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Current: December 2014

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21 December 14 (permalink)

MANY WORLDS OF MUSIC

I don't listen to music provided by third-party streaming services like Spotify and Pandora. I never have, and I never will. They're parasitic organisms feeding on the music industry, and they grow fat and contented while giving nothing back to the host. For example, people listened to Pharrell Williams's song Happy on Pandora an incredible 43,000,000 times in just three months in 2014. The song is three minutes and fifty three seconds long, so that works out at 317 1/2 years of people's attention, or 2.78 million man hours. In that time Neptune would orbit the Sun nearly twice.

And how much did Mr Williams receive in songwriting and publishing royalties as a result of all this attention for one of the most frequently played songs in popular music of the entire year? Just $2700, that's how much. Taylor Swift pulled her catalogue from the services in November and saw her new album go platinum as a result - the first to do so this year. The evidence for how much streaming is damaging the industry seems clear. Alice In Chains drummer Sean Kinney was being forthright when he expressed his opinion earlier this year that "streaming services are a f****** ripoff" but there's no hyperbole there.

Online music has strange, unreal qualities to it, too. I was exploring Soundcloud this morning when I came across a track that had received more than three million plays. I won't embarrass the artist by telling you what the track was, but there were more than fifty comments embedded into the stream and all but one ran along the lines of "this is so cool" "best track ever" "this song is my life" and so on. You'd have thought the thing was written by Lennon and McCartney, so many superlatives were being employed. The only dissenting comment was closer to my own opinion: "dull, cut and paste, repeat" - because the music was second-rate keyboard playing set to a prerecorded breakbeat drum loop and clichéd lyrics being sung by someone with a voice that was even worse than mine. It was, quite frankly, awful.

But then I realised that a lot (if not all) of the plays and comments being recorded for the track probably weren't made by real people at all. Most Internet traffic these days is being generated by machines rather than humans; even your refrigerator could be sending out spam emails. There are companies out there who run botnets which are designed to boost your play count and add favourable feedback to your stuff. As an artist who uploads things to Soundcloud, I've seen them crop up on my own songs: "Buy 1000 listens for an unbeatable price!" They crop up on my tracks to make the bot look more convincing, as it's commenting on something that hasn't been targeted. In the same way, if you have a Twitter account you've quite likely been mystified recently whan a Twitter user you don't know randomly and unaccountably favourites one of your Tweets from months ago; the principle being employed is the same and the Twitter user is not a human being. They'll follow you and retweet you, for a price.

And realising that, it struck me how utterly unreal - and, therefore, pointless - streaming music is. As I observed on Twitter earlier, streaming music is a lot like parallel universes: there's more than you can comfortably imagine, much of it is utterly incomprehensible, it's completely irrelevant and you're not going to be able to use it as a source of income.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm going to listen to some music. On vinyl, because that's how I roll.

20 December 14 (permalink)

THE ROBOTS ARE OUT THERE

For the last decade and a half I've been running software on my machines that's intended to analyse signals recorded by the world's radio telescopes to search for signs of intelligent, extraterrestrial life. It hasn't found anything yet, but I remain hopeful. One of the instigators of the SETI programme, Seth Shostak, is on record as saying he expects a signal to be detected within the next 24 years and he is betting a considerable number of cups of coffee on the fact. Coffee is definitely Seth's wager of choice, as he was also quoted on Motherboard this week: “I’ve bet dozens of astronomers coffee that if we pick up an alien signal, it’ll be artificial life.” The italics are mine, as this is something I'd not picked up on before, but it makes a tremendous amount of sense, particularly for life that has left its home planet and is exploring the airless, cold, high-radiation environment of the space between solar systems and galaxies. Carbon-based life is not well suited to such places, or to the immense timescales that are required to get from one star to another. Space, remember, is big. Really big.

Professor Susan Schneider of the University of Connecticut has explored this idea in considerable detail in a chapter from an upcoming NASA book on SETI. She asks two questions about the aliens we might hear from:

  • How might aliens think?
  • And, would they be conscious?

This harks back to a subject that has long fascinated me, namely: can an artificial intelligence be considered as a "genuinely conscious" entity? What do we mean when we talk about consciousness? When does a simulation of consciousness become indistinguishable from the real thing? Does the "real thing" even exist at all? How do we know that we are truly conscious, let alone anyone else? This is known as the hard problem of consciousness, and I'm not ashamed to admit that on many occasions I have lain awake at night thinking about its implications. How do you know that you're not just programmed to believe that you are conscious, rather than genuinely possessing the quality? Searle's Chinese Room thought experiment suggests that another observer has no way of establishing any difference between conscious action and a sufficiently complex program. The pros and cons of the argument for genuinely conscious artificial intelligence are given in Douglas Hofstadter's Godel, Escher, Bach and Roger Penrose's The Emperor's New Mind, which are two of my favourite books. Schnieder reaches the same conclusion that Hofstadter does, that conscious artificial intelligences are possible. That's the reassuring answer, I think - or at least I believe I think it is...

THEY HEARD IT COMING

Scientists have recorded some interesting behaviour exhibited by a lovely little bird called a golden-winged warbler. The birds abandoned their nesting sites and flew 400 miles (700 km) to the coast the day before their habitat was hit by tornadoes. The team investigating their behaviour think that the birds responded to the infrasound generated by the storms - the scientists reported that there was no visible sign of the approaching weather when the birds left and the closest tornadoes were hundreds of miles away.

The most amusing part of the story has to be the safety protocol adopted by the scientists thenselves when the tornadoes arrived: "We evacuated ourselves to the waffle house in Caryville, Tennessee." I think I would have done the same thing.

IN A METAL MOOD

I've been listening to a fair amount of music involving 7-, 8- and 9-string guitars recently. Needless to say most of it has had profoundly metallic tendencies. Meshuggah are becoming firm favourites of mine, particularly after I saw this photo of Marten Hagstrom wielding an Ibanez RG9-BK - the same model as mine - over at Metal Injection (Fredrik is still sticking to his 8-string, from the looks of things). I'm also really enjoying the music of Animals As Leaders and if you haven't tracked down a copy of this year's The Joy of Motion I recommend that you do so in pretty short order. I've really been getting into Devin Townsend's stuff, too. The Ziltoid albums are epic, bonkers extravaganzas and I'm really looking forwards to seeing him play at the O2 Academy in Bristol next March.

But this week's discovery has to be the Swedish melodic death metal band Scar Symmetry. Their latest album The Singularity - Phase 1: Neohumanity has pretty much stayed in my player for the last couple of days. It's glorious stuff - aside from some extraordinary guitar playing, you get memorable riffs, mad time signatures, blast beat drums, lush prog-rock synths, and high concept songs in which death metal growling is offset by multi-part harmony singing. It pushes pretty much all my rock buttons. Check out track three, Limits to Infinity:

Even the fact that the tracks on the album are numbered in binary makes me smile. I love it.

I also love how social media brings about an immediate connectedness that would have been unthinkable thirty years ago. Peter Watkinson and I exchanged tweets on Twitter about the album and got retweeted just now by Lars Palmqvist, one of the vocalists in the band. How cool is that?

14 December 14 (permalink)

BACK TO 2001

Matthew Sweet's discussion of Stanley Kubrick's classic science fiction movie 2001: A Space Odyssey with Sir Christopher Frayling, Professor Brian Cox, Gary Lockwood and Keir Dullea that took place at the British Film Institute recently is now available online. There are some interesting observations. I wasn't aware that Douglas Rain, the voice of HAL, narrated the National Film Board of Canada's short film Universe in 1960 - or that, as it was one of the films that Kubrick watched whilst researching 2001, it is likely to be what led to him casting Rain after deciding that Nigel Davenport wasn't right for the role.

Watching Universe I'm amazed by how many shots it contains that were subsequently used for other films and TV programmes, particularly the shots of asteroids passing in front of the Sun. But as it was made in the year I was born, our knowledge of the Solar System was much more limited than it is now. The fact that we couldn't see the surface of Venus is explained as being due to "dust storms, or perhaps dense cloud." Over a half-century later, we can watch a much more accurate depiction of environments in the Solar System courtesy of Eric Wernquist and his extraordinary film Wanderers, which sets the words of Carl Sagan to some truly beautiful imagery. It's worth a watch.

PRODUCTIVE

It was a gorgeous day yesterday and I finally got around to doing the gardening I'd been putting off since October. I have a buddleia in the back garden and to keep them in good shape you're supposed to cut them right back every year. So out came the branch trimmers and the secateurs (I always wondered what the etymology of that word was, so I just looked it up - it comes from the Latin for "to cut" so no real surprise there, then). I cut back some of the other shrubs and cleared as much of the ivy which has been growing through the fence from next door as I could. Once I'd finished, I'd filled up my green wheely bin for the second time in a week and the lawn was mainly mud. I was glad I was wearing wellies. My local robin was delighted with all this, and spent the afternoon flitting around in the back garden singing loudly. To help him out I emptied and disinfected all the bird feeders in the back garden, refilled them, and left some mealworms on the bird table. Once I'd done all that, I disinfected the sink and the kitchen worktops. While I was at it, I emptied and cleaned the pedal bin, too. I smelled of bleach for most of the evening.

I seem to have spent most of yesterday doing chores; I also found time to wash the car, clean up the living room a bit, and I made a start on the laundry which had been left to accumulate over the last three weeks or so. I felt very pleased with myself by the time I sat down for supper. In the evening I ended up in the studio for a couple of hours playing the 9-string and programming a new patch on the M3, then stood in the back garden for a few minutes and saw a few Geminids before the sky clouded over. Not a bad day at all.

12 December 14 (permalink)

TWELVE DAYS TO GO

It's less than a fortnight until Christmas, and I'm beginning to get into the festive mood. Today one of my former colleagues pointed out a notice going around the web which suggests to parents of small children that the bright pass of the International Space Station over the UK between 17:20 and 17:27 on the evening of Christmas Eve could be pointed out as being Santa in his sleigh. I think this is cruel and heartless, because it's not true. Santa doesn't move that slowly; the ISS is travelling at less than 18,000 miles per hour. Much better to explain that, according to a 1978 paper by Gary Horowitz and Basilis Xanthopoulos, Santa has to travel very fast indeed to visit the two billion households on Earth where he leaves presents. In fact, he has to travel at around 70,000 miles per second, or more than a third of the speed of light. This is, of course, why children never see Santa or his sleigh.

Brighter kids may have figured out that travelling that quickly requires colossal amounts of energy, but Horowitz and Xanthopoulos knew the answer to that: Santa has a rotating black hole in his headquarters at the North Pole. By slingshotting around it in a certain trajectory, he can not only avoid being sucked in, he can leave with more energy than he started with via something called the Penrose Process. I was amused to find that when I googled a reference to Santa's application of this just now, my blog post from the 22nd December 2006 was the top result!

On Wednesday I went to the cinema to see the movie Interstellar. I may be wrong, but I think that Christopher Nolan's film may be the first time that the Penrose Process has actually been depicted on the silver screen. The visuals and the physics in the film are spectacular, even if the planetary scientist Carolyn Porco pointed out you wouldn't get waves that big in a shallow sea without them breaking. But the movie left me disappointed. I've written a full review of the thing here.

Alternatively, children may wish to look out for the trail of glowing blue Cerenkov radiation that Santa leaves behind him, caused (according to Arnold Pompos and Sharon Butler of Purdue University) by the fact that Santa travels much faster at 99.999999% of the speed of light. This allows him time to eat all the mince pies and drink all the sherry that has been left out for him, so let's hope the police aren't hanging around somewhere waiting to breathalyse him. Don't tell them about NORAD's Santa Tracker, okay kids?

Oh, and the story of how the North American Aerospace Defense Command got involved in tracking Santa's trajectory is worth a read in itself.

TERRIBLE

Yodel are struggling to cope with Christmas, says the Guardian. No surprise there; this is the state of a parcel they delivered to me this week. It was left out in the street by the dustbin. They didn't knock, or ring the doorbell. Instead I got a "sorry we missed you" card through the door - despite the fact that I was in - and by the time I went outside the driver was long gone. I'm not surprised. Given the service they provide, I bet coming face to face with customers is pretty high up on their list of things to avoid.

Reading the comments on that Guardian story, it's clear that my experience isn't a one-off, either. This is how Yodel do business a lot of the time. Ruth tells me they delivered a parcel at her house by leaving it in her half-full dustbin. They've even ended up on the BBC's consumer affairs programme Watchdog. It's so nice to see the free market working in the customer's interests like this, eh folks?

10 December 14 (permalink)

DIVERSIONS

When I retrieved the Christmas decorations from the loft at the weekend, I discovered that my favourite set of Christmas tree lights didn't work - the wires had snapped. The lights were at least five years old, so I guess they didn't owe me anything, but I was sad to see them go, as they reminded me of my mother. I'd bought her the same set, and she loved them, and got me to put them up in the living room and she left them up all year. I put my set aside, and tried another set of lights. They didn't work either. And neither did the next set. All I had left were blue lights, which are just wrong on a tree, and white lights, which go on the house, not the tree. The tree has to have red lights, to go with the red decorations. It's... a Thing, okay?

Instead of decorating the tree I decided to tidy the living room up a bit, but rapidly came to the conclusion that I needed some more shelves, so the following morning I headed down to the local DIY superstore, found just the sort of lights I was looking for, and stocked up with some bits of spruce and a couple of shelf brackets. I'd planned to build the shelves in the conservatory, but when I discovered the conservatory roof looked like this...

Ferns

...I decided to work in the lounge instead. I got sawdust everywhere. Nevertheless, the end result of my unexpected diversion into DIY was a success, and the living room now looks a lot tidier than it did. In other news, my Blu-Ray discs are now alphabetised.

Christmas Prep 2

Christmas Prep 1

This all means that I now have plenty of room for this year's Christmas cards, which have already started to arrive. I laughed when one that was addressed to "Guitar Man" landed on the doormat yesterday. Cheers Linsey!

BEAUTIFUL

The typography of 2001: A Space Odyssey. It took reading this to make me recognise something explicitly that I'd noticed subconsciously right from the first time I saw the film when I was eight: Kubrick had a thing about using upper case letter Os instead of zeroes, didn't he? But the film is the main reason why I love Gill Sans and Futura so much. For me, they are the future.

6 December 14 (permalink)

KEEPING WARM

It's a Saturday morning in December and it's still well below freezing outside; the temperature dropped to -3.2°C (26.2°F) overnight and it hasn't risen above 7°C for several days. Despite this, the temperature in the conservatory hasn't dipped below 4°C. I'm really impressed by how effective the insulation can be on a room that is quite literally a glass box. It really helps the rest of the house stay warm, too. Even so, the heating's on right now. I suspect I will be staying indoors today.

FEELING FESTIVE

I've spent the last ten days or so preparing and then teaching a course. I was averaging well over 14 hours a day working, and by yesterday evening I was knackered and running entirely on caffeine, but the whole experience has been great fun. This morning a fresh infusion of coffee has kicked the brain cells into gear, and the fact that it's now less than three weeks to Christmas has finally sunk in. Today's the first opportunity I've had to sit down and think about getting the Christmas decorations sorted out, so it's time to head into the loft and retrieve them.

I returned from the supermarket last night with a few Christmas goodies, too - I got hooked on lebkuchen and pfeffernüsse back in the 90s and when I saw them on sale, I had to get some. They're some of my favourite Christmas treats. But I need to start thinking about Christmas treats for other people, too. I've already started my Christmas shopping, which is better than I managed several times back in the 80s. I once found myself in the branch of W H Smiths underneath the office where I worked in Cheapside at lunchtime on Christmas Eve, which is not a good situation to be in if you want to be giving carefully chosen and thoughtful presents to your loved ones. I intend being considerably more organized this year.

GETTING IT

I may have been frazzled last night, but that wasn't going to stop me playing my new Ibanez for a while to unwind. The more I play it, the more I love the thing. It's a very different beast to the Jackson - in fact it almost feels like a different type of instrument altogether - but it's extremely satisfying to play and as I noodled on it I started coming up with things that could be turned into "proper" pieces of music. The way things were going last night, I may be back recording new music well before February Album Writing Month comes around again. And that's a good thing.

DOH

What is NOT a good thing is when I screw up the blog's RSS feed. I wasn't paying sufficient attention to it. What was I saying about being organized? It should all be fixed now. Apologies.

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