Another landmark, another chart

This week marks the one year anniversary of my move to London. Plenty has happened in that time – I’ve met new people, experienced new things, and had all the highs and lows anyone can expect over the course of a year.

Throughout it all, there were often headphones over my ears or music piping out of my laptop. Being the nostalgic kind of guy I am, I realised that a rundown of the music I’ve listened to over the last year probably provides a pretty fair soundtrack to all that’s gone on, and will trigger memories of what being this newbie in London has been all about. So, with the usual help of last.fm, I compiled a chart of my top 52 tracks from the last 52 weeks.

But, not content with just compiling a music chart, I decided to make a chart of a chart! I’ve been trying to experiment more with infographics, illustrations, and visual stuff of late, so this seemed an ideal opportunitity to add some annotations and colours to what might otherwise be* a pretty bland list. It’s been useful to play about in Inkscape for the afternoon, anyway.

Now, ten points to whoever spots the first typo…

A Year In London Music - Infographic

(I couldn’t do the accent in Édith Piaf’s name and it really annoyed me)

* – minus ten points to the first smart Alec to say ‘it still is’

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What if…Eurovision 2015 was run with 2016’s scoring system?*

Eurovision has a new voting system this year. Rather than combining telephone and jury votes in each country before awarding points to its ten favourites, each country will award points to both its jury’s favourite ten and its telephone voters’ favourite ten acts. This is good news for those acts who only really appeal to one or other of the jury or public.

Say you were an outrageous act who was the number one favourite of every telephone voter in a country. If that country’s jury thought you ranked somewhere middling, and hence your combined score there placed you 11th best out of 27 acts, you’d score 0 points from them. If that was repeated for every country in the competition, you could score zero overall despite being the favourite of literally every telephone voter in the continent.

Now, them’s the breaks, and part of the skill of the competition is to find something that pleases both public and jury. But – it’s nice to see both rewarded in the cases where publics and juries want different things. So, with twice as many points up for grabs both sets of preferences will now be more fully recognised – while the winners will still be those who manage to hit big on both fronts.

As a warm up for this year, I decided to look at how last year’s competition would have ended up if two sets of points had been awarded – as a full breakdown of jury and telephone voters is available on the Eurovision website**.

2015 points under 2016 voting system

2015 total scores under the 2016 voting system (left axis), with jury points in red and telephone votes in blue. Grey bars show actual points received under old 2015 system (right axis) – where half as many total votes were available.

No change at the top – Sweden would have still won – though with less of the total available points (642 out of a possible 936 – left axis, instead of 365 out of a possible 468 – the grey bar read off the right axis). It’s interesting to see how others’ points break down though, and how the order would have changed.

While Latvia, Norway and Cyprus did better with juries than telephone voters, it’s clear that the opposite is true for Italy, Estonia and Austria. This information was available to us anyway, but it’s worth nothing how this could have affected the overall rankings – Albania (17th) would have hopped up to 11th, while UK (24th) would have slid down to last place. This may not be a big deal in a winner-takes-all contest – but note that Russia and Italy would have switched places in 2nd/3rd position.

This leads me on to the crucial point – the tension and suspense in the way the points are announced. For though national jury scores will be announced in the traditional country-by-country way under the new system, all telephone scores will then be combined and the totals awarded to each country in turn, starting with the smallest – meaning the winner won’t be known until right at the end.

For example, if 2015 had been run under the new scoring system, here’s how the scores would have looked after all the national jury scores had been read out, but before any telephone points were added:

2015 scores under the new voting system, after all jury points have been announced.

2015 scores under the new voting system, after all jury points have been announced.

Could Latvia be huge contenders? What about Estonia, they’ll be lucky to make the top ten, right? Well, let’s add in the telephone totals, one by one, starting with the smallest. Poor old Austria get 0, keeping them on 40 points, and France get a mere 4. We keep adding the scores, lowest to highest, and the table is updated with the new totals. In order of increasing value, we find out the 20th telephone score to be added is…a total of 100 points for Latvia.

2015 points under 2016 system - jury and telephone points up to Latvia

2015 scores under the new voting system, with 20 of 27 telephone vote totals announced.

A huge cry from eastern Europe – Latvia now can’t possibly win! Their combined jury and telephone vote score is even lower than Sweden’s votes for jury alone, despite them having been a strong second in the jury votes! So, will one of the remaining countries score enough from telephone votes to overcome Sweden’s lead? There’s still over 1500 points to award between the 7 remaining countries – it’s still possible!

So, Israel (104 points), Australia (132) and Estonia (144) have their points announced – a surprisingly strong showing from Estonia, but not enough to win. Then Belgium (195), and then, the 25th of 27th countries to have their scores announced is – Sweden!

2015 points under 2016 system - 25 of 27 announced

2015 scores under the new voting system, with 25 of 27 telephone vote totals announced

Sweden did not get the most points from telephone votes – they got 279! So, Russia and Italy have scored even more telephone points, will it be enough to secure victory?*** The final two scores are announced and…no! Sweden have it! But as the favourite of telephone voters around Europe, Italy make a superb jump from sixth to second. Well done!

2015 points under 2016 system - all points

2015 scores under the new voting system, with all jury and telephone points announced.

So, the tension is there until the very end. We still get the joy of every countrycalling in their results – and at theis point they all count as you don’t know how the telephone voting will go. No scores announced by video link get to be brushed aside, no matter when they’re announced. But then, one by one, you drop off the little guys and put the big contenders in a race for the finish.

I’m optimistic this will make it a great – if slightly more drawn out – finale, with tension right until the end. Comparing last year’s results shows it will make a difference, but there’s not a drastic realignment in what Europe sees as the best – just more points up for grabs. You’ll have to try really hard to get nul points now.

A bit of mathematical fun, sure. Now…roll on May!

* one of my more niche blog titles, I’ll admit.

** jury results were unavailable for Montenegro and F. Y. R. Macedonia, so for the sake of simplicity this post works on the basis of their juries voting identically to their telephone voters. Similarly, telephone votes are unavailable for San Marino, so their jury votes were duplicated.

*** in fact, there’s not mathematically enough points, but it’s not far off, and by the time you’ve worked that out I hope they’ll have announced the actual winner.

Don’t be boring

Last night, I saw Alfonso Cuarón speak at the Science Museum about Gravity. It was a great insight into a film I found incredibly powerful.

I remember seeing Gravity at the cinema in 2013. Soon after handing in my master’s dissertation, I was hyper and happy and buzzing with joy. Two hours later when I walked out of the cinema, I was quiet, reflective, and hugely impacted. It’s an immersive and, at points, overwhelming film. The movie industry often tells us that the cinema experience provides so much more than watching something on DVD at home six months later and, in Gravity‘s case, I completely agree with them.

From the opening shots of space that fill your peripheral vision to the radio dialogue of the characters that buzzes around you in glorious surround sound, you cannot help but feel you’re there with them, in orbit. As beautiful long tracking shots follow Sandra Bullock through space stations and into capsules and away from fires, you’re right there with her. And so, when she’s thrown into a spin or plummets to earth, you feel it too. Or, at least, I did.

So, as host Samira Ahmed asked Cuarón about his background, his inspiration and his choices, I was fascinated to understand more about the movie. “It’s about rebirth”, the director said, confirming the not-too-subtle yet wonderful imagery. From the foetal position of astronauts in a womb-like capsule, to the umbilical cords connecting their suits to their shuttle. As Bullock’s character stands up to walk off at the end, it’s about more than one human’s birth, but about humanity. “Not in an intellectual way. I mean the species,” explains Cuarón. That’s all well and good, sure. But I don’t love the film for a metaphor. I love it because it look and sounds and feels so…much.

Cuarón’s creative choices made it so. He resisted studios trying to add in scenes of Mission Control in Houston, to show the ‘other side’. In fact, even George Clooney’s character was a later addition, it was originally about just the single woman in space. But, it had to work, and it had to be interesting.

As a filmmaker, Cuarón is unapologetic about compromises made to make the film more interesting. Though technically accurate down to the sort of wire cutters used on a space walk, there are some elements that deviate from documentary reality. But why not? “I’m not stupid!”, Cuaron exclaimed, acknowledging that, yes, Bullock’s character would have been wearing a nappy beneath her space suit, and Clooney’s veteran astronaut would not be chattering away in space without a focus on the mission. But a film’s got to be interesting. “That would be boring,” Cuarón kept saying, of dimissed alternatives to the finished product. For example, Bullock’s final scene in space, where she undocks the Chinese capsule and addresses Houston that her descent to earth ‘could go one of two ways’, was initially attempted without a score, but that version was abandoned. Though music was used minimally on the film, and always without percussion – a Hollywood rarity – it had to be there in this case. Without it, the scene was too boring. End of.

It’s also relevant to why the film ends abruptly – Cuarón hates the trend, that grew in the1980s, of prolonging an ending to assure audiences that everything’s alright. Films like Robert Zemeckis’s Cast Away, which he loves except the ending, should finish when the story finishes and the lead character makes it to safety – not add on a postscript about the life after the climax. I think this is good advice too. Finish telling the story you’re telling, and leave something to the imagination. I’m a fan of a short-and-sweet film, and at 91 minutes Gravity doesn’t outstay its welcome for a second.

So, full credit to Cuarón. And to his visual effects teams. And to Bullock, who underwent gruelling training for four months to get into the shape needed to act within the demanding rigs used on set. They’re necessary for the long tracking shots I love, but exhausting. Still, Bullock thought it was preferable to riding in a ‘vomet comet‘ to film in actual microgravity (Cuarón, on the other hand, loved having that opportunity – cashing in on the fact his many advisers on the film worked in an industry he’d admired since a child. Why wouldn’t you take up Nasa’s offer?).

It was amusing to hear in the Q & A after the main interview that a number of audience members asked Cuarón if key creative aspects of the film were done ‘on purpose’. I wonder how irritating this question might be to a director, or any artist. You might as well as a chef if his use of ingredients were deliberate. Still, Cuarón took the opportunity to explain how he came to his decisions. Like the choice, despite the movie featuring all current and accurate technology, to put the characters in older space suits, as the latest real ones looked too futuristic. The details like that matter – so the audience is not distracted or disconnected. Gravity is not a fantasy, like Star Wars, nor is it a science fiction about future or hypothetical technology and its consequences, like Interstellar. It’s a drama, about a person, in space.

Cuarón’s message of ‘don’t be boring’ was the notable takeaway from the night. You can be as arty, moving, accurate as you like, but if you bore audiences you’ve lost them. It’s food for thought, from beginning to end. Watching Bullock’s final escape scene brought it all back to me – how Gravity was a film you couldn’t turn away from, and I was emotionally impacted even just watching a two-minute clip out of context of the rest of the film. That’s Gravity‘s power.

Samira Ahmed interviews Alfonso Cuarón

Samira Ahmed interviews Alfonso Cuarón

Thanks so much to the Science Museum for hosting the night. There’s still a few weeks left of their Cosmonauts exhibition, to which the event was linked, and if our journey into space at all interests you, I’d definitely recommend a visit.

2015 in books

A shifting commute means my reading habits were all over the place in 2015, but there were some periods where I ploughed through some great ones – and others where I plodded through some tougher ones. I got through 22 in total.

I spent four months at the start of the year reading Shantaram – amusing and fascinating, if a rather long read at over 900 pages. Still, there were some really touching scenes and many wonderfully written chapters – I’d recommend it if you don’t mind reading a lot. I then proceeded to finish reading Fleming’s Bond novels – which really tailed off into pulpable cliches. Towards the end of the year, I found We Need To Talk About Kevin to be one of the best pieces of fiction I have read. I also enjoyed The Martian – if you view it as the literary equivalent of a fun action movie – and made a start on Robert Ludlam’s Bourne series – though I won’t be rushing through them.

In non-fiction, I found Christian Rudder’s Dataclysm fascinating and enjoyed Victoria Coren-Mitchell’s autobiography. Simon Singh’s The Code Book, though, has to be my favourite factual book I read in 2015 – striking a great balance of technical detail and historical storytelling.

There were a few books I didn’t enjoy, but I won’t slag them off here – my Goodreads profile has my ratings and reviews if you want to see more. I’ve made a good dent on books in 2016 already, and look forward to a time when there might, finally, be more read than unread books on my shelf.

2015 book covers

A few of the books I read in 2015

2015 in movies

I started keeping track of the films I watched in 2015. It started off with a desire to organise the list of films I wanted to watch, and a way to keep track of the ones I had. I was recommended Letterboxd as a means to this end, and have found it to be superb.

So, I can tell you that in 2015 I watched 113 films – 77 of them for the first time. This included 9 films featuring Alan Rickman, 6 films directed by Richard Linklater, and one terrible movive entitled The 12 Dogs of Christmas: Great Puppy Rescue.

A lot of the films I watched were from a few years back – catching up on classics, the big films of the last couple of years that are now kicking about on DVD, and other recommendations and TV movies. Amongst these, and indeed amongst all the films of any age I saw this year, my favourite has to be Magnolia. Paul Thomas Anderson’s 1999 masterpiece of interwoven stories, long brooding shots, superb rhythm and captivating characters living contrasting city lives. Despite being over three hours long, I didn’t want it to finish a single minute early – and that’s saying something.

Amongst the year’s cinema releases, Birdman was my favourite. I have a thing for long, unbroken steadicam shots – and this film is essentially one extended shot of this type. Combined with a fascinating glimpse behind theatrical scenes and a powerful performance from Michael Keaton, then the film is not just one-of-a-kind, but darn good as well.

Closely following on the heels of Birdman are the likes of Mad Max: Fury Road (beautifully audacious action movie with fresh characters, minimum annoying exposition, and no apologies) and Whiplash (superb tension for such a character-driven movie, thanks largely to J K Simmons) – while the latest Bond and Mission:Impossible installments left me underwhelmed. In terms of older movies then I’m glad to have finally seen superb titles such as Captain Phillips, Drive, and 12 Angry Men. It’s good to play catchup.

I also made a start on watching old Hitchcock movies at the end of the year, and I’m sure that will continue into 2015. One of the most enjoyable film series of the year, though, has to be Richard Linklater’s Before… trilogy – I watched them back-to-back in a single day and loved the dialogue, the characters, and the realism of the simple settings. I’ll be back to see them plenty, I’m sure.

You can see my full 2015 in film review over at Letterboxd – including ranked lists, reviews and ratings for all the films I saw last year. For now, though, I’m off to grab a DVD.

2015 in music

It’s been a year of good new music, plenty of old music, enjoyable live music, and much singing in the kitchen. At this time of year, I like to reflect on what was making my ears happy over the last months. So, with the help of last.fm, I present the chart of my most listened-to artists, 2015:

  1. David Bowie
  2. Manic Street Preachers
  3. Radiohead
  4. Paul Simon
  5. Belle and Sebastian
  6. Ryan Adams
  7. The Polyphonic Spree
  8. Kate Bush
  9. Bruce Springsteen
  10. Fleetwood Mac
  11. The Police
  12. Sting
  13. Taylor Swift
  14. Suede
  15. Daft Punk
  16. Joanna Newsom
  17. The Kleptones
  18. The War On Drugs
  19. Public Service Broadcasting
  20. Simon and Garfunkel

There’s not an awful lot of difference to last year’s top ten – I’m a man of consistent tastes. New music is only really represented by Belle and Sebastian, who chucked out a new album in January, and Ryan Adams, whose cover of Taylor Swift’s 1989 has been one of my favourite albums of the year.

In fact, Taylor herself didn’t do so badly in my charts, just out of the top ten but slam-dunking in at number 13 thanks to several spins of 1989 and the rest of her back catalogue – it helps that I’ve moved into a flat full of Swift fans. Apart from the old stalwarts of the Manics, Radiohead, Bush and Bowie, the rest of my top artists can largely be linked to the music I’ve seen live – while Bruce Springsteen and Fleetwood Mac prop up the top ten by virtue of just being great.

In April I had an awesome night at London’s O2 to watch Sting and Paul Simon play a solid three hours of tight, moving and outright rocking music. Attracted to get tickets by Simon’s presence, I was pleasantly surprised by how much Sting I enjoyed. Since then, I’ve listened to a lot of Sting and The Police, who just miss out on the top ten as separate entities – though if I combined play counts they would jump to number 5, just behind Paul Simon himself (though that’s without songs by Simon & Garfunkel – at number 20 as a duo).

After last year’s most amazing gig in Bristol, I jumped right in for more Polyphonic Spree tickets and saw them play the entirety of their first album, plus a few hits besides, in London in September – and have filled up my collection with the rest of their back catalogue since. My other live music highlight has to be Joanna Newsom at the Hammersmith Apollo in November. Her beautiful, beautiful music had the audience totally hushed and I’m certain there were a few tears in the crowd as she played harps, piano and all sorts of other instruments I couldn’t name. Her new album, released a few weeks prior, has also received a few plays – popping her at number 16.

Tim DeLaughter and Aaron Boardley

Me with Tim DeLaughter of The Polyphonic Spree

While I also saw The War On Drugs in February this year, the other special mentions for live music have to be from my third Glastonbury festival. Florence + The Machine impressively stepped up to the headline slot, The Libertines’ surprise addition created one of the best atmospheres I’ve ever been a part of at the Pyramid Stage – until Lionel Richie crammed it full the next day for tremendous fun sing-alongs, and I’m really glad I got to see the rousing set from Duke Special (and have him stage dive on me at the end). Plus, after giving up on Kanye after three songs, I’m so pleased I went to see Suede headlining the John Peel stage. Superb guitar music for a superb Saturday night.

A final nod from the top twenty has to go to Public Service Broadcasting. Thanks to a recommendation from podcaster Brady Haran, I have feasted on their album The Race For Space time after time again since the summer. I could give a blow-by-blow recommendation for most its fantastic tracks, but I’m sure I’ve rambled enough. Why not set aside an hour to just listen to it?

As we wave goodbye to the musical highlights of 2015, and look ahead at what 2016 will stir in us, I’ll leave you with a song that caught my attention on the radio last summer and has been in my head, if not played out loud, every day since:

Wouldn’t it be terrible if there’s no music?

Eurovision by numbers

Last Saturday saw the final of the 2015 Eurovision Song Contest, in which the viewers decided their favourite act was, again, Sweden. For me, though, Eurovision is more than a spectator event. Awarding your own scores at home can be pretty fun too.

So, as my friends the Bentleys invited me once again to their Eurovision party, I got an opportunity to play with the fifth incarnation of my Eurovision spreadsheet. With its help I can tell you that as a group we liked Australia the best, were bored by Hungary, and found Sweden more fun to watch than to listen to.

The spreadsheet makes use of a scoring system proposed by the BBC a few years ago, in which partygoers award marks out of ten to each country in three categories: songcraft, musical performance, and visual performance. Crunching these scores with some lookup functions and pretty conditional formatting, the workbook spits out reports of the best and worst country in each category, the most generous and stingy markers, and ranked total scores.

Eurovision total scores

Total scores awarded to acts by the Bentley party, in order of performance.

There was a clear gap between our top twelve for the night (Australia, Belgium, Sweden, Italy, Lithuania, Israel, Austria, Latvia, United Kingdom, Estonia, Georgia, Russia) and the rest of the pack. Though there was some obvious pro-U.K. bias at our party, we were still disappointed (though not at all surprised) to see it rank so low overall in the real scores, while I was shocked to see hosts Austria earn nil points this year – THEY HAD A FLAMING PIANO ON STAGE FOR GOODNESS SAKE!

Eurovision scores by category

Average scores (out of ten) awarded in each category, sorted by total. You may now judge us.

Splitting our scores by category it’s clear that some countries (Italy, France) provided singers of a much higher calibre than the piece they were there to perform, whilst others (Sweden, Spain) were favoured far more for their visuals, costumes and dancing than their music – in our opinions, at least.

Eurovision’s just a bit of fun, and a chance to shout at the telly with friends, but I won’t pretend I don’t enjoy getting a bit deeper into what our party thought of what went on before us. If you’d like to do similar, you’re welcome to download a copy of my spreadsheet and adapt it to your own needs next time. There’s still the odd bug, but it improves every year – get in touch if you’ve got any ideas for development.

For now, though, congratulations to Sweden. See you next May!