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3 July 15 (permalink)


Tomorrow is July 4th. It's an important day for me and for quite a few of my friends, as it's the day when Fifty/Ninety kicks off and we all start working towards the goal of writing fifty songs in the ninety days between July 4th and October 1st. Fifty/Ninety is brought to you by Eric and Jen Distad, the wonderful folks behind FAWM (February Album Writing Month). Once again, you'll be able to track how I'm doing on my Fifty/Ninety profile and I'll be blogging here about my experiences over the next three months. If music isn't your thing, I apologise in advance.

This will be the third year I've taken part, and so far I've managed to reach my target successfully every time. It's a longer haul than FAWM, and the number of musicians taking part is noticeably smaller. The need for sustained effort tends to make it more of a project for serious diehards like me; last year just 27 of us managed to hit that target of 50 songs out of just under 2000 registered participants (although not all of those 5090ers take part every year).

The fact that the numbers are so small got me thinking: why am I such a diehard about songwriting? Since I started doing FAWM in 2009 I've written nearly 250 songs, most of which have only been heard by a few dozen people. I'm not going to make a living from my album sales any time soon. None of my music has ever been played on the radio, to my knowledge. So why do I do it? What's the point?

The short answer is simple: I can't imagine not doing it.

I'll be 55 years old next month. I've been a musician for a long time and I'm past the stage where I expect to become an overnight success (or any other sort of success, if I'm honest). I don't write songs to sell them, or even to entertain anyone other than myself. But being a musician is who I am. And every year I try to become a little bit better than I was the year before. I think my lyrics and my choice of subject matter these days are pretty good, but I'm sure I could do better. I could try new rhyming structures, for example - although I'm not sure I'll ever be as adept as They Might Be Giants, who can even write a song in villanelle form.

While writing the songs is an important part of Fifty/Ninety for me, it doesn't stop there. In recent years I've written things that, when I start out, I'm not entirely sure I'm capable of playing. I don't just push my skills to their limits, I push them beyond. "I wonder if I could pull off a harmony lead guitar break here," I think to myself. Or, "I wonder if I could come up with something that sounds like it could quite plausibly be from a James Bond film?" And the demos that I create for my songs these days bear no relation to my early efforts, becuase the way I record them and the technology I use in the process has changed out of all recognition. I know that Fifty/Ninety isn't about the production and that many people take part with nothing more than a ukulele, their voice and the recording app on their phone, but that's not me. I want my stuff to sound like I had an entire band helping me out. And each year I want my stuff to sound more polished. I just want to wake up tomorrow a better musician than I was today. I want to make progress.

Maurice Eisenberg wrote an article in the New York Times in 1946 about the legendary cellist Pablo Casals. In it, he related how, when the Germans were driven off French territory in 1944, Casals wrote to him in one of his first letters after the long enforced silence of the occupation.

“Now that the enemy has been forced to leave, I have resumed my practicing and you will be pleased to know that I feel that I am making daily progress.”

Casals was likely to have been 67 when he wriote that, and he was already a master at what he did. I'm never going to get even remotely close to his level of proficiency, but I think I understand the mindset. Practising helps you improve, so why wouldn't you practise? I try to play guitar or keyboards, or make music in some other way every single day. Practising definitely helps me make progress but it tends to be slow and incremental. The real leaps I've ever made, rare though they might be, have come when I've been pushed outside my comfort zone of just noodling around with ideas. It's when I have to come up with a coherent piece of music that I really start learning something new. It's when I have to buckle down and figure out how I'm actually going to play a particular scale or solo, when I have to avoid a predictable chord progression, or most recently when I actually force myself to get serious about my singing that I find myself moving a little bit closer towards proficiency. If I'm really lucky, I'll end up with something that when I play it back makes me wonder, "How did I manage to come up with something like that?" It's that feeling of achieving something special which keeps me going, that draws me back to these crazy enterprises year after year.

While lots of my early efforts were pretty awful, I've come out of each FAWM and Fifty/Ninety that I've taken part with a few pieces worth keeping. Even if I just get one like that out of the next ninety days, the effort will have been worth it. Even if I don't, the effort will still have been worth it, because I'll have learnt more about how songs work - or how they don't work. I'll have made progress in something, I'm sure.

Most importantly, though, the effort will have been worth it because I'll have been hanging out online with a bunch of the nicest folks imaginable who are all supportive and creative and just as mad as I am. Fifty/Ninety is where it's at this summer. If you're a musician, why not join us?

1 July 15 (permalink)


Every now and again the Internet latches on to some ridiculous claim that would, if people thought about it for more than a minute, or paid attention to things a bit more, or actually, like, remembered stuff, prove to be complete and utter tosh. But instead of rejecting the message outright and moving on, or - god forbid - doing a bit of fact-checking first, people copy it to all their friends and enthuse breathlessly about how much they're going to enjoy the latest night-sky spectacle - because it's nearly always astronomy-related.

One such meme that resurfaces every few years claims that Mars will appear as big as the full Moon at some point. No, it won't. Mars is roughly 4200 miles in diameter but it never gets closer to us than when it's at opposition and around 35 million miles away. Then, its greatest apparent diameter from Earth is a shade under 26 arcseconds. The Moon's diameter is roughly half that of Mars at 2160 miles, but it's just a quarter of a million miles away and its maximum apparent size is around 1800 arcseconds, or 30 arcminutes. Once you know this, you can see how somebody mixed the units up and made a fool of themselves; despite what the Internet would have you believe, the apparent size of the Moon is always around sixty times the apparent size of Mars.

Every year we're told that a full Moon will be a supermoon, giving the impression that it's going to look radically different, when in fact it just looks a teeny bit bigger than the previous month's. The difference is so teeny (around 1%) that you're unlikely to notice it at all, even if you know about it.

In 2012 we were all going to die because of some unspecified catastrophe that the Mayans had predicted, except they hadn't, and we're all still here.

At the moment, there are silly stories going around the web that the "star of Bethlehem" has returned and can be seen in the western sky just after sunset, or that it's a "once in 2000 years" astronomical event.

What they're talking about is the conjunction of two of the planets in the Solar System: Venus (the next planet inwards towards the Sun and the brightest thing in our night sky after the Moon) and Jupiter (the next planet outwards after Mars, and the biggest planet in our system). This conjunction is being made out to be some rare, mystical event. You won't be surprised to learn that it's not. Conjunctions of the planets happen frequently, as a quick browse on Wikipedia will reveal.


Well, first of all, the planets in the solar system orbit the Sun in more or less the same plane, which is known, not surprisingly, as the Plane of the Solar System. When a planet catches up with another planet (as seen from Earth), because they're in the same plane, we see them close together in the sky. Venus's orbit is inclined at around 2° to this plane, and Jupiter's orbit at just 0.32°, so when Venus catches up with Jupiter they can appear very close indeed.

As it's closer to the Sun, Venus's year is shorter than ours. It lasts just 225 days and that means it goes right round the Sun and catches up with Jupiter (which takes 12 years to go right round) in just over a year. Each time Venus catches up with Jupiter, they appear close together in the night sky because their orbital planes are nearly the same. So conjunctions of Venus and Jupiter are common, and happen, on average, every 13 months.That's a lot more often than once every couple of millennia! Last year's conjunction got quite a bit of coverage, but this appears to have been forgotten by whoever generated the recent meme. The maths of these cycles, known as synodic periods, is fascinating, as the intervals between conjunctions are not uniform and vary in interesting ways.

So the conjunction this year, while close, is by no means unusual. It's striking, but are you going to mistake this for the Star of Bethlehem? No. Of course you aren't.

Next year's conjunction, on August 27th, will see the planets much closer in the night sky, separated by just 4 arcminutes (this year's separation was 24 arcminutes). The next really impressive alignment of the two planets will happen on the 22nd November 2065, when Venus will actually pass in front of Jupiter. That's a much rarer event, as it last happened on January 3rd, 1818. You have my permission to go nuts for that one.


It was 30°C outside when I got up this morning. The Met Office are predicting that today will be the hottest day of the year, although here it's clouded over and the temperature has actually dropped a couple of degrees. It's muggy and still outside and I suspect it won't be too long before a thunderstorm arrives; looking at the radar there's a line of storms advancing north over the English Channel right now. I've taken the unusual step of wearing shorts today; I don't enjoy really hot, humid weather like this. Living in Tampa was okay, because practically everywhere had air conditioning. Here, there is no escape unless I go for a drive in my car and turn the AC on. Whatever you're doing, make sure you keep yourself hydrated - I've just got myself a glass of cold water from the fridge.

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