Whenever there's a chance of cold weather on the horizon, the UK media work themselves into a frenzy; the Daily Express starts doing so about half way through September every year, warning about "Arctic Blasts" and other such drivel. It's not when the wind comes from the arctic that we have to worry; as I wrote in the last blog entry, it's when a blocking high establishes itself and the wind swings round to the east that we get more significant snowfall. Such is the situation at the moment, and there has been much talk today of the "Beast from the East" causing widespread disruption. Norfolk in particular appears to have completely ground to a halt. Further south in London, Southeast Trains started cancelling trains two days ago, but then again, that's normal behaviour for them, regardless of what the weather is getting up to.
All the chaos across England has been caused by a paltry 15 centimetres of snow at most. The country has switched to panic mode. I called in at the supermarket in Cam tonight on the way home from work to get some milk, and the produce shelves were almost empty in places. There was no semi-skimmed milk left, no baking potatoes, and most root vegetables had been snapped up. Forget about buying fresh bread, it's all gone. I decided to panic buy a couple of bottles of Merlot, an orange, and a lemon, just to be on the safe side. If I do get snowed in over the next couple of days, at least I'll have Glühwein. You can't be too careful.
Joking aside, it has been unusually cold this week. The overnight temperature here dropped to -6°C and tonight it's likely to get colder still. When I drove home through Wickwar this evening it was snowing heavily and as it was -5°C even at 6pm, none of it was melting; instead, it was blowing across the road. Tomorrow, Storm Emma will arrive in the South West from the Bay of Biscay, and when all that warm, moisture-rich air hits the cold air mass we have here at the moment, things could get interesting thanks to what's known as lake-effect snow. There's an amber weather alert in place for the region for tomorrow and Friday so rather than braving the M4 I'll be working at home for the next couple of days.
Last night I finished watching the recent series of Twin Peaks - yes, I'm way behind the times, but for me it was worth the wait. I was a big fan of the original series; my ex and I named our first cat Cooper after Kyle's character. The last time I visited the States I went on a road trip to North Bend in Washington State where it was filmed, and I had a cup of coffee and some cherry pie in the Double R Diner.
Although the show has always been violent, and the new series has more than its fair share of gore, it's the humanity of the show that appeals to me most. Agent Cooper and the rest of his team have always been good, decent people and Lynch himself, as Coop's boss Gordon Cole, is exemplary. When an episode's pace slows down, it allows us to watch characters in introspective mood, and the actors relate inner dialogue without the need for words. Very few shows on modern television are prepared to take that risk. Lynch as director knows when to leave the camera on actors to get something interesting, even when it's something physically restricted, if not repressed. Long, silent exchanges between Cole and the late lamented Miguel Ferrer's character Albert were a particular delight. We see the affection and respect that they have for each other. On a broader scale, the new series has felt like I'm watching a family being reunited after a long absence. The actors are comfortable with each other, and many of them drop into their old roles as if the intervening twenty five years had never existed. Watching felt like catching up with old friends.
Cole's character is a sensualist; in many scenes he carries an air of bemused pleasure, which is more or less what my own reaction to the show has always been. And who else but Lynch could release a commercial for the show that consisted of nothing but him eating a doughnut? The commercial works because the character is so beloved, but also because those mundane actions encapsulate an important tenet of the series: enjoy the good things in life when you can, for life is short. When Dougie discovers the delights of cherry pie, you're cheering for him. And life is short, as the many, poignant dedications at the end of the credits (to David Bowie, Catharine Coulson, Miguel Ferrer and Jack Nance, to name just a few) demonstrate all too succinctly.
Lynch's body of work draws heavily on dream imagery, and the special effects industry is now better able to portray that imagery on screen, although it was less effective than effects achieved on camera or with interesting editing. My favourite gag in the show happens when Gordon Cole relates a dream that he had, where he was in Paris with the actress Monica Bellucci. To begin with I was expecting this to be related as narrative, but no: the camera cuts to black and white footage of a Parisian Street, and there are Gordon and Monica at a roadside table, having a drink. The new show clearly has a much bigger budget than its predecessor.
When I finished watching the final episode last night, I felt satisfied, but the show feels like it's far from over. I'm sure that there's far more for Agent Cooper to discover, and I hope that we get the chance to discover it with him. Lynch appears to be willing to give us more episodes, but he's cautioning fans not to expect them any time soon.
Yesterday I wrote and recorded another two songs for FAWM, taking me to the finish line of fourteen tracks, but February isn't over yet and I feel like doing some more writing today. I also need to catch up on my commenting, because from personal experience I know that at this stage of the challenge, even the smallest bit of encouragement can make all the difference to your motivation levels.
As always when FAWM is over I'll write up a retrospective piece about what I've learned this time around, and I've already got lots of material to cover. Last year I was disappointed with most of the music I produced, but this year has been very different and I'm still figuring out exactly why that might be so. My conclusions, as ever, will appear here in the blog.
The first proper blocking high of the winter has begun to build over the UK, and the wind has swung around to the east. The daytime temperature has already started to drop; it was nearly 10°C on Tuesday afternoon but at midday today the temperature didn't even made it to 5°C. When the Siberian air mass moves in over the next few days, it's likely to get quite a bit colder than that, and with the block expected to remain in place well into next week, the overnight temperature here is expected to drop to as low as -5°C. That'll be the biggest test yet for the house's new windows; so far this winter the temperature hasn't dropped below -4°C and I haven't needed to leave the heating on all night even once. The new double glazing has made quite a difference in how long the house stays warm after I switch the heat off, and I've already noticed a difference in my fuel bills.
I've heard lots of people say that cold weather "kills off bugs" so we should suffer less from infectious diseases in a cold snap, but in reality the opposite is the case and viruses like influenza spread quickest in cold, dry weather. Mucus becomes more viscous when it's cold and dry outside (and don't I know it) and it doesn't flush bugs out of our respiratory systems fast enough to prevent them taking hold. I also learned from that New Scientist article that influenza can be spread just by somebody exhaling the organism; it's not necessary for people to cough or sneeze it at you...
Whilst we're on the subjecty of coughing and sneezing, I'm still not completely rid of the cold I had at the beginning of the month. I've got a lingering case of the sniffles that will not go away. And despite going back on antidepressants I'm still having trouble sleeping. This week I went back to the doctor's and I've doubled the dose I'm on, which has knocked me for six. I wasn't expecting to be quite as incapacitated as I was on Wednesday; I've been on still higher doses in the past, but I don't remember them making me anywhere near as woozy. Today was better than yesterday, and I'm hoping I'll be back to normal during the day by tomorrow. But I need to start looking after myself better than I've done lately. I need to lose weight; I need to cut down on carbs, and I need to get more exercise. So: no more crisps, no more biscuits, less pasta, bread, pastry and chips, and more walking. To paraphrase Rocket Raccoon, that's really going to suck the joy out of life. But I've had enough of feeling like a decrepit old wreck, and something has to change.
Despite being poorly I've managed to continue working on music for FAWM and my song count currently stands at 12. I've had a good month so far, and by the sounds of things, so have most of the other people taking part. Overall, FAWMers have written nearly 7800 new songs this month, and I've been listening and commenting on them when I can.
The quality of music being produced is really high this year. Many of my favourite songwriters have really upped their game, and it's been a wake-up call for me. I have tried my best to make sure that my own output has kept up - or at least that it's better than the material I came up with last year, which if I'm being honest, really didn't make the grade. On the whole I think I've managed to avoid disgracing myself so far this year, although I made things relatively easy for myself in the first half of the month by only recording instrumentals while my voice was out of commission. I found myself using the Stick more than I expected, playing it on two tracks so far. And while I've used my new G&L S-500 a lot, my Squier Telecaster has done sterling service this year, too - its P90 pickups helped me to find a tone which I thought was reminiscent of Mark Knopfler's sound on "Money for Nothing." If only my playing was as good...
I've been running plenty of new software in the studio this year after splurging on special offers in the Christmas sales, and that's been having a positive effect on my recordings. The new release of Ableton Live has brought some new tools into my sonic arsenal which have already become favourites. The wavetable MIDI synth plugin is a complex instrument that produces a satisfying array of cool, fat sounds. And I adore what the drum buss plugin does to any drum sound I use, giving it extra thump and sparkle that has to be heard to be believed. I'm also continuing to learn how to use iZotope's Neutron 2 and Ozone 2 plugins to my best advantage, but it's already clear to me that they have helped me kick my production skills up a level or two - just clicking on the "bypass" button to see what my mixes sound like without them is proof enough of that. I've used Melodyne to coax something more or less acceptable out of a shamefully wobbly vocal performance. And finally, I've barely begun to explore the massive capabilities of Superior Drummer 3 but I'm already blown away by how good it sounds. That does a lot to keep my enthusiasm and motivation levels up.
I was working on another piece of music for FAWM yesterday afternoon when the whole house suddenly shuddered for a second. I thought that one of my bookshelves had fallen over, or that someone had driven into the side of the house but when I went to check, there was nothing to be seen. It was only when I saw a friend's post on Facebook a while later that I realised what had happened: it was an earthquake. The epicentre was in South Wales, and at a depth of 7.4 kilometres, the quake was quite a shallow one. Reports describe people feeling the effects as far away as London. Most news sources seem to agree that it was magnitude 4.4 and as always the media have been using the Richter Scale, describing the quake's magnitude (the energy released), rather than the Modified Mercalli Scale (which measures its perceived intensity). The two are not the same, and the perceived intensity of a quake varies with the geology of the area as well as its depth even when its magnitude remains the same; shallow earthquakes are more destructive. I certainly had no difficulty perceiving it here.
Reports of damage have been limited to ornaments being tipped over and boxes of chocolates falling off shelves, which is as it should be for a British quake.
Getting Netflix (thanks Ruth!) has changed my television viewing habits considerably. Before I started watching streaming services, I would sometimes go all week without turning on the tv. Now I'm watching series like The Tick, The Expanse, Daredevil, Trollhunters and Brooklyn Nine Nine and really enjoying them. Yesterday I watched the first episode of Altered Carbon and while it has a vague feeling of being done on a limited budget (some of the special effects shots were wonky, to say the least) I will probably watch the rest of the series.
The best of the lot has been Star Trek: Discovery, which got over a wobbly start to become my favourite show on television at the moment. The final episode of the current season aired on Monday night and left us with the mother of all cliffhangers; the switch to the theme tune for the original series which played over the closing credits had me squealing in delight. We're going to have a long wait to find out what happens, though; while season 2 is definitely going to get made, no air date has been announced and according to producer Alex Kurtzman it won't be broadcast until 2019.
As a result of watching all this television I have ended up upgrading my set to something that can keep up with what's available these days. So I've plumped for a High Dynamic Range (HDR) 4K set that is even acting as a receiver for channels from my European satellite dish and I was surprised to discover that there are already one or two channels carrying free 4K content. I discovered that Netflix has 4K stuff, too. I can see a significant improvement in picture with 4K content, and watching the 4K HDR Blu-Ray of Planet Earth II is quite something. As is to be expected with something that is almost entirely screen, the sound quality of the set isn't that great, but that's why I have a surround sound system. And it's beside the point, really: suddenly, watching television has become fun once again. I have lots of shows lined up that I can't wait to start watching.
I'm not entirely sure where the last week or so went. It seems to have flown by, even though I took a day off work on Friday to decompress, do the ironing, and generally catch up on sleep. I suspect that one reason why it disappeared so quickly is that I've been busy in the evenings and for most of the weekends recording more music for February Album Writing Month. Last night I pressed my voice back into service for the first time this year with the seventh track I've uploaded, so that means I'm half way to my target of writing fourteen songs by the end of the month, and I got there ahead of schedule. I didn't exactly push my voice very far, though; I used the semi-spoken approach that I've used once or twice in previous years and ran through the song in a single take. I'll push myself a little further with the next song, and see how we go after that.
I feel much better than I did last weekend. I think I have finally seen the last of the cold that I've had since the beginning of the month, and good riddance to it.
Our roster of exoplanets - planets that have been detected in orbit around stars other than our Sun - might just have expanded a little bit from the present count, which this morning stands at 3605. Xinyu Dai and Eduardo Guerras of the University of Oklahoma have been using the Chandra X-ray observatory to look at the quasar RXJ 1131−123 - and not just the quasar itself, but also a galaxy that lies in front of it. The gravitational field of the galaxy is strong enough to bend light, including X-rays (a process known as gravitational lensing) and it acts as a magnifying glass to allow the examination of the quasar in far more detail that would otherwise be possible. But in their paper, Dai and Guerras explain that X-rays from the quasar are being affected by the galaxy it's passing through, and the observed effects can't be explained if the galaxy only contains stars. In fact, by constructing a computer model to simulate what is happening to the X-rays as they pass through the galaxy, the closest match is obtained when their computer model of the galaxy is populated with "unbound planets" - that is, planets that are drifting freely through the galaxy rather than orbiting one of its stars.
Rather a lot of unbound planets, it turns out. The closest fit to observed results occurs when the model galaxy is populated with around 2,000 unbound planets for every star in the galaxy. If the maths are an accurate representation of reality, the lensing galaxy contains billions of exoplanets.
Once again I have committed to writing 14 songs during the 28 days of February, and my weekend routine has gone out of the window. Notepads for jotting down random bits of inspiration are spread around the house. The back room is full of guitars. And I've been listening and commenting on songs submitted by other participants.
So far I've only been producing instrumentals, though. The post-trip lurgi struck in earnest last week. The sore throat I'd been suffering from since last weekend has finally moved on, but in its place I have a head that is full of snot and my sinuses feel like there's a couple of elephants in residence. As a result I've been drinking lots of liquids to keep hydrated and apart from the occasional Lemsip and honey hot toddy, I've laid off the booze since Monday night. As I'm back on the antidepressants, that's probably a good thing.
Instead I have been playing quite a bit of guitar, and three days in to proceedings I already have three tracks uploaded to my FAWM profile page. Getting a fresh set of tracks recorded always makes me feel better, and where last year I really struggled to get any traction for the first week or so, this year I feel much happier about the work I'm producing. As I listened to last year's tracks earlier this week I found myself thinking "I must remember not to do that again" several times, so this year I'm going to focus on not doing those things and maintaining a consistent level of quality as a result. That's already meant having to start one track again after I realised the first version sucked. I'll wait until tomorrow before seeing if my voice is up to singing, though. Somehow I don't think it would make the grade this evening.
The pills are having the desired effect; since going back on the Mirtazipine I've been sleeping much better and my subconscious seems to be taking the opportunity to catch up on dreaming with some vivid, cinema-quality adventures. I found myself in a combination heist caper and skiing movie one night this week, and the rest of the cast appeared to be the dwarves from the Hobbit movies. I can understand the skiing reference, because after hearing last week of the passing of the great Warren Miller I've been watching his movies again, but where the hobbits came from is anyone's guess. A day or two earlier I founds myself in a road movie dream with people I've not heard from since the 1980s, driving some sort of giant motor home. Once again, I have absolutely no idea where that came from.
But rather than dreading the struggle to sleep, I'm looking forwards to bedtime once again. Given that I've spent the last couple of days binge-watching Twin Peaks: The Return I am wondering whether David Lynch's mesmerising (and distinctly oneiric) imagery will make itself felt in my psyche's upcoming adventures.