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Chris Harris's Blog

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Current: April 2015

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26 April 15 (permalink)

WHAT A WEEK

I'm home after a week of activity that's been very different from my usual routine. It started with the FOP at the Vauxhall Griffin last weekend. I played two songs of my own and then two Bond themes with Mel, 'cos that's how we roll:

After that, Mel did her #nerdcore songs The Fifth Element and Starfleet Boys and she was awesome, of course.

I don't think I messed up my stuff too badly. In fact, it was fun. Not just the getting to perform live bit, but also the meeting up with friends bit. I got to hang out with Mel, which is always a hoot, but I also finally met some of my favourite FAWMers in real life for the first time. I really wish there had been more time to talk with everyone but the whole afternoon seemed to go by in a bit of a blur and at times it was all a bit overwhelming. It was a long day, too - I didn't get to bed until 3am on Sunday morning.

Mel came to stay with me for a few days after the gig, and as you might expect from someone I first met on the William Gibson Board, we nerded out in grand style; this ended up involving many episodes of The Prisoner as well as a whole bunch of films. There was much drinking of coffee. We shopped; Mel was on a mission to get things like sweets and foods that she can't get back home in Belgium. But we also hit the tourist trail, which started with a visit to West Kennet Avenue...

West Kennet Avenue, facing Avebury

Then on to Avebury, where we walked right around the stone circle, had coffee and cake in the café, and I bought another hat in the gift shop to keep the Sun off (the weather was glorious).

Avebury

We did Stonehenge - the first time I've been since the new visitor centre opened. It's a great improvement and I hope that the scheme to hide the A303 goes ahead, as it will make a huge difference to the experience of standing in that landscape. We were overcome by the solemnity of eight thousand years of history, as you can see.

Henge Selfies

The old visitor centre and toilets have been demolished, the old car park is being scraped up and the land around Stonehenge is being returned to its original state. I was delighted to discover that the Heel Stone is no longer right up against the fence alongside the old A344 - the stretch of road has been removed and fresh turf has been laid down.

The Heel Stone

While we were admiring the henge, Mel made friends with a rook called Jo.

Feeding Jo

We also went to Bath (for fish and chips in the Saracen's Head) and admired the grandeur of the Royal Crescent in the sunshine...

Royal Crescent, Bath

We made an evening visit to Castle Combe; the tourists had left and we pretty much had the place to ourselves. I love the warmth of that Cotswold stone.

After the tourists have gone 

Castle Combe

We also visited Bristol, although the main item on the itinerary there was the Showcase Cinema, so we could see Avengers: Age of Ultron on its first day of release.

It was back to London on Friday. Mel left for Belgium heavily laden with lots of English sweets, jars of Branston pickle (my house guests always end up addicted to the stuff, for some reason), a selection of breakfast cereals and a bottle of Camp Coffee. It was a lovely week and it was so nice to have company.

16 April 15 (permalink)

PREPARATIONS...

This morning I put together name badges for the FOP on Saturday.

Badging Up

The fact that I've got 21 badges ready for FAWMers who have confirmed they will attend, or who have indicated that they are likely to attend, has brought home the fact that this is happening, and it's happening the day after tomorrow. And there will be other people there.

I think I should go and rehearse a bit more.

14 April 15 (permalink)

SPRING CLEAN

The Juke passed 11,000 miles on the clock while I drove to London last week. The weather was so bad last month that it hadn't been washed since it passed 10,000 miles, but I finally got around to cleaning it inside and out yesterday, and it looks nice and shiny again. The amount of grit and gravel that I vacuumed out of the interior was remarkable. Where does it all come from?

I was using the kitchen sink to fill up my bucket so there were wet footprints all across the kitchen floor by the time I'd finished and I ended up having to clean the kitchen as well. After that there was a load of ironing to be done, so I did that too. By then I was on a roll, so I cleaned up the windowsill in the bathroom for good measure.

I'd just like to point out that all this cleaning is entirely unconnected with the fact that I will have a house guest staying here next week. Totally a coincidence. Not at all related, oh no.

GAS ATTACK

The London FOP is just days away, and I've been working on a set of songs to perform with the laptop. I've also produced an arrangement of someone else's song which Mel and I are planning to perform on the night. I might have got a little carried away with this one, as it currently has about fifteen separate MIDI tracks in it, but it sounds pretty good.

As you'll see from the FOP thread I linked to above, the plan is for the event to be streamed live on the web. If that happens, it also means it'll be available afterwards for you to watch on YouTube. Hey, no pressure, right?

As always, the prospect of performing live means that Gear Acquisition Syndrome has kicked in. The UPS guy has just delivered a TC Helicon Mic Mechanic, which combines EQ, compression, de-essing, gating, delay, reverb and pitch correction in a single stompbox-sized unit. Quite frankly, the amount of technology that they've crammed into the thing is ridiculous. I'm going to be playing with it for the rest of the day.

12 April 15 (permalink)

MUSICAL MEANDERINGS

Next weekend I'm going to head up to London for a FAWM Over Party, or FOP. This is when folks who have taken part in February Album Writing Month get together, perform stuff they've written, and have a jam session. I'm planning to play some of my stuff there, so I've been practising. It feels strange having to learn how to consistently reproduce one-off guitar breaks that I made up on the spot; I think I've got the music into a half-decent shape but I haven't played live in about fifteen years, so it's going to be an interesting day. I'm looking forwards to it, though. It's a chance to catch up with old friends and meet up with new ones.

A YEAR UP THERE

The weather continues to be warm and sunny. The nights are clear, too - which is why I was able to stand outside last night and watch a very bright overhead pass of the International Space Station at just after half past nine. It's sobering to think that the latest crew on the station will be staying there for the best part of a year. The fact that US astronaut Scott Kelly has an identical twin brother Mark who will be staying on the ground has provided a unique opportunity for study of the long-term effects of spaceflight.

EAGLE ONE, DO YOU COPY?

I've been watching a lot of Gerry Anderson stuff on TV recently; apart from the new series of Thunderbirds, I got a copy of Space:1999 Year One on Blu-Ray last month. It's well worth getting. The picture quality is outstanding and so is the sound - there is even an option to watch selected episodes and just listen to the music, composed by Barry Gray. It was the last work he did with Gerry Anderson, and it's among his best. The following year Gray had left the show and while composer and jazz trombonist Derek Wadsworth's score was far more up-to-date with the disco sensibilities of the 1970s, it hasn't stood the test of time anywhere near as well.

Today I discovered that Space:1999 had an even bigger influence on modern media that I thought. When George Lucas saw the show in 1975, he realised that the design for a spaceship that featured in a film he was making looked very much like the Eagle Transporter spacecraft used by Moonbase Alpha, so he asked the designers to come up with something else for the Millennium Falcon. "I don't even care if it looks like a flying saucer," he told them, and the rest is history. As you'll see in the video, the original design was eventually used as the Blockade Runner in The Empire Strikes Back.

7 April 15 (permalink)

GETTING SOME EXERCISE

It was an absolutely gorgeous day yesterday, so in the afternoon I went out for a walk. I have a route I've taken many times that's just under four miles - about right for my first walk of the year. My first waypoint, as ever, was the old ash tree at the top of Elbury Hill.

Back to that tree

After enjoying the views of Wotton and Nibley I walked down to the Wotton Road and across to the footpath through the fields at the side of the Little Avon river...

Follow the trail

By the river

When I got to New Street I turned right past the mill and walked past the boarding kennels to the crossroads with Swinhay Lane, where there is a very rusty road sign:

Disappearing

I turned left and followed the road past the sewage works (not so scenic) then it's under the railway bridge to Huntingford, where this willow tree looked spectacular:

Going Green

Then back across the fields, emerging back on the Wotton Road opposite the Pear Tree pub.

The Pear Tree

That just left a quick yomp across the fields at the back of the village. At this point, the first clouds of the day had appeared, and the Sun went in.

Past the church

But it was out again by the time I arrived home, where I was greeted by the sight of my magnolia in full bloom.

Suddenly, Spring

All the way around the route I was watching and listening carefully; in just under ninety minutes I either saw or heard seventeen different species of birds:

  • Blackbird
  • Blue tit
  • Buzzard
  • Chiffchaff
  • Collared dove
  • Crow
  • Great tit
  • Green Woodpecker
  • House sparrow
  • Jackdaw
  • Magpie
  • Moorhen
  • Pheasant
  • Robin
  • Rook
  • Woodpigeon
  • Wren

A lot of those birds were flying around in pairs and the sap is definitely rising. While a lot of the hedgrows are still bare, there are lots of buds bursting and with a few more days of weather like this, the fecundity of spring will be very evident. Even for an old guy like me, some nice weather really does make me feel good. Today I still feel great - better than I have for several weeks, in fact. I must make sure that I get regular exercise.

When I got home yesterday the temperature in the conservatory had reached 20°C. Today there's more cloud, and it's not as warm yet (right now it's 16°C in the conservatory), but the Sun is beginning to burn through and this afternoon looks like it's going to be lovely once again. I hope so. I've had enough of winter.

6 April 15 (permalink)

DARN

I was sad to read this morning that David Lynch has dropped out of the new series of Twin Peaks. It doesn't bode well for the revamp, as the original really went astray without Mr Lynch's guiding hand on the tiller. But we'll see.

MOSTLY TRIUMPHANT

One revamp that has already delivered the goods is ITV's new series Thunderbirds Are Go. The first episode premiered on Saturday night and it was an absolute joy to watch. There were plenty of nods to sixties' culture: FAB1 parks in front of a very familiar looking Aston Martin DB5 at one point, and we discovered that John Tracy's favourite TV show is Stingray. The writing in the episodes I've seen so far hits the right note, and best of all, equality has come to Tracy Island. Tin-Tin has become Kayo, International Rescue's security specialist, who has her own Thunderbird, Thunderbird S.

The only disappointment was the music. While the main motif from Barry Gray's unforgettable original score played during the opening credits, the music in the show itself was poor: bland, generic, uninspiring stuff that sounded like it had been nicked from recent seasons of Doctor Who. Listen to any of the original Gerry Anderson shows from the sixties and you realise what an important part the music played in establishing things. Simple leitmotifs were used for each craft, so that each time the director cuts to Thunderbird Five, for example, we would hear the same little snatch of eerie Ondes-Martenot play before the drums of the Thunderbirds March kick in...

In Barry Gray's music the strings, the woodwinds and the brass all got their chance to shine. There was always room for solo musicians to take a spot, too - even if they played banjo! In contrast, the music in the new show has become all about using ALL THE INSTRUMENTS. The composer doesn't appear to understand how to get variety out of an orchestra at all. There's no subtlety - it's all bombast, all the time.

But despite this, the show is well worth watching. It pays clear homage to the original but at the same time it looks fresh and up-to-date.

CHORES

It's been a "getting stuff out of the way" day so far today. This morning I spent a couple of hours doing the ironing, doing the accounts and renewing my subscriptions to things; all stuff that I've been meaning to do for a week or more. It's nice to have them out of the way and as it's an absolutely gorgeous day out there I can now go for a walk without feeling the slightest bit guilty.

3 April 15 (permalink)

WOBBLE

One of Twitter's more interesting phenomena is something called #LossLit, in which participants explore notions of loss through writing. It happens on the first Wednesday of every month from 9pm to 11pm UK time. I've taken part before, and enjoyed it, and I did so again this week. You write a tweet, tagged with the #LossLit hashtag, in order to "interrogate loss and uncover creative inspiration," as its organisers put it. The results can be poignant, funny, or heartbreaking in turn. My friend Peter came up with some good examples, particularly this one. I was pleased with one or two things that I came up with on the night and went off to bed at midnight, feeling like I'd fulfilled my creative obligations for the evening and actually achieved something. I'd earned my rest.

Yeah, right.

Somehow I'd inadvertently tapped into a very old, very deep vein of something nasty I thought I'd left behind years ago. Apparently I haven't, because four hours later I was still lying there, wide awake, trying to make sense of the emotions that had come roaring up out of the depths. That examination of loss had resulted in feelings of longing, loneliness, despair, and above all anger all welling up. And I don't mean gentle little frissons of regret, here, oh no. This was more like stepping into the flame of a blowtorch. I tossed and turned in bed, rocking from side to side while ruminative thoughts threatened to overwhelm me. At 4 am I am the world's greatest misanthrope, I discovered. I found myself recalling memories of events from the last couple of years and others that happened more than twenty years ago - I'm not going to go into them here but let's just say that none of them has left me with a particularly rosy view of how people treat each other - to the point that if some alien agency had given me a button to push that would consign everything to the incandescent pits of hell, I would have gleefully pushed it and hang the consequences.

Yes, it really was that bad.

It's unsettling to discover that underneath it all I appear to be just one sleepless night away from not just angst, but anguish. Anguish so strong that it constitutes a threat to my mental well-being - writing about this today it's abundantly clear to me that by 4:30 on Thursday morning I was not a rational human being. It really shook me up. I was out of sorts for the whole day yesterday, trying to figure out just why I'd reacted so badly. How on Earth can writing a few 140-character messages on Twitter trigger an existential crisis? Where did all that passion come from? And more importantly, how can I put it to better use?

Last night I slept far more soundly than usual and I woke up this morning feeling rested and refreshed. I feel good. The subconscious is a deeply weird thing.

And I can barely wait for next month's #LossLit.

IT'S NOT ALIENS

Brian Koberlein's article on those FRBs I blogged about on Wednesday makes for some interesting reading. The fact that each burst occurs within a tenth of a second of an official integer second in UTC (coordinated universal time) has me convinced that it's humans, not aliens, who are responsible for the signals. The fact that there's likely to be a prosaic explanation is somewhat disappointing, yes; but I'd still love to know what's causing them.

1 April 15 (permalink)

HMMM...

As it's the first of April, I find myself treating this story in the New Scientist with a healthy amount of scepticism. I know the paper was submitted to arXiv on March 17th and NS published their article yesterday, but it just seems too outlandish a story to be, you know, actually true.

I've blogged about Fast Radio Bursts before and even back then I commented that they present quite a mystery, but the discovery that the delay between the first and last burst in each of the 10 FRBs that have detected so far is always close to a multiple of 187.5 is kind of interesting, to put it mildly. The scientists who analysed the signals claim there is a 5 in 10,000 probability that the line-up is coincidence. "If the pattern is real," says John Learned at the University of Hawaii, "it is very, very hard to explain."

If these events turn out to originate much closer to home and fall into a category of signal that's been named perytons, I'll be disappointed - but for now I'm savouring a good bit of April weirdness.

PRODUCTIVITY BOOST

There was a fault at the local telephone exchange this morning and I ended up with no Internet access for a few hours. I ended up doing some cleaning - the living room hasn't looked this tidy since I prepared for vistors at Christmas.

The amount of dust that had accumulated was crazy - you should have seen the vents on the front of the PC. Why yes, I have just vacuumed my computer, why do you ask? The build-up of dust wasn't that bad in the past and I'm guessing the principal culprit will be the carpet. It's the original floor covering, and as the house was built 25 years ago it really doesn't owe me anything. Maybe I should replace all the carpet in the house with hardwood flooring...

YOU'RE NOT FOOLING ANYONE

As a result of dropping off the net, I missed all this year's April Fools hoaxes. To be honest I'm fine with that. Something that used to mean creative and fun pranks from people who didn't normally do humour has become a predictably tedious event that's not even remotely amusing. It's turned in to a competition between company marketing departments to see who can get most press coverage. My favourite hoax of the last fifty years didn't even take place in April: it played out in September 1967.

Quite frankly most efforts these days just suck. Get off my lawn.

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