Grumpy Old Blog

Chris's Blog Archive: January 2016

January will probably go down in history for being the month when an awful lot of famous people - David Bowie, Alan Rickman and Terry Wogan to name just three - shuffled off this mortal coil. It got so depressing that I finally gave up putting obituaries in the blog.

There were other things going on as well, though.


The Internet's favourite star, KIC 8462852 is the subject of another paper released on the ArXiv server this morning, and this one, from Michael Hippke of the Institute for Data Analysis in Neukirchen-Vluyn and Daniel Angerhausen of NASA's Exoplanets & Stellar Astrophysics Laboratory at the Goddard Space Flight Center, dials back the star's weirdness somewhat. Their analysis of historical photographs of the star shows that the effect is likely a result of changes in the technology used to take the photographs and imperfect calibration of exposure times. The same dimming effects were seen in the data for other F3 class stars over the same time period. In other words, the slow fade of KIC 8462852 is more likely a result of changes in how we took pictures of it over the last century, not changes in the star itself. It's not astrophysics, Jim.

KIC 8462852 is still weird - just not that weird.


With just a week left in January my thoughts have already turned to next month, when once again I will be taking part in February Album Writing Month and attempting to write fourteen songs in just 28 days.

Except that this month is a leap year, so I will be attempting to write fourteen and a half songs in twenty nine days. The half-a-song part is usually accomplished by writing a song with someone else, and plans are already afoot to do exactly that. In recent years I've hit my target quite comfortably; last time there was a leap FAWM I ended up creating nineteen songs in the month and last year, with just 28 days available, I managed a frankly ridiculous twenty one songs. Since I started doing FAWM back in 2009 I've written and recorded over three hundred pieces of music. In the decade before that, I don't think I managed to write more than ten songs.

How? It's all a matter of not being precious about what you're doing. You have to start the writing process and work with whatever comes to mind. FAWM trains you to cast off your internal filters, to shut down the voice in the back of your mind that says "this is rubbish" or "this doesn't rhyme." You learn to ignore your inner critic, even if you can't silence them for good. With a deadline at stake you can't be precious about waiting for inspiration. You have, quite simply, to get on with it. And after a while, you realise that your subconscious is actually pretty good at coming up with stuff. If you're really lucky, your muse really gets in to the spirit of things and the problem then becomes how to shut it up so you can get some sleep.

A week tomorrow, when I walk in to the room where I keep my studio gear and switch everything on I'll tell myself I won't quit until I've got something recorded. I won't allow myself to leave the room until I've come up with something I can use. There will be failures, yes - but the successes always leave me wondering how on earth I managed to come up with them.

Meanwhile, I've been restringing guitars. That's not a trivial task with my collection! The nine string sounds great with new strings, and I've been setting up loops on the JamMan and soloing over the top of them for an hour at a time to try and improve my chops. A certain amount of obsessiveness comes in useful during FAWM.

One goal I have set myself this year is to improve the quality of my vocals. Switching from a dynamic mic (a Shure SM58) to a large diaphragm condenser mic (a Røde NT1-A) helped my voice no end last year; this year I have finally caved in and bought Melodyne Assistant to help me out. From the experiments I've made so far, it will make a difference - but at the same time you shouldn't even notice it's there.

It's going to be an exciting and creatively rewarding month (it always is) and I know I will enjoy catching up with old FAWM friends and make some new ones, too. As usual you'll be hearing all about it here on the blog.


One thing I will make sure I do next month is write songs that have a bit of variety to them. This will include writing songs in more than one key (in contrast to the output of, say, the American guitar player Ted Nugent, which is as limited as his dodgy political views, never straying from the key of A) and I will make very sure that songs end in a number of different ways. Unlike a certain Australian band, whose fondness for the "guitar-chord-with-drum-hit" finish has become not just monotonous, but downright disturbing.


The only trouble with getting older is that your heroes start dying: Alan Rickman, Glenn Frey, Dale Griffin and most recently the bass player Jimmy Bain have died since I wrote last week's blog entry. In recent months I've written too many obituary posts, and it's becoming much too depressing a thing for it to continue. I'm going to call a moratorium on the things for the moment.


You may remember back in October that I blogged about how scientists had discovered that a star by the name of KIC 8462852 seemed to be dimming by huge and inexplicable amounts. The Internet went more than a little bit nuts over this, but at the time I just commented that "more science was needed."

The latest batch of that more science is in, and it's a doozy: from historical data going back to the 19th century, it appears that KIC 8462852 has been growing progressively dimmer since at least 1890. In other words, something has been getting in the way of light coming from KIC 8462852 for over a hundred years, and there's more of it now than there was then.

Bradley Schaefer, the scientist who has been analysing the data, is pretty unequivocal about the results, so I'll let his words speak for themselves:

" The century-long dimming and the day-long dips are both just extreme ends of a spectrum of timescales for unique dimming events, so by Ockham's Razor, all this is produced by one physical mechanism. This one mechanism does not appear as any isolated catastrophic event in the last century, but rather must be some ongoing process with continuous effects."
"The KIC 8462852 light curve from 1890 to 1989 shows a highly significant secular trend in fading over 100 years, with this being completely unprecedented for any F-type main sequence star."

That got my attention. Scientists don't often use phrases like "completely unprecedented" when they're describing something. It gets better; the "it's comets" explanation is looking pretty feeble:

"KIC 8462852 is suffering a century-long secular fading, and this is contrary to the the various speculation that the obscuring dust was created by some singular catastrophic event. If any such singular event happened after around 1920, then the prior light curve should appear perfectly flat, whereas there is significant variability before 1920. "
"With 36 giant-comets required to make the one 20% Kepler dip, and all of these along one orbit, we would need 648,000 giant comets to create the century-long fading. For these 200km diameter giant comets having a density of 1 gm cm-3, each will have a mass of 4 x 1021gm, and the total will have a mass of 0.4 M. "

That's a lot of comets. That's enough comets to make up 40% of the mass of the Earth. Schaefer doesn't mince his words in describing how likely this is for a star that's older than our Sun:

"I do not see how it is possible for something like 648,000 giant-comets to exist around one star, nor to have their orbits orchestrated so as to all pass in front of the star within the last century."

I was in two minds about the original story, but as I read the latest paper the hair on the back of my neck started to stand on end. Whatever is happening at KIC 8462852, it's now being described as "unprecedented" and "inexplicable."

Hence my tweet, just now.

Holy Toledo. Have we just discovered extraterrestrials?

David Bowie 1947 - 2016

When I sat down in front of the computer yesterday morning and read the headline on the BBC's news website, I sat there wondering if I was actually still in bed, asleep and dreaming an unpleasant dream. David Bowie was one of those artists who has always been part of my waking life. The idea that he could possibly ever die had, quite simply, never occurred to me.

Back in my teenage years, I lived in West Wickham, a small part of London's suburbia placed midway between Croydon and Bromley. When I started going to pubs, they were identified primarily by their place in music history, as I'd already been obsessed with music for the best part of a decade at that point. But when I talk about music history in the context of that part of the world, this inevitably and invariably meant that they were places that pertained to Bowie. When I drove my friends to The Three Tuns in Beckenham to watch them getting drunk while I sipped a Coke, I knew the place was where Bowie formed the Beckenham Arts Collective with Marc Bolan. On the way, we'd pass the block of flats where some of my female friends had occasionally stalked the poor man a few years earlier. The Swan, at the north end of Bromley? That was where Bowie and Angie held their wedding reception. Bowie was, quite literally, part of the landscape.

And as such, Bowie seemed as permanent as the hills. He was always there, somehow, whether as a topic of conversation or providing the background music for our conversations. He was always reinventing himself, always keeping us fascinated. Even now I'm struggling to comprehend that he was just a visitor, like the rest of us. It doesn't seem right that he should no longer be around. There have been tears - which surprised me more than anyone. I hadn't realised just how much I loved the man and his music.

I got to see him live twice, and each concert was stunning: first at the Docklands Arena as part of the Sound and Vision tour, and secondly at the Shoreline Amphitheatre in San Francisco in 1995 when he toured with Nine Inch Nails. And back when I lived in Milton Keynes, I spent two memorable evenings in the summer of 1990 sitting in my back garden listening to him work through his greatest hits on the other side of the road in the MK Bowl. On the Saturday morning, Adrian Belew and the rest of the band had woken me up at eight o'clock for the soundcheck, which was extraordinarily loud.

I didn't mind at all.

Bowie BBQ

Last night I listened to my two favourite Bowie albums, Low followed by Scary Monsters. And I had to play Heroes, because why wouldn't you?

This morning I woke up in a post-Bowie world. And that doesn't seem right. Not at all.


There are times when I just have to switch off and not go near the Internet for a bit. The stuff I've seen so far this morning has left me sitting here feeling brain dead from all the ineptitude. For example, there's the Daily Express. Second only to the Daily Mail in passive-aggressive skeeziness, the paper's website is a MESS of randomly-capitalized WORDS designed to provoke OUTRAGE in the proportion of its target demographic who can actually read. Its stories don't appear to have any connection with reality. When a former colleague of mine posted a link to their hysterical article about an Arctic SNOWBOMB which they believe is about to "smash into Britain" this morning I felt like punching my monitors. The actual forecast is somewhat less hysterical, explaining that "The weather will tend to vary day to day, with some dry and sunny periods, but also wintry showers which will occasionally merge to give longer spells of rain, sleet and snow. Snow will fall to low levels at times in the north, but also perhaps in the south too." However, this cold snap will be short-lived and "As we go through the following week it seems most probable that less cold weather will return."

The Express is having none of this, though. Oh no. On the planet where Express journos live, "Blistering Polar gales, several feet of snow and near-record low temperatures will grind the country to a standstill until MARCH, forecasters warn." I am at a loss to understand how anyone could infer this from the Met Office's current 30 day outlook, which predicts that "generally unsettled conditions will prevail with winds mainly coming from the west," and, importantly, that "Temperatures through this period should be near or a little above average for most areas, but further cold spells are possible."

My problem, I think, is that it's getting much easier to spot when the media is just making stuff up these days. And it begs a rather interesting question: what is the point of a newspaper that lies to you?


When I were a lad, the people creating Internet memes actually knew the language they were writing them in. So far this morning I've seen "sooth" used instead of "soothe," "Tsumani" instead of "Tsunami," countless "lets" and "thats" instead of "let's" and "that's," "their" used where the writer should have used "they're" and "your" where the writer should have used "you're" and quite frankly, I don't care if complaining about this does make me a grammar nazi. It's better than being thought illiterate.

I've had enough.

I'm off to play some guitar and wait for that blizzard the Express is predicting.


Welcome to the first blog of 2016. As usual, it sees me sitting here with a cup of coffee and the New Year's Day concert from Vienna on the TV. I saw the New Year in by reading one of Oliver Sacks's books, playing videogames, and not drinking any alcohol at all, and while it was rather quiet compared with some other years, I enjoyed myself. I hope you had a good time too. May we look back, a year from today, and marvel at how much better 2016 was than 2015.

31 DAYS TO GO...

As usual in January, my thoughts return to music making; it's only a month until February Album Writing Month starts again, and I'm really looking forwards to the annual challenge of writing fourteen songs in 28 days. And as it's a leap year this year, the target will be to write fourteen and a half songs. I can manage that.