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Current: January 2017

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FUTURE PRESENT

SpaceX returned their Falcon 9 rocket to service yesterday with a launch from Vandenburg on the California coast, and I watched the whole thing on the internet. Best bit? Watching the first stage fly back down to the drone ship Just Read The Instructions in the Pacific Ocean and absolutely sticking the landing.

THANK YOU!

Never underestimate the power of social networks.

Earlier this week, Bristol Festival of Ideas used Twitter to announce a forthcoming talk by the neuroscientist Daniel Levitin at the Watershed. By the time I'd got round to booking a ticket, the event had already sold out. I was gutted - but as they follow me on Twitter, I decided I'd send a brief tweet back to them complete with a sad face emoticon, saying I hadn't managed to get a ticket.

This had exactly the effect I was hoping for. Two hours later I got a tweet back: "We've reassigned some seats. Try again!"

Five minutes later I had my ticket.

A GOOD WEEK

After two weeks' holiday where I was sleeping for ten hours a day without any effort at all, I was dreading the return of my work routine, but the last week has turned out to be a very good one for a number of reasons (including the one above). After reading Dr Levitin's last book on Thinking, I made a special effort to go to bed early and ensure that I got a decent amount of sleep each night, and that kept me going until Friday night.

In more general terms, though, I've come a long way in the last six months or so and it's difficult to convey what a difference not having to worry about making ends meet has made to my wellbeing. I wake up in the morning feeling happy rather than anxious, and it's surprising how much more resilient that can make you; I've just realised that I haven't come down with a single cold or bug since I went back to a full-time job, and that is very unusual for me.

Let's hope I haven't jinxed things by mentioning it now, as I will be needing my singing voice in a couple of weeks' time when February Album Writing Month starts once again...

LAST DAY OFF

It's the last Friday of my holiday; I'll be back at work next week. The decorations are already back in the loft, the cards have been cleared away and the tree has been disassembled for another year and whether you hold that Twelfth Night falls on the fifth or the sixth of January, the point is now moot: Christmas is officially over. It was a quiet festive season for me this year - I got over to East Anglia for a couple of days, but other than that I stayed at home. I think that's what I needed this year, though. I had a big sleep deficit to catch up on.

It's been pretty cold for the last week or so, with the overnight temperature dropping as low as -6°C, but we've yet to have any snow at all this winter. Looking at my earlier blogs I see that it was seven years ago today that the village got the heaviest snowfall since I moved here back in 1995. Snow is nice to look at when you don't have to go anywhere, although I did venture out on foot back then to get some decent photographs (one of which is currently gracing this system's desktop, spread across two monitors) but I don't miss trying to drive the 350Z in it at all. Fat tyres and rear-wheel drive meant it was terrifyingly difficult to control on snow or ice. Despite having the Juke for nearly three years now, I've yet to discover what it's like on snow and I'm in no hurry to find out. The long-range forecast for the next month makes no mention of snow, and I can live with that. This morning the temperature is back above freezing and although it's not by much, it's been enough to clear the frost and ice which has been lurking in the shaded spots of the street for much of the last week. All the same, I will be switching the heating on fairly soon, as it's just 16°C inside at the moment. Outside, it's trying to rain.

WHAT WAS I SAYING

...about not having "any plans for big purchases to expand my arsenal of sound-making gear"? Well, that didn't last long, did it? I've said goodbye to my old Vox Venue 100 bass amp (and pulled a muscle getting it down the stairs and into the car yesterday) and replaced it with a PJB Briefcase Ultimate supplied by the good folks at Intersound Guitars up the road in Dursley. The Briefcase is an extraordinary thing. Despite weighing 14 Kg against the Venue's 25 Kg, it puts out 150 Watts RMS, fifty more than the Venue, and there is an extraordinary difference in the definition of the sound. It uses two 5-inch drivers rather than a single fifteen inch speaker as used in the Vox. Speaker technology has come rather a long way in thirty years and when it's coupled with a 5-band graphic equaliser and a built-in compressor, it makes my bass playing sound much better.

Thanks to Denver making me an offer I couldn't refuse, I'm also going to be adding to my guitar collection in the next couple of weeks, and this is going to have a major effect on my guitar sound. More about that when it happens...

LET'S DO BETTER THIS YEAR

I usually start the blog with a cheery "Happy New Year" or a headline along the lines of "Here we go again," but this year, it feels important that I start off with something a bit more personal, and a bit more meaningful. We often reach the end of December feeling drained and exhausted by all that the passing year has thrown at us, and today is the only time of the year where we find ourselves living in a year that has yet to show us how things are going to be. Last year, 2016 had shown us how it was going to be doing things in less than a fortnight, and we never seemed to recover our equilibrium from that initial shock.

I spent most of last year waiting for the other shoe to drop. I didn't use the blog to comment on some of the most abhorrent things that I saw happen last year because I foolishly assumed that everyone else would think they were abhorrent too. Some events left me utterly disgusted. But by the time I realised that this is most definitely not the case for some people out there, it felt like it was too late to do anything about it.

There's a concept in politics known as the Overton Window (named after Joseph P Overton, Vice President of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, who died in a plane crash back in 2003.) The window defines the acceptable range of beliefs and attitudes shaping policy that the public will accept. Accepted wisdom says that politicians will make statements outside the window's range in order to change the range of acceptable policies in order to suit their own ambitions. How many times last year did you see a politician make an extremist statement and then, a couple of days later, walk back from it? They're not saying that they've changed their mind when they do this - and they're certainly not admitting that what they said was wrong. Far from it: what they're trying to do is to change your mind. "Oh well, they weren't quite the monster I thought they were," we think to ourselves - and accept the revised statement because it's less extreme than the original was, just as the politician intended. Worryingly, the more this goes on, the easier it becomes to manipulate the outcome. As the saying goes, "Repeat a lie often enough, and it becomes accepted as truth." When people talk about "post truth" politics, it's this manipulative behaviour that is being referred to. Politics these days is all about emotional manipulation, and emotions trump reason every time. Last year, politicians didn't just move the Overton Window, they kicked it to pieces. This is why it is essential to point out that the behaviours we are currently seeing - not just in the political arena but also in wider social contexts - are not normal. This is why it is profoundly important that we never accept these behaviours as being normal in any definition of the word. This is why it's important to highlight these behaviours when they occur and emphasise their abhorrent nature. It's why we must never let them become acceptable.

Because we've seen where that road leads.

Today is a day when we can take stock and recover our balance; today is a day of possibilities and potential. We look on January 1st as the day when the clocks are reset, when we imagine how things could be better; today is the day when we make resolutions to change our behaviour. Maybe this year, our ambitions should be a little larger. Rather than just focusing on changing ourselves, we should be thinking about how we can change the world and make it a better place to live in.

While it's still there.