Not so much a blog, more a way of life

Chris Harris's Blog

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Current: May 2016

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4,720 DAYS OF BLOGGING

This morning I discovered a website that lets you calculate the number of days that have elapsed between two dates, so I used it to find out how old the blog is in days. The figure I came up with, 4,720 days, epitomises the blog, in some ways: it looks useful, because it's an item of information, but because it's presented in the way it is, it's not particularly helpful. You can't actually do anything useful with it (except, perhaps, write another blog about it.) If, instead, I said that I've been writing this blog for a month shy of thirteen years, you'd have a much better idea of what I was getting at.

I remember reading a science fiction novel a few years back where each character reckoned their age and the passing of time in multiples of units not usually used for such things (I think it was in units of 106, 109 and 1012 seconds, which would equate to 11 and a half days, 31.75 years, and 31,710 years respectively.) It made my head hurt. The elapsed time calculator at Math Cats tells me the blog is currently around 407,803,500 seconds old, which is an even less useful figure than the number of days quoted above.

Why am I offering this tidbit of information today? You might have noticed that the frequency of my blogging recently has tailed off. Partly this is because my musical activities currently take up the time I used to spend trawling the web for things to write about, but partly it's because I've been trying to improve the blog's signal to noise ratio; when something crops up on the blog, I want it to be worth reading. More importantly it's because I'm trying to change the way I write about things here. Rather than just a quick couple of sentences with a link to an amusing news article, I'd rather wait until I have something a little more considered to write. I know I say this at regular intervals - sometimes I actually follow through on things, as I did back in June 2012 when I took the month to consider the legacy of Ridley Scott's film Blade Runner, for instance. March this year was an exemplar of what I want to do with the blog these days. There are fewer articles, but I hope they're much more entertaining to read.

That entertainment factor ties in to the main reason why I'm taking a different approach to the blog these days. I'm not the person I was back when I started the thing. An awful lot of water has passed under the bridge since 2003. These days I feel less anxious and more centred, settled. I might even go so far as to say that I'm happy. I mentioned last October when I worked through all the old blog entries to switch the site to a CSS layout that I realised how miserable I was for much of the previous decade. If someone as notoriously slow on the uptake as me can get that impression from the site, it must have been bad. Nobody wants to read that kind of thing for long, if at all. Angry rants may be entertaining every once in a while, but that's not a tone I want to be aiming for consistently. That's why in recent months I've avoided writing blog entries when I've been in a negative frame of mind. That's not to say I've been down this month - far from it. I've realised that when I'm in a positive mood, there are other more interesting things to do than sit down here and update the site. It might have taken me the best part of five thousand days to get to this point, but if the blog is being neglected these days, it's for good reasons, not bad ones.

MEME RAMPANT

Google's research labs have just made their language parsing systems - the software that "reads" text on the Internet and attempts to make sense of it so it can be indexed and searched - open source. But that's not why social media started reacting to the announcement on their blog this week, oh no.

It's because the section of code that parses the English language is called Parsey McParseface.

Rewind a couple of months. The UK's National Environmental Research Council (NERC) decided that a fun way of engaging with the public would be to run a poll so that they could choose the name of a shiny new polar research vessel. Lovely idea. But the public has a history of not taking these things seriously and the name that very rapidly rose to the top of the list was Boaty McBoatface. By the time the vote finished, there was absolutely no doubt as to the public's wishes regarding the ship's name. But unlike Greenpeace, who went ahead with their poll result and duly named their humpback whale mascot Mister Splashypants in accordance with the public's wishes, NERC had a sense of humour breakdown and named the ship the Sir David Attenborough instead.

Please don't get me wrong; Sir David is one of my heroes and he thoroughly deserves to be commemorated by a ship carrying out important work for the scientific community. But if you hold a vote for something, the assumption of those voting is that their vote will actually mean something. Putting things as simply as possible: if you hold a vote, you're supposed to abide by the result.

If you hold a vote, but don't like the outcome, should you be able to just ignore it? In ignoring the outcome of the vote, what damage has NERC done to subsequent public engagement with their work, however important it might be? People also started wondering if maybe the public's wishes when they get to vote on other things were also open to being manipulated or ignored. Cue a number of interesting articles in the media about the lessons learned and the implications for democracy, yada yada yada.

What the poll organizers failed to realise from the outset is that on the Internet, people can be dicks. Huge dicks. And running something that is wide open to manipulation or highjacking is just asking for trouble. NERC got off lightly; Boaty McBoatface was a pretty tame result in comparison to previous online voting fiascos (and in particular I'm sure that the folk in PR at Mountain Dew won't be trying an online poll again in a hurry.) I happen to think "Cthulhu" is a lovely name for a baby girl, so long as it's someone else's baby girl.

The point is that organisations have to go into activities like this with their eyes open. You can't be naive. If you do anything without thinking things through, social media will turn round and bite you. A prime example of this occurred yesterday, when UK supermarket chain Sainsbury's were - quite rightly, in my opinion - thoroughly vilified for an advert asking an artist to paint the canteen of their Camden branch for free because it would be "good exposure." After Twitter blew up with indignation, the company's headquarters very hastily backtracked.

Engaging with the public on social media is not a game. You have to do things properly, and you have to get things right. NERC and Sainsbury's got things wrong this week. As for Google, I can't decide whether their parser name is an ironic comment on such debacles, or a big company jumping on a meme bandwagon just after it jumped the shark.

Let's hear it for Mister Splashypants.

ANNOUNCING...

Today I'm even more excited than I was this time last week when I released a new single, because today I've released the album that it's taken from. Here it is: it's called The Blackest of Dogs:

The Blackest of Dogs

Click on the cover to listen - and buy in mp3, FLAC and other formats - over at Bandcamp. It comes with spiffy extras and bonus tracks!

I started work on this album on July 4th last year. I have never written anything as personal or introspective as this before, and there is a tremendous amount of emotional investment in the material. Why? Well, exactly a year and a day ago I was in a very dark place - the worst I have ever been in my entire life. I was wallowing in the depths of chronic depression, deeper than I had ever been before. At the time, I didn't realise just how ill I was - that's one of the dangers of the condition. It took a personal intervention by a close friend to make me realise that things had to change, and change significantly. At the time, it was an absolutely terrifying proposition. However bad I felt, it was a known quantity and while it wasn't pleasant or comfortable, I knew how each day would go. Doing anything about it meant change, and surprises, and my naturally anxious tendencies shied away from anything like that. When you view the potential for recovery as a threat, you're in big, BIG trouble. But I had to commit, so I did. It wasn't easy to do, but little by little, things became easier. Since then, I've been gradually finding my way back to a more stable state of mind. I underwent a course of therapy which helped me to gain an understanding, after some thirty years of illness, of what was going on inside my head. I finally learned to accept the past for what it is, and move on.

It's not been easy. I still wobble sometimes. But today I am in a far better place than I was last year.

By July 2015 I was already a changed person; the fact that I decided to write about my experiences in songs that other people were going to hear is an indicator of just how different my thinking had become. I'd hated discussing my feelings before then, and the suggestion that I should write about my emotional response to anything, let alone something as deeply personal as my own experiences, would have been met with lots of head-shaking and folding of arms. Yet when I started to write songs about how I was feeling, the lyrics came so easily it shocked me. Within the space of a couple of days I'd recorded five songs that made it on to the album; by the middle of July I'd written and recorded demos for twelve songs, and seven of those songs made it to the album (although many have changed significantly from their original versions).

Listen to the songs on the album, and you'll hear all about the journey I've been on for the past year. It was an uplifting experience to write out the whole arc of my story and set it to music. Gradually acquiring a degree of emotional maturity has worked wonders for my confidence, too. One result of this is that I have been able to push my singing into new territory. In the past I was never happy with my vocals and I would always multitrack them (safety in numbers, right?) By the end of recording the album, I was using single vocal takes, singing with my eyes closed and concentrating on the feel of the vocals. I hope it shows; certainly, I can hear the difference. And as much as the music has changed, so have I. I'm not the person I was a year ago. It feels good.

For me, this album is a way of drawing past events to a conclusion so I can move on to something new. It's an ending, of sorts. It's allowed me to look at the past without the filter of remorse and pain that always used to get in the way before. It's been a healing experience on many levels and it has left me feeling far more optimistic about things than I can remember ever feeling before.

I hope you'll give it a listen.