Tuesday, 4 October 2016

A list that claims to be universal, but overlooks almost everything

As I, perhaps looking to control obsessions that have dominated my thoughts and prevented me doing any real work on this blog or elsewhere over recent months, browsed YouTube looking for greatest albums articles of the type I lavished up a decade or so ago, I found one from 2013 that I had failed entirely to discover when it was originally written.

The list is, interestingly from my perspective and history as a music listener, written by Australians, namely Toby Creswell, Craig Mathieson, and John O‘Donnell. The critics claim that they are dealing with what they perceive to be a kind of “nationalist” bias in rock criticism, claiming in their YouTube interview that:
“A US list will contain 99 US artists and the Beatles; a British list will contain 99 British artists and one US artist” 
I do have my doubts that “nationalist” bias of this type is so extreme as Cresswell and Mathieson claimed in their interview; nonetheless I do not doubt that the nation one is from can greatly influence which albums are considered important.

Creswell and Mathieson claim to have compiled their list from as many authoritative sources as possible rather than their own listening; however from my knowledge garnered during the 2000s of the most serious kind of rock criticism it is not possible for me to believe honestly that they have simply failed to see that a large number of  “best albums” lists are totally ephemeral and simply reflect the public popularity of records rather than enduring influence or being even remotely groundbreaking or even distinctive. To take at least some care, even if not the most extreme sort, to ensure that such lists are avoided is essential.

Joe S. Harrington’s decision in his Top 100 Albums to not allow anything released after 1992 to be included was a sign of wisdom since it is exceedingly clear he was listening to very little groundbreaking during the decade between 1993 and 2003, whilst David Keenan, who did include a couple of albums released after 1993 in his The Best Albums Ever...Honest, nonetheless came out utterly free from trendiness and attention to the present. Piero Scaruffi’s list of the 25 best albums is even more than Harrington’s or Keenan’s, the product of extremely intensive study of music and sound (not I would say by any means perfect), and focuses on music whose influence over the long term can be clearly demonstrated. I will say that I think Scaruffi can be a little over-the-top in praising avant-garde music that is not as good as he thinks, but his ability to find music of considerable value but which I would never learn about from other more mainstream critics is most definitely sufficient for me to recommend him.

I have tabulated Creswell, Mathieson and O‘Donnell’s top 100 albums, published in their book 100 Best Albums Of All Time, along with whether the album is included in the three lists by Harrington, Keenan and Scaruffi noted in the preceding paragraph and which I also note in my critique of NME’s Top 500 Albums from around the same time. Symbols:
  1. a blank indicates that the artist has no albums on the relevant list
  2. one asterisk is added for each album other than the one listed here the artist has on the relevant list
  3. in Harrington’s and Scaruffi’s lists, each album included is given its number on that list
  4. for Keenan’s list, which was not strictly ordered, each album from here included therein is simply labelled with a “Y
  5. albums released after the lists were published, or after 1992 with Harrington, are labelled with an “ineligible
  6. albums I own are shaded in pink
1Bob DylanHighway 61 Revisited1966

2The BeatlesRevolver1966
3The ClashLondon Calling1979
5Van MorrisonAstral Weeks1968
6Joni MitchellBlue1971
7The Rolling StonesSticky Fingers1971
8Fleetwood MacRumours1977
9The Velvet Underground and NicoThe Velvet Underground and Nico1967
10Public EnemyIt Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back1988
11The Beach BoysPet Sounds1966
12Bruce SpringsteenDarkness on the Edge of Town1978
13TelevisionMarquee Moon1977
14Little RichardHere’s Little Richard1954
15Led ZeppelinUntitled (Led Zeppelin IV)1971
16RadioheadOK Computer1997
17The BandThe Band1969
18The BeatlesThe Beatles (The White Album)1969
20John LennonJohn Lennon/Plastic Ono Band1970
21U2Achtung Baby1991
22Simon and GarfunkelBridge over Troubled Water1970
23Bob DylanBlonde on Blonde1966
24Sex PistolsNever Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols1977
25PrinceSign of the Times1987
26Arcade FireFuneral2004
27Michael JacksonThriller1982
28Neil YoungOn the Beach1973
29Jay-ZThe Blueprint2001
30Massive AttackBlue Lines1991
31The SmithsThe Queen Is Dead1986
32Carole KingTapestry1971
33David BowieHunky Dory1971
34Ray CharlesModern Sounds in Country and Western Music1962
35Paul SimonGraceland1986
36Iggy and the StoogesRaw Power1973
37The Jimi Hendrix ExperienceAre You Experienced?1967
38Aretha FranklinLady Soul1968
40The Rolling StonesExile on Main Street1972
41Patti SmithHorses1975
42Miles DavisKind of Blue1958
43Sonic YouthDaydream Nation1988
44Bruce SpringsteenBorn to Run1975
45The BeatlesAbbey Road1970
46Guns’n’RosesAppetite for Destruction1987
47Black SabbathParanoid1971
48George HarrisonAll Things Must Pass1971
49Green DayAmerican Idiot2004
50The DoorsThe Doors1967
51Pink FloydDark Side of the Moon1973
52James BrownLive at the Apollo1963
53Creedence Clearwater RevivalCosmo’s Factory1970
54Pearl JamVs1993
55The WailersBurning1976
56The MonkeesHeadquarters1967
57Talking HeadsRemain in Light1980
58Rod StewartEvery Picture Tells a Story1971
59DevoQ: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo!1978
60Chuck BerryAfter School Session1957
61EminemThe Marshall Mathers LP2001
62BlondieParallel Lines1978
63Dusty SpringfieldDusty in Memphis1968
64R.E.M.Automatic for the People1992
65The SupremesWhere Did Our Love Go?1964
66Oasis(What’s the Story) Morning Glory1995
67Kanye WestMy Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy2004
68Jeff BuckleyGrace1994
69The White StripesElephant2003
70EaglesHotel California1976
71WilcoYankee Hotel Foxtrot1994
72Beastie BoysPaul’s Botique1989
73Tom WaitsRain Dogs1985
74Kate BushHounds of Love1985
75The WhoLive at Leeds1971
76Joy DivisionCloser1980
77KraftwerkTrans-Europe Express1977
78Randy NewmanSail Away1972
79PavementCrooked Rain, Crooked Rain1994
80Curtis MayfieldCurtis1970
81Roxy MusicFor Your Pleasure1973
82The StrokesIs This It?2001
83Midnight OilDiesel and Dust1987
84ColdplayViva la Vida, or Death and All His Friends2008
85The KinksThe Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society1968
87The Modern LoversThe Modern Lovers1975
88Primal ScreamScreamadelica1991
89Fairport ConventionUnhalfbricking1968
90Elvis Costello and the AttractionsThis Year’s Model1978
92AC/DCBack in Black1980
94Gang of FourEntertainment1979
95Marvin GayeWhat’s Going On?1971
96Arctic MonkeysWhatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not2006
97QueenA Night at the Opera1975
98Derek and the DominosLayla and Other Assorted Love Songs1970
99P.J. HarveyLet England Shake2011
100The ByrdsSweetheart of the Rodeo1968

As one can see at the merest glance, most recordings on Harrington’s Keenan’s and especially Scaruffi’s lists are completely absent:
  • only eleven of Harrington’s Top 100 albums are present
  • only ten of Keenan’s best 103 are present
  • only four of Scaruffi’s top 25 are present
  • ten artists on the list have a different album in Harrington’s Top 100
  • eighteen artists on the list have a different album in Keenan’s list
  • only Springsteen has a different album in Scaruffi’s top 25
What one can say about the general composition of Creswell, Mathieson and O‘Donnell’s list is that it has many major omissions by genre. Heavy metal is utterly absent apart from Black Sabbath and AC/DC, but hardcore punk and progressive rock are also unrepresented, and experimental rock also absent except for Sonic Youth, whose pop hooks allowed them to reach the Billboard Top 40 in 1994 with Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star. Folk and folk rock are also weakly represented apart from Dylan and Joni Mitchell, for whom I will say the magnificent and utterly unique Hejira may be the finest recording I have ever heard and stands much superior to the more famous Blue. The absence of metal and progressive rock is of course almost certainly due to well-documented biases in Creswell, Mathieson and O‘Donnell’s sources, and how with progressive rock the key albums were never remotely popular commercially in the English-speaking world. These biases are however no excuse for not even trying to correct them.

Another severe fault is how the most recent albums on the list are all popular and what one must call “fashionable”. There is not even something by Joanna Newsom, arguably the most brilliant musical artist of modern times, yet alone by more obscure underground acts since the 1990s, such as the post-rock scene.

For all its grandiose claims, Creswell, Mathieson and O‘Donnell’s list is a very bad one. It simply reproduces badly flawed lists of music that tends towards the ephemeral, and ignores important parts of rock history.

Monday, 3 October 2016

An examination of CET versus global temperature anomalies: Part I – overall and July to December

The Central England Temperature (CET) series goes back to 1659 and is the longest temperature record in the world. Like the global temperature record, CET shows a major increase since the 1970s, which I have documented in the first chart from an earlier post here but will reproduce for your interest:
Mean Central England Temperature for each fiscal year from 1659/1660 to 2014/2015, plus mean and percentiles for period from 1765/1766 to 1973/1974, reproduced from ‘Two “little ice ages” revealed by CET summer data’
Despite the similarity between CET and global temperatures over the long term – both are now about 1˚C or 1.8˚F above the mean from 1880 to 1974 – at shorter time scales there does not superficially appear to be any natural relationship between the two. The largest CET anomalies during the very cold months of February 1947 and January 1963 do not show a corresponding global decline, and what I previously observed as the coolest period globally around 1910 was not abnormally cool in the CET series, especially vis-à-vis an exceptionally cool period (taking the CET series as a whole) from March 1885 to January 1893.

However, as the map below shows, the period from 1903 to 1912 during which all but one of the “record cool” months at a global level occurred was actually hotter than 1885 to 1892 over the northern hemisphere’s land, but cooler over the tropics and oceans.
Moreover, the areas without data seem to have been hotter during the later period, which covered only a minor proportion of the great pluvial over Central Chile from 1898 to 1905. Wetness over Central Chile is known to be correlated with blocking, stronger anticyclones and colder conditions over West Antarctica, as shown below:

Mean 500 millibar (50 kilopascal) May to August geopotential height for 1898 to 1905 vis-à-vis the period since the second “magic gate” identified by Tim Flannery in ‘The Weather Makers’
Whilst we can see the anomalous wetness over Central Chile due to stronger onshore flow very easily from this chart, one cannot see the cold over West Antarctica that would be expected on the eastern side of the block. However, this is not very clearly seen from the temperature graph below:
The diversion of the Central Chilean pluvial put aside, in order to really look at the correlations between CET and global temperature anomaly over the period from 1880 to 1974, I have taken the following steps:
  1. Compiled an unrounded monthly mean CET for every month from 1880 to 1974 via the daily CET data, which can be downloaded online here
  2. Averaged the CET for each calendar month using only years from 1880 to 1974 inclusive
  3. Using an Excel file and my dowloaded GISS global temperature maps (which have an anomaly vis-à-vis 1880 to 1974 means to two decimal places), I compiled all the global means as independent variable and plotted CET against it as a dependent variable
  4. As a final step, I plotted scatter plots of CET anomaly against global temperature anomaly (versus 1880 to 1974 mean in both cases) and calculated the Pearson product-moment correlation.
There were too many data for a Spearman correlation and I lack any means of separating large number of equal ranks in the global temperature database, whose anomalies are naturally within a much narrower range than CET anomalies covering only about 0.1 percent of the planet’s ice-free land. 1880 to 1974 is chosen as the review period for two reasons: first, 1880 is when the earliest maps of global temperature begin, and secondly, 1974 is when, as shown by the sudden fall in runoff into Perth’s dams, the first “magic gate” caused by greenhouse emissions from the oil- and mineral-producing nations of Australia, South Africa and the Gulf States began controlling the climate. Because GISS cannot in its latest form provide fiscal year temperature means (which have the advantage in the northern hemisphere of not dividing abnormally cold or warm winters which provide most of the annual temperature variability) I have done only monthly data for the moment at least.

All Months:

Looking at our scatter plot of CET versus global temperature anomaly between 1880 and 1974, we do see some positive correlation both at a glance and with the correlation coefficient of +0.13730109. However, this coefficient is sufficiently small that variation in global temperature can explain a mere two percent of the variation in CET, since percentage explained equals the square of the variation.

It is of course possible that different seasons behave differently. Because the sun is weak or nonexistent, high-latitude winter temperatures (including those of the UK) are controlled almost entirely by air mass. Variations in wind vector could thus overwhelm global temperature trends due to variations in greenhouse gas concentrations or dimming from volcanic aerosols. In the hotter months, however, air masses possess less influence and sunlight of cloudiness has a more critical role: thus, one might expect a better correlation between CET and global temperature anomaly here.

It is also plausible that because the influence of greenhouse gas levels upon CET was shown in ‘Two “little ice ages” revealed by CET summer data’ to peak in the autumn and trough out from late winter to early summer, that we would see a peak in correlation in the autumn. We will look month by month through the fiscal year to see if either thesis can be supported, and I will divide the fiscal year into two halves to avoid having too much memory in one post.


July CET anomaly versus global temperature anomaly in ˚C, 1880 to 1974
The results here do not really support our prediction that a much better correlation between CET and global temperature anomaly: the virgin mean correlation is actually less than that for all months, when we would expect high values in mid-summer. The smallness of our sample size (95 months vis-à-vis 1,140) means that strong outliers are very easy to see, notably the famously hot and dry July 1911:
As we can see, there are, apart form the generally cool Southern Hemisphere three very substantial cool regions during the UK’s hottest month since July 1852, and Europe’s hottest since July 1859 – a belt from Finland to the Black Sea, China and eastern Russia, and most of the US and Canada outside of Québéc. Newfoundland and New England, where Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine experienced records for heat that still stand today. On the fifth of July, Nashua recorded 106˚F or 41.1˚C.


August CET anomaly versus global temperature anomaly in ˚C, 1880 to 1974
In contrast to July, August’s results do suggest that the summer months with more and less indirect sunlight should provide a better correlation between CET and global temperature anomalies: the Pearson correlation coefficient is almost twice that for all months. The result does however support the thesis of increased correlation in the autumn months which are being approached in August.

However, global temperature anomalies for August still can explain only about one-seventeenth of the variance of CET between 1880 and 1974. 1911 is again a huge outlier:
Global temperature anomalies for August 1911. Note the alternating patterns of heat and cool across the Northern Hemisphere, and the consistent cool in South America and over the oceans


September CET anomaly versus global temperature anomaly in ˚C, 1880 to 1974
As the sun moves southwards we would expect the correlation between CET anomaly and global temperature anomaly to weaken. This is observed vis-à-vis August, suggesting that the July sample may be too small at ninety-five years to eliminate the effect of outliers. Septembers of 1944 (the hottest year globally between 1880 and 1974) and the chilly autumn of 1952 are the most substantial outliers:
September 1944 global temperature anomaly – note the cool area centred around the UK amongst an otherwise circumlatitudinal hot anomaly
September’s poor correlation coefficient also opposes the thesis of highest correlation in the autumn months: the fall from August would not be expected if greenhouse gas concentrations have c=most consistent effect in the autumn as observed in recent CET records.


October CET anomaly versus global temperature anomaly in ˚C, 1880 to 1974
October seems to contradict our first thesis: the correlation between CET and global temperatures is greater than for July or September, although between 1880 and 1974 global temperature variation can explain only 4 percent of variation in CET. It does support the thesis of an autumn maximum in correlation, although the Pearson is less than for August. The major outlier of October 1896 – Central England’s coolest since 1817 but 0.13˚C hotter than average globally – shows the classic alternating “sinusoidal” pattern of hot and cool anomalies, with a very cool band centred upon Iceland and Western Europe and a hot band on Eastern Europe and Russia away from the Pacific:
October 1896 global temperature anomalies. Note the cool over Western Europe and the Great Lakes region and heat over Eastern Europe, northern Russia and Australia


November CET anomaly versus global temperature anomaly in ˚C, 1880 to 1974
As we move towards winter, both theses outlined at the beginning of this post would predict a decline in the correlation coefficient between global mean temperature and CET. Vis-à-vis what we saw for October, November does seem to suggest this: the correlation coefficient is down to 9 percent and global temperature anomalies can predict less than one percent of those for CET. Striking outliers are completely absent despite the low correlation coefficient.


December CET anomaly versus global temperature anomaly in ˚C, 1880 to 1974
The two theories noted at the start of this post give different predictions of how the correlation coefficient between CET and global temperature anomalies would change from November to December: an autumn maximum (October) would predict a rise, whereas a winter maximum would predict a continuing fall in the correlation coefficient.

What is actually observed is almost exactly the same correlation coefficient between CET anomaly and global temperature anomaly as for November. There are two major outliers from the general pattern:
December 1910 global temperature anomalies. Note the hot area of northern Africa and Europe, and the very cold area over Siberia and China
December 1910 is interesting not so much because of the contrast between Europe and the rest of the world, but because unlike in a conventional positive NAO situation, hot conditions extended through the Sahara, which is normally cool during positive NAO winters. As can be seen from the 500 millibar anomaly chart below, there was unlike typical positive NAO winter months much blocking over Greenland, but not a classic low-latitude block that would produce cold northwesterly flow, nor a high-latitude block in the correct place to produce a very cold easterly flow:
Departures from 1880 to 1974 mean of 500 millibar heights (in metres) over the northern hemisphere for December 1910. The block over the Black Sea and Ukraine is decisive in shaping the observed temperature pattern.
December 1939, in contrast, is notable as relative to the 1880 to 1974 mean globally the second-hottest month between 1880 and 1978 (behind January 1944 by 0.02˚C) and the relatively hottest over the Northern Hemisphere. Over the contiguous United States it was the hottest December between 1890 and 2014, although December 1889 was certainly hotter there due to remarkable heat in the East and Plains.
December 1939 global temperature anomalies vis-à-vis 1880 to 1974 averages. Note the unusual warmth over the interiors of Asia and North America – this was the latter continent’s warmest December of the century.
Whereas the colder weather of the Chukotka Peninsula relates to the fact that the anomalous high-index westerly airflow was offshore, Europe’s failure to participate in the Northern Hemisphere’s anomalous warmth was because a block over Greenland and Canada, which drove warm air into northern North America throughout this month (and the four cold “War Januaries” of 1940, 1941, 1942 and 1945), drove colder air into Europe. Unlike the “War Januaries” this block was not circumpolar and the easterly flow into the UK much weaker:
December 1939 500 millibar height anomalies in metres. Note the blocks over Canada and Central Asia driving warm Atlantic and Pacific air into Asia and North America.
In Part II of this post, we will look at January to June and make an overall examination of the correlation trends. So far, evidence of seasonality in correlation between CET anomaly and global temperature anomaly is quite indecisive and there remains the possibility that no differences exist between seasons.

Sunday, 25 September 2016

If closing one rail line causes unspeakable congestion, what would a complete freeway ban achieve?

Today, as I was going through RailPage archives in my email, I discovered just how close the Upfield rail line was to complete closure to be replaced by CityLink – the most obscene waste of public money in Australia’s history and one which shows just why a constitutional ban on new trunk roads is so desperately overdue.

Although I have not been that opposed to the light rail replacement for the Upfield Line proposed in the 1980s, excessive wastage upon roads (e.g. the South-Eastern Mulgrave link) even then prevented it being carried out. More than that, the freeways attracted so many off-peak rail users that they actually increased traffic congestion, especially with Australia’s very low fuel taxes.

In the RaiPage article, former transport minister Alan Brown says that the Liberal Government had planned to demolish the Upfield Line and put the destructive CityLink through Macaulay and Flemington Bridge stations. However, a delay in this plan meant that CityLink was revised and was placed above Macaulay and Flemington Bridge stations, and the Upfield Line was saved.

Twenty years later, in 2014, the importance if this very minor decision vis-à-vis the radical (and in Australia essential) planning changes advocated by Environment, Capitalism and Socialism four years beforehand had not been carried out was seen when a power failure on the Broadmeadows Line (since extended to Cragieburn) forced chaos on the Upfield Line as can be seen below at North Melbourne station.

Even Alan Brown admitted in his recent interview that:
“it was the poor relation of Melbourne’s rail network”
“a line that serviced electorates that the Labor Party held and would clearly continue to hold, but it was the right decision for Melbourne”
The question to be asked sincerely is what would happen if the road lobby could have been completely removed from the political influence it has had for the past six decades, so that road building could be officially and legally ended (apart perhaps from minor back streets) and all funds presently set aside for road building transferred entirely to railway improvements and to demolition of demonstrably unsustainable freeways (which means, certainly in Australia, every single freeway ever built). If Alan Brown is right, a rigid policy of ending and constitutionally banning wastage on unsustainable freeways and transferring all money set aside to rail transit could do much more to deal with traffic congestion than all the freeways ever built to feed the RACV, the Federal Chamber of Automotive Industries, the mining companies, and such lobby groups as the Motor Trades Association. Possibly a complete ban on freeways could actually end traffic congestion if the money were used to fund railways and tramways to new developments or on major long-distance routes like from Geelong or Sydney to Melbourne – at least if the nineteenth-century alignments insufficient investment has left in place were updated to allow for higher speeds. People overlook how Australia’s flat terrain – were investment on roads eliminated rather than dictating policy – is ideally suited to high-speed rail, which has instead been created on much less suitable terrain in Europe and Japan due to the absence of powerful road lobbies.

Such a policy would also significantly cut into Australia’s dreadful record on greenhouse gas emissions – even using diesel fuel rail is four times more fuel-efficient than road transport.

Brown‘s speech – modest as it is – and the lesson that mass protest can prevent such a catastrophe as closing the Upfield Line would have produced, constitutes a clear demonstration of why the most radical change to transport policies in Australia, involving an outright ban on new freeways and highways and a transfer of all allocated funds to rail transit, is over half a century overdue.

Saturday, 10 September 2016

Further again from real Messiaen!

As regular readers will know, my mother and brother love to satirise Olivier Messiaen’s amazing piano works like Catalog d‘Oiseaux, Visions de l‘Amen and Vingt Regards sur l‘Enfant Jésus. The amazing skill playing real Messiaen takes is entirely disregarded, and their inability to understand the extremely complex rhythms and melodies of the music means they resort to crude criticism of calling it equivalent to “a cat playing the piano”, although it is true that several others listeners have said exactly the same thing about Messiaen.

Recently, however, my brother has gone even further with his Messiaen satirisation, saying that a dog playing the piano is the best new Messiaen recording!
In fact, although dogs are more intelligent than cats, there is no way they could play something so difficult even for a highly trained pianist as Catalog d‘Oiseaux with any sort of training. Nor could that dog know what “Messiaen” actually means! More than that, if a cat’s playing the piano sounds – when listened to carefully – in no way like a real performance of any Messiaen piano piece, and is much more clearly different from such even than a cat playing the piano. (Of course, I must emphatically emphasise that a cat playing the piano has no sonic resemblance whatsoever to actual Messiaen piano works).

When my brother said it was a new Messiaen work, I laughed loud. The best wish for all who cannot understand Messiaen is not to satirise but to try, even if they (as my mother and brother do) detest the objectives of the cultural milieu of which Messiaen’s work is part (partly because I talk about a much more gory and unsavory part thereof).

Tuesday, 5 July 2016

Mercury from the Arctic – how maps and horoscopes show the problem

Ever since the 2006 redefinition of “planet” and my first study of Pluto’s orbit before its discovery in 1930, I have known that the high eccentricity of Mercury’s orbit means Mercury’s maximum elongation (angular distance from the Sun) can vary from 18˚ (precisely 17.9˚) to 28˚ (precisely 27.8˚). The precise value depends on whether Mercury is closer to the northern hemisphere summer solstice than the Sun, or closer to the winter solstice:
  • if Mercury is closer to the northern hemisphere summer solstice, its maximum elongation is only around 18˚ or 19˚
  • it Mercury is closer to the northern hemisphere winter solstice, its maximum elongation is as much as 25˚ to almost 28˚
  • the mean for all elongations is 22.6˚ for both western and eastern elongations, but western ones show a larger variation than eastern
Elongations of Mercury from 2000 to 2015 (“western” positive; “eastern” negative)
The fact that Mercury’s farthest elongations happen when it is closer to the northern hemisphere winter solstice than the Sun has long been known to cause problems observing it in high northern latitudes – for instance, it is generally believe that Copernicus working as far south as Poland never saw Mercury at all. In these areas, lengthy twilight means that at its farthest elongations on northern spring mornings and late-summer evenings Mercury may not set after the Sun at all, even at 27.4˚ East of the Sun on 15 August this year in Fairbanks, Alaska:
Sky map (drawn from ‘Your Sky’) for Fairbanks, Alaska, 21:50, 15 August 2016. Note the extremely narrow angle between horizon and ecliptic plane, and that Mercury, though at maximum eastern elongation, is setting with the Sun and is hence not visible
Horoscopes can represent this problem quite well if we use the space-based Campanus house system based around equally subdividing the prime vertical:

As can easily be seen, all the houses except the first, sixth, seventh and twelfth are exceedingly small: the four succedent houses are around 3˚ of longitude in size and the third, fourth, ninth and tenth are only around 1˚ of longitude in size each. This, nonetheless, is an accurate representation of the heavens as viewed from Fairbanks on a late-summer sunset, though the more purely astronomical picture shown above does add critical detail about how dark or bright the sky is. The critical point is that there is only a few degrees of elevation between the highest and lowest points on the ecliptic, and consequently the horizon can move extremely fast. Mercury actually sets from the purely two-dimensional astrological (ecliptic) perspective less than nine minutes after the Sun does so. At this time (6:04 UTC, 22:04 in Fairbanks itself) the Sun is only a second or so below the horizon so would still be very bright.

Consequently, at these farthest elongations, a skywatcher in Arctic or subarctic regions will never get Mercury at all visible: the Sun will completely block any attempt to see the planet.

The same principle applies to Mercury’s farthest western elongations, which occur with the Sun and Mercury are inverted in name, and their positions flipped by 180 degrees of ecliptic longitude. In astrological terms, one reverses the “planets”’ names and then places them in opposite signs. Be careful that doing one or the other would be impossible since Mercury would move from aphelion to perihelion and could never be at so large an angular distance from the Sun when viewed from Earth.

If we go beyond the polar circle the problem becomes even more extreme and interesting. Taking Dikson, Krasnoyarsk Krai – before virtually emptying the northernmost town over 10,000 in the world – we can see something quite interesting occur on 7 to 8 April (entirely 7 April 1993 UTC) from the perspective of a horoscope:
Horoscope for sunrise in Dikson, Krasnoyarsk Krai, on the day of a maximum western Mercury elongation of 27.8 degrees. Note how the horoscope is aligned in a clockwise direction, because what would ordinarily be the Midheaven at that sidereal time is actually below the horizon. 22˚♊︎, though the highest point on the chart, is at its lowest point attained in Dikson, whereas 22♐︎˚is the lowest point on the chart but at the highest point it can attain in Dikson
What’s notable is the here, more than seven degrees above the Arctic Circle,the sun has risen but Mercury, though still to its West, remains below the horizon because the horoscope is aligned clockwise and the signs are rising at this time of day in reverse order. This can be seen if we move to a later time in the morning:
Horoscope for Mercury’s rising in Dikson, Krasnoyarsk Krai, on the day of a maximum western Mercury elongation of 27.8 degrees. Note how the horoscope is aligned in a clockwise direction, and that mercury is never visible as owing to this clockwise alignment it rises after the Sun.
As you can see, when Mercury has risen, the Sun is already well above the horizon and fully bright. In contrast, when the Sun and Mercury are setting inside the Arctic Circle during this farthest western Mercury elongation (or conversely rising during a farthest-eastern elongation in late summer) the houses are conventionally aligned counterclockwise and Mercury, again, sets before the Sun or rises after it:
As you can see, Mercury is setting here with the ordinary MC in place at its highest culmination, above the horizon. From the chart below, we can see it takes four hours and fourteen minutes for the Sun to set after Mercury has done so:
This means that the “far” elongations cannot allow any view of Mercury in the Arctic, and this can be verified for this far western elongation with further sky charts for Dikson from the April 1993 western elongation:

As you can see, Mercury is in either picture never above the horizon at any point where the Sun is below. Indeed, as confirmed by the charts for 2300 and 2348 UTC earlier in this post, and from the royal blue picture that is used in ‘Your Sky’ to indicate that the sky is bright, Mercury is below the horizon of a fully brightened sky all along.

(For the curious and for those who would want to examine ‘Your Sky’ further, dark blue indicates astronomical twilight, dark red civil twilight, and black is completely dark night).

If we look at the near elongations that occur when Mercury is closer to the northern hemisphere summer solstice than is the Sun, we of course have the problem that Mercury cannot be as far from the Sun as it could potentially be at other elongations, including those where at polar latitudes both planets are necessarily above or necessarily below the horizon. However, it is in Arctic latitudes that one might expect the possibility that a near elongation could provide a reasonable view of Mercury. Thus, we will look at the near elongation following the August 2016 far elongation. For Dikson, this occurs on 27 September 2016 at 23:09 UTC (05:09 28 September 2016 local time):
Sky view for a “favourable” Mercury elongation on 28 September 2016 at Dikson

As we can see, even here the viewing of Mercury is not very favourable – and such near elongations which allow even this good a view of Mercury from the Arctic are very rare because they must occur on a late September or early October morning. We can note Mercury just above the horizon at its maximum elongation of 17.9 degrees, but the planet does not get more than 12 degrees above the horizon at sunset during any period of 28 September. More than that, in the ‘Your Sky’ diagrams for Dikson on this day, there are substantial periods when Mercury is no shown even with the Sun below the horizon and the planet above.

Unless the guides are inaccurate, this does suggest that Mercury is almost impossible to view in Arctic skies. The horoscope diagram shows that from the point of view of the Prime Vertical, the angles even at sidereal times when the period of the “Midnight Sun” is on the Midheaven are not sharp enough for easy viewing:
Thus, we can see diagrammatically on two levels why Mercury is essentially an invisible planet to the Arctic and subarctic skywatcher:
  1. the angle at far elongations is extremely low or even negative so Mercury is only above the horizon of a bright sky
  2. at solstitial elongations the Sun and Mercury will never (or barely at subarctic latitudes) cross the horizon
  3. at steeper-angled elongations on autumn mornings (or spring evenings, not shown) Mercury is only about 18 degrees from the Sun and can never get more than 6˚ above the horizon of a sky before civil dawn or after civil dusk
As a last word, because the steeper-angled elongations are the farther, from Antarctica Mercury remains easily visible, as can be seen from these views of the 1993 and 2016 far elongations from Vostok Station:

Sky at Vostok, Antarctica for the 27.8-degree western Mercury elongation of April 1993
One can see just how steep this far elongation is and that Mercury is visible on a fairly dark sky from Vostok.
Sky at Vostok, Antarctica, for the 27.4 degree eastern elongation of Mercury in August 2016
Although I may not have picked the best time, that the horizon is not shallow and Mercury easily visible can still be detected for this coming elongation as it would be viewed from Vostok.