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Do you remember in school or during further studies, the dilemma of deciding which edition of a textbook to buy? As a poor student, I always found it scandalous that the most recent edition carried a hefty price tag that, as far as I could tell, only represented a new cover and a couple of fancy graphics. Now that I’m a lecturer, and when students ask me if they can use an older edition of the textbooks, I almost always say yes. As some point, of course, the updated editions become relevant. But it’s still almost criminal that students are expected to pay for the most recent versions year on year, especially as other products (e.g. software and apps) provide updates for free.

As opposed to textbooks, I love reading chess books. I get such a buzz when a new one arrives in the mail, and usually I devour it, skim-reading the whole thing in a single sitting. Then I’ll go through it slowly over the following weeks, before – if it’s an opening book – finally sitting down with a database and checking the latest theory of its recommendations.

Recently, however, I’ve noticed a bit of a trend towards the ‘second edition’ opening book. Perhaps this is not a trend but just a factor of there being so many books published these days, or perhaps it’s just my own coincidence. Either way, just like my textbooks or even in Hollywood, I’ve found the ‘reboots’ to be generally quite disappointing.

Ironically, a second edition of an opening book usually comes about because the first edition was very well received. The core material of the reboot should thus be high quality. The risk, of course, is that some of it is now outdated, either because of new games or stronger engine analysis than when the book was first published. Consequently, in my opinion there are two bare-minimum requirements for a second edition:

  1. Theoretically relevant new games should be included, including high-level correspondence games, especially when they refute the recommendations of the first edition.
  2. The author should check all lines with an engine.

Ideally, the updated edition might also suggest new avenues, tweaking the repertoire to fit modern theory, and might expand the material to include exercises or perhaps strategic explanations in line with current thinking. That’s what I would like to see as a reader. But at the very least, the two points above must be met. If not, I’m buying an expensive copy of the same book, but which is actually WORSE because I now am far more likely to run into a refutation over the board. And that, as all chess players know, is a horrible feeling.

One recent example is “Bologan’s King’s Indian: A Modern Repertoire for Black” (2017). Victor Bologan has made a whole bunch of DVDs and books on the King’s Indian, so he is considered something of an expert. There is quite a lot of overlap in the repertoires between his products, but okay, that’s not a big criticism; authors should write to their strengths, and he knows ‘these’ lines much better than ‘those’ lines, then it makes sense that he focusses on the former.

The 2017 book is a rewrite of his 2009 book “The King’s Indian: A Complete Black Repertoire.” At first, I was puzzled that the rewrite was renamed as well rather than given the ‘Second Edition’ tag, but then I realised there are two different publishers! The 2009 book was (and is) really quite good, with a full, classical repertoire for Black. In his review, GM Glenn Flear, whose reviews are very good, wrote, “Far more than a mere repertoire textbook for club players. An absolute must and a thoroughly enjoyable learning experience.” However, Bologan seems to have milked this project to the max, using largely the same source material for two subsequent DVDs and also the 2017 rewrite. Flear was far less complimentary in his review of the latest book, so much so that the publisher decided to use a quote from his 2009 review in their marketing for the 2017 book!

John Hartmann (reviewer for Chess Life) sum up my thoughts about the “mildly revised” 2017 book when he writes, “readers should pay special critical attention to pages that lack game citations after 2009.” I indeed found a few outdated lines and also omissions in the main chapters, though most of these are unlikely to be exploited below grandmaster level. Most of the recent games are housed in the new chapters, such as the Makagonov systems in the Classical (5.h3). But the extra chapters on the ‘sidelines’ of the London System and Torre Attack are extremely disappointing. Given the huge popularity of the London System these days, especially at club level, I would have expected more than 3 (!) pages out of 400+ pages. A well-prepared London player can easily gain an opening advantage against a KID player who only follows Bologan’s book.

The Torre chapter also is only three pages long, but is arguably more concerning because contains a massive theoretical hole, which, if followed blindly by a reader, leads to a very dangerous pitfall for Black. After 1.d4 Nf6 2.Nf3 g6 3.Bg5 Bg7 4.Nbd2 0-0 5.c3 d5 6.e3 Nbd7,

Bologan’s line continues with 7.Be2, with the note “The assessment of the position does not change after 7.Bd3 Re8 8.0-0 e5 9.dxe5 Nxe5”…etc. This is true, and 9.dxe5 indeed used to be the most popular move… before 2009! But since then, 9.e4 has well and truly taken over, largely because the most popular and natural moves by Black lead to a difficult position: 9.e4 exd4 10.cxd4 dxe4 11.Nxe4 h6 12.Qb3!!,

and Black is in trouble. Now 12…hxg5? 13.Nexg5! leads to a winning attack for White, so Black has to find something else. Shirov managed to win after 12…Re7, even though the endgame after 13.Ne5 hxg5 14.Nxf7

14…Nc5!! (the only move; would you find it over the board?) 15.Nxf6+ Bxf6 16.dxc5 Rxf7 17.Bxg6 Qf8 18.f4! favours White. The most popular position in practice has been the awkward-looking 12…Re6, but after 13.Bh4 g5 14.Bxg5! hxg5 15.Nexg5, White is clearly better.

Many opening books have the odd theoretical weakness, of course. Even one of the world’s most diligent authors, Vassilios Kotronias, is not immune. In his outstanding King’s Indian series, Kotronias recommends a line for Black in the popular Mar del Plata variation that leads to a forced loss – though in his defence, the refutation is not supported by engines at first, and neither has it yet been played in an over-the-board game. But several correspondence games prove that White wins by force. There are even two theoretical problems in my own book on the Scandinavian, pointed out by subsequent authors. These things are inevitable (hey, maybe I’ll write a second edition!). But not bothering to check a database or engine, on the other hand, can and should be avoided.

Bologan’s Torre Attack omission is a bad one, especially because it takes only 30 seconds of database research to spot it. If I had white against an opponent who I knew followed Bologan’s book, I would head straight down this variation and pick up my free point. (Incidentally, I mentioned this to a 2700+ GM, who replied that this was typical of Bologan books: “Good ideas, but you have to double-check every line.”) But theoretically speaking, it’s not all bad news for Black. The conservative 10…h6! avoid all of these tricks, but has been rarely played in practice – largely, I suspect, because people don’t expect the 12.Qb3 resource above. Even after 10…h6, though, the structure is quite atypical for the King’s Indian, so as an author, I would want to spend some lines discussing it.

The second ‘second edition’ that didn’t live up to my expectations is Hansen and Heine Nielsen’s “The Sicilian Accelerated Dragon – 20th Anniversary Edition” (2018). This purchase was personally disappointing for two reasons: first, because the original 1998 book is one of the best opening books I’ve read, and second, because I have a lot of respect for Peter Heine Nielsen as a player, a commentator and a person. (I don’t know Carsten Hansen, but a quick search reveals the curious self-applied label “#1 Amazon Bestselling author”.) To be fair, this is a better revamp than the previous one. The authors are upfront that the core material is largely the same, especially when it comes to the explanation of middlegame strategies (which, in my opinion, is what made the original book so great). There is also a brief summary of the recent theoretical developments, which is very helpful, but unfortunately a bit TOO brief. A lot has happened in 20 years! There are 10 bonus annotated games, which again are useful and cover the main theoretical developments – but after 20 years, I would have expected more.

Besides the updated edition being light on updates, there are two other factors that I don’t like. The first is that it seems like a lot of the older material has not been engine-checked, or at least not thoroughly. Quite often I was surprised that the engine’s top choice was not mentioned (for either side). People were barely using engines at all before 1998, and their quality is dwarfed by what you’ll find on today’s smartphone. Normally, the engine-omissions are not theoretically a big deal, as they are often in sidelines and you can easily supplement the book’s material with your own engine-based analysis. Every now and then, however, I noticed an important one.

The second thing I don’t like – and here I am perhaps showing my pedantic side – is finding typos. In the Foreword, Hansen writes that they have tried to remove the typos of the 1998 book – well actually, he tries to write this, but in an ironic twist, puts two typos in that very sentence, including forgetting the word “remove”! And there remain quite a few more throughout the pages of the 2018 edition. Typos happen, of course, but 20 years is a long time to find them…

Overall, however, I would still recommend the book to someone who doesn’t have the first edition. This style of clearly explaining middle game structures and strategies is often forgotten by many modern authors, unfortunately myself included. In fact, this element of both books is so good that, if buying it came with a theoretical/engine-based ‘addendum’, I would still probably rate it five stars. But if, like me, you already have the first edition, then you may feel a little short-changed by the anniversary edition.

Now that I have stopped reviewing chess books ‘professionally’, I feel more freedom to be critical of things I don’t like (not that it really stopped me before). But I do feel a bit guilty in this case, because the original books of Bologan and Hansen/Nielsen are really, really good, especially the latter. Like I said, a second edition usually comes about precisely BECAUSE the first edition is so well received. Perhaps this is why my expectations are so high, and usually unmet, for the sequels.

Still, not all second editions are disappointing. Just like Cooper’s “A Star is Born” and Hendrix’s “All Along the Watchtower”, you do occasionally get a surprisingly good remake that is better than the original. I recently got my hands on “The Modern Tiger” (2014), the cleverly named revamp of GM Tiger Hillarp-Persson’s first book “Tiger’s Modern” (2005). (I actually got the idea of the title of my book from his, but “The Modern Smerdon” doesn’t quite sound as good for a second edition!)

Tiger is an extremely diligent and principled person, and the first book was good, so I wasn’t surprised to find that the 2014 book is excellent. It is completely, and I mean completely, updated. Basically, he has written a completely new book on his opening, and has used his old book as a comparative reference so that he can point out to readers of the original where they should pay attention to update their repertoire. The variations contain reams of updated correspondence and classical games. But he also goes further, analysing novelties for both sides even though these haven’t yet appeared in practice, thoroughly engine-checking everything, and also clearly stating when he disagrees with the engine’s evaluation (and why). It is clear that he has invested a huge amount of time and effort into this second project. Although the Modern doesn’t really appeal to me as an opening, I am seriously considering learning it just because the book is so good. And given that the Modern is a rival to my own Scandinavian, that’s the highest compliment I can give!

 

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Summary: Female Participation rates are higher in countries that are traditionally patriarchal. Various theories are discussed. Federations seeking to boost female participation should concentrate on teaching chess to girls in or before primary school, as well as encouraging young adult women to stay in the chess world.

***

Here’s a quiz for you. Try to guess which of these countries have the highest percentage of female chess players:

  • Brazil, China, Denmark, France, Germany, India, Indonesia, Iran, Kenya, Mexico, Netherlands, South Africa, Sweden, United Kingdom, USA, Vietnam

We’ll get to the answer soon, but it’s an indisputable fact that chess is a man’s game – at least statistically. All players know only too well the feeling of walking into a club to see twenty or even more men for every woman. It’s not even that uncommon to play a tournament with no females at all. How can such a ‘fair’ sport that purports to provide a level playing field for people of all colours, races, ages and genders end up with so few of the fairer sex?

One of the most common questions that a chess player might hear from non-players is “Why are there women-only tournaments?” This is just one of the ideas chess organisers have come up with to address female participation; another is having special female titles, such as ‘Women’s Grand Master’, which has lower standards than the male (‘Open’) equivalent. Special female prizes are regular features in tournaments, though this measure can occasionally still not be enough. At the end of a recent State championship in Australia, where the highest-performing female is usually awarded the State women’s title, the organisers faced a dilemma as to what to do with the sole female participant. The young girl had put in a fabulous performance, but ultimately did not get the title on account of not having any female competitors.

You are probably not surprised to hear that female participation rates differ across the world. After all, some cultures value girls differently to boys. Some countries may be more supportive of women playing competitive games against men. In more conservative countries, a girl might be encouraged to get married and stay at home with the kids, rather than play rated tournaments. In poorer countries, a family might not be able to afford to send all of the children to chess lessons, and so the girls might miss out.

These are all intuitive stories. And indeed, female participation rates do vary significantly, and predictably, across the world. But not in the way you might expect. Going back to the countries in the quiz at the beginning, I suspect most people would arrange them in roughly the same order as their level of gender equality. The United Nations Development Programme releases a ranking of gender equality every year, and using the latest figures, those 16 countries are ranked like this:

Countries ranked by gender equality

Seems logical enough, right? Here’s a graph of many more countries, ranked by the UN’s gender equality index:

You can see the usual suspects at the top end of the scale: Switzerland, the Netherlands, and all of Scandinavia, as well as most of western Europe. At the other end we mainly find developing countries or other nations in the Middle East and the subcontinent. I’ve dropped countries with a very small number of Fide-rated chess players, because I want to compare this to gender participation rates. If the intuition above holds, then we would expect to see similarly downward-sloping bars when we add in the female participation rates: Higher rates in Scandinavian countries than in typically patriarchal Islamic nations, for example. So let’s see. Thanks to some data from the indefatigable Jeff Sonas, I was able to match up a country’s proportion of females among active, Fide-rated chess players against its gender equality score. The data below covers 1999-2015, but I also checked against a recent sample from November 2018 and the pattern is the same. Remember, for the stories above to be true, we’re expecting the the bars to get lower as we move from left to right. Here’s the actual result:

Surprisingly, it doesn’t look that way at all! In fact, if anything, the rates get higher as we move down the equality scale (we can show statistically that this is true). As expected, women are the minority in every country. But there’s still quite a lot of variation in rates. Denmark is the worst country in our list of participation, with only one female player to roughly 50 males, while the rest of Scandinavia as well as most of western Europe also languish at the bottom.

On the other hand, some of the best countries show evidence of the effect of female role models, and would be no surprise to players familiar with women’s chess history. Georgia (ranked 5th) and China (ranked 4th) both featured multiple women’s World Champions. There are also some high rates from a few unexpected sources: Vietnam (1st), the United Arab Emirates (2nd), Indonesia (8th), and even Kenya (12th) really buck the trend. Interestingly, a lot of the best countries for female chess players are in Asia. Besides Vietnam, there are five other countries in the best ten, and if I am a little more lenient with the chess population cut-offs, Mongolia and Tajikistan would also be in there.

Here are those 16 countries we mentioned earlier, but this time also ranked in order of female participation, and where I’ve highlighted the top and bottom halves by gender equality:

And here’s the complete sample of countries ranked in order of their female chess ratios:

So, the more gender-equal a country is, the fewer females want to play chess? What does it all mean?

There are a number of possible explanations, for which we can look to the broader research on gender. A recent, slightly controversial, school of thought fits with the chess results. Last year, a paper in Psychological Science discussed the so-called gender-equality paradox in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education. They found that while girls perform better than boys in STEM subjects at school, many more capable girls decide not to pursue STEM career than boys – and this gap is much larger in more gender-equal countries.

Then a few months later, a paper in Science, using data from 80,000 individuals in 76 countries, found that the more that women have equal opportunities, the more they differ from men in their preferences. The story goes along the lines that if women somehow biologically prefer NOT to compete with men, then they will be most able to show this in countries where women have more freedom to choose.

Could it be that, deep down, women just don’t like chess as much as men?

Well, we can’t rule it out, but I doubt it. There are a lot of other parts to this story. For example, a different explanation is that women are more likely to play chess in gender-unequal countries because it’s one of the few fields where they can actually compete with men, and be sure that the result is judged without discrimination (as opposed to, say, promotions in the workplace). This story is plausible and I think worth investigating, though I haven’t worked out how to do it without more data.

Another alternative explanation that we CAN check is that our results are accidentally picking up the trend of worldwide increased female participation over recent decades.  If countries with higher female participation are newer to international chess and therefore have younger chess communities, they will more likely reflect this trend. Here is a sample of the age distribution of male and female players across all countries:

We can immediately notice a few obvious features: there are more males than females at all ages, most people start playing when they’re young, and players of both genders start to drop out after primary school. There’s also an interesting point that many men come back to the game around their 40’s; this could be related to the period when a father’s kids become independent, but also might have to do with the surge in popularity due to the 1972 Fischer-Spassky world championship match. However, there’s no such resurgence among women, so the ‘Fischer effect’ seems unlikely.

Let’s check the graph for the countries with the lowest female participation rates:

The female graph looks predictably abysmal and the gender gap is massive even before the age of 10. The male graph also has a curious feature: the peak is actually around 50. There are a lot more older men in these countries.

But when we turn to the countries with the highest female participation rates…

…the picture is completely different. These are indeed ‘young’ chess countries. Strikingly, girls make up a sizeable share from a young age and maintain it until their early 20’s, after which the ratio drops sharply. This could be due to marital/childbearing pressures in these countries, but it could also be because chess organisations rarely focus on targeted female infrastructure after the junior years.

***

These results suggest that the age distribution of a country’s chess community plays a big role. The best countries for female players are those where there are a high share of girls playing from a young age. This could be because federations or school chess organisations make it a priority to focus on teaching chess to both genders. At the London Chess Classic last year, I asked the federation president of Mongolia (where females make up over a third of all rated players) the secret to their success. He told me that the federation has a clear goal to teach chess to every child, no matter what age, social background or gender. The focus on teaching girls when they’re young coincides with another strain of gender research, which argues that girls are ‘nurtured’ from a young age to believe they can’t (or shouldn’t) compete with boys.

Still, even among the top-ranked countries, there is the same exodus from the chess world of young adult women. Perhaps this is a neglected group in chess policies. There is often easily accessible infrastructure to play chess while in school, such as girls’ clubs and a higher frequency of female-only junior events. But after the age of twenty or so, it becomes decidedly more difficult for the average female club player to enjoy the game among other women. I don’t know what sort of policies might address this – promoting young women’s clubs, or perhaps introducing female quotas into more team events, as has been shown to be effective in recent research from French league data.

On the other hand, the effect of female chess role models is also an area to explore, while Asian countries seem to making the biggest headway towards encouraging women to play chess. Perhaps there’s a cultural element, or perhaps their chess federation policies are different – I don’t know, but it is definitely worth finding out. What’s clear from the data is that girls in all countries around the world are still leaving the chess world after school, and they’re unlikely to come back. We should encourage them to stay.

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Usually I write a post about my votes for Triple J’s Hottest 100 music poll before the countdown is announced in late January. This year, I didn’t get around to it, due to a combination of work/laziness/nappy-changing. The upside is that I can share my reflections of not only my votes, but also the countdown as a whole. And that’s kind of telling, because this year, for the first time during the countdown, I felt old.

Granted, choosing your top-ten songs for the year is quite a different exercise to guessing what the ‘nation’ will vote for, the latter being somehow similar to a Keynesian Beauty Contest. The point is that my votes are usually not *too* far off the general population’s opinion, with most if not all of my ten featuring in the Hottest 100, and usually at least one in the top-ten. Rationally or not, I’ve found this reassuring, because Triple J prides itself on being something of a non-mainstream station (despite it hosting the world’s biggest music poll!), and is especially well known for discovering indie hits and new, local artists. But this year my finger was so far off the national pulse that, well, I can’t think of a clever way to finish the metaphor. You get the idea.

This is the first year that I haven’t liked the number one song. I almost never pick it, but I usually like it, or at least appreciate it. But I genuinely can’t stand listening to Confidence by Ocean Alley. I don’t know why it grates on me so much; maybe because it feels the record is stuck in the introduction for four minutes, or that the writers just forgot to finish the song. Have a listen and make up your own opinion.

OCEAN ALLEY - CONFIDENCE (Official Video) - YouTube

(Though, having just embedded the video, I have to admit that the music video is pretty cool. I generally like any music video featuring roller skates – Chet Faker’s Gold, Robbie Williams’ Rock DJ and Flight of the Conchords’ Ladies of the World come to mind.)

But it wasn’t only the number one that had me befuddled. Number two (Fisher’s “Losing It”) is a huge club anthem. Great for my twenties or commercial radio, but not what I would have expected for Triple J. Numbers three and four are by the rappers Travis Scott (featuring Drake) and Childish Gambino, respectively. I had to check if I was on the right station. There are more rap songs near the top (what sort of name is “A$AP Rocky”?!), while Ocean Alley’s crew have another two in the top 20, both of which feature what I can only assume is their signature style of bridge-aversion.

I’m not so dogmatic to say that these songs are ‘bad’. Music opinions are subjective, and we all have their tastes. I just didn’t expect these songs to be so popular among Triple J listeners. This is not only the indie station of Australia. When Taylor Swift fans hijacked the poll in 2015 to get ‘Shake It Off’ voted in, the station responded by banning Taylor Swift songs from the countdown for being too mainstream. One writer wrote that music like Taylor Swift “seems antithetical to Triple J’s self-representation as a place for exciting new music, with a supposed focus on emerging Australian talent.”

Ironically, though, my picks seem a good fit. They mainly feature fresh bands or artists, several with a steady beat and clear ‘danceability’, and largely alternative genres. That being said, as per usual there’s a mixed bag and one wouldn’t normally be in the mood to listen to all ten in one sitting. There are dance tracks, songs verging on pop, a bit of folk and even a minimalist, almost a cappella number.

Despite this, only five of my ten picks made it into the Hottest 100. This year, my Facebook friends were as confused as me, with some commenting that they had no idea who the top artists were (“Did Ocean Alley suddenly just appear out of an alley?” – groan – and “Since when do the voters entirely consist of sixteen year olds?”). So what happened?

What happened is, I got old. My peers have, too. And quite frankly, we are probably just out of touch. I listened to the radio the least frequently of any year since I was 16. It’s telling that after writing that sentence, I’m more concerned about whether it’s grammatically correct than whether I’ve become uncool. Though I guess if grammar now tops music, the answer’s pretty clear.

In any case, here are/were my top songs of 2018, together with their rankings in the Hottest 100 countdown (DNR = Did Not Rank):

1.  “Dinosaurs” – Ruby Fields (#9)

RUBY FIELDS - DINOSAURS - YouTube

Ruby Fields is the textbook Triple J story. Busking in Sydney since she was 11, she was discovered in 2017 through Triple J’s ‘Unearthed’ station, released her first EP last year, and straight away cracked the Hottest 100. ‘Dinosaurs’ is a beautifully written song with relatable lyrics and a mesmerisingly folky vibe.

2. “I’m Good” – Wafia (#14)

WAFIA - I'M GOOD [OFFICIAL VIDEO] - YouTube

Wafia is a Dutch-born, Brisbane-based musician of Iraqi-Syrian descent. Quite a mix. She apparently started writing songs to escape the monotony of studying biomedicine at university, or so Wikipedia tells me. Her songs are typified by upbeat sounds to complement serious lyrics, such as “Bodies”, written on the day her family was denied refugee status in Australia. “I’m Good” fits that mould, and is as close to pop as I’ve come in this year’s votes.

3. “Lightenup” – Parcels (DNR) 

Parcels - Lightenup (Official Music Video) - YouTube

Parcels was my favourite new band for 2018. It’s described as a mix between Electropop and Chillwave, neither of which I knew was a music genre (but then again, I’m old and uncool). The members formed in Byron Bay but are based in Berlin – perhaps I fell for the Aussie/German connection? Anyway, for some reason all of their song titles have no spaces, such as “Tieduprightnow”, which was on my shortlist. But Lightenup is my favourite from their EP. Is that a flute at the end of the track?

4. “Over & Out” – Sparrows (DNR)

Over & Out - YouTube

No music video to this one yet, unfortunately. This is the second-‘poppiest’ of my picks. Still, it has a nice party vibe without being too clubby, the vocals are silky smooth, and the lyrics are surprisingly rich.

5. “Love Is The Weapon” – Go Freek (DNR)

Love Is The Weapon - YouTube

The ‘danciest’ of my votes. When I first heard it, I could have sworn it was by PNAU, whose 2017 hit Chameleon has a similar vibe, as does Bang, which made my list last year. Those two tracks have amazing music videos (check out the links). It’s a shame this one doesn’t yet, but it definitely hits that same upbeat party flavour.

 6. “When The Party’s Over” – Billie Eilish (#8)

Billie Eilish - when the party's over - YouTube

It’s never going to feature in the same setlist as the previous songs, or indeed any of the other votes in my list. But we all have those moments when we wish we could pull down the blinds and put life on pause. Billie Eilish’s minimalistic track puts her haunting vocals and lyrics at the forefront, with only a hint of piano and electronics to garnish the mood. The music video is somehow creepily appropriate, though perhaps put on something else before you go to bed. I’d suggest the next video clip.

7. “The Perfect Life Does Not Exist” – Ball Park Music (#39)

The Perfect Life Does Not Exist (OFFICIAL AUDIO) - YouTube

Amazingly, Ball Park Music is the only artist in my list that I’d heard of before last year. The group is also based in Brisbane, my old/new home, with a sound similar to The Panics and in the same vein as Two Door Cinema Club, San Cisco, British India,… basically any good indie band in the last decade (if these names mean nothing to you, you’re probably not going to like this song. Skip ahead.). Ball Park Music was discovered by Triple J about a decade ago, but I remember their 2014 track She Only Love Me When I’m There blowing me away. Since then, I haven’t come across them, but when I heard The Perfect Life Does Not Exist on my stream, I immediately thought (a) That’s Ball Park Music! and (b) This is going to be a hit. And, for a change, most of Australia agreed.

8. “Ginger” – Riton & Kah-Lo (DNR)

Riton, Kah-Lo - Ginger (Official Video) - YouTube

My guilty-pleasure track for 2018. I’m nowhere near cool enough for this song, but it’s totally addictive. It’s house, it’s percussive, it’s trippy, as the lyrics “Who has the ginger?” resonate throughout the heavy electronic pulse. Singer Kah-Lo was asked in an interview what this so-called ‘ginger’ is – her answer “Hype, to be turnt, to be lit” reinforces to me that I’m way out of the loop. Oh well, I’ll listen on repeat anyway.

9. “Humility” – Gorillaz Ft. George Benson (DNR)

Gorillaz - Humility (Official Video) - YouTube

Here’s a weird one. I’ve always liked the Gorillaz, the world’s most successful ‘Virtual Band’, created by former Blur frontman Damon Albarn. My mum likes George Benson, a jazz singer-songwriter from the sixties. But a track featuring both of them?! No way! It’s not my favourite Gorillaz song by a long shot (that honour goes to Feel Good Inc.), but the music video does feature both chess and Jack Black. Enough said.

10. “Groceries” – Mallrat (#7)

Mallrat - Groceries (Official Video) - YouTube

This was my vote that I felt was most likely to feature in the countdown, and there it is at number seven. Another born-and-bred Brisbanite, and the seventh female artist in my list (the lack of female representation in past Countdowns has been the source of much debate). Mallrat’s voice sounds a lot like the lead singer from Daughter, another of my favourite indie bands in recent years. But “Groceries’ is sweeter and more upbeat, and I’m a sucker for music videos set on Australian beaches.

You can listen to these 10 as well as the 14 other tracks on my shortlist on my Spotify playlist:

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The time difference between London and Australia is a bit of a pain for watching the World Championship match. Luckily, one of the perks of being a new dad is that I occasionally wake up outrageously early, which sometimes allows me to catch the end of the live broadcast. The position in Game 5 that greeted me this morning gave me an uncanny sense of déjà vu and I scrolled back to check out the opening.

And sure enough, my memory hadn’t deceived me: Caruana played the quirky gambit 6.b4!? in the Rossolimo Sicilian. This is a forgotten gambit from the 1960s that I strongly advocated back in 2013 when I was writing for the website ChessPublishing.com. I wrote a couple of articles about it, expecting it to catch on, but alas, like so much of online chess analysis, it remained dormant.

It would therefore of course have been a great personal retribution if Caruana had won a swashbuckling World Championship victory using this line. Again, alas, it was not to be: Carlsen diffused the pressure with apparent ease and the game fizzled into the match’s fifth straight draw. Annoyed, I searched through my personal notes about this line, digging through my old files from the days when I studied chess seriously (pre-baby!). It turns out that Carlsen is more or less correct in that his play should lead to a draw, though Caruana could have applied much more pressure. My analysis stretches to an endgame on move 23 (did I really spend so much time on chess?!) when I concluded that “White has a small but durable endgame advantage”. Nonetheless, I doubt we’ll see Caruana repeat this line. What a shame!

If you want to check out my old analysis, which as far as I can tell is still up to date, here it is:

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David Smerdon's Blog by David Smerdon - 5M ago

While planning my trip to Kenya to research female genital mutilation, I realised I would have two or three days spare. My days of trying to hit the tourist top-tens are long behind me; in recent years, I’ve found it much more rewarding to seek out the chess community. Not only does it combine travel with my favourite hobby, but it’s a fantastic way to meet locals and experience their culture. Us chess players make up our own weird family of sorts, and I’ve usually found chess communities in dozens of countries to be invariably warm, friendly and hospitable.

And when it came to Kenya, I had an extra reason to combine work and play. I recently heard about MiniChess, a large grass-roots organisation that teaches chess in several African countries to roughly 50,000 children, particularly those from lower socio-economic backgrounds. I read up on the program and the reported benefits, which, while anecdotally inspiring, still needs a rigorous evaluation. My interest was instantly sparked and I reached out to the Kenyan coordinator, Githinji Hinga, to learn more. A flurry of Facebook messages resulted (“Chess is my life”, he told me) and before I knew it, my spare time had been filled for me – to capacity.

Playing blitz with Githinji at one of the local Nairobi clubs.

Githinji is one of those rare types with inexhaustible energy, unrestrained passion,  and no word for “no” in his lexicon. That makes him the perfect person to run a ground-level chess program, which reaches all demographics of the Kenyan chess community: Schools, adult clubs, rural communities and even the slums. My main goal in meeting Githinji was to gather information about the MiniChess program to see whether there might be potential in the future to evaluate its impact. But I soon found myself swept up in his infectious web. I didn’t realise how rare a Grandmaster visit to Kenya was – most chess players there have never met one – and Githinji jumped at the opportunity to maximise every minute. My two and a half ‘free days’ turned into a simul, two club visits, a schools tournament, a television interview on Kenyan national news, a meeting with the Australian High Commissioner to East Africa, hundreds of autographs and even more photos, as well as, somehow, a small safari.

I didn’t mind; quite the opposite. It was a real eye-opener to meet the different chess communities in Kenya. Just like with, well, everything else I experienced in Kenya, chess there is full of contrasts. On the one hand, Kenyan chess is massively underdeveloped compared to the rest of the world. Titles are virtually non-existent; their top player, Peter Gilruth, is a former American national ranked around 33,000 in the world. There is no financial support from the federal government, the top coaches are around ELO-1800 strength, and only the will of volunteers keep tournaments going. Kenya is ranked 120th in the world by FIDE.

Playing Peter Gilruth, who, in his 60’s, is Kenya’s strongest player and still a force to be reckoned with. I managed to swindle a win in our game, but not without some shaky moments. In the background, his son looks on with a drink.

On the other hand, the popularity of chess at the ground level is hugely popular, much more so than in Australia. It’s quite typical for a three-minute chess segment to feature on the national news channel during the sports report every couple of weeks. I even featured in two of them during my brief trip, where I talked about my impressions of Kenyan chess and my thoughts for its future:

Mbithi and Gosrani crowned champions of 2018 mini chess series - YouTube

The schools tournaments are remarkably well attended. Even on their weekends, teachers from all over the country bring their students together to MiniChess events. I visited one where many of the students had travelled hours each way to participate, and literally had to be dragged off to the bus at the end of the event because they were still playing social games with the other children. The teachers wouldn’t have minded staying, but driving after dark along the potholed, unlit roads of rural Kenya is, quite literally, putting your life at risk (as I discovered first-hand in West Pokot).

With chess players from Alliance Girls’ High School, Nairobi. They told me that they sometimes play against their brother school, and they enjoy playing – and beating – the boys.

But the most striking impression from the schools tournament was the number of girls playing chess. After returning from West Pokot where women and girls are powerless in many respects, it felt surreal to attend a tournament of 200 school children where two-thirds were girls. Moreover, these kids were really good! It was clear that none of them had received any classical chess training, but their enthusiasm and tactical sharpness was clearly on display. This was a theme I noticed in all Kenyan chess players, kids and adults alike: They love to attack and to sacrifice, almost with reckless abandon – and even if it doesn’t work, they’re already setting up for the next game before you can even shake their hands! The school children at the tournament certainly couldn’t get enough chess; between the rounds, the grass outside the hall was covered with chess boards and sets and tiny hands moving plastic pieces.

Kids enjoying their ‘break’ between rounds.

I would have snapped more photos of them, but unfortunately, once word got out that a Grandmaster was in town, I was mobbed. Literally, mobbed. (I realise that’s the second time I’ve used “literally” in this post. It’s an exception.) I had kids jostling and jumping over each other to get to me, autograph sheets and pens flung in my vision from all directions, and hundreds and hundreds of photos. The kids were amazing. They had lots of questions about what it takes to become a Grandmaster, how they can improve their chess, what sort of training I did at their ages, what life’s like in Australia, what it was like to play Carlsen, and, of course, whether I’d play with them.

Selfie at the closing ceremony of the MiniChess schools tournament.

I played dozens of games with queen odds and the queue of willing participants seemed endless. They just loved chess. And the parents, too, didn’t waste the opportunity to quiz me about how they could help support their children with their chess. With many of the families unable to afford a computer let alone chess books or lessons, I had a lot of sympathy for the parents. But, fortunately, the network of chess volunteers – organisers, arbiters, teachers and parents – is so strong in Kenya that I’m confident there’s a future for chess in the country. Afterwards Githinji raved about how I’d inspired the kids, but the truth is, I left feeling it was more the other way around.

This wasn’t the only two-way transaction of my visit. Githinji and his friend Joseph, both Kenyan Olympiad players of the past, were extremely generous with their time and hospitality. I visited both of their homes for traditional Kenyan dinners, and they even drove me around the national park in Nairobi for a light safari. Seeing the African animals up close was breathtaking, despite me teasing Githinji that we were missing my favourite, the rhinoceros.

I see a Rhenocéros - YouTube

Eating Ugali - YouTube

On my last full day, we visited the Nairobi Gymkhana, one of the oldest members’ clubs boasting a wide array of sports. I did a simultaneous chess display for local kids, gave a small talk and answered questions. Afterwards, to my great surprise and Githinji’s cheeky laughter, the club’s representatives gave me a magnificent engraved, brass rhino statue to commemorate my visit. It was an incredible gesture that somehow typified the generous hospitality I received from the Kenyans.

With the participants of my simul at the Gymkhana club in Nairobi.

On the final morning, Githinji offered to drive me to the airport, but only after one final appointment. We had been invited to the Australian High Commission in Nairobi. It turns out that one of its local employees, Brian, is a chess player and organises Friday afternoon games in the office. It was an honour and quite a surprise to meet the High Commissioner, Alison Chartres, whose impressive mandate also covers  Burundi, Rwanda, Somalia, Tanzania and Uganda, as well as the United Nation’s Environment and Human Settlement programmes. Unfortunately, though perhaps not surprisingly with that workload, Ms Chartres doesn’t play chess. But in a nice coincidence, she’s very interested in women’s issues in East Africa, including FGM, and we had a very interesting chat about the challenges and possible solutions regarding FGM in the region.

We meet a wide range of fascinating people here in Nairobi. This week we had a visit by Australian #Chess Grandmaster and Economist, David Smerdon and MiniChess Kenya’s Githinji Hinga. Our own chess player extraordinaire Brian Mmata challenged David to a game… pic.twitter.com/arPUsMdVMv

— Alison Chartres (@AusHCKenya) July 4, 2018

And, of course, I had to play a couple of games against Brian. He had me on the ropes, but I managed to pull through, meaning that I miraculously managed to win all of my chess adventures in Kenya. Maybe now they’ll invite me back. I certainly hope so, seeing as I’ve made dozens of promises to return, which I intend to keep. To say that I was sad to leave severely understates my Kenyan experience.

I did get a bit worried that I’d miss my flight, and it wasn’t just from Brian’s resilience over the board or from the famous Nairobi traffic. The High Commission’s heavy security gave me a surprisingly hard time through the checkpoint. They kept talking quickly to each other in Swahili, interposed with baffling cackles of laugher. It was only when the guards called me over to their x-ray monitor that I realised what was causing the consternation. On the screen was a large, transparent outline of my suitcase, except for a glaringly black shape in the middle: a perfectly sharp image of a rhinoceros.

Straight to the shelf.

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David Smerdon's Blog by David Smerdon - 5M ago

“Have you been to Africa before?” asked my taxi driver as we left the airport. “Yes,” I replied, “I visited South Africa.” “Oh, then you haven’t been to Africa, my friend.” This seemed an odd comment and, given that I knew for a fact he was overcharging me US $5 for the ride, I didn’t trust it. But now that I’ve returned from Kenya, I realise this may be the most truthful thing the driver told me (he also said the Swahili word for chess is karate, which, it turns out, is the Swahili word for karate).

I like to think of myself as a travelled man, and I’ve been to my share of third-world countries. But Kenya was something else. I’ve lived in poor communities in Peru, but I’ve never seen such extreme poverty. I’ve worked on income inequality, but I’ve never witnessed such a gap between the top and the bottom. And as far as culture and social norms go, I’ve never noticed such a big difference in our ways of life and things I take for granted.

I’m getting ahead of myself. Most of these reflections came from my time spent in the villages of West Pokot, to the west near the Ugandan border. The first few days in Nairobi were less of a shock. On my first night, I randomly met a bunch of Australian expats at a bar. It was a mixed bag: Newspaper editor, property developer, gin distiller, energy entrepreneur, pig farmer… The moment that stuck with me was when I casually asked if anyone made business with the government. They looked bemused. “Nah mate, we don’t deal with the government – not unless we have to.” “We’re friends with the government, if you ask our company, but we’d never work with them.” “If you land a government contract, you’ll be lucky to get half of what they promised – if the money ever comes.” They told stories of raids by government auditors, greasy palms and even brazen theft. It was also the first time I heard about bribes in Kenya, but this would become a recurrent theme. I didn’t realise how blatant and wide-spread it is, from the top all the way down to the traffic cops on the street. (Police in Kenya pay their superiors for the privilege of road-block duty, usually a fixed amount from the bribes. Many taxi and private car companies reimburse their drivers for such bribes along the route. Only once did a traffic cop explicitly stop us for a bribe, of US $2, but then thought better of it after mistaking me, a white passenger, for someone important. Our driver was so happy, he said he wished I could always be his passenger.)

This was a soft introduction to the cultural differences in Kenya. There were other social norms that took me by surprise during the trip and made me realise that my life is a world apart from most Kenyans’. Once, I was asked whether it’s true that Western women “get into a box to try and become darker.” Explaining the purpose of solariums was a real challenge. A guy asked me whether it was illegal to slaughter goats in Australia. He recounted a story in which some Kenyan migrants in Canada were trying to find a goat for a traditional holiday feast, and the only place they could find one was a pet store. I found out that the youth unemployment rate is over 60% and that many university graduates use their degrees to land jobs as baristas. I repeatedly asked some locals about how hot it got in the Kenyan Summer, and became frustrated by their subjective answers – until I realised that they never measured temperature with degrees. “But I can tell you it gets so hot that sometimes we have to bathe almost every day.”

The view from my room in Kapenguria, the largest town in West Pokot. It has one tarred road:

Kapenguria - YouTube

When I left Nairobi and went out to rural Kenya, the contrasts became even starker. I met guys who’d survived childhood typhoid and polio. I met many subsistence families who only ate what they could grow or milk, where hand-to-mouth was standard and the notion of income savings was a fantasy. I learned that drinking milk often passed for a meal, and that, during famine, was in fact the only sort of meal (actually, fermented milk mixed with cow’s blood). I spoke to families who drank water every day that they knew was unsafe, because there was no alternative. I met many children who walked up to two hours to get to school, and then the same to get home, without shoes. The vast majority of the villagers lived in huts without electricity or drinking water, cooked using toxic charcoal stoves, had no access whatsoever to health facilities, and faced daily fears as diverse as malaria, starvation and armed bandit raids. (And yet, almost all families owned a cell phone, powered by small solar-panelled chargers. The introduction of the M-PESA technology several decades back allows Kenyans to instantly transfer money to friends and relatives using a sim card, which is invaluable as a form of insurance in the relatively frequent emergencies.)

The mud church/community centre in the Masol village. …and inside, during our sessions.

Though the people in the villages were literally dirt poor, this poverty had less of an effect on me than that in the cities. I think it’s because the world of mud huts and cow’s blood is so vastly disconnected from my own experience that it was just too surreal to hit home. Perhaps it was also because every conversation was through a translator, taken from a language that doesn’t even have a written form. But in the cities I felt a strangely stronger association. I met people who were university educated, well read, technologically sophisticated, up to date on today’s international news affairs, politically opinionated, budding entrepreneurs, obsessed by the World Cup and Hollywood gossip – in short, they could be any of my acquaintances. But simply by the nature and circumstances of where they happened to be born, they were destitute. There are virtually no chances for profitable employment, for saving, earning wealth or any form of social mobility.

Our driver was an incredibly bright orphan with a master’s degree in marketing, who drives cars when he can and has saved enough for the concrete foundations of a small house on gifted land. When I bought a dozen mangoes for US $1 from a street vendor and gave him half, he thanked me repeatedly; I may well have provided dinner for him and his two children. His dream was to own his own business, and he meticulously detailed to me a dozen well-thought-out business models – but, as he repeatedly put it, “I don’t have capital.” Financial risk makes ambition a dangerous prospect for Kenyans. I spoke to two highly intelligent, unemployed female graduates whose collective dream it was to find a husband “who can put food on the table – I’ll happily give him as many children as wants, so long as we can eat.”

With ‘Mama Culture’, a boisterous, influential woman of the Masol village.

I’ve always been brought up to believe that with talent and hard work, anyone can get anywhere. The reality for many Africans is starkly different. Nairobi is East Africa’s largest city, but 3 million of its 5 million inhabitants live in slums. The average income in these is the proverbial “Dollar a day”. My friend works in Kibera, the largest slum, using chess to teach math and other skills to the children. When I found out from him that some get by on as little as US $5 a month, I suddenly felt extremely ashamed of how flippantly I discarded my airport taxi fare. Looking back now, I can’t help but wonder where I would have ended up if I’d been born in West Pokot instead of Brisbane. Would I have broken free, using my intellect and determination to escape the slums and make it out? Perhaps used chess to lift me into a better life? It makes for a nice story, but I’m not sure it’s realistic. More likely, I would have ended up as a part-time driver, and considered myself lucky.

The main reason I was visiting Kenya was exactly to meet with these sorts of communities, but for a specific reason: I wanted to learn more about female genital mutilation (FGM). I have been researching this for a while as part of a larger project in Somalia, but West Pokot in Kenya has the same tradition. Girls in this region get cut to signify their progression to womanhood, which is normally between the ages of 11 and 14. FGM here is called ‘Pharaonic’, also known as ‘Type 3’, and the process is brutal. It’s nothing like male circumcision; the girl will lie bedridden for days or weeks afterwards with her legs crossed, until the bleeding subsides and the wound heals. Practically every part of the genitals is cut, and sometimes sewn shut afterwards. The long-lasting health consequences are severe, especially when the girl eventually gives birth. In a region where the average fertility rate is around 7 children per woman, the overall effects of this tradition are huge.

School children in the village of Kanyerus lining up for their meal.

The curious part is that there’s no unified reason for why FGM goes on there. It’s statistically more common in Islamic countries, but in Pokot almost all people are Christians. Some of the men I spoke to said that women’s sexual urges needed to be controlled, else they would run rampant (a few quoted the biblical story of Eve). Some of the women said that if their daughters weren’t circumcised, no man would marry them. But for most, they saw it for what it is: A terrible tradition that they wished gone. It was a practice that had simply been going on for as long as they could remember, but lone rebellion would mean dire social consequences. Many thought that they were among the minority in their community secretly opposed to FGM, though the reality was there was a silent majority – a phenomenon called “pluralistic ignorance.” This is where my research is focussed.

Driving in West Pokot - YouTube

It’s not just the health consequences at stake. I get the impression that FGM is hardwired, or maybe even codifies, a number of other problems, such as women’s rights and child marriage. On my first day in the villages, I heard the story of a 14-year-old girl who was kidnapped – with the complicity of her own father – by men from a distant village and forced to marry a 60-year-old man as his third wife. She managed to escape with the help of an aunt and was granted (with some difficulty) police permission to reside in a makeshift refuge. Nothing happened to the men. By coincidence, I later visited the town of the old man, who joined our FGM session and met me in person.

It’s hard for me to reconcile these experiences with the life I know, of gender equality, supermarkets and the like. I tried to keep an open mind and I made it clear that I was there to understand, not to judge. It wasn’t easy. But I think this approach was appreciated. The villagers were extremely welcoming and hospitable, and eager to engage for hours on end. Several people told me that they’d had many visits from NGOs who had come to tell them what to do. They liked that instead we came to understand and to listen. One man in Masol was the most vocal in giving passionate, heated monologues in defence of FGM. His opinion hadn’t changed by the end of our session, though some of his friends had changed their minds. Still, he warmly thanked me for coming and for the manner in which we spoke to them, and in fact it was he who called for the village to give me a local name. (They settled on “N’gorialem”, which means “Bull with a red-and-white dotted head.”)

A Masol warrior (right) and his friend.

And, thankfully, most declared that they did want FGM to end, and they told me to come back and visit again soon to talk about FGM to the rest of their community. “Please come in two weeks’ time,” some pleaded. I couldn’t bear to tell them that it would likely be a year before I’ll make it back to Africa, nor that the rest of the project would be focussing on Somalia. Some of the women asked me to come back to their community and speak to them all again before their young daughters got much older. I didn’t have an answer.

I met real heroes, too. The visit to the villages was organised in part by Beyond FGM, a young community-based organisation in West Pokot that actively promotes abandoning FGM. Its team works tirelessly in the region to protect young girls and try to persuade the communities to change their norms. Its local coordinator received a medal from the queen of England for her efforts. It was they who have started building a permanent safe centre for abused women and girls who have run away from the threat of circumcision or child marriage. Due to a lack of funds, the refuge sits unfinished, four walls without a roof, while the organisation’s employees house girls in their own homes, including the 14-year-old bride I mentioned. “The money will come, one day,” one of the members of the board told me. Religious and unabashedly optimistic, he added, “God willing, it will come soon.”

I realise now that I’m writing mostly about my FGM work, which was not the point of this post. I wanted to reflect more broadly on the big differences I noticed during the trip, and on my impressions of Kenya in general. But somehow, I’ve ended up writing more about this issue that’s obsessed me for almost two years. I’ve been researching FGM since before I moved to Italy, yet no number of books and written accounts prepared me for meeting people affected by FGM in the flesh. And that’s probably why it’s hijacked this post, which I’m writing from the plane as I fly over the Kenyan border and back to my world.

I have plenty more stories from Kenya and a whole bunch of reflections about chess in that country, but it doesn’t feel like it should be part of this post anymore. I’ll leave that for another day.

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By now, you’ve probably heard of AlphaZero, Google’s incredible chess project. Last year, it took the chess world by storm. Using ‘artificial intelligence’  – at least that’s what the news articles claimed – AlphaZero taught itself chess in less than a day and then demolished the world’s strongest chess engine in a 100-game match.

There are several small ambiguities in this summary. First, Google’s hardware was enormous, so it may not have been a fair fight (could you beat Louis Hamilton if he was driving a go-cart?). And second, it’s not really ‘AI’ technology being utilised, but rather a neural-network approach to computations. Don’t ask me how it works, because I don’t know. But I understand enough to know that utilising Monte-Carlo simulations is quite a different thing from Scarlett Johansson in Her.

The engines match happened to occur during the London Chess Classic last year, so we got to hear the first reactions of the world’s elite. They were impressed. Some of them were mighty desperate to get their hands on the technology (perhaps without realising that it involved a computer setup the size of a small house). Alas, it seemed Google’s megamonster was out of reach for the average chess pundit.

Until now.

Recently, an ambitious project called LeelaChessZero was started. It involves the same general idea of AlphaZero, in that the computer plays millions and millions of games against itself in order to learn (without any direct human guidance). But in order to compensate for the computing power required of Google, this project has reached out to the wider (and surprisingly altruistic) chess community. Right now, as you read this, thousands of games are being played by LC0 on computers and servers around the world. Each training game contributes to the wider neural network, as if the program is being fed.

And in fact, you don’t even need to slow down your own computer to be a part of this. You simply need an internet connection in order to help out, by using – and I love this irony – Google’s own online ‘Colaboratory’. It’s completely free and takes 2 minutes to set up. Go to this helpful guide to find out how.

How strong is LC0 now? It’s closing in on the top chess engines in the world, though it still has a fair way to go. On reasonably hardware, it’s currently performing at around 3000 ELO (the world’s best is estimated around 3500). Most interestingly, it doesn’t play like a normal engine: LC0’s tactics actually took a long time to get going, while its positional play grew rapidly. Ironically, it was almost learning like a human: The general strategies were there in the early days, but it would still fall for mate-in-one!

The other really interesting (and somewhat human) thing is that it hasn’t been smooth sailing all the way. In the past month, LC0’s strength actually DECREASED from playing more training games. Completely puzzling to me, though there’s a lot of technical discussion about this on the forums that I don’t begin to understand.

Leela’s adolescent crisis

I don’t know where this project will go in the future, but it’s quite exciting. Meanwhile, I’ve got Google Colab running in the background, just so I can say I was a part of it.

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It’s that time of the year again when Australia hosts the world’s largest online music poll. The publicly-funded radio station Triple J is known as the nation’s left-leaning, youth-centred, commercial-free station for cool tunes, with the main genres ranging around indie rock, folk, trip-hop and basically anything not too hard or poppy. But more importantly:

  • It’s the only FM station that has reception on long road trips across this huge country, and
  • It hosts an immensely popular music poll: The Hottest 100.

Votes for the top 100 songs are cast by a million-plus listeners over the Aussie summer, culminating in a six-hour broadcast of the results that has almost been an integral part of the Australian Day celebrations of January 26 (until now). I wish I had enough time and/or coolness to be able to say I have my finger on the pulse of modern music every year. Secretly, I would have loved to be a music critic. I love almost every genre, I’m addicted to the world of musical trends, and I’m bombastic enough to create meaningless words that wouldn’t seem out of place in a copy of Rolling Stone. The sad reality is that I have no objective talent, either for music appreciation or performance.

But it’s still fun to pretend.

This year I ended up with a more ‘boppy’ selection than I anticipated. There are strong beats across almost all of my picks, even those that don’t technically sit in a dance genre. Call it a symptom of a mid-life crisis, if you will. There’s also been a focus on new talents (again, accidentally), though there are a couple of familiar names. Before we get into it, here are a couple of honourable mentions.

Honourable mention #1:  Arcade Fire – “Everything Now”

I’ve always been a big fan of Arcade Fire. Their songs came at just the right part of my tertiary formative years, and Neon Bible was in some ways an album that personified my college days. It’s been a decade since one of their songs has really resonated with me, however, so I was pleasantly surprised on first listen to Everything Now. The number is characterised by powerful lyrics and emotive riffs that are carefully balanced with a celebratory tone – a textbook example of the works that captured my attention in the 2000’s.

Arcade Fire - Everything Now (Official Video) - YouTube

Honourable mention #2:  Lorde – “Homemade Dynamite”

In 2012, a sixteen-year old New Zealand girl released an album that rose to number two in the Australian rankings. Her lyrics are infectious, and I would be surprised if she didn’t score at least three picks in the final 100; Sober was a strong inclusion in my final 10. Lorde’s one of the few modern pop artists whose lyrics stand alone; I dare you to try reading the lyrics without sound of most of the regular radio repeats. Normally they’re embarrassing; hers border on poetry.

Lorde - Homemade Dynamite (Feat. Khalid, Post Malone & SZA) [REMIX] - YouTube

Honourable mention #3:  Yaegi – “Raingurl”

The first time I heard this doof-doof underground electro hit, I broke out into a huge grin. The beat and lyrics combine into what is almost a comical ghetto-meets-Berlin-warehouse sound. I had never heard of the artist but the voice and lyrics convinced me I was listening to an African-American street rapper. It turns out Yaegi is a small Korean girl with a dorky ponytail and thick glasses, whose songs are often punctuated with verses in Korean (like this one). Surprise! The beat is completely infectious and the unpretentious film clip only adds to the enjoyment. It’ll put you in a good mood, for sure. Slight language warning.

Yaeji - Raingurl - YouTube

As fine as these three hits are, however, this year the competition for the final 10 was tough. Here are my final votes.

10:  Lorde – “Sober”

What I particularly like about Lorde is that her songs are so appealing to a young audience, and yet the lyrics are mature with powerfully positive messages. Her signature hit Royals is a good example: Top of the pop charts, although her money-isn’t-everything story stands in stark contrast to the lyrics of her billboard peers. Sober fits nicely into this mould, both within the verses and in its entirely as a song.

Lorde - Sober - YouTube

9:  The Wombats – “Lemon to a Knife Fight”

In many ways I wish that I didn’t like The Wombats, whose songs straddle that fine line between cheesy pop and infectious entertainment. With a title like Lemon to a Knife Fight, you can probably guess what I mean. Still, just like with their smash hit Joy Division, I can’t help but bob to the song, no matter how many times I hear it. You win again, Wombats.

The Wombats - Lemon to a Knife Fight (Official video) - YouTube

8:  The xx – “On Hold”

On Hold is one of the few slow, non-dance picks in my list this year. But the UK indie-pop duo is a regular on my playlist, and Loud Places earned my top pick for 2015. On Hold‘s lyrics are deep and telling, with an addictive chorus and a nice build-up throughout the song.

But enough about the music; truth be told, The xx was always going to make my list for last year after lead vocalist Romy tweeted me twice in five minutes, making my week. To build momentum for the Countdown, Triple J’s comedic summer hosts Sally and Erica run a ‘Hottest One-Pundred’ challenge whereby listeners were invited to tweet a pun about songs or artists from 2016. Naturally, I couldn’t resist…

Hey @codaconduct, hey @teganftsara, what's Romy's favourite drink?
Answer: Half a XXXX.

— David Smerdon (@dsmerdon) December 18, 2017

In my excitement over my obviously hilarious witticism, I may have forgotten that the Queensland beer “XXXX” may not be particularly well-known in the UK – which explains Romy’s first reaction:

what

— romy xx (@onlyhijazi) December 18, 2017

Not quite the reaction I was hoping for from one of my biggest musical idols of the last decade. Fortunately, my heart was allowed to restart five minutes later:

omg I just understood this hahahahaha

— romy xx (@onlyhijazi) December 18, 2017

Order having been restored, I feel absolved enough to include On Hold in at number 8.

The xx - On Hold (Official Video) - YouTube

7:  Tash Sultana – “Mystik”

Tash Sultana is a one-woman band from Melbourne. Having played guitar since she was 3 (!) and made her living busking in Melbourne, Sultana won the prestigious J Award for Triple J’s Unearthed Artist of the Year in 2016. But what really brought her international attention was when she uploaded a YouTube video of herself recording her own song Jungle in her bedroom (complete with relative occasionally walking past her in the background, and a random dog running around the floor). Ten million views later, the song came third in last year’s Hottest 100 countdown and firmly placed her on the Australian music map. Mystik is unlikely to rival that breakout success, but it keeps true to the same musical build-up via her loops machine, as evidenced in another one of her live bedroom recordings (see below). Look out for her in the future.

TASH SULTANA - 'MYSTIK' (LIVE BEDROOM RECORDING) - YouTube

By the way, for an incredible close-your-eyes, late-night-couch, get-the-tea-darling experience, check out the amazing video of her ‘Hypnotic Live Set’ for Rolling Stone:

Take One feat. Tash Sultana | Rolling Stone - YouTube

6:  Willow Beats – “Special”

The first time I heard Special on the radio, I was hooked. The Melbourne electronic duo was discovered through Triple J’s fantastic ‘Unearthed’ programme, which helps promote talented young musicians around Australia. It even has its own station, to which I occasionally listen if I’m in the mood for new sounds. And Willow Beat certainly has one, describing the music as “being inspired by creeks and rivers, crisp mornings and Tim Burton.” I couldn’t have said it better.

Willow Beats - Special (Official Music Video) - YouTube

5:  PNAU – “Go Bang”

Every year, a couple of my picks (as well as the final countdown results) overlap with the mainstream billboard charts. Not many, mind you, but always a couple. Lorde’s Sober is one that has received extensive airtime on commercial radio, and PNAU is another.

A common word in the vernacular of modern pop is “Banger”, noun, meaning “A song that is incredibly tight or just unbelievably awesome” (at least according to the ever-reliable Urban Dictionary).

A decade ago, PNAU broke the pop charts with the intolerably annoying electronic hit Wild Strawberries, so it’s some wonder that I’ve even given the Sydney-based dance trio a second chance. But the years have been good to PNAU, and Go Bang is just smooth enough to make it an acceptable cross-over ‘banger’. The music video is also quite mesmerising, featuring a hugely colourful environment mixed with LCD body suits and suitably mystical choreography. The theme is continued in PNAU’s other big hit from the year, Chameleon, which is also a very nice song.

PNAU - Go Bang (Official Music Video) - YouTube

4:  Angie McMahon – “Slow Mover”

Slow Mover lives up to its name as definitely the slowest number of my picks. The indie singer-songwriter from Melbourne is another gem out of Triple J’s Unearthed, and this is her debut track.

2017 was the first year I attended a singer-songwriter concert, as that’s normally not my go-to for live music entertainment. But Wallis Bird’s intimate yet hugely energetic performance in a small Brisbane venue taught me not to be so presumptuous. With powerful vocals and hugely emotive lyrics, Slow Mover is everything a good singer-songwriter should have – and if this is any indication, we can expect to hear a lot more from McMahon in the future.

Slow Mover - YouTube

3:  Mansionair – “Astronaut (Something About Your Love)”

I’d never heard of Mansionair before last year. I didn’t even know the lead singer is male. But Astronaut has those strong, repetitive trip-hop beats that so endear me to the genre. Not everyone agrees with my classification; Triple J refers to the Sydney band as “pillowy, vocal-fronted electronica”. In any case, the lyrics of this number, together with the soulful, whispery voice of Jack Froggart, definitely falls into the philosophical but ambiguous ‘trip’ classification in my sober opinion. As Froggart explains it, “I love that stream-of-conscious style of songwriting – as though you’re sitting in the back of a party on a couch and you’re just in your own head, overthinking everything.”

Mansionair - Astronaut (Something About Your Love) - YouTube

2:  CamelPhat & Elderbrook – “Cola”

Cola is perhaps the big outlier of my final list. Bordering on deep house, it was pegged as one of the biggest dance anthems of the summer of 2017. This is usually enough to put me off, let alone the reliance on synthesisers and rather hollow lyrics (“she does this, she does that…” etc) – and, frankly, ‘CamelPhat’ is just a ridiculous name. But at the end of the day, each song’s impact is a subjective experience, and Cola gives me goosebumps. I don’t know why, but I can’t deny it. My one act of rebellion is kicking it down from my number one. Which goes to….

CamelPhat & Elderbrook 'Cola' (Official Video) - YouTube

1:  Portugal. The Man – “Feel It Still”

…another ridiculous name. Seriously, what is that full stop doing in there?!

Portugal. The Man is an Oregon-based rock band that has been around for about 15 years or so, though I only just discovered this – none of their previous songs even made it onto my radar. But with 100 million views on YouTube for their new official video, I guess that’s all going to change.

I recommend watching the video for your first listen. The indie-hipster beat is aptly personified in the costumes and filmography, with echos of The Avener‘s 2014 hit Fade Out Lines in both sound and vision. Fittingly, that was my top pick for the year; this year, the full-stop band takes prime place.

Portugal. The Man - "Feel It Still" (Official Video) - YouTube

I have a feeling that most of my picks will eventually make it into the top 100, though I don’t rate correlation with the nation’s musical pulse as any great achievement in itself. Feel It Still has a good chance at the final top-10, but it certainly won’t finish first. That honour almost certainly belongs to Kendrick Lamar’s HUMBLE, an obnoxiously ear-violating cacophony of misogynistic filth that, with half a billion views on YouTube, will inspire the next generation towards greatness. Yeh, it didn’t make my list.

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David Smerdon's Blog by David Smerdon - 5M ago

So, I’ve changed the look of the blog. The 10 years with the original ‘Geek’ theme were nice, but the lack of updates meant I always needed to fiddle around with things I didn’t understand in order to make things work. Plus, I got bored.

I added some share buttons to posts and a subscribe feature as well. I plan on being just as lazy as always with my updates, so if you want to wait for an email whenever I write a new post, subscribing might save you undue (and disappointment-inducing) checking.

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