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Current: September 2014

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14 September 14 (permalink)

WHO NEEDS HELP

Last night's episode of Doctor Who started off in a very promising fashion, I thought. A good, old-fashioned, "what's under the bed?" episode - literally, it turned out. The Doctor had discovered that a dream of people getting out of bed and something grabbing their ankles recurred over and over again in Earth's history. As he investigated, we got a spooky sequence where whatever it was was standing behind him and Clara underneath a bedspread. Then at the end of time, the Doctor faced off whatever it was outside a time ship and got beaten up for his troubles. What terrible thing was stalking humanity across time and space?

The premise of the tale was completely annihilated by the last five minutes, when we found out that the answer was: Clara. Clara had been the presence under the bed when the Doctor had the dream as a child. This ending completely ignored everyone else's dreams, it ignored what was under the bedspread at the children's home, it ignored whatever it was the Doctor confronted that gave him a cut on his forehead. The hand-wavy nature of Who plots get stretched thin from time to time, I know, but last night the idea of an actual story just evaporated completely. The payoff was that there was no payoff; the resolution was utter tosh. It was incoherent. Forty five minutes of television constucted around a single, weak gag, a concept that hadn't been thought through, delivering a non-conclusion that left me wanting that three-quarters of an hour of my life back, so I could do something else with it.

I expect better than that, particularly from Steven Moffat, who wrote the episode. It could have been helped by better direction - by making the presence of the "monster" ambiguous, for example, and removing its physical presence on screen. If you never see anything behind the Doctor or Clara, then they might be imagining a physical entity. But:

  • There's a physical presence on the bed above Clara and Rupert, and we have to take Rupert's word for it that nobody came in to the room.
  • There is something under the bedspread.
  • When the bedspread is removed, the out-of-focus figure is very definitely not Clara, or a child; it's played by the actor and stunt legend Kiran Shah (and if the figure takes the bedspread off, why does it then leave with it?)
  • At "the end of time" (more tosh - where's the Restaurant then?) the Doctor opens the door and confronts whatever it is without going "oh, it was you all along, ha ha aren't I silly?"

And I'm sorry if you think that scene is ambiguous in any way: just as in Rupert's bedroom, the director clearly intends us to accept that there is a physical being present besides the Doctor, Clara and Pink. So the episode falls apart. Even if the story had somehow successfully negotiated that scene, the subsequent "it was Clara all along" resolution still wouldn't work, because it can't always be Clara under the bed in everyone's dreams or outside the time ship.

The sad thing is, last night's show was still miles better than the previous three episodes.

NEARLY THERE

I notice that the BT Openreach availability checker now shows Charfield as an enabled area:

"Your area is enabled for Superfast Fibre but your cabinet is not ready yet so you can’t place an order today. It is in our plans to be upgraded and we update this info weekly, so please check back later."

Promising news!

BEGINNING OF THE END

Brain damage, drugs, violence against women, homophobia and pay-to-play: American football is in big trouble and fans are switching off in droves. I used to like watching, but I haven't watched a game for years.

12 September 14 (permalink)

THE HAPPY MEAL OF MUSIC

Along with the other 500 million iTunes users out there, I discovered this week that Apple had given me a present in the shape of a free download of U2's new album. Apple were giving it away as part of the publicity drive surrounding the launch of their new phone, the iPhone 6. But yes, Tim Cook brought Bono and the lads out on stage at the end of the launch presentation. At least, the photographs I've seen of the event showed that happening; the live streaming was a complete and utter shambles. I can't even be bothered to find you a link to a summary of what happened, that's how engaged I was by the whole affair. I'm really not that interested in a watch that you have to recharge every couple of days, anyway. My watch, to borrow somebody else's expression, just works. I don't have to wind it, I don't have to send it off to have the battery replaced every couple of years, and it tells me what time it is.

And no, I haven't listened to U2's new album yet. I can't even remember what it's called. And isn't that interesting, in itself? Back in the day I'd really want to know what the band from Dublin had come up with. I can remember spending considerably more than £10 on the CD of The Unforgettable Fire when it came out and sat down to listen to it with rapt attention as soon as I got home. I can still tell you who produced and engineered the album (Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois) and who took the photograph on the cover (Anton Corbijn). But not for the new album. I don't even know what the album cover looks like. Does it even have a cover? Did the band assign any importance in producing artwork for something so ephemeral?

The fact that this release was given away for nothing means that, to most of the people who received it, it's worth nothing. It's the happy meal toy of popular music. Cheap, disposable; not worth critical assessment, and produced in mind-boggling quantities for a target audience, the vast majority of whom are so disinterested in the thing that will forget they even possess it in a matter of days.

This is what the music industry has become. Despite all its wailing and gnashing of teeth about filesharing killing them off, when it comes down to it they'll happily pile in to play a part in what must have been the biggest file-sharing event in musical history. I don't really do online music. I happen to think that streaming music services like Spotify are little better than the folk who pirate albums and share them on the internet; the artists involved see about the same recompense for both sets of activities. If I like an artist, I will buy their music. And I'll buy it as a physical object, too. I'm not really a downloads person (with the Internet speeds we get here in the village, that's not necessarily by choice, I know). But I don't think that streaming services are the root of the problem.

Marcella Detroit nails it when she writes about the U2 release on Facebook "All I can see is they are contributing to the further devaluation of music." For sure, U2 are rich enough that they can afford to give away something that they've spent time and effort creating. But even Bono said "I don't believe in free music," and my friend Deborah points out that U2 were paid an unspecified but no doubt considerable sum of money for their work. U2 were lucky enough to start their careers at a time when it was still possible for bands to make huge sums of money by writing, recording and performing music. Their legacy is such that they can still make a very good living from it. But that's not the case for new bands starting out these days. And it's a slap in the face to those musicians who are struggling just to make a living by doing the same thing. Making good music is not easy. It's a task that not everyone can do. People who are cabable of creating it deserve our respect and they deserve to be rewarded equably for their efforts. The manufactured and contrived music created by popularity contests like the X Factor and the like completely fails to represent what making music is actually about: instead the message is that widespread fame can be yours based on a three minute session standing in front of Simon Cowell. Well sure, it can. But you won't be famous for being a musician that way, kids. As a result, all music is devalued.

Listen to Dave Grohl, he knows what it's really about.

While we're at it, I'll just finish by reminding you that my album Beyond Neptune is currently available on Bandcamp. Seventy three minutes of synthesiser goodness spread across fourteen tracks, with extensive sleeve notes thrown in for good measure at the bargain price of just £7. It took me a year and a half to create it - why not treat youself to a copy?

11 September 14 (permalink)

ON THE TOUR

It was a glorious day yesterday. It was just right for cycling: Stage Four of the Tour of Britain cycle race came through the village, although the television coverage went to a commercial break just as the lead riders passed The Plough. I was waiting on Charfield Hill and got a good view as the lead group passed the Pear Tree and started the climb.

Hitting The Climb

Albert Timmer (in white in the photo above) came second in the stage, while stage winner Michal Kwiatkowski was at this point still in the peloton (he's on the right in the photo below), just ahead of Sir Bradley Wiggins (in the centre, wearing his National Champion's union flag armband):

Go Wiggo

They were followed by the travelling circus that is the Tour: over a hundred riders, marshalls, police motorcyclists, support vehicles and paramedics barrelling through the stage at an average speed of more than 25 mph.

Still More Peloton

And behind them was the traffic waiting to continue on its way, with the occasional group of stragglers who had fallen off the back of the peloton gamely trying to keep pace while weaving in and out of the cars and vans. The kids from the village Primary School cheered them all on, regardless.

Procession

It was great to get a national event like this right on my doorstep, and lovely to see how much of the village had turned out to cheer on the riders.

ENOUGH WITH THE DIY

I have spent a few days this past week preparing the garden and garage for winter. I managed to strip the dead ivy off the woodwork on the garage and then gave it all a fresh coat of paint. The garage door is no longer the mess that it was. I've spruced up the fence and the back gate (the first coat of fence treatment came from a tub I bought at Texas Homecare, which ceased trading in 1999) and I even got some folks in to give the back hedge its first trim since 2011. It all looks much better than it did. But I've got a nice hole in my finger where the paintbrushes rubbed the skin off and I ache all over. I don't remember doing-it-yourself being quite this much hard work when I was younger. So today I've been back in the studio making music and when I wasn't doing that, I have been sitting quietly in an armchair, working my way through the giant stack of books that are waiting to be read.

WHAT WAS ALL THAT ABOUT

I really have no idea what they're playing at with Doctor Who. Saturday's episode was all over the place, with Ben Miller and Tom Riley both wearing the fakest looking fake beards I have seen on a television show in years and a script that just couldn't seem to get a handle on things. "I really hope we get a Mark Gatiss episode soon," one of my friends groaned on Facebook. "This IS the Gatiss episode," the response came back. Miller was impressive, though - and I was struck by how much he resembled Roger Delgado, the actor who originally played the Master.

LOVE THAT FILM

I went and saw Guardians of the Galaxy again at the weekend, this time in 2D. I actually got more out of seeing the film flat, to be honest. But this time I've written a proper review.

4 September 14 (permalink)

THE NEIGHBOURHOOD JUST GOT BIGGER

Space is big.

Really big.

How big? Well, thanks to Robin today I found out about the Laniakea Supercluster, the gravitationally bound collection of some 100,000 galaxies of which our galaxy, the Milky Way, is just a tiny part. It's just been mapped in unprecedented detail which has revealed not only the positions of all these galaxies but also the directions in which they are moving; the Universe is by no means a static place. The idea that galaxies flow across space like water from a watershed is poetic and awe-inspiring and the distances involved in such motion are truly mind-boggling. Most of the supercluster (including our galaxy) is moving towards a region that's about 150 million light years away from us that's known as The Great Attractor. As the force pulling us is gravity, it would be more accurate to say we're falling towards it, but the distance is so great it will be a very long time before we get there. It's not something you need to worry about.

MORE READING MATTER

With a heart-warming thud, another book has just this minute landed on my doormat: What If, by Randall Munroe. The tagline is "serious scientific answers to absurd hypothetical questions" and he's not kidding: from a brief riffle through the pages, questions include "if every person on Earth aimed a laser pointer at the Moon at the same time, would it change colour?" "is it possible to build a jetpack using downward-firing machine guns?" and "if a bullet with the density of a neutron star were fired from a handgun (ignoring the how) at the Earth's surface, would the Earth be destroyed?"

I'm going to enjoy reading this.

1 September 14 (permalink)

THE END OF SUMMER

The schools are back, and summer feels like it's over. This morning it's grey and cool outside and a light drizzle is falling. The nights are beginning to draw in really quickly now, and it's only three weeks until we reach the autumn equinox. The supermarkets have already started to put out their halloween displays, and I've even heard tell of some Christmas products going on sale. It never used to be like this, surely? When I was a kid, it felt like summer evenings went on until at least the end of September. I used to walk home under the trees, crunching the sweet chestnut husks underfoot and picking up conkers that looked promising for matches at school. It was only the clocks going back at the end of October that started us thinking about winter: Bonfire Night would get things off to a good start, and then we'd begin counting the days until Christmas and wishing it would snow. Now the seasons go past in a blur. If I have to drive anywhere in it, I greet snow with an exasperated sigh. I don't miss the 350Z at all when the weather is bad; driving it when there was ice under the tyres was terrifying.

But this time of year has always been a favourite of mine. Summer's warm glow still lingers in the landscape, and when the leaves turn golden the countryside around here is quite lovely. Up the road, Westonbirt Arboretum will look spectacular. They get 350,000 visitors a year, and the largest number of those visitors come to see the autumn colours.

AHEAD OF THE GAME

I've kept up the pace of writing at least one song a day for over a week, now. That puts me ahead of schedule for writing fifty songs in the ninety days between July 4th and October 1st. I think yesterday's song for 50/90 may be the silliest thing I have ever written:

The title is another one that I got by clicking on the Videogame Name Generator. As soon as I read what it had given me, the first couple of lines popped into my head:

There's wild things in the woods and monsters in the park
They're all up to no good so don't go out after dark...

After that it was a case of imagining which playthings from my childhood would be the ones who'd come out on top in a Toyland deathmatch. I reckoned the toys from Play School would pretty much be the cream of the crop; they're survivors, having got through several decades in the brutal environment of children's television relatively unscathed. Just don't mention knitting needles in front of Hamble. Vocally, I used the lower timbre that I used on Gear Acquisition Syndrome a few years ago. The whole jazz-funk feel seems to suit it, and I'm really pleased with how the vocals sound when they're double-tracked.

As for the music - I recently bought the Funkmasters expansion pack for EZDrummer2 and I've been delighted with the drum patterns that come with it. The drum samples themselves are from the Claustrophobic expansion pack that's become my default go-to drum sound over the last six months. Combine that with the Korg M3's great Fender Rhodes and brass section sounds and its extraordinary capabilities for speeding up the compositional process, and I had the whole track put together in about two and a half hours. Not bad at all, if I say so myself.

NOT OVER YET

The Bárðarbunga volcano in Iceland continues to grumble, and a fissure has opened that is emitting lava. But it's all happening in a very calm and non-explosive fashion and with no spectacular eruptions to look at, the story has dropped off the front pages of most news websites. There are still plenty of earth tremors going on in the area though, so things are by no means drawing to a conclusion.

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