the exact quote – I don’t think I’m doing it justice here (and if anyone knows the quote I’m referring too, please leave a comment)…

Who killed the electric car

Who killed the electric car - inset

Last night I was lucky enough to get a sneak peak at Who killed the electric car (IMDb page) which is due out in cinemas in Australia on 2 November this year.

I’d heard a bit about the film, and I was keen to see it – it seems to be custom made for someone like me – a technology-junky with an environmental bent – and I wasn’t disappointed.

The film primarily follows the fate of the EV1 electric car, introduced in 1996 to the Californian market by General Motors (under the Saturn brand) in response to California’s “Zero Emissions Vehicle” (ZEV) legislation that aimed to have 10% of cars sold in California having no tailpipe emissions by 2003. Electric cars were the chosen approach to solve the problem because General Motors (GM) had previewed a concept car, called the Impact, prior to the legislation being introduced and seemed the most promising and realistic technology at the time.

If we are to believe the filmmakers, and the many people they interviewed, electric vehicles were a roaring success – with waiting lists for cars like the EV1 numbering in the thousands. (As an aside GM contests in the film that the waiting lists looked good on paper, but that individuals willing to put their money on the table were limited. Given Toyota’s backlog of orders for the Prius in the U.S. I tend to believe that GM are perhaps not completely on the level in this regard.)

And yet GM, and other manufacturers, were not convinced and eventually withdrew the cars from the market. Through the non-renewal of leases, in what seems to me to be an unusual arrangement (it seems all electric vehicles were leased – no-one was able to purchase the cars outright). This meant that all of the cars “sold” to customers were eventually returned to the manufacturer where, contrary to car company claims, the cars were destroyed – even though the cars worked perfectly well and many customers wanted to pay out the residual on the lease to own the cars outright.

After presenting some background, the film steps into a pseudo-murder-mystery mode – looking at the various factors that may (or may not) have been the cause of the electric car’s demise.

I spent most of the film in disbelief, that such a promising technology that even I didn’t know existed (as someone who follows green-tech pretty closely I found that quite astounding) could end up on the scrap-heap. What was most surprising to me is that there seemed to be a significant amount of infrastructure in place to support electric vehicles, which is probably one of the biggest hurdles facing any alternative fuel initiative.

The film goes into great detail about the vested interests and political maneuvering that caused the ZEV program to be revoked. A few minutes were devoted to hydrogen fuel cell technology which has replaced electric vehicles in the U.S. as the “next silver bullet”. The film made a pretty strong case that this re-focusing is a delaying tactic on the part of all involved, when a perfectly good technology already exists, and that hydrogen fuel cells were unlikely to be a realistic for some time to come, if ever at all.

They also suggested that the Japanese car manufacturers, such as Toyota, saw the development of hybrids by U.S. manufacturers (which began to be developed as a “compromise” between the Californian government and car manufacturers) as a potential threat and decided to enter the game and develop their own technology. When the U.S. manufacturers dropped the ball, Toyota and Honda entered the U.S. market and have done extremely well. I couldn’t help but think of the parallels with the lack of government foresight in Australia regarding renewable energy, but I digress.

By the end of the film I was feeling pretty angry about the whole thing – dumbfounded at how far backward things had gotten. (The film also takes a bit of a “bag everyone” approach – no-one comes out smelling rosy really, not even Toyota who are considered by many, including myself, as leaders in this area.) Thankfully the film took a quick detour and had a look at what’s on the horizon – plug-in hybrids, electric vehicles like the Tesla Roadster, conversions of existing cars to all electric drive-trains, and improvements in battery technology.

The inventor of the battery technology that found its way into the second generation EV1 was a highlight, demonstrating some solar technology that looked very interesting. But most of all it showed that the glimmer of a better future that the EV1 represented is starting to find its way out into the world – in new technologies, alternative car companies, and evangelists starting to make a dent in the entrenched industries and vested interests. It just seems such a shame that the momentum created by the EV1 and the ZEV legislation is only just starting to be rebuilt.

I’d definitely recommend the film – certainly got me thinking and inspired me. It demonstrated that with political willpower and strong public support, solutions exist to solve a significant proportion of the issues related to car emissions (namely smog/health issues and global warming).

Review: An Inconvenient Truth

As I mentioned previously, I had the opportunity to see An Inconvenient Truth at the Sydney Film Festival. I never quite got around to writing my thoughts up, but I figured better late than never eh?

Let me first say that I thought the movie was excellent. It is a well edited, well shot movie that eloquently explains why global warming (or climate change, climate crisis, atmospheric cancer, whatever you want to call it) is such an important issue. As someone who works for an environmental NGO, there wasn’t a whole lot that Al Gore says that I hadn’t already read or heard. But what impressed me most was the delivery of the message.

The visual support (namely, the presentation upon which the doco is based) was superb. The visuals not only re-inforced the message, they illustrated it so well even I found myself with my jaw dropping in places. It certainly makes me consider how we (as in "the movement") communicate visually – I think we can learn a lot from Gore’s presentation.

If I was to criticise the movie in any way, I would point to it’s American-centric view. It’s only a criticism in the sense that an international audience may be a little alienated by it, but the American public, for whom the documentary is obviously aimed, definitely needs to see this movie (America is the #1 greenhouse gas polluter in the world), and if that means taking an Amercian-centric view, so be it. So I can’t criticise this aspect too heavily.

Another minor criticism I would have is that the interstitial segments on Al Gore’s life, although I think work as a narrative device, do tend towards the "Al Gore, seen here looking out a window in deep thought" kinda vibe a bit too much. A little indulgent perhaps, but a minor criticism nonetheless.

Lastly, the actions that appear in the closing credits are cleverly presented, but fall into the "list of ten" category and really don’t mean much without explanation. There’s a little bit more on the movie’s website, but not much. It wouldn’t fit within the film to have more information, but I do wish they could have dropped the "Al Gore staring out the window" shots and put a bit more effort into describing the solutions at the end of the film.

My first thoughts upon leaving the cinema was "I really hope that lots of people get to see this" – more than the left-leaning inner-westies and usual suspects. I’m trying to work out how to get my family to go along – I think I might just have to buy them tickets.

I did notice that Hoyts George Street (the main cinema strip in the Sydney CBD for those that don’t know) is going to be showing it, which is a good sign. I kinda expected that this would be a Dendy only release initially, so it’s good to see it jump that first hurdle into the mainstream cinema’s early. Whether that means that it will receive a wide general release remains to be seen.

I asked Ang, who is aware of the threat of global warming, but not so close to the reports, facts and data that I am, did find some new information in the film, which is great. I will be thoroughly recommending the film to my friends and family when it reaches broader theatrical release mid September.

WWF-Australia (my day job for those that don’t know) will be actively promoting the film, as I’m sure many other environmental NGOs will. It’s an important story, well told. And I’d like to think that the Prime Minister Howard would have a tough time attacking the credibility of this particular global warming advocate. I do hope that Gore manages to meet with Howard when he is out here promoting the film.

Two last quick things to add – this film (along with Syriana, another Participant Productions film) is "climate neutral". That means that an estimate of all the carbon dioxide emitted during the production and promotion of the film has been "offset" through investments in renewable technology and other methods of reducing CO2 in our atmosphere. Participant Productions also run a group blog that is a very interesting way to "continue the debates" around their films. An interesting use of social media to promote their films and engage with their audience. Bravo, I say…

Chandler 0.6

In a round about way I revisited Chandler – a personal information manager currently under development. They are still in progress, and my first response was “how’s this different to iCal”. But looking more closely at the breakdown of features for the calendar I noticed it actually has some nice touches.

The timezones feature is exactly as I would expect a calendar to function, and I am amazed that other calendar solutions don’t work that way. This is useful for me when we’re working on international press releases, conference calls/video-conferences.

The second feature is the fact you can assign a single event to more than one “collection” (which seems analagous to the multiple calendars option in iCal – though I’m sure there’s a lot more to them than that).

I’ve been discussing with a few folks around here how we might manage an organisation wide calendar. Being able to assign events to multiple collections would allow us to have different “lenses” to the same information.

Let’s say we release our Futuremakers email on 19 July. This particular event (the release) has organisation wide significance, so therefore may be included in the “organisation” collection. It is also a communications team product, so would also be included in the “communications team” collection (containing all the stuff our team is responsible for). And it may also be the last item in the project plan for the actual newsletter – let’s say the “Futuremakers email” collection.

I’m not sure if other calendaring solutions support this type of framing (collections, lenses etc.) – but it would certainly be useful for us for that purpose.

Very cool, and worth keeping an eye on.

Update 13-07: Had a bit more of a look today – support for CalDAV (for calendar sharing) and the ability to sync with any server (not just locked into a proprietary one like iCal is) are major bonuses. I’d be seriously interested if I could find a phone/pda to sync/share calendars with it.

Hidden – give it a miss

Warning – spoilers ahead…

I went and saw the movie Hidden the other night. I wouldn’t recommend it…

A strong ending would have made up for the very slow pace of the film, with some interminably long static shots, that initially I thought were interesting, but quickly tired of.

The plot does eventually start to pick up some steam, with one particularly shocking and unexpected scene that had the whole theatre gasping. But the writers and director then seem to not know where to take the ending, and we’re left at the end wondering “what did we miss?”

I’ve since crawled through some of the discussions on the ever helpful IMDB, only to find that I didn’t miss anything. That the ending was what it was – and that was disappointing.

Now, don’t get me wrong – I don’t need my movies bundled up and tidy at the end. Some of the best films I’ve seen have left things “up in the air” to great effect, leaving you wondering and thinking. But if that was the intention with this film, for some reason it doesn’t hit the mark, instead it left me frustrated and annoyed.

When I found out that the director had deliberately left out dialogue at the end, it made me even more annoyed – because of the implausibility of two bit-part characters having anything to do with the main event.

It seems as though the director and screenwriter, with no idea how to devise a cracking ending, just threw their hands up in the air and went “Meh – whatever. Let’s just leave it like that and let them figure it out.”

I’d give it 2.5/5 – with a strong ending, it would have been a lot higher.