21 February 2011

Lateralist Health Hazards: The Ore-Besity Epidemic

I couldn't help but notice, when scanning the ABC Grandstand website, a story detailing (well, surmising) how "mining magnate" Nathan "Twinkie" Tinkler is backing out of a deal to buy the Newcastle Knights. I can only assume that once he realised he was buying a sporting (rather than pie) franchise, that his interest cooled.

But it got me thinking. Has anyone else noticed that in Australia, to be called a Mining Magnate, you've basically got to be the size of Garden Island? Consider the following people: Nathan Tinkler, Andrew "Twiggy" Forrest, Gina "make mine a double" Rhinehart, and best of all, Clive "don't even bother to slice it" Palmer. Let's face it; none of these folks have spent a lot of time at the salad cart. I'll be fair to Twiggy, though; compared to the others, he resembles, well, Twiggy.

Australia is clearly in the grips of an ore-besity crisis. Perhaps it's the sheer scale of the mining industry that's done this. I mean, look at the size of a Haulpak Truck. Perhaps these magnates simply assumed that these vehicles were an unwritten invitation to spread out a bit, girth-wise. It's hard to know for sure. I just hope it's not an error born of scientific and linguistic confusion. It's well known that large objects (like planets and the like) exert a significant gravitational pull. Could it be, that these poor folk have stuffed themselves senseless in misguided quests to become recognised as mining magnets? The mind boggles.

All I know is that perhaps it's time that the mining industry came with a health warning. Or better yet, some sort of super-corpulent tax, whereby the rate you pay is a careful calibration of girth and wealth. Who knows; with that kind of incentive hanging over him, Mr Palmer might just get the impetus he needs to say no that third serving of bison and fries.

Mining. It's bad for you.

19 February 2011

Lateralist Review: Radiohead's The King of Limbs

Radiohead have long been a band determined to plough their own particular musical furrow. That they've achieved as much success as they have in spite of their (at times) complex and challenging music gives hope to all those who hold great fears for society as a whole. (That is, if a lot of people can actually love music this good, then maybe the world isn't doomed, after all.)

The King of Limbs is Radiohead's eighth album of original material, and to these ears, their most immediately satisfying since Kid A. It is, for all its sombre notes and pulsing movements, a fluidly compelling brace of songs, which ebbs and flows beautifully, and in a contentedly life-affirming way. But make no mistake; this is not Radiohead on autopilot. In fact, they sound more engaged in their work than ever, and full to the brim with confidence in their own abilities.

A word on the release itself: Radiohead have scaled back the "pay what you like" price experimentation that accompanied the release of In Rainbows, and have instead opted for a fixed price download. Or if you like, you can also order a deluxe package which contains (as well as an mp3 version) a compact disc, two 10 inch (clear) vinyl albums, and assortment of newspaper-related paraphernalia, and possibly a papier mache arm chair. Good on them, I reckon.

Whilst Radiohead continue to try and find new and/or interesting ways to present their music to their fans, such acts would ring rather hollow if the music itself were not of commensurate value. Fortunately, it is. If we consider the album's opening track as a portent of all that follows, then I think the album's style comes into fairly sharp focus. It begins with "Bloom", which sounds like a mash up between Philip Glass and the soundtrack to Bladerunner. Thom Yorke, possibly recalling a trip to the dentist, begins with the lyric, "open your mouth wide", but follows it with, "the universal sigh", which perhaps suggests a yawn. But as the lyric turns to the power and restorative beauty of the ocean, the listeners can perhaps infer that in the midst of weary self (or societal) examination, there is something actually rather life-affirming at the core of this album. The song moves to a beautifully layered coda, which, in its own intense way, is up there with the most calmly joyous music that Radiohead has produced.

The second song, "Morning Mr Magpie" works within a familiarly twitchy sonic palate, but eschews the previously oft-generated sense of unease so favoured by the band to reveal, of all things, a song which sounds uncannily like what one might get if Radiohead were to cover a circa-Rubber Soul Beatles track in their own inimitable style. Put another way, it is the song, rather than the style, that most attracts the listener.

"Little By Little" further extends this fusion of the familiar and the unfamiliar. Its minor (and modal) chords are offset by what I can only describe as what Kraftwerk might sound like if asked to play in a Mariachi style. Quirky, but entirely of a piece with the album proper. And it's by this song, I think, that it becomes clearer that Yorke's lyrics on The King of Limbs are more straightforward and more accessible than on previous albums. They recall the simple symbolism of Roger Waters' words on Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon; an album hardly lacking in angst, but also lacking neither warmth nor universal appeal. I'm not suggesting that The King of Limbs is going to be quite so popular as Floyd behemoth, but it is a surprisingly accessible album, given its sonic stylings.

"Feral", the album's fourth song, is highly percussive, with heavily treated and edited vocals. Almost wordless (if certainly not an instrumental), its rhythms are hypnotically appealing. It segues (in terms of mood) seamlessly into "Lotus Flower", which along feels like the album's highpoint. It's a genuinely soulful song, with Yorke's voice soaring effortlessly above subtly propulsive instrumentation. "Codex", with stately, Rick Wright-styled piano chords, again suggest a Pink Floyd parallel. But the song's feel is actually more redolent of the Australian artist, David Bridie, and his two remarkable solo albums, Act of Free Choice and Hotel Radio. Tonally, the song is a beautifully wistful lament, with Yorke employing what sounds like his most natural and unaffected singing in years. It ends with birdsong.

The albums final two songs (there are only eight in total) bring things to a thoughtful and gentle close. The penultimate track, "Give Up the Ghost" is a bona-fide English Pastoral. The potentially desparing lyric - in the style it is rendered - actually suggest of mood of release and relief, rather than resignation. This mood, via a shift (yet again) in style, flows into the final song, "Separator". It's probably the album's weakest track, musically, but it still has a warm sense of hopefulness and discovery.

Honestly, it's quite exhilarating to hear a band of this stature risking such aural inventiveness on their eighth album. When I first listened to the Kid A album, I was mesmerised. It was one of the very, very few times in my life where I've felt like I was listening to a musical event; a genuine shifting in the musical landscape. The King of Limbs is not quite an album of that calibre or that significance, but it is still an extraordinarily good (and important) piece of work, from a band that is still unequivocally one the most talented in the world. It's a confident, hopeful and consistently surprising celebration of an album. A quiet celebration, certainly, and, best of all, a quiet triumph, too.

Long live the King.

18 February 2011

Lateralist Bookshops

I love books, and as a general rule, I love bookshops. To be truthful, I'm especially fond of secondhand bookshops, driven as I am by the desire to snag virtually any titles in particular editions of penguin-published books. Bookshops encourage browsing and a kind of curiosity; a searching for the new or unfamiliar. Even new bookshops have a musty warmth and earthy tactility that can only be felt in rooms where the quantity of ink and paper must be measured in tonnes.

I was somewhat saddened when I heard the news that the Borders and Angus & Robertson chains had been placed into administration. But the more I thought about it, the more I've come round to the opinion that this need not be a bad thing for lovers of the bookshop.

Many media pundits have immediately begun trumpeting the notion that these chains have failed due to the rise of online bookstores. At best, this is a half-truth. I love buying books online. I've bought more books that I'd care to mention from the wonderful "book depository" site, based in the United Kingdom. But I also buy books from my local Victoria Park book shop, Crow Books, too. Why? Because I like the browsing experience. Crow books is great! It has funky shelves, leather chairs and an excellent range. Well, to my tastes at least.

Whilst Borders tried hard, it offered, at best, a perfunctory browsing experience. In contrast, the browsing experience offered by A & R (and its red twin, Dymocks) is really quite ghastly. Now, I could put up with a lousy browse if the prices were competitive with those offered online, but they are not. And why aren't they? Poor business acumen is why.

I feel confident in this assertion, because of the continued success of the JB Hifi franchise. If it were really true that online retail were the natural (and superior) enemy of store retail, then surely JB's would be struggling financially. But it is not. Instead, JB's have continued to offer their merchandise at prices which cannot be matched by online stores. And they've managed this in the age of iTunes, which has yet to have anything resembling a comparable impact on the book world, as kindles and the like start to stake their market claim. So if JB's can do it, I am certain that bookshops can do it, too.

I have no doubt that the landscape for books is changing, but I find it hard to believe that there isn't a market for the bookshop anymore. No doubt, there is going to be some thinking, some experimenting, and some failures, but there will eventually be some successes, too. I'd actually like to hope that the demise of chains will bring back the independent bookshop, where entire stores are given over to particular genres or styles of literature.

When that happens, buying a book will once again become an experience which no online store can replicate. And I for one could easily be persuaded to pay a comparable price to be a part of that. Heck, if it came with a good cup of coffee, I might even pay a little more.

14 February 2011

Swimming & Running - A Lateralist Critique

I don't know if you've noticed, but when the worlds of swimming and running are held to mutual account, there are some disturbing anomalies which have gone on for far too long. I for one think it's time that whether one is traversing air or liquid, that there be some sort of consistency. Let me explain.

Take the 100m sprint, for example. People try to get to one end of the set distance to the other, as fast as they can. Simple enough, right? But compare the 100m run, (and it's always a run) to the 100m events offered in swimming. In swimming, one can use no less than four different strokes! To me, this makes no sense at all, and it's high time all bar the fastest (i.e. freestyle) are abandoned as inefficient.

Or, three new modes of movements are going to need to be created for covering the distance of 100m on land. Don't get me wrong; there are some potentially enticing options. I like the idea of the 100m hop, or, to offer an even greater connection to swimming, the 100m backwards run. (A little dangerous, perhaps, but great for spectators.) Or better yet, why not just move freestyle onto land, and see how long it takes folk to drag themselves 100m across a rubber track?

If all this seems a bit silly, I can assure you it's no more incomprehensible than the current situation. Right now, freestyle is effectively subsidising the other strokes. And Lord knows why people would want to watch people voluntarily going slower than they could.

Of course, someone is bound to come back with the point that when we turn to longer athetic distances, there is the option of walking as well as running. I hope someone points this out, because frankly, I think it only serves to further underline the validity of my argument. Walking, as an athletic event, is stupid.

Now, it must be admitted that as well as being able to run 100m, there is also the option of hurdling 110m. There is a crucial difference here; people are still electing to run, it's just that with the addition of hurdles, they are also obliged to jump. This is fine, and perfectly transferrable to the pool environment. I'd have no problem with people wanting to bung a few obstacles into the pool. A hoop or two, so swimmers can find their inner porpoise. Hell, it'd be fine if they were to drop the water to near freezing, so there's a few small 'bergs floating about for folk to dodge, or if they heated it up a whole lot. Trust me, when the water's steaming, no bastard in his right mind it going to opt for breastroke....

A little equality and efficiency, that's all I ask. The only problem is that my mind keeps picturing the backwards hurdles. Maybe that wouldn't be so bad after all.....

09 February 2011

Lateralist Happenings & The Death of Journalism

It's a strange day indeed when I feel any sympathy for Tony Abbott, but I can't help but think that the criticism of him for saying "shit happens" in the context of conversation about the inevitability of things sometimes going terribly wrong in military scenarios is a disgraceful abuse of the media, by the media itself.

If this is journalism, then no wonder there are sections of the community questioning whether or not Julian Assange is a journalist. After all, who could possibly blame the man for wanting to put as much distance as possible between his (Assange's) rather more noble (if perilous) modus operandi and irresponsible muck-racking like this?

I'm pleased that the Government has not weighed in on the attack on Abbott, but disappointed that it has not come more forcefully to his defence. Abbott might be a goose, but no one in their right mind could think he meant to cause offence, or that those to whom he was actually speaking took offence, either. And surely that counts, doesn't it? I mean, have we really reached the point where people can legitimately have context set aside in any assessment of what they've said or done? Lord, I hope not. Because if we have, then as a society we have finally and inexorably lost the plot. And if politicians can't see the necessity of defending their integrity as a whole, regardless of political allegiance, then you've got to wonder if, deep down, they really believe they possess any at all.

Leave Abbott alone. At least, leave him alone for this. There's plenty of other stuff for which he deserves a profound shellacking. Let's see if there are journalists actually prepared to call him on the deficiencies of his policies, rather than on the acceptability of his preferred turns of phrase. But then, if people are going to lay into the Prime Minister for crying when recounting one of the most tragic stories of parental loss I've ever heard, then perhaps it's time we as a society simply retired from the human race.

Let's face it, if stuff like this is news, then I'm well and truly over it.

02 February 2011

Waiting for Cyclone Yasi

It says something about the expected impact of Cyclone Yasi that even from my place in Australia - three thousand kilometres from danger - I feel a sense of fear and foreboding. The cyclone about to strike far North Queensland could very well turn out to be the worst storm to hit Australia in recorded history.

There's something uncomfortably primal in how we react to pending news of a great and terrible storm when you're close by it. I've not been in anything even close to what's about to hit Queensland, but I've felt a big storm coming. Everything in the atmosphere changes. Domestic pets whine and cower. Birds flee. The sky can almost be visibly seen to wring night from day. Our senses become more acute. We become more conscious of our blood, moving rapidly about our bodies. And we wait.

As the co-founder of this site remarked to me earlier today, for the span of our lives, Cyclone Tracy has been the (in his words) "Don Bradman" of storms. Tracy claimed 71 lives and levelled Darwin. In fact, the damage wreaked by this storm etched itself onto the Australian psyche, more so even than the bombing of Darwin, which is incredible and puzzling in equal measure.

It seems like Tracy might just be about to be superseded. Lord, I hope not. But a forecast of a severe category five cyclone (as if the "five" weren't enough) is the stuff of nightmares. The damage that wind can do when its moving at over three hundred kilometres an hour is barely comprehensible. Ocean surges of up to twelve metres simply defy belief. And yet, we wait.

I don't know what's going to happen. No one knows for sure. But if you hear anyone complaining about incorrect weather reports if, God willing, Yasi doesn't turn out to be quite as bad as expected, spit in their face. Please. Anyone who thinks that such a result is anything other than miraculous is beneath contempt in moral terms, and intellectually, surely a barely functioning primate. (Seriously; try predicting the weather. There are more variables than you can count.)

For the second time in a matter of weeks, God be with the people of Queensland.

Lateralist Review - The King's Speech

I'm not a monarchist by any stretch of the imagination, but I've long admired King George VI, the man who never wanted to be King. And yet become one he did, in a time of war and public broadcasting, no less; two developments which caused considerable stress in a man with a pronounced speech impediment, suddenly saddled with being the calming and resolute voice of national unity.

In fact, to all intents and purposes, he did the job so well that it killed him. Less than a decade after the war's end, he was dead. But it wasn't until after the passing of his wife, the Queen Mother, that his (and her) story could finally be told. (She'd wanted it told, but not in her lifetime, for the fear of stirring all-too-painful memories.)

In spite of its origins in history, The King's Speech is not a documentary. This fact seems to have eluded a number of commentators and critics, who've attacked it for purported untruths. I can only hope Christopher Hitchens (one of the more vocal and misguided detractors) never watches Inglorious Basterds. The poor bugger will have an aneurism.

In reality, the King's Speech is a study of duty and friendship, and it is a masterful one. At its core is the relationship between the King (whose name was Albert or "Bertie") and his unorthodox and irreverent speech therapist, Lionel Logue. The scripting is elegant and wry, and it is expertly delivered by Messrs Firth and Rush, with outstanding support from Helena Bonham-Carter and Guy Pearce, as the King's faithful wife and feckless brother, respectively.

As the story unravels, it becomes clearer that in spite of his position of immense privilege, Albert's life is one of emasculated misery. His stutter, in this light, becomes symptom and symbol of pronounced and protracted bullying. As Lionel helps Bertie find his voice, he ultimately helps him find the man within himself. It is a touching portrait of personal redemption for a wounded soul.

In its own way, the film challenges the virtues of the monarchy as much as it endorses them, because its not unreasonable to deduce that the King's life would have been far, far easier if he'd not been burdened with the obligations of his position. But then I suppose that the film also suggests that whether a man is King or commoner, all have their part to play in times of crisis, and that each man's journey is his own.

I hope Colin Firth wins an Oscar for his performance. He deserves to. His portrayal of a damaged yet ultimately proud man is at times profoundly moving. Rush is also excellent, particularly for not allowing acting excesses to undermine the nuanced eccentricities of his character.

The King delivers his final speech (in the film, not the war) to the sounds of Beethoven's Seventh Symphony. It's an inspired choice for an inspired film. And no matter whether you'd prefer a King or a Koala as our Head of State, go see it whilse you still can.