The Blog at the end of the street

Chris Harris's Blog Archive: February 2011

February saw me complete Album Writing Month for the first time, writing an album's worth of songs in under 28 days. Despite spending hours slaving over a digital multitracker and learning lots about the songwriting process while I did so, I also found time to witter on about comets, journalism, literary criticism and to lament the passing of rock legend Gary Moore.


Yesterday evening I uploaded my fourteenth song to the February Album Writing Month site, which means I've met their target of writing 14 songs before the end of February. In the last four weeks I've produced over fifty two minutes of music, which by my calculations is more than everything else I've written in the last decade put together.

As always, the lesson I've learned is that the easiest way to get better at something is by doing it, and the songs I wrote later in the month were (in my opinion) noticeably better than the earlier ones - even if, of course, they still have lots of rough edges. I made the decision early on that if I couldn't get something right in three takes or so I wasn't going to stress about it. I would just leave it and move on. As a result, a few of the songs I wrote make me cringe when I listen to them now but not only did I have a deadline to make, I also wanted to push the envelope in terms of what I was prepared to do and what I was prepared to share with other people.

I will go back and polish a couple of the others over the next week or so because they really need fixing. There are still two days of February left, and I have lyrics left over, so I may well add a couple more tunes. But on the whole, I'm really pleased by what I managed to produce. I really didn't know if I could make the FAWM target - it's a very different process to writing a novel - but in the end I've done it with time to spare. Go me!


One feature in the development of my songwriting this month is that the keyboard sounds got considerably more interesting. There's a good reason for this. The Roland JX-3P I've been using on the earlier FAWM songs is only new synth I've ever bought, and that must have been some time around 1983 or so. It's had pride of place in my synth collection ever since then, but doing a lot of recording with it this month has made me realise just how limited it is in terms of what it can do. All the polyphonic synths I have are old-school machines: the last one I bought was a secondhand Roland Juno-106 way back at the end of the 1980s which is currently languishing in the loft along with an even older Juno-60. They're all really great at fat, analogue sounds but if you want a proper piano sound you can forget it. I've known this for a long time and I've put up with it. But over the years, I've often told myself that one day I'd buy myself a new synthesiser - or more accurately, a "music workstation."

I had a pretty specific list of requirements. I wanted a proper, 88-key weighted piano-type keyboard. I wanted something that could not only give me a decent piano but also do a fair imitation of three of the most iconic keyboards in rock music, machines that crop up on dozens of my favourite albums: the Fender Rhodes 73, the Hammond B-3, and the Yamaha CP-70. It would have to have a sequencer. It had to include a sampler so I could add my own noises. It needed to have a good selection of drum sounds and allow for extensive and complicated pattern programming. It had to be able to work as a vocoder, shaping keyboard sounds according to words spoken in to a connected microphone (as famously used by Kraftwerk and the Electric Light Orchestra). And of course it had to have a kick-ass selection of sounds for me to experiment with. That's a pretty demanding set of specifications, so you may be surprised to hear that there were several machines which fit the bill, but last week I finally decided it was time to take the plunge and I plumped for a Korg M3. It was delivered on Thursday afternoon.

I'm still discovering how to use it properly, but this weekend I've really started to realise what a hugely powerful thing it really is. After sitting down for half an hour with the thing's "orchestra" and "grand piano" settings I'd managed to make something that sounded vaguely like it was written by Bernard Herrmann. By the time I'd added a couple of Theremin parts, synched in a Michael Rennie sample from The Day The Earth Stood Still and sat down to listen to the completed song, I was blown away by what I'd been able to do in an afternoon. Every now and again, I'll put something together and when I come back to it, I find myself thinking "did I really do that?" I have a feeling I'll be doing that quite a bit with the Korg.


Yesterday I uploaded my tenth song for FAWM, so I'm still on course for writing an album's worth of material - 14 songs - in 28 days. Of the stuff I've produced so far, I think my favourite is this instrumental I did called Software Assist. Naturally enough, it features a bass part I played on my Chapman Stick.


I've wittered on before about the overcompression and reduced dynamic range of modern CD issues, but I'm not going to miss an opportunity to do it again, particularly when the latest article doing the rounds puts the point across so well. When Ellie Goulding is releasing albums that are louder than Motorhead's, something is very wrong with the music industry. These days, if I see an album emblazoned with "remastered" stickers, I'll put it back and go off to find an older pressing instead. The inductry obsession with making your product sound louder than everyone else's is ruining the whole experience for me, and with my hearing I can't describe myself as a particularly discerning listener.

And while we're on the subject of the music industry, just have a look at this infographics page on exactly how wrong things are. It's a really well-presented set of data, and the page was inspired in part by a desire to correct someone else's less successful attempts at making the same point. As Mr DeGusta observes, things are even worse! Since the year 2004 the business has been in a pretty serious decline. Of course, lots of things have contributed to this - the fact that most of the planet has been mired in a deep recession means that people aren't doing as much discretionary spending these days - but the figures still tell a fairly dismal story. The fact that the average consumer now buys less than one album a year made me really sad. The page also points out that the figures concern the RIAA behemoths rather than the small indie labels. I'd like to believe that this is a symptom of growing cynicism over companies that have successfully managed to turn a glorious, creative act into a mass-market industry. After all, don't forget that 2004 was also the year in which The X Factor first started broadcasting.

Let's hope that the smaller companies - the ones who, after all, have a business model based on spotting and nurturing genuine talent and engaging directly with fans - can still thrive.


As I mentioned a while ago, February is Album Writing Month. I've been struggling for a couple of days to get the drums sorted out, but I think I have a way forwards.

The six songs I've written in the last fortnight used as many items from my collection of musical equipment as I can manage; the synthesiser on one song was an app on my iPhone! Now, where did I put my Stylophone?


Thanks to Lauren Beukes for tweeting about another gem she'd unearthed on the Internet - Back to the Future is a project by photographer Irina Werning in which she recreates childhood photographs by rephotographing the subjects in the same setting, the same pose, and as close to the same clothes as they can manage. As Irina herself says, "this project made me realise I'm a bit obsessive,,," but the attention to detail means that the results are outstanding. Skateboarder Nico not only has the same board, he also appears to be wearing the same pants!


People are talking about the writer Martin Amis on the web today, following some ill-advised comments he made about how the only way he'd end up writing children's books would be if he suffered from brain damage. Amis might be an insensitive clod, but his attitude is a prime example of the snobbishness rampant in literary circles about certain genres of writing. It's not enough to be a good writer, the cognoscenti say, you have to write the right sort of books. For the literary critic, stories for children rank only a little higher than that most despised of genres: science fiction.

I've been thinking about the web's reaction to the Amis piece in the context of this week's events in Egypt. The Internet has given people a new way of communicating with each other on both large and small scales, and it's now far easier for dissent with any authority figure to arise and spread. In the past, people in power were able to suppress coverage of transgressive behaviour; now they're discovering it's not so easy to hide things away. In other words, if you do something stupid these days, it's quite likely to end up on the web. And if it's sufficiently shocking, or stupid, or funny enough, it will go viral. Before you know it, the rest of the world has found out about it. There will be tweeting. And a page on Facebook. And as we've seen this week, people are quite likely to do something to fix things. As, I suspect, Mr Amis is about to find out.

The Amis piece made me realise how dysfunctional literary theory really is. For me, it highlighted the fact that many elements of literary criticism are as substantial as the Emperor's New Clothes. Woody Allen got Marshall McLuhan to hit the nail on the head during the filming of Annie Hall back in 1977, but back then there wasn't the Internet. In the 80s the science fiction author Kurt Vonnegut turned the joke around with Rodney Dangerfield. So this morning I've been daydreaming about what might happen today if the world decided that this was the next thing to be held up for ridicule, to be mocked and ushered in to well-deserved retirement and exile. The idea has a good deal of viral potential, because the critical reactions when a "serious" writer turns his or her hand to writing SF are so touchingly desperate. Watching reviewers struggle to reconcile two completely incompatible opinions is hilarious. Rejection of the genre is so entrenched in criticism that the only way works of SF can be accepted as equal to any in mainstream fiction is by pretending that actually, they aren't really SF at all. David Langford's indispensible monthly round up of all things SF, the Ansible Newsletter, collects many such instances in his "As others see us" section. This month Mr Langford singles out Rachel Cusk's painful attempts in the Guardian to convince herself that Kazuo Ishiguro's novel Never Let Me Go - which, after all, is about people living in an alternate reality, where clones are harvested for organ transplants - is not science fiction. In Ms Cusk's view, Ishiguro's best-selling novel is actually the reverse of science fiction, because "it has more in common with a novel such as Camus's The Plague, in which a dystopian but familiar reality dramatises the dilemmas of the age." Oh right, Rachel. Dystopian but familiar. You mean like Aldous Huxley's Brave New World? And Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale, or Oryx and Crake, by any chance? Perhaps you've read Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451? Or John Brunner's Stand On Zanzibar? Maybe something by Philip K Dick?

When I was a kid I thought grown-ups always knew what they were talking about. I realised when I became one of those grown ups that most of the time, they don't. I love science fiction; I have been an aficionado since I was a teenager. I know that not everyone feels the same way about SF, but when I read something about the subject, I expect the writer to have at least some familiarity with the basics. So when someone uses one of the central tenets of science fiction as a means of justifying the assertion that a novel is not SF, I find the attitude pretty breathtaking no matter whether it arose through ignorance or arrogance. So I'm going to use the Internet for the purpose to which it is ideally suited: I'm going to tell people about it so they can point and laugh, and mock.

And with any luck, things will change for the better. I can dream, can't I?


"On the back of his head there was a second face, twisted and evil." - the (possibly apocryphal) story of Poor Edward.


NYU assistant professor Wafaa Bilal's headline-grabbing stunt to bolt a camera to the back of his head for a year has come to a premature and somewhat ignominious end. It turns out that the human body does not like having bits of consumer electronics screwed into it. Blimey, who'd have though it, eh? Bilal was talking about having to spend the rest of the year wandering around with the thing taped to his head or hanging round his neck instead. As this raises the considerable risk of him looking like an utter idiot, I hope he'll decide to cut his losses and bring the project to a close.

"Egon, this reminds me of that time you tried to drill a hole in your head. Remember that?"

"That would have worked, if you hadn't stopped me."

Although Bilal's work is about art, rather than science, much of the press coverage failed to make this distinction and stunts like this do nothing to encourage the media to improve its coverage of science and technology. As an artist, Bilal's actions are as much about gaining publicity for himself as they are about his work. However, you need only look at Kevin Warwick's many appearances in the UK press (just do a google search for "Professor Cyborg", for instance) to see a painfully close parallel in the field of science.

The sad fact is that it's only this sort of story that gets the major coverage in the papers and on radio or TV. It's almost as if there are two separate versions of the world these days: there's reality, and there's the world that the media corporations think we're all living in. Their world is a dream world, populated with psychics and ghosts, with PR agencies and celebrity makeovers, where any examination of serious and important issues has long been displaced by utterly inconsequential ephemera. But more sinisterly, their world is ultimately designed to sell us products we don't really need and to do this regardless of the environmental or moral implications attached. To make a slight revision to what I said just now: a lot of the time, grown-ups on the telly have no idea what they're talking about. The faster the rest of the world accepts this, the better off we'll be.


A gem discovered via Boing Boing today: 360° panoramas of 14 aircraft cockpits, including a Douglas DC-3, a Mi-24D, and a JU-52. And when you open the first panorama on the page, take a moment to look at the external view of the Mi-24 by clicking on the little arrow that appears on the open cockpit door. It's got rather an eccentric paint job!


Ever since I started digital photography, I've shot in jpg format. I've been happy with the results, and the first camera didn't provide any alternatives. But this week I finally made the switch, and I now shoot in RAW - which, as the name suggests, means that the camera stores the entire output from the sensor into a file so it can be processed later. As a result, RAW files work out to be considerably larger than jpgs - a fifteen megapixel camera will produce a 15 megabyte file for each shot. Canon supply some software, called Digital Photo Professional (DPP for short), that allows you to edit these RAW files and save them out as jpgs.

There were two reasons why I made the switch. The first is that memory cards have become ridiculously cheap, so a card that lets me shoot in RAW all day is now completely affordable. But the second has to do with the lens that I keep on the camera most of the time these days. It's the kit lens that came with the camera, the EF-S 18-200mm F3.5-5.6 IS. I knew it suffers from barrel distortion, but when I saw the evidence half way down this page from dpreview's review of the lens, I realise just how bad the distortion actually is. I'd also taken some shots where there was noticeable vignetting (where the light tails off towards the corners of the shot). Both the light issues and the image distortion are fixed automatically by DPP, so I finally realised I was shooting myself in the foot by not taking advantage of the software. When I've taken a bunch of photos, I'll report back with my findings on whether the change was worth it.

GARY MOORE 1952-2011

I was stunned to hear at the weekend that the guitarist Gary Moore had died at the age of 58. He's best known these days as a blues player but when I first heard of him he was an out-and-out rocker, playing in Thin Lizzy before striking out on his own with the extraordinary (and hugely underrated) G-Force and some of the greatest rock albums of the 80s like Corridors of Power, Victims of the Future and Back on the Streets. Yet he also acquitted himself well on the jazz fusion scene, playing on several albums by Colosseum II alongside Jon Hiseman and Don Airey.

I was lucky enough to see him play live several times, and his gigs were always something special. I can remember one night at the Hammersmith Odeon where the stage set included a walkway over the top of his backline of Marshall amplifiers. Behind the backline was a fearsome array of huge spotlights, and when he stood in front of them to take one solo I was amazed to see smoke start to rise off the shirt on his back. He didn't bat an eyelid. To be honest, I thought he was pretty much indestructible: he survived a hideous car crash when he was younger and given the resulting damage to his arm I always thought it was a miracle he could play at all. But I'll leave the last word to Bob Geldof in summing up the man's career. Moore, he said, was "without question, one of the great Irish bluesmen. His playing was exceptional and beautiful. We won't see his like again."


NASA and ESA have announced their proposals for a new joint mission to the Jupiter system, one which would provide orbiters around two of Jupiter's moons: a NASA orbiter for Europa to be called the Jupiter Europa Orbiter, and an ESA orbiter for Ganymede which (as I'm sure you've already figured out) will be called the Jupiter Ganymede Orbiter. If the mission goes ahead, it will be fascinating to see what discoveries are made.

The last NASA/ESA joint venture beyond the asteroid belt was to Saturn, and that included a lander (the Huygens Probe) which sent back data from Titan, so it's interesting that the proposals don't include a similar approach this time around. If Arthur C Clarke was still around I'm sure he'd have pointed out that they're just going by his instructions - landings aren't allowed on Europa. After all, the message HAL broadcasts at the end of 2010: Odyssey Two is pretty explicit...


The Internet is full of hilarious photos of menus bearing peculiar English translations of the names of foreign dishes, but only at Language Log can you find out exactly how some of those mistranslations happened. From now on, the humble octopus will always be an "eight fingernail fish" to me.


Thanks to Lilly for pointing me in the direction of The Colour Clock. It's a web page that updates its colour scheme every second by converting the current time into RGB values: hours for the amount of red, minutes for the amount of green, and seconds for the amount of blue. The results are delightfully pastel and mellow.

The only thing about the site that makes my teeth grate is that Jack Hughes, who designed the thing, commits that most predictable of designer clichés: he insists on using a lower-case "i" to describe the first person singular.


I think I've bought my last copy of The Guardian. Last month their music reviewer Alex Petridis wrote about Motörhead's latest album and made snarky comments about what it was like living in the 1970s, despite the fact that he hadn't even been born then - and he quite rightly got pwned in the ensuing comments thread. Yesterday, Peter Gill wrote an insight-free puff piece about Douglas Adams and the cult of 42 in which he implied that in Goldfinger, Ian Fleming had made the villain's age 42 as a jokey reference for a rich friend; presumably the niggling fact that Douglas Adams's radio series was written in 1978 and Goldfinger was written some nineteen years earlier in 1959 had eluded Mr Gill. I know journalists these days are content to surf the Internet for a few minutes rather than get out there and carry out proper research - and just read a copy of The Metro to see where that leads - but the dates howler was so ridiculously fundamental that clearly not even Wikipedia had been consulted.

Furthermore, I can state categorically that Ian Fleming never heard about the Hitch Hiker's Guide - because when it was first broadcast on Radio 4, he'd rather inconveniently been dead for thirteen years.

The trouble with The Guardian these days is that it's more of a lifestyle accessory than a newspaper. I've noticed over the last couple of years that the majority of the paper's writers have become fixated on relating their articles to themselves and their friends rather than on communicating what's interesting about the subject matter, or establishing what the implications of the latest events or discoveries might be. There have always been two sets of writers in newspapers: the journalists who can put together a coherent and informative story, and the hacks who top and tail company press releases and publish them as though they'd written it themselves.

Let's put it another way: there are people who are interested in building up their working knowledge of the rest of the planet, in discovering stuff, and there are people who aren't. A subset of the second set of people think they know everything already and yes, we're back to the Dunning-Kruger Effect again. All of the above categories of people work in the media. If a paper is going to make money, it has to get the balance between them right, but I guess there just aren't enough of the good journalists to go round any more. The weekend magazine in particular has become a shrine to self-obsession. I know there are some decent writers working there - Ben Goldacre springs most readily to mind - but it was only when I read Hari Kunzru's exceptional interview with Michael Moorcock yesterday, an interview which demonstrated a profound, deep knowledge of the subject in hand, that I realised just how shit the majority of the writing on the paper has become.

The biggest problem I have with the paper is that their focus is skewing further and further away from the thing that I actually buy a newspaper for: news. Although the current crisis in Egypt has been receiving decent coverage (far better than most of the other papers, it has to be said), the majority of international news is buried deep inside the paper. It's beginning to look like the American press, and that is not intended as a compliment. The rest of the publication is taken up with travel guides, adverts, and (in the case of last weekend's edition) large photographs of wannabe hipsters sitting on sofas reading books of poetry. As I handed over my £1.90 for the thing, I was thinking "this had better be worth reading," and frankly, it wasn't. The depressing fact is that all the other daily newspapers are far worse, so I am out of options. From now on my Saturday morning reading won't be done at the dining room table while I drink my coffee - it'll be done here, in front of my monitor and keyboard.