Monday, 22 August 2016
The Rio Olympic games have been enthralling so far. Despite pre-tournament worries of Zika, crime, or terrorism, events have gone ahead mostly as planned, which thankfully allows us to focus on the sport side of things.
Indeed it has been a tournament for breaking records and setting historic milestones, but the subject that I'm hearing people discuss most at the moment is the sensational story of Team GB. How has such a tiny country, one with a generally undistinguished history at the Olympic games until recent years, come out all of a sudden to become such a global sporting powerhouse?
As one can see from the official Team GB website, there has been a clear improvement in the country's performance at the summer games, beginning with 2008 in Beijing, a run of success that has seen Team GB finish fourth, third and so far second in the three summer tournaments since then. In the twenty years preceding those games, 1988-2008, Team GB won an average of 23.4 medals per game. From 2008 onwards, that average increases by 130% to 54 total medals, a number that will certainly increase even further as the Rio games continue to unfold.
Now a note of caution: the summer Olympics only take place every four years; with such a small data set you're bound to get some funky data. But any accusation that 2008 was a fluke, or that 2012 was just down to home advantage must surely have evaporated now given Team GB's showing in 2016, away from home in a hostile climate, and at the time of writing having won more medals than even massive China.
It's perhaps most starkly illustrated when you analyse the data of medals won per capita. On first glance, Great Britain ranking at thirteenth may not seem all that overwhelming, but look closer. All the other major players at the Olympics, USA, China, Russia, all way down the list. Most of the top ranked nations on this list are tiny micronations with a population of a million or fewer that have by some chance won a medal. If you look for larger countries, with population of 25 million or more, Team GB is ranked top. More pertinently if you look at the countries that have won more than just a handful, ten medals or more, GB is top.
So how did they pull it off? Well if you look again at the data, there's another strong correlation, GDP per capita.
Sunday, 21 August 2016
Welcome back football fans. With such a busy summer of sport behind us you may not even have noticed the absence of Premier League football, but the Ephemeric has felt it deeply. The season ahead promises plenty of drama, convoluted narratives that would make Game of Thrones blush, and hopefully some decent football. As per usual the Ephemeric is here to run the rule over every team in the Premier League and render a few inevitably accurate predictions. Read on for the ultimate preview of what awaits us these next nine months.
Premier League 2016/17 Predictions in a nutshell:
Champions: Manchester United
Champions League qualifiers: Manchester United, Manchester City, Arsenal, Tottenham
Relegated: Hull, Watford, Burnley
Golden Boot winner: Sergio Agüero (Manchester City)
Golden Glove winner: David de Gea (Manchester United)
Player to watch: Paul Pogba (Manchester United)
New signing to watch: Paul Pogba (Manchester United)
Young player to watch: Reece Oxford (West Ham United)
First manager to get the sack: Walter Mazzarri (Watford)
Shock of the season: Paul Pogba is just ok...
Nickname: The Gunners
Ground: Emirates Stadium
Position last season: 2nd
Manager: Arsene Wenger
Poor Arsenal, it just never happens for them. Even in a season where all their main rivals fall by the wayside, someone comes out of the blue, just for the purpose of stopping them from winning a first league title in 15 years. On the bright side they finished 2nd, a high point in recent years that breaks the 4th place curse that has become so regular as to have taken on "meme" status, but as a new season dawns they still look a side that is incapable of delivering the big prize.
Typically the problem with Arsenal has been money, not that they don't have it, but that they refuse to spend it. Whether by some misplaced morality, or the simple greed of the club's board, the club has become typified by a lack of ambition. Now with massive recent outlays on transfer spending, including the £50 million deals for Ozil and Sanchez, and this summer nearly £40 million on Granit Xhaka, the club seems finally to have accepted this new reality. Now the question is whether they waited too long and are simply too far off the pace to seriously challenge the big clubs.
But more positive is the return to form of certain key players, most notably Mesut Ozil who in his first few seasons with the club had appeared to be written off as one of the Premier League's big-money flops. Last year he finally showed glimpses of the potential that had made him such a prospect all those years ago, and if he can keep that going this season he'll be one of the league's stars. Meanwhile Xhaka looks to be another smart signing, albeit one for whom Arsenal might have overpaid, but notably the club seems uninterested in strengthening the areas that most need attention, ie a striker, an experienced defender.
Key Signing: Granit Xhaka
Key Man: Mesut Ozil
Verdict: Should be another solid season for Arsenal, but if they couldn't mount a title challenge last season, they never will.
Nickname: The Cherries
Ground: Dean Court
Last season: 16th
Manager: Eddie Howe
An impressive Premier League debut for Bournemouth, who comfortably stayed up, and pulled off some strong results in the process including victories against Chelsea and Manchester United. For them the question is whether they can kick on from here, or suffer the dreaded second-season syndrome.
Their challenge is not helped by the departure of key player Matt Ritchie to Newcastle, but they have not been shy about strengthening the playing staff, with the record signing of Jordon Ibe from Liverpool, and quite intriguingly Nathan Ake on loan from Chelsea. There has been little in the way of defensive reinforcements, which is surprising for the second leakiest defence in the league last season.
Thin depth at the back of the pitch aside, they are well stocked in the midfield and up front, especially with striker Callum Wilson back from injury. There is no doubting the difficulty of what lies ahead, but Eddie Howe is a good manager and on paper they don't look worse off than last year.
Key Signing: Jordon Ibe
Key Man: Callum Wilson
Verdict: A tough season in store, with a real threat of relegation, but Bournemouth can survive if their new signings gel.
Nickname: The Clarets
Ground: Turf Moor
Last season: Promoted (1st)
Manager: Sean Dyche
Sean Dyche has been with the club a long time now by modern standards. He has seen the club relegated and he has seen them promoted, most recently as Championship winners. But the Premier League is a different beast, and even winning the lower division is no guarantee of Premier League success.
There are red flags already. After promotion, you have to strengthen, and yet a lack of transfer activity over the summer has left Burnley's squad looking even weaker than it did last season. Joey Barton and Michael Duff have gone, and their biggest transfer moves have so far been rebuffed by the selling club, it's starting to look bad.
Dyche is a fine manager and has a proven record at working well with meagre options, but that won't be enough on its own, given how competitive this league has become. Even other lower half of the table teams are spending tens of millions on new players, it's no longer the case that such an outlay is a luxury, it is the bare minimum needed to survive.
The one bright side appears to be the imminent signing of Belgian midfielder Steven Defour, which promises to be something of a coup for the club and go a long way towards steadying the ship.
Key Signing: Steven Defour
Key Man: Andre Gray
Verdict: One of the favourites for the drop, but the signing of Defour might yet save them.
Ground: Stamford Bridge
Last season: 10th
Manager: Antonio Conte
Chelsea never do things simple do they? This time last year they had just been crowned Champions by a comfortable margin, but even then there were red flags. In the Ephemeric's preview, I lambasted the club's transfer policy and warned that combined with a blisteringly tough start to the fixtures, a poor season could be in store, even while all other pundits were tipping them for the title. Sometimes I hate being right, but even I would never have predicted the complete and utter devastation that occurred.
Mourinho promptly got the blame and the sack, whether deservedly or not. The new manager Antonio Conte looks more than capable, but then so was Jose. The issue the club faces is that they appear not to have learned their lesson even after the disaster they just witnessed. N'Golo Kante from Champions Leicester is a very astute signing, and Michy Batshuayi looks like potent support for Costa, but Chelsea's problem last year was not a lack of firepower or midfield strength, it was a complete dearth of defensive quality.
A right back playing at left back, three centre backs, two of which are in their mid thirties, the other is crocked, and a right back who can't run any more. Chelsea's disjointed defence was their undoing last year, and it will be again this year. At the time of writing not a single defensive signing has been made, and the club starts the season without a left back in the squad, not one. Chelsea's board seem to be in denial, and it will cost them again this year.
Key Signing: N'Golo Kante
Key Man: Eden Hazard
Verdict: Yet another season of disappointment awaits the most mismanaged club in the league. Top four surely beyond reach.
Nickname: Eagles, Glaziers
Ground: Selhurst Park
Last season: 15th
Manager: Alan Pardew
Big things were expected of Crystal Palace last season on the back of some very positive signs of progress in previous seasons, and they duly... did not deliver. Alan Pardew has kept his job, and probably rightly so, but he needs to address the problems that still face the club and start taking them forward again.
His approach over the summer to taking on this challenge appears to have been an increase in transfer market activity, and the club has spent big. Andros Townsend, James Tomkins, and Steve Mandanda are all very good signings, but that only scratches the surface. Even bigger money bids were made for Batshuayi, who ended up moving to London rivals Chelsea, and Berahino, who so far has opted to stay at West Brom. They finally got their target position sorted with a huge £27 million signing of Christian Benteke, an addition that could turn out to be a major boon for the club.
But even without further signings they have a solid squad on paper. Wayne Hennessey has always been very dependable in goal, Yohann Cabaye remains a giant in the midfield, and up front they have the attacking talent of Connor Wickham and Wilfried Zaha. This is a squad that succeed in the Premier League, and a manager with plenty of experience in doing so. It's worth noting the role that injuries to key personnel played in last season's disappointment. If Pardew can keep these lads fit they should do well.
Key Signing: Christian Benteke
Key Man: Yohann Cabaye
Verdict: Minimum expectation is to finish higher than last season, and a push into the top half is not beyond them.
Ground: Goodison Park
Last season: 11th
Manager: Ronald Koeman
Everton... it all looked to be going so well under new manager Roberto Martinez, but two disappointing seasons in a row was apparently the limit, and he was shown the door last year. Ronald Koeman is the replacement. The former Barcelona star had a very solid tenure as Southampton's chief, stepping into the hard to fill shoes of Mauricio Pochettino, but Everton will be a different sort of challenge.
The squad is strong, but lacking balance. New investment from billionaire Moshiri will need to be put to good use. The selling of defender John Stones was not a good start, but the astonishing £50 million fee was understandably difficult to turn down, and they have replaced him well with Swansea's Ashley Williams. Stekelenburg and Gueye are fine signings too, but they will need more, especially if Lukaku leaves.
But the key addition is Yannick Bolasie formerly of Crystal Palace, for a huge £25 million fee. A fine player, but is it the statement of intent that Everton needed? Good things may yet be to come in the ensuing years, but this season looks to be more of a settling period, for the new manager and owners alike.
Key Signing: Ashley Williams
Key Man: Romelu Lukaku
Verdict: Too soon for a major improvement, but expect another solid upper mid table finish.
Nickname: The Tigers
Ground: KC Stadium
Last season: Promoted (Play-off)
Manager: Mike Phelan
Club owner Assem Allam has never been popular with the Hull fans. Since taking over the club he has been determined to implement all sorts of controversial and out of touch ideas such as changing the name to "Hull Tigers". These haven't panned out, and now due to illness he has become less involved in the club. This has only led to more drama, with manager Steve Bruce first falling out with Allam's son, and then resigning just days before the start of the season due to frustration at the lack of transfer activity.
So here is the club, starting the year with an astonishingly small squad with only 13 full squad members, a caretaker manager, and complete uncertainty at what the future holds. But they are in the Premier League, and as long as they're here they have a chance.
This is a squad with some solid and experienced players, Michael Dawson, Tom Huddlestone, and Curtis Davies among them, but it's shockingly thin in depth, and with seemingly nothing on the horizon, one has to make them a favourite for the drop, but then again, sometimes adversity can spur a team on to great things.
Key Signing: Will Mannion is so far the only signing...
Key Man: Michael Dawson
Verdict: Favourites for relegation, will have to rise in the face of serious adversity.
Nickname: The Foxes
Ground: King Power Stadium
Last season: Champions
Manager: Claudio Ranieri
Last year's title win will go down as one of the greatest stories in the history of sports, an astonishing upset, a huge triumph above all expectation, not just for the players but for the manager. Now the question will be, was it just a fluke?
Leicester City have a lot of money at their disposal, a capable manager, and as last season showed, a pretty good team. But even with last season's heroics, you'd have to say that on paper they still aren't at the same level as the other big clubs in England. It would be crass to dismiss what they accomplished as a fluke, but sometimes clubs do simply perform above their level, and that can be enough to achieve incredible things.
At the same time, they have lost a key player in N'Golo Kante. His replacement Nampalys Mendy will be under great pressure to fill his role. But they have kept Mahrez, they have kept Vardy, and they have added six players to the squad. This is not a club under any illusion of invincibility and one incredible season at the top will not distract from what has been a succession of very positive years of development leading up to that triumph. This is a club with a long term plan and solid foundation, the key thing is not to win the title again this season but to keep the long term development going.
Key Signing: Nampalys Mendy
Key Man: Riyad Mahrez
Verdict: Will struggle to meet last season's lofty achievements, but top 10 finish should be doable.
Last season: 8th
Manager: Jurgen Klopp
That one year Liverpool nearly won the title under Brendan Rodgers now seems a bit of a fluke. Yet with Jurgen Klopp, one of the hottest managers in the world today, the feeling is finally one of genuine optimism and direction. Can he take this club back to the top?
Now it might seem like such statements are made every season, and there is something to that, especially with the dominance of ex Liverpool players in the pundit class, but the things Klopp accomplished at Dortmund are not to be sniffed at, when faced with the total monopoly of German football and sponsorship that is Bayern Munich. That they won the title and damn near won the Champions League should not be understated. Add to that the return to fitness of key players like Daniel Sturridge, and this should be a very different looking Liverpool side to the one that we watched for most of last season.
Some big signings have been made in the form of Mané and Wijnaldum, but then Liverpool are no stranger to the big money transfer that doesn't pan out. Will this be different? The key to Liverpool's success will be the fitness and consistency of key players like Philippe Coutinho, a man who has shown glimpses of brilliance throughout his Liverpool career.
Key Signing: Sadio Mané
Key Man: Philippe Coutinho
Verdict: A return to the top 6 looks likely.
Ground: Etihad Stadium
Last season: 4th
Manager: Pep Guardiola
Manchester City finished a disappointing 4th place last season, but really it should come as no surprise when you announce half way through the year, in the midst of a tight title race, that the manager is to be replaced at the end of the season. Unsurprisingly, after that announcement the club's title challenge fizzled out.
Now the board has got it's man Pep Guardiola, one of football's great charlatans who has made a career of taking over the best club in the world and then making them no longer the best club in the world. How will he fare at a club that's not the best in the world? Not well we reckon. If his mediocre tenure at Bayern damaged his reputation, City could be the venue where it finally gets buried.
His saving grace is that the Manchester City team he inherits is probably still the strongest in the league on paper, and most likely would have won the title last season if not for the board's astonishing self-sabotage. From Joe Hart to Sergio Aguero, Vincent Kompany, Raheem Sterling, and Kolarov, this is a club that is overstocked with talent in every position, in a way that no other British club can match.
Pep hasn't been shy about adding to that squad either, with a huge £150 million spent so far on the likes of John Stones, Leroy Sane, and Gabriel Jesus. It's a bold gesture of faith from the board, especially considering none of his signings for Bayern or Barcelona ever exactly became key players. With all the money he spent, it was always the players he inherited that carried his teams.
On the balance of things, you'd have to say City have a good shot at the title, with such a great squad. But for me they're not the favourites.
Key Signing: John Stones
Key Man: Sergio Agüero
Verdict: Without doubt a title challenger, but likely to fall short in my view.
Nickname: Red Devils
Ground: Old Trafford
Last season: 5th
Manager: Jose Mourinho
Manchester United are, quite simply, the team to watch this season. They have one of the best managers in the world in Jose Mourinho, a year after his latest flameout with Chelsea. He's a man with something to prove, and with his arch rival Pep managing Manchester United's arch rivals City, there's some extra venom to this story.
Then there's the new faces. Obviously we have the world record signing Paul Pogba. If Chelsea were red-faced at letting Nemanja Matic to go Benfica for cheap, only to re-sign him at 5 times the cost 2 years later, this one really takes the cake. Pogba was sold to Juventus for free, now to be re-signed just years later for near £90 million. It boggles the mind. How can anyone live up to that fee? We shall see.
But he's not the only signing. Eric Bailly is solid at the back, while Zlatan Ibrahimovic has always performed and brings some great experience and mental edge to the team. He joins a healthy mix of hotly tipped youngsters like Rashford and Martial, and some well seasoned veterans such as Davide De Gea and Juan Mata. But still the key man remains the legendary striker Wayne Rooney. Whether he plays up front or in a deeper midfield role, everything good that the team creates flows through him.
The squad is strong, but perhaps less so than City. Still, the combination of momentum, talent and managerial brilliance make United our favourites for the title.
Key Signing: Paul Pogba
Key Man: Wayne Rooney
Nickname: The Boro
Ground: Riverside Stadium
Last season: Promoted (2nd)
Manager: Aitor Karanka
A tasty new addition to the Premier League. It's been a number of years since I last had the pleasure of previewing Middlesbrough, and they make for an interesting prospect in this new season. Promoted as the runner up in the Championship after a number of seasons threatening to make the cut, they now look well prepared for a strong return to the top flight.
Perhaps most interesting is the manager, Aitor Karanka, the former Mourinho assistant manager from Real Madrid days. Karanka has been hotly tipped for a while now, and despite some rocky waters last spring, seems to be doing a fine job with Boro. Now for the first time he faces his mentor in competitive football.
Their squad is not bad for a newly promoted side, featuring the experienced hands of Stewart Downing and David Nugent. Crucially they have made a concerted effort to strengthen over the summer, something which usually determines how well a newly promoted side is likely to fare. And they have made some interesting moves with Victor Valdes, Brad Guzan and Fabio among 8 new acquisitions so far. They have also loaned Alvaro Negredo for the year in a move that could be the most significant.
Their defence last season was remarkable, if they can transition well to top flight football then they will be well prepared for the rigours of the stronger competition. Negredo in the meantime will provide a much needed boost to what has been a lacklustre attacking force.
Key Signing: Alvaro Negredo
Key Man: Ben Gibson
Verdict: Well placed for survival.
Ground: St. Mary's Stadium
Last season: 6th
Manager: Claude Puel
One of the Premier League's great success stories in recent years, Southampton's rise to the top has been hugely impressive. But a series of managerial changes and player departures has started to leave them looking a bit disjointed. A club that wishes to remain at the top needs to at some point consolidate what they have, and yet Southampton continue to turnover at a rate more befitting a club of less promise.
Few will have heard of new manager Claude Puel, and this summer has seen the untimely departure of the likes of Sadio Mané and Victor Wanyama. On the flip side, they have signed the very impressive Nathan Redmond, and a line up featuring James Ward-Prowse, Fraser Forster, Oriol Romeu and Shane Long is more than impressive. This is a side that can compete at a high level.
Still the season starts with rather more of a dour mood than in recent years. Particularly after an impressive 6th place last year finish fans might have hoped for a real statement of intent going into this season. That has not happened, and a tricky season lies ahead.
Key Signing: Nathan Redmond
Key Man: Fraser Forster
Verdict: A slight step backwards and a mid table finish likely.
Ground: Britannia Stadium
Last season: 9th
Manager: Mark Hughes
Last year we predicted a strong season from Hughes and the boys, and they duly delivered. Mark Hughes has done a very impressive job with this team in shaking off the utilitarian ways of Tony Pulis and building a side that can play real football and play it well.
Having been extremely active in the transfer market in recent seasons, this year looks to be something of a consolidation. They have made one marquee signing in the very talented Joe Allen, but otherwise they look to line up with mostly the same eleven, barring further moves.
For this reason Stoke will be one of the more interesting sides to watch this season. No one expects them to push for Europe, and they probably are safe from a relegation tussle, but to watch this club's continued evolution from the rugged jalopy of football into something representing more of, if not a ferrari then an alpha romeo, is fascinating.
Key Signing: Joe Allen
Key Man: Marko Arnautovic
Verdict: Could be a special season for Mark Hughes and his team.
Nickname: Black Cats
Ground: Stadium of Light
Last season: 17th
Manager: David Moyes
Another year, another managerial change, and this time they have turned to the once highly regarded David Moyes. That's manager number seven in five years.
Sunderland were one of the favourites for the drop last season, and only escaped through a last minute miracle of former manager, now England manager Sam Allardyce. A lack of meaningful transfer activity means they are likely to face a similar challenge this year. So far the only major signing has been Papy Djilobodji, the much mocked last minute Chelsea signing of last year, who failed to play a single game for the club. At £8million it's hardly a cheap move either, but we'll see how it plays out. A loan move for Manchester United's once hyped midfielder Adnan Januzaj is more hopeful.
Elsewhere there's many familiar faces, Lee Cattermole, Jermain Defoe, Jack Rodwell, Fabio Borini, and the excellent Patrick Van Aanholt. It's really not a bad team on paper, which makes their continual struggles all the more surprising. For whatever reason, these players haven't gelled, and off the pitch travails haven't helped. There's no more room for error now though.
Key Signing: Adnan Januzaj
Key Man: Lee Cattermole
Verdict: A tough season to avoid relegation, but they have the talent on paper to survive.
Nickname: The Swans
Ground: Liberty Stadium
Last season: 12th
Manager: Francesco Guidolin
It's a genuine shame to say that after a few very promising seasons in charge, Garry Monk was dismissed last season. Despite this, Swansea had a fairly decent season with a creditable mid-table finish. New manager Francesco Guidolin will have to ensure that disruptions off the pitch don't start to derail progress on it.
They're not off to a good start, with huge upheaval in the dressing room following the mass exodus of players that has seen no fewer than twelve players leave, including some key personnel such as Ashley Williams, André Ayew, and Eder. At the same time they have brought in a good seven new signings, most notably the extra firepower of Fernando Llorente, and Borja Baston.
There's a lot of new faces, and one would have to assume there will be a gelling process before we see this Swansea team come together. Expect a transition year.
Key Signing: Borja Baston
Key Man: Gylfi Sigurðsson
Verdict: Probably safe from relegation, but mid table is realistically the best they can do.
Ground: White Hart Lane
Last season: 3rd
Manager: Mauricio Pochettino
Last season was a stunning success for Tottenham, one that has cemented Pochettino's status as one of the hottest managers in football. Champions League qualification is already a great step for the club, but more than they they have emerged as genuine title challengers, and weren't too far off winning it all last season until a late season slip.
So a very exciting time to be a Tottenham fan. The management have clearly decided that few changes are needed, and that more valuable will be to allow the impressive squad more time to develop as a cohesive unit. As such there have been just two signings so far, Vincent Janssen providing more options up front, and Southampton's very talented Victor Wanyama in the midfield.
The squad undoubtedly ranks among the strongest in the league, with Lloris, Kyle Walker, Dier, and Eriksen all top performers, but the real star is of course Harry Kane, who has been in phenomenal goalscoring form these past two years. If he keeps that up this year, anything is possible.
Key Signing: Victor Wanyama
Key Man: Harry Kane
Verdict: A good shout for top four.
Ground: Vicarage Road
Last season: 13th
Manager: Walter Mazzarri
The rollercoaster continues, another managerial change, and another summer of mass squad upheaval. Last summer following promotion Watford signed fifteen players, this summer they sold or released twelve of them and another seven have come in.
Despite this madness, the team actually performed fairly decently last season, coming comfortably in the mid table and never really looking at danger of relegation. A similar result for this year is surely looking unlikely. New team, new tactics, stories of unrest, and a poor pre-season does not paint an optimistic view of the season ahead.
It's hard to put a firm prediction on the league's least predictable team, but all signs suggest a tough season ahead. Past form suggests they won't go down without a fight, but Watford are one of a few teams with a real risk of relegation.
Key Signing: Younes Kaboul
Key Man: Troy Deeney
Verdict: Premier League enigmas, but will do well to escape relegation.
WEST BROMWICH ALBION
Ground: The Hawthorns
Last season: 14th
Manager: Tony Pulis
An up-and-down season for the Baggies saw them headed, as predicted, for relegation. But ultimately the well tested skills of Tony Pulis kept them stable, kept them focused, and saved the day.
Tony Pulis is one of the very best when it comes to winning Premier League points with only meager resources at your disposal. He did it with Stoke, and he did it with Crystal Palace. With Pulis at the helm, West Brom will be safe from relegation. The question now is can they push on and make a case for the top half of the table.
To do that they will have to address the lack of goalscoring prowess they showed last season. They are well stocked in defence and midfield, having failed to score in nearly half their league games last season it's quite clear where the weakness lies. It's surprising, then, that West Brom haven't been more active in the transfer market, with only the one, fairly unremarkable signing so far.
The extra spice to the tale is the club's recent acquisition and new owner. Pulis' job appears to be safe for now, but questions remain on how this will affect the club's ambition going forward.
Key Signing: Matt Phillips
Key Man: Darren Fletcher
Verdict: Should be safe, but on the lower end of mid table.
WEST HAM UNITED
Nickname: The Hammers
Ground: The Boleyn Ground
Last season: 7th
Manager: Slaven Bilić
By all accounts last season was a phenomenal success for the Hammers. Promising things were expected under hot new manager Slaven Bilić, but few would have expected the very credible push for European qualification that the club ultimately put forward.
Now with a new stadium, highly regarded manager, and a team that's performed above expectations, West Ham starts this season in one of the most optimistic positions the club has found itself in for many years, with the new expectation being a top half finish for sure, and hopefully another push into the top seven.
But there's a lot of work on to achieve this goal. The squad is strong, sure, with Dimitri Payet, Mark Noble, and Adrian particularly impressive last season, but this is a team that needs depth, particularly with the additional challenge of European football on the table. So far the major transfer has been Andre Ayew of Swansea, but a good eight other players have joined him as new signings.
This is a team with big changes, and they likely are not done yet. While hopes remain high, the challenges are many and fans would do well to temper expectations for the next nine months.
Key Signing: Andre Ayew
Key Man: Dimitri Payet
Verdict: Will push for top 7, but comfortable mid table position likely.
1. Manchester United
2. Manchester City
7. Leicester City
9. West Ham
12. Crystal Palace
13. West Brom
14. Swansea City
Tuesday, 9 August 2016
Summer Music Round-Up Part 2: "Red Hot Chili Peppers", "Christine and the Queens", "Michael Kiwanuka"
Hello everyone and welcome back to the Ephemeric's Summer Music Round-Up on this beautiful Saturday afternoon (note: if by the time this post is complete it is no longer a Saturday please disregard that last sentiment).
In Part 2 of our guide to the best music of the summer 2016 we will review three of the hottest albums out right now, with the new LP releases of Red Hot Chili Peppers, Christine and the Queens, and Michael Kiwanuka.
"The Getaway - Red Hot Chili Peppers" Album Review
At this stage, Red Hot Chili Peppers are one of those venerable rock bands that seem to have been around for ever, and one for which most people have a soft spot tucked away somewhere.
Still there is no denying that they have been on the wane in the recent years of their career, perhaps most punctuated by the departure of former lead guitarist John Frusciante. Even prior to that, however, their's is definitely a sound in a rut, short on new ideas, increasingly frequently recycling riffs and melodies and sticking to the tried and tested radio-friendly sound that they settled upon around the time of By the Way.
Still with producer Danger Mouse at the helm of newest album The Getaway, I am pleased to say that they have produced their finest effort in some years.
Still heavy on the blended soft-punk and pop-rock, the melodies sound fresher than they have in a while, with more delicate guitar work and fully realised soundscapes smoothed out by excellent production. It's an all together more mature sounding work, a product of finesse, airy enough to let the music flow comfortably without losing its edge. Title track The Getaway is a great song, while Dark Necessities, Sick Love, and Goodbye Angels are also standouts.
A good return to form, and well worth listening to.
"Chaleur Humaine - Christine and the Queens" Album Review
Another of The Ephemeric's successful predictions, Christine and the Queens began the year with high expectations. I had tipped them to make a big splash in 2016 back in this year's Hot List in January, and indeed they are now well on their way to becoming a household name in the European music scene.
Debut album Chaleur Humaine, unusually, was actually originally released in 2014, but only in France. 2016 has seen the wider release in other regions, and the re-recording of several songs in English, and it hasn't taken long for them to catch on.
It's hard to describe just what makes Christine's music work. There's something intricate and meticulously composed about these tracks, which lends them a minimalist sound not entirely dissimilar to other celebrated bands like The xx. But there's also a fascinating combination of sounds, for example in No Harm is Done which blends rap with a light piano backing, or the ethereal Jonathan which comes across as both forceful and vulnerable at the same time. It's expert songwriting.
A critical and commercial success, and a promising start to a career that we will watch with interest.
"Love & Hate - Michael Kiwanuka" Album Review
When Michael Kiwanuka's debut album Home Again released in 2012 it was something of a revelation. A collection of tracks seemingly out of nowhere that varied from light and playful to darker and more profound. In my view one of the best acoustic albums in many years.
So no pressure to follow up album Love & Hate, which additionally sees the appearance of uber-producer Danger Mouse for the second time on this list.
Fans need not have fretted, Kiwanuka has not lost any of the soul that made his simple arrangements so powerful. Far from it, Love & Hate is full of much deeper and richer compositions, with a greater variety in instrumentalisation from understated acoustic style to fuller and more complex crescendos of jazz and funk.
The sombre title track Love & Hate is the best embodiment of this album, and Kiwanuka's talent as a whole, beautiful soul music that builds into a full soaring cry for help. Really gorgeous. Many songs on the album are worthy of note, from the somewhat peppier One More Night which sounds more reminiscent of Kiwanuka's debut album, to the wonderful construction of I'll Never Love. In my view though the real pinnacle is the heavily introspective Father's Child with it's frantic strings and powerful yearning guitar in the finale.
These are excellent songs, every bit the equal in quality of his first album, and certainly of a more refined production. If there is one criticism of the album it's that it strikes such a continually morose and heavy sound that it can get a bit exhausting by the end, meaning the last few songs might simply pass a listener by on the first hearing, a true shame as the best songs are those at the end. Compare to Home Again which more effectively mixed things up tonally.
This is lush, textured music with a quality of production that lends it a truly timeless quality. It might take a few listens but it is wonderful.
Wednesday, 20 July 2016
Welcome back to The Ephemeric. I can only apologise for not posting more frequently as of late. Plenty to say, but no time in which to say it. Rather I've been very busy with work, writing, and various other endeavors of greater life importance. Don't let the radio silence and the constant political gloom fool you, there's plenty of awesomeness going around right now, and so this week I am going to give you a rough and tumble summary, the Summer Music Round-Up, which will be split into two parts.
In today's Part 1, we're going with a bit of a theme, reviewing three long awaited albums that have attained near mythical status for their decade-spanning gestation periods and their celebrated predecessors. We will be looking at the new albums from The Avalanches, The Last Shadow Puppets, and Radiohead.
"Wildflower - The Avalanches" Album Review
Incredibly it has been sixteen years since The Avalanches released their debut, Since I Left You. A huge success at the time, but it was only in the subsequent years that it attained the truly cult following that it enjoys today, owing as much to the mysterious elusiveness of the band as the album's undeniably high quality music.
The long-discussed follow up album became something of a running joke of the music industry, sort of a "Duke Nukem Forever" of music; perennially teased as being just around the corner, and yet never actually materializing. Indeed here on The Ephemeric I have often gone out on a limb as predicting their return in my yearly previews. Just my luck that the one year I don't mention them is the year they actually do come back.
Well at long last that album, Wildflower, is here in a move that ranks alongside the 2013 returns of Daft Punk and David Bowie as one of the great unexpected musical comebacks. And great it is. While clearly a considerable refinement of the sound of their first album, featuring for the first time collaborators like Father John Misty, Ariel Pink, and Danny Brown, the results will be largely familiar for longtime fans.
As with their debut, there are one or two novelty tracks like lead single Frankie Sinatra and the awful The Noisy Eater which do get pretty annoying, but they are few and far between. For the most part Wildflower simply sounds like a dream, warm and welcoming, straddling genres and combining disparate sources from across the decades in a piece of work so perfectly formed that it is hard to believe it has been pieced together largely from samples. It's an album that in many ways exceeds even the lofty standards set by their debut, and indeed it's a testament to the band's incredible vision than an album that was largely produced so long ago sounds so fresh, not at all dated.
Stunning second single Colours is an instant classic, blending offbeat melodies that sound like a psychedelic record on reverse, but illuminated by a sense of optimism and awe at the world. Harmony follows a similar suit with an unashamedly positive, urban twist on 1960s pop, while Stepkids takes a detour into the grit and soul of country music and elevates it with the strings of a soaring Western soundtrack. Really though, Because I'm Me, If I Was a Folkstar, Saturday Night Inside Out, Kaleidoscopic Lovers, and so many others really deserve a listen. This is one to sit back and listen to from start to finish.
Do yourself a favour and add Wildflower to your music collection. This sun-kissed array of tracks is the perfect summer album, and a triumphant return for the most enigmatic band of the new millennium.
"Everything You've Come to Expect - The Last Shadow Puppets" Album Review
A blast from the past in more ways than one. The Last Shadow Puppets is the side-project of The Arctic Monkeys frontman Alex Turner and Miles Kane, former lead of The Rascals. Their debut album The Age of Understatement was something of a cult classic, an sublime cocktail of the retro baroque-pop stylings the two men have grown up and the seductive trappings of modern indie rock. After eight long years, follow up album Everything You've Come to Expect is here.
Disappointing lead single Bad Habits feels like a bit of a misstep, giving fans cause to worry that the band was heading off in new stylistic direction more driven by Kane's punk roots than Turner's soul. Fortunately we need not have been concerned, the rest of the album is very much more in line with the sensibilities that made TLSP great.
The quality of the music is actually generally more consistent than on their debut album, Miracle Aligner, The Dream Synopsis, and The Bourne Identity all merit listening to, among others, it's a very solid album throughout. Unfortunately what this album lacks is a real stand-out hit. Their first album had a David Bowie cover in In the Heat of the Morning, and two ready-made hits in Standing Next to Me and My Mistakes Were Made for You.
Everything You've Come to Expect is a lovely album with numerous songs worthy of your playlist, but fails to make a knock-out blow with any track that hits as hard as some of their debut LP's singles. Still easy to recommend to all music lovers.
"A Moon Shaped Pool - Radiohead" Album Review
And our last of the day. Radiohead's new album A Moon Shaped Pool has not endured quite as legendarily protracted a production as the other two in this feature, but five years is a long time, and a new album from Radiohead inevitably comes with great hype.
Fortunately all the things one expects from Radiohead are present, artistic experimentation, inventive meshing of genres and tones, and complex and challenging content. A Moon Shaped Pool hits these notes as well as any album Thom Yorke and his boys have yet produced, and merits listening to for the bold and impressive artistic work that it is.
At the same time, this is a considerably more "poppy" effort than we have seen from Radiohead in many years, starting with the utterly ingenious lead single Burn the Witch with its wonderfully unsettling driving rhythm and psychotic strings. The album additionally consists of some very lovely folk pop tracks with the likes of True Love Waits, The Numbers and Daydreaming. It's high quality stuff.
A Moon Shaped Pool probably won't convert any Radiohead doubters, but longtime fans and music lovers in general will probably find much to admire with their latest effort.
Monday, 27 June 2016
There is an inherent risk in trying to evaluate any moment of historic import so soon after the fact. Only the passage of time will truly determine the full impact of the United Kingdom voting to leave the European Union, but even at this early stage the sheer gravity of the situation is becoming clear: both institutions face a very real existential threat in the coming years.
The Prime Minister, David Cameron, has resigned. The Pound Sterling has fallen to its weakest value in thirty years in the largest single-day drop for decades. The markets have crashed, jobs are already being taken out of London, and the complete break up of one of the world's oldest and most historically significant nations, as well as the most successful supranational entity in all of human history, may be on the cards. This is just the first day after the vote.
Credit outlook downgrades, the Calais Jungle moving to the UK, the Leave campaign admitting it can't follow through on any of its promises? That's day two. The Shadow Cabinet resigning, protests all over the UK and calls for a constitutional crisis? Day three. Yes, it appears all the "scaremongering" predictions that Brexit voters were so keen to ignore are indeed coming to pass. Two days and the country is already in turmoil, unfortunately we're not done yet, not by a long shot. "Project Fear" is starting to look more like "Project Understatement of the Century". It's too late to go back and change that now, all we can do is look at what lies ahead.
The Fall of the European Union
When the United Kingdom leaves the European Union, what's going to happen? The EU needs the economic strength of the UK, and the UK needs access to the single market. The obvious mutually beneficial answer is to strike some kind of a sweetheart deal along the lines of the agreements that currently stand with Switzerland and Norway.
The danger the precedent that this would set in Europe. The UK is not alone in euroscepticism at the moment, and if they manage to withdraw and strike a deal that allows them to retain most of the benefits of membership without the commitment, then why in the world wouldn't the likes of the Netherlands or France try to do the same? A successful Brexit could start a domino effect that in all probability would result in the devolution of several of the EU's most developed nations, a setback from which the Union can not possibly recover. There is no easy answer to this. If the EU gives the UK what they want, the EU will face a serious existential threat. Yet if they make an example of them, the economic consequences for both entities could be dire which might plunge all of Europe into recession. The question is whether a balanced solution can be found.
But even if the EU doesn't completely unravel, which it could well do, the fact still remains that one of its core members has left. Europe is divided again for the first time in decades. Whatever happens from here on out, the dream of a united Europe, that so many have fought for through history, is broken.
The Fall of the United Kingdom
Already calls are being made for a second vote on Scottish Independence. Scotland voted emphatically to stay within the EU. That they are being forced to leave anyway by Westminster confirms all the worst fears of the Scottish Independence movement. I used to be a passionate advocate of Scotland remaining in the UK, but now even I would support their independence. It is not right that a whole nation of people should have so little right to self-determination that so consequential a result as leaving the EU can be forced upon them in spite of near unanimous opposition. This is the opportunity that Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP have been waiting for, the single greatest chance Scotland will ever have for independence, they will certainly try to take it.
It's the same story with Northern Ireland, who voted resoundingly to stay in the EU, but now face having their will overridden by the English. The Irish situation is even more perilous since leaving the EU will necessitate a hard land border between Northern Ireland and Ireland, a move that is certain to provoke old tensions between the two. This is a major problem. Decades of work, of violence and suffering, a hard fought and hard won peace between the Unionists and Republicans, it could all be about to be undone by Brexit. Irish reunification talks are now set to reopen, paving the way for Northern Ireland to leave the UK and join ROI in order to remain a part of the EU.
Might that even not be the end of it? What of Gibraltar, who voted 95% to stay in the EU? There has even been talk of London independence! After all, London essentially props up the rest of the UK with its huge amount of tax revenue, and now as thanks the rest of the UK has voted to trash London's economy, and are forcing that result upon them against the will of 75% of London voters. Why give away all that revenue to a country that clearly doesn't care about London's interests?
This vote has left the UK more divided than it has ever been, as whole regions find themselves being dragged out of the EU against their will. It looks increasingly inevitable that, at a minimum, both Northern Ireland and Scotland will seek independence referenda in the coming years. If this happens, Scotland will almost certainly vote to leave the UK, and it wouldn't surprise anyone if Northern Ireland followed suit. London meanwhile looks set to seek special status to allow separate ties with the EU.
I would simply ask the Brexit supporters this: if Scotland and Northern Ireland break away from your newly "independent" UK, effectively bringing an end to the Kingdom, was it all still worth it?
The End of the UK's economic Golden Age
Even putting aside the very real threat of geopolitical fracturing of the UK, what of the economy? Barely two days later and the markets are crashing, the currency is worthless, jobs are leaving, and our credit outlook has been downgraded. Is this all an overreaction, or is there more still to come?
Unfortunately this is rolling out exactly as predicted by the much maligned "experts". There is nothing irrational about it, the UK is a much less attractive prospect for investment than it was a few days ago, and that will have dire consequences for everyone in this country.
One of the lines most frequently used, ironically, by the Leave campaign, was that the UK is a rising power, a new economic juggernaut at the centre of global commerce. This is all true; London's, and by extension the UK's economic development in recent years has been astonishing, described as an economic Golden Age for the country. What they evidently failed to realise is that this enviable position is a direct result of the UK's unique position as the world's gateway to Europe. English language, stable, secure country, close cultural and political ties to America, and where American money flows, so flows they money from East Asia and the Middle East.
The UK had found itself in the perfect position to be one of the world's centres for business, but without European access that all goes away, along with the UK's new Golden Age. We had the opportunity to place ourselves at the centre of the global market for a generation to come, and now we've just pissed it away.
David Cameron's big gamble
The ridiculous thing? None of this had to happen. The man who called the referendum, David Cameron, didn't even want it to pass, and never for a moment believed that it would. This was a referendum called as an afterthought, a token gesture to a certain demographic.
Flash back to 2015 general election. David Cameron's Conservative party won an outright majority for the first time, having spent the previous five years in a coalition with the Liberal Democrats. At the time this came as a huge shock. None of the polls predicted it, conventional wisdom held that a coalition was an inevitable outcome, with Ed Miliband slightly favoured to be the next Prime Minister.
So in a moment of desperation, faced with the prospect of losing power, or at best having to share power with the nationalist UKIP, David Cameron hatched a scheme, as legend has it while eating at the Chicago Pizza Kitchen at Logan Airport, to bring those nationalists (xenophobes) under the Conservative banner. That plan was the EU referendum. Cameron didn't believe in it, and he certainly didn't think there would be any appeal except to a small demographic. It was a low risk gimmick that promised to boost him a few seats in the next election.
In retrospect, this shortsighted, yet seemingly insignificant powerplay would prove to be the end of his career, and a blunder of historic proportions. There is something almost Shakespearean in the way that Cameron's blind power-lust has led to his own ruin. Barely a year later, he had lost the vote and lost his job. Even worse, he effectively wrote his own legacy. No matter what else he has done during his time as Prime Minister, he will be in the history books as the man who broke the European Union, and maybe the man who broke the United Kingdom, a nation that had survived centuries of conflict and change, two world wars, and now has been undone by a greedy, foolish man eating pizza. Think Neville Chamberlain has it rough in the history books? Just wait.
So what now?
This is the million dollar question. The UK doesn't officially withdraw from the EU until it invokes Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, at which point it will have two years to negotiate its exit. The referendum is only advisory, it does not legally bind the country, so that responsibility will fall to Parliament.
Parliament's ratification is considered to be a formality. For a liberal democracy to reject the popular vote of a referendum would be simply unthinkable and lead to a serious constitutional crisis. Technically it is possible for the left wing parties and a small Tory rebellion to block Brexit, but the outcry would be considerable, and few MPs would be willing to go along with it, even those who want to remain the EU.
Still there are hurdles to cross before that Article gets invoked. First, the terms of Cameron's resignation, which states that he will remain in power until October, and only after that point will his successor move forward on leaving the EU. It shouldn't escape notice that previously Cameron had insisted he would pull the trigger instantly. His delaying tactic might just be one last Hail Mary designed to prevent Brexit. Just look at how the economy has struggled in just a few days; by the time October rolls around, the full catastrophic impact of Brexit will be felt, and public opinion might even be turning the other way. Who would be brave enough to go through with this when it's unpopular and tanking the economy?
Then there's the additional complication of a likely early general election, which Boris Johnson has indicated he would call upon being appointed leader of the Conservative party. If an opposition Government takes charge, who's to say they will stick with the result of a referendum they had nothing to do with? Going further, it's likely we will see EU policy take a central roll on manifestos, perhaps even opening the door to an opposition party taking power with a specific mandate to block Brexit.
So in other words no one knows. No one knows what party will be in charge, what platform they will have been elected on, and what the national conditions at the time will be. It's far from certain even that Brexit will happen. We are entering uncharted territory, and the country has perhaps years of crippling uncertainty to look forward to.
So once again, it is clearly problematic to try and evaluate a moment of historic import so soon after the fact. But David Cameron's unnecessary gamble has just broken the EU, and may yet break the UK, with referenda on Scotland and Northern Ireland sure to follow at a minimum.
The UK's new economic Golden Age appears to be dead in the water just as it was beginning, and will certainly lose its status as the centre of global commerce. Europe is divided once again. We are all entering a long period of sustained uncertainty, and no one knows what the political landscape of the country, or indeed the continent will look like once the dust has settled.
It will surely go down as one of history's legendary moments of over-confidence and folly. That's some legacy Mr. Cameron.
Tuesday, 14 June 2016
On the 23rd of June, the UK will vote on whether to remain a part of the European Union or to leave. It is being described as the political event of the decade, and some would argue this is the most important ballot for a generation of Britons. Now, with the polls on a knife-edge, I am pleased to announce that The Ephemeric proudly and without reserve endorses the Remain campaign.
Perhaps the most remarkable part of this whole referendum is the acknowledgement that such a thing would have been simply unimaginable just a few years ago.
Since the formation of the EU, Europe has seen an historically unprecedented era of peace, economic co-operation, and Human development. While the organisation's popularly may have intermittently wavered in the past, the support for our continued participation has not. But now suddenly the toxic cocktail of economic stagnation and the rise of a new wave of Islamic extremism in Europe has created a palpable atmosphere of anxiety and mistrust.
The stage has been set for the most significant revival of reactionary politics since the 1930s; a movement of xenophobes and luddites who thrive on their ability to take advantage of the fearful and vulnerable. Today they are popping up all over the world, Trump in America, Le Pen in France, and now in the Brexit movement at home.
The argument for staying in the EU
Reactionary policy is the political equivalent of trying to get out of a finger trap by pulling harder. For a lot of people it is the natural instinct in a bad situation, but only ends up making things worse. Throughout history it has never been a good idea, and it is no different now. Only the triggers change, in this case the fear of terrorism, economic migration, and eurozone instability. Without regard to the detail of any such issues, for Brexit proponents isolationism simply feels like a shield that will make it all go away. In reality history tells us that it will only exacerbate the situation.
On the other hand the argument for why the UK should remain in the EU is clear and well supported. Most pertinent is the economic benefit that the UK enjoys by being a part of the common market, bolstered by reduced regulation and boundaries to trade, and the completely free movement of workers between member states. This isn't controversial, there is near unanimity among economists that the UK stands to gain more by being a part of the EU. PwC forecasts that leaving the EU would result in years of fewer jobs and reduced household income. Far from scaremongering, this is a conservative estimate, the best case scenario in their forecast.
Now don't get me wrong, you should absolutely not be a sheep and follow what other people say, but even so, when one side (Remain) has Bill Gates, Stephen Hawking, Richard Branson, Warren Buffet, and a long list of nobel prize winners backing it, and the other (Leave) has Donald Trump, Nigel Farage and George Galloway... well that should really set off alarm bells. I hate to be that guy, but if that's the company you're keeping then maybe it's time to re-evaluate.
But don't just take the word of the nobel prize winners and economists for it, the transformation in the UK since joining the EU in the 1970s is readily apparent; from the sick-man of Europe to one of the world's greatest economic powerhouses, directly brought on by the country's new role as a global hub. London in particular has transformed into one of the world's absolutely premier cities, an icon of stability and western ideals, and the world's gateway into the European market. When investment from all over the world, the US, Asia, the Middle East, moves into Europe, it passes through the UK. This has made the British people among the wealthiest on Earth, and turned the country into the world's greatest soft power.
The Brexit campaigners would have you believe this to be some crazy coincidence, they want us to go backwards to the 1970s when Britain was a struggling alsoran; a domestic economy dependent on the chokehold of the unions and bosses, and an utter irrelevance on the world stage. They want the UK to give up it's current position as a global cornerstone of all industry, the envy of any nation in the world, and sell your future short by retreating into our own shell out of fear.
But there's far more than just the economic reason to stay in the EU. The fact is everyone benefits when we combine our knowledge and resources. This has always been the case throughout Human history in just about any area of development.
Europe leads the world in scientific output, greater than the US, greater than Asia, it is Europe that is driving our future. It's obvious why this is the case; increased collaboration, fewer firewalls between researchers, greater alignment in goals and training. Our scientific community is treated as one, rather than divided into several competing groups. The benefits are clear, this creates jobs in the UK and it moves our society forward.
Then there's the national security benefit of collaboration. The Brexit campaign wants to convince you that working together somehow makes us less safe, but the opposite is undoubtedly true. Intelligence sharing and co-ordination of security efforts has prevented atrocoties throughout the decades. Brexit would have us sever our ties with EU security agencies so that if someone they're concerned about enters our country, we simply won't know about it. Don't forget that the Paris attackers were all EU citizens, without cross border co-ordination we would have no way of telling them apart from any other EU citizen. Does that sound safer? I believe that when it comes to national security, ignorance is not bliss.
These are all very high level factors, but even on the personal, individual level there are benefits to EU membership that we all feel on a daily basis. The ability to travel through Europe without a visa is astonishingly taken for granted, to say nothing of the low cost of intra-European movement. Anyone tempted to vote Leave needs to take a moment to think about whether they really want a trip to France to be as expensive and as administratively difficult as a trip outside the continent.
People also always seem to forget just how much of our civil liberty comes from EU law. The Convention of Human Rights. Clean air, product safety, net neutrality, these are all things given to us by EU legislators, many of whom are Britons elected directly by us.
Even little things like cheap phone usage within Europe. On my plan I can do everything on my phone in Europe that I can do at home, for just £2 for 500mb, or 0.4p for each mb. If I visit America it's at least £6 per mb, I can't do a damn thing without it costing an arm and a leg, essentially rendering me disconnected from the world and lacking services that in this day and age are considered basic amenities. Why do you think there is such a differential in cost? Phone data isn't more expensive the farther it has to travel, it's all about the shared market, which has moved to ban roaming charges in any of its member states.
All of this can be summed up by a very simple idea, that people really are better off unified and working together than split up into antagonistic partisan factions. Whatever nation or culture or religion we come from we are all Human and we have far more in common than not. The course of Human progress has followed a clear trend throughout history, small tribes of people gradually unifying into larger settlements, into towns, cities, countries. No amount of reactionary politics or draconian extremism will reverse that trend.
The argument against staying in the EU
Now let's not delude ourselves into thinking that the EU does not have problems. The economic woes of the Eurozone, driven by the collapse of fringe economies like Greece, are well publicised. And then there are the security issues, particularly now with the recent wave of terrorism in Europe. The problem there is not so much the security in developed nations like France, it's that those nations share open land borders with far less developed countries, whose security capability is clearly not at the same level.
This is the key point of the EU's problems, it has expanded way too quickly. An economic and security unification of the most developed European countries makes perfect sense, but when you expand that unity to much poorer countries on the fringe of western society you essentially entrust your security to them, and you treat them as an economic equal to the more developed nations. This is clearly a nonsense. Don't get me wrong, ideally one day it would be great to have unity between all these different countries, but that clearly isn't feasible at the current stage of development. This is not a problem in concept, it's a problem in execution. It's movement in the right direction, but poorly judged timing.
The question before us then, is whether we over-correct for these mistakes and take a massive step backwards, or actually address these issues so that we can keep moving in the right direction. Clearly massive reform will be needed, temporary economic stratification or more centralised co-ordination of EU-wide security, but that effort will pale in comparison to the negative impact of Brexit, and ultimately leave us on the right side of history.
So the decision we have to make is clear. On the one hand we have the EU, an unprecedented union of nations that has placed the UK at the centre of the economic world, driven forward society from both a scientific and development perspective, and has tangible benefits in our personal lives in terms of free movement, access to information and services abroad, and such easy and affordable access that a trip to the beaches of Barcelona is barely more troublesome than a trip to the countryside.
On the other hand we have scary people doing scary things, who may or may not be able to do even more damage if we leave, and poorer people than us in other countries who require our financial assistance. These are problems to be sure, but to say that abandoning the progress of the past decades along with our modern ideals is an overreaction is putting it very mildly indeed, especially with no reason to believe that it will actually help. And that huge leap of logic comes with more difficult, regulated movement in Europe, extortionately expensive fees, taxes, and phone access, and less demand for British workers who will no longer have access to the shared market.
The fact is there is little, if any benefit to leaving the EU in the short or long term, and the only reason it's gaining such traction all of a sudden is because unscrupulous politicians are taking advantage of you, waving images of dangerous gunman and trying to fool you into believing that leaving the EU will make them go away. To reiterate, the Paris and Brussels attackers were EU citizens, they were not refugees, leaving the EU will do very little to keep them out unless we completely close our borders. This is the 21st Century, you can't just build a wall and shut yourself away from the rest of the World, and quite frankly you wouldn't really want to.
There is nothing new about this movement. There have always been politicians using wedge issues to drive people apart. It turns out it's a very effective way of gaining power; stoke people's fears irrationally to boiling point, then present yourself as the only man who can save them. I am asking you to be smart, to take a step back and see through these games. Don't fall into the same traps that have been tricking ordinary people for generations, rise above that and take self-determination back into your own hands.
As technology and globalisation has continued apace, and human ingenuity shows no sign of reaching a limit, it is increasingly the case that the biggest impediments to progress are the artificial barriers that we erect.
It is not the ultimate goal for us to be divided into squabbling factions, creating artificial hurdles to survival and prosperity. Unity is what has brought us the scientific marvels, the comfort and abundance of the modern age. In the short term, union with Europe has brought us peace, economic prominence, and scientific and social development that far exceeds what could have been achieved had we stayed closed off from the world. When people are unified they can rise above the conflicts that have mired our civilisation for millennia, and truly solve the fundamental problems.
For all its flaws, the EU is arguably the biggest step mankind has yet taken in that direction, and regardless of how the vote this month goes, there is no doubt that society will continue to progress. A Brexit will merely be a blip in history, the real question we face on the ballot is whether we want to be a part of the generation that said 'yes' and pushed society to take those next steps, or if we want to be consigned to the history books as a temporary setback, the fearful last dregs of a darker time.
Wednesday, 25 May 2016
There was no Premier League this year, look into the neuralizer below and forget this ever happened. While you're at it, forget Men in Black 2 and 3 ever happened.
Well that was... something. I like to pride myself on making pretty good predictions, yet somehow I missed out on Tottenham and Leicester City duking it out for the title. On the other hand I did predict a very poor season for Chelsea, though in retrospect I don't think I went far enough. There will be time later to dissect what went wrong there, for now I'm just going to go scream into this pillow.
Moving on, Leicester City deserve all the praise in the world for what surely has to be the greatest upset in sporting history, going from relegation candidates to Champions in a notoriously lopsided sport, becoming only the sixth team to win the title during the Premier League era. While the Thai-billionaire-backed club are perhaps not quite the penniless underdogs that the media like to pretend, there is certainly no diminishing the unbelievable work they have done this season in order to defy all expectations.
The big takeaway from this season is just how open and competitive the Premier League really is, and it's a testament to the League's policy on income distribution, and in this view a far healthier approach to take than the "super-club" route being taken in hopelessly one-sided leagues like Spain and Germany. With the insane amount of new TV money coming into the Premier League over the coming years, you can expect an even greater amount of competition, where even the bottom teams have the financial clout to match the biggest clubs elsewhere in Europe.
Now without further ado it is time to move on to the Ephemeric end of season awards, followed by our carefully selected Premier League team of the year.
The Ephemeric Premier League Awards 2016:
Winners: Leicester City - A perfect example of how to build a team. Leicester have spent plenty of money over the past few years, but focused on depth and squad development, rather than overpriced prima dona "stars". Money + well-rounded squad + calming managerial influence = success.
Relegated: Newcastle, Norwich, Aston Villa - The official Ephemeric prediction at the start of the year had Norwich going down, and Villa in serious danger, so not much surprise there. For Newcastle however it's been a bitterly disappointing season. I felt at the time that people weren't nearly pessimistic enough about Steve McClaren, but that given the improvements to their playing squad they should be fine. Incredibly I managed to overestimate McClaren, this is what happens when you let yourself listen to the idiot pundits too much.
Player of the Year: Riyad Mahrez (Leicester City) - A star is born. After an impressive end to the previous season, Mahrez started the season with a bang and never looked back. In Leicester's stunning season, Mahrez has nevertheless managed to stand out, bagging a remarkable 17 goals and 11 assists.
U-21 Player of the Year: Dele Alli (Tottenham) - If not for the incredible story that is Leicester, we might have been talking about how massively improved Tottenham looked this season, or at least they did until their late season slump which allowed arch rivals Arsenal into 2nd. One of the highlights of this side has been the instant success of youngster Dele Alli, who in his debut season has become an integral part of the title challengers' midfield, and looks set to make his mark on the national side despite being only 20 years of age.
Best Goalkeeper: Petr Cech (Arsenal) - Still the best goalkeeper in the Premier League. With him between the sticks, Arsenal go from Champions League qualification hopefuls to genuine title challengers. Chelsea look on with red faces as they look to have weakened their own side while strengthening an arch rival for barely a pittance.
Manager of the Year: Claudio Ranieri (Leicester City) - Just rewards for the most likable manager in football. This website was (shockingly) one of the lone voices defending his appointment at the start of the season, and I'm glad to see him vindicate that statement. Still few would have imagined him having another shot at the Premier League title after leaving Chelsea some 13 years ago, his re-emergence and success will surely go down as one of the great comebacks in sporting history, and all the more sweet for him to have taken the title from his old employers Chelsea.
Top Scorer: Harry Kane (Tottenham) (25) - Another top season for the great English hope, effectively answering anyone who wondered whether the previous year had just been a flash in the pan.
Most Assists: Mesut Ozil (Arsenal) (19) - An impressive turnaround for a player who had largely been seen as a big-money flop for most of his first few years in England, this season Ozil came alive, with an astonishing assists total that ranks among the highest tallies in Premier League history.
Overachievers: Leicester City - Never has a prize been more deservedly awarded...
Underachievers: Chelsea - ... Until now.
Best signing of the season: N'Golo Kante (Leicester City) - A domineering debut from a player who will almost certainly be the talk of much transfer gossip this summer.
Worst signing of the season: Radamel Falcao (Chelsea) - A remarkable back-to-back champion of this most coveted of awards. Whoever thought this was a good option for the Champions' first two choice strikers should be fired, as should the pundits who agreed. Anyone with even half decent awareness of the game could have seen this one coming.
The Ephemeric Premier League Team of the Season 2016:
Goalkeeper: Petr Cech (Arsenal)
Right Back: Hector Bellerin (Arsenal)
Centrebacks: Toby Alderweireld (Tottenham) & Robert Huth (Leicester City)
Left Back: Christian Fuchs (Leicester City)
Right Mid: Riyad Mahrez (Leicester City)
Centre Mids: N'Golo Kante (Leicester City) & Mesut Ozil (Arsenal)
Left Mid: Dimitri Payet (West Ham)
Forwards: Jamie Vardy (Leicester City) & Harry Kane (Tottenham)
So there we have it, another season of Premier League football gone by. We'll see you again next season!
Thursday, 28 April 2016
The election for the new Mayor of London is coming up. Voters will decide who steps into the shoes of the outgoing Boris Johnson, with polls currently favouring Labour's Sadiq Khan narrowly ahead of the Tories' Zac Goldsmith. But as I examine the various candidates it's clear that one in particular stands out for this observer; The Ephemeric endorses Caroline Pidgeon of the Liberal Democrats.
The Outgoing Incumbent
Let's start with a few words on the outgoing Mayor, Boris Johnson. People give a lot of stick to my fellow Old Etonian, but it is undeniable that London has improved greatly under his watch.
London, even 10 years ago, had a very different feel to the city we currently live in; a sort of half-baked sense of identity and stagnation, rather than the dynamic, world class powerhouse we currently live in that's more on a par with New York during its golden era. The economy is at an all time peak, with new construction booming and previously derelict public space evolving into new shops, restaurants and social plaza. But in particular it's the small touches that impress; the increased green spaces and trees, the clever renovation and branding of certain districts like the "theatre district", the higher maintenance and beautification of buildings and streets, and the clear improvement to public transport during that time. Reduced crime, reduced air pollution, public bicycles. Current day London is a marvel of culture and amenity, and a nicer place to live than it ever used to be.
For all the criticism he may get in some quarters, there is no doubt in my mind that Boris has done a very fine job in city hall. But there has been a clear downside to all the investment he has brought to the city, prices going through the roof, and wages not following proportionately. In fairness to Boris, this is clearly a trend that has been going long before he took office, but without doubt the increasing unaffordability of London is one of the key issues that the next Mayor will have to deal with.
An Overview of the Candidates
The UK's political system has a number of advantages over its American counterpart, chief among them being the relatively healthy multi-party system which allows for greater political choice, and reduces the effect of petty partisanship and gridlock that so paralyses the American legislature.
That said, of the five major party candidates, two can be immediately dismissed. The Green and UKIP candidates are such single issue platforms that it beggars belief. Watching the recent Mayoral debate and seeing Peter Whittle try desperately to link every issue to immigration would have been hilarious if there wasn't such a depressingly large segment of the population that agrees with him. The less said of anti-Semite George Galloway the better.
The three candidates that remain, not in terms of probability of winning but in terms of suitability for the job, fall to the traditional big three parties, Labour's Sadiq Khan, Conservatives' Zac Goldsmith and the Liberal Democrats' Caroline Pidgeon.
Candidate 1: Zac Goldsmith - Conservative Party
On the surface, as someone who was fairly happy with Boris (at least until his recent turn into Brexit politics), it seems sensible to have a look at his party's successor and assume that he would bring more of the same. After all, here is another Old Etonian, a fairly young and charismatic guy.
Unfortunately, Zac is a bit of a twit. In contrast to Boris' fierce intellect and mastery of the issues, Zac bears the naive image of someone who has never set foot in the world outside his billionaire father's mansion, and has no understanding of the problems facing regular people.
There is a TV show, Parks and Recreation. Paul Rudd briefly plays a character who is a billionaire's son who runs for political office. This character is the nicest guy in the world, but childlike, naive and hopelessly oblivious to what life is like in the real world.
Listening to Zac's hilariously out of touch answers in the recent mayoral debate, I could easily have believed I was listening to Paul Rudd's character. My favourite was his solution to the housing crisis that regular people can't afford to live in London, his gleeful answer being to the effect of "they won't have to because they can just take Crossrail". Then there was his claim that there's no point having bus lanes because in 10 years everyone will have an electric car. It's not that his answers are callous or corrupt, it's that he clearly doesn't understand why they are ridiculous.
But there is a far bigger concern than this. As in all democracies there is a seedy side to conservative politics that, much to the credit of this great nation, has rarely found itself too prominent in our discourse (any Brits who complain to me about the hard right leanings of Thatcher or Major need to have a look at the lunacy of the American Republican party and count their lucky stars). However with the migrant crisis and immigration taking such increased significance in recent times, these regressive politics have reared their ugly head.
The absolute deal-breaker for Zac Goldsmith is his full fledged support for the Brexit movement. I'll write a full article closer to the referendum, but suffice it to say, the UK leaving the EU is the wrong decision for many reasons both ideological and practical. Boris Johnson and Goldsmith staking their careers on this position is pure insanity. They're both wrong, and the fact that they resort to such fear-mongering shows that they know they're wrong. I will never in good conscience support anyone with so backwards a worldview that they would support a Brexit movement that would have seemed unthinkable just a few years ago.
Candidate 2: Sadiq Khan - Labour Party
The polls' favourite at the moment, and in all likelihood the next Mayor of London. Sadiq is a better public speaker than Goldsmith, that much is clear, and he also has the benefit of running as an anti-incumbent. But Khan comes with more than his fair share of baggage and controversy.
Much of this is inherent in being a member of the current Labour Party. Party leader Jeremy Corbyn is hardly popular outside his hardcore working class base, and his appointment takes the Labour Party on a hard left turn, a curious move for a party already considered too left leaning for most.
Paradoxically given my progressive persuasion, I have often found greater affinity with the British Conservative Party than Labour. In particular the relatively moderate pro-environment, technocratic David Cameron wing of the party. With the contrast of a Labour Party that frequently falls back onto outdated policies of populism and stagnation, and the lack of a consistently strong centre-left alternative, the Tories have often proven themselves the best fit for a modern centrist.
But this current Labour Party has far greater problems than even its own usual eccentricities. Corbyn has a history of controversy including anti-semitic remarks and sympathy with extremist movements such as the IRA. Add to this the recent anti-semitic scandal of former London Mayor Ken Livingstone and it begins to seem as if Labour has an endemic problem. So much so that Khan has been on the warpath about reforming racism within his own party, even as he fends off accusations of his own regarding alleged anti-semitism and stage-sharing with Islamic extremists (a somewhat thin accusation in fairness). This is not a strong position to be in, and it's a wonder that it hasn't hurt Khan more in the polls.
Ultimately left wing politicos like to fancy themselves as progressive and forward moving, but with Labour that simply isn't the case. Their extreme pro-union stance will only slow the advent of exciting new technologies that could transform life in London, with transport in particular a key battleground in recent years. Their fixation on maintaining this archaic notion of a "working class" that is becoming increasingly small and unnecessary in the modern technological world smacks of regression. As a person I like Khan more than Goldsmith, but neither's policies seem anything more than just the usual party base pandering.
Candidate 3: Caroline Pidgeon - Liberal Democrat Party
Which brings us to Caroline, leader of the London Liberal Democrats with years of experience in city hall.
The Liberal Democrats have carved themselves a niche as the centrist party, the party of second choice for most of Britain both Labour and Conservative. The trouble, as in America, is that People who would otherwise vote Lib Dem don't want to vote for a smaller third party only to see their least favourite party win. They'd rather vote for their second preferred option to make sure that the winner is at least tolerable. Thererin lies the problem with first past the post voting, it inherently leads to polarization and two main parties, one for the left, one for the right. This is why the Lib Dems pushed so hard for alternative voting, a measure that was unfortunately defeated, owing to a great deal of misinformation and a fairly poorly run campaign on their part.
But I am an idealist, I'm not going to vote for a candidate I don't believe in, and the Liberal Democrats' modern, moderate policy is exactly what the city needs, not an extreme shift in either direction, just sensible forward-thinking policy that empowers the people of London. Common sense policies like half price transport fares before 7:30 to reduce peak congestion, like additional childcare in today's world where increasingly both parents need to work full time, and like 1 hour bus passes so you no longer have to buy six fares just to get to work (it works so well in Europe, why don't we have this?).
As an example of the difference between the three parties I present to you: the housing crisis. Regular people can't afford to live in London anymore. Rents are out of control, and home ownership is just a fantasy. So how is each candidate proposing to fix the problem?
Sadiq Khan says the answer is more council housing. Those ugly, run-down, blights on your neighborhood that you carefully avoid on your walk are making a comeback. Labour thinks the answer is for the Government to own more of London's property and rent it out to people at low prices.
Zac Goldsmith says the answer is more professional landlord corporations. Big private companies that own all the property in London and then rent it out at, presumably, lower and more controlled prices than the current person-to-person free-for-all.
So the two main candidates' plans for housing in London is for big organisations to own all the property and kindly rent it to you for a monthly fee. Their plan is to consign a whole generation to perpetual renting. That fantasy of home ownership? Poof, it's gone.
Caroline Pidgeon is the only candidate whose platform seems to be about actually empowering the regular person, about helping people move out of renting and get onto that property ladder. Her policies include good, common sense measures like granting extra rights to certain long-term tenants should the owner decide to sell, and increased restrictions on investment from outside the EU. While Labour and Tory policies would make it harder for you to get out of the rental trap, Caroline's are designed to give that autonomy and social mobility back to you.
And that really sums up this election. The inevitable shift to the extremes that comes with our political system has turned the two main parties into caricatures, breaking every policy down into "power to the unions, or power to big corporations?". Caroline Pidgeon and the Liberal Democrat Party is the only candidate making common sense proposals to give power to the individual, and that's why I'm endorsing her for London Mayor.