Bijou Blog

Chris Harris's Blog Archive: March 2012

March was a month of "finally getting around to doing stuff" and I felt all the better for doing so. I suspect this was a way of compensating for the creative dip that followed a very productive FAWM the month before. I had a physical dip, too: I came down with just about every bug doing the rounds and spent several days just huddled up in bed, so the blog suffered - there were quite a few gaps and the loss of Jean Giraud robbed the world of much of its normal colour.

Let's hope next month is a bit better.


Today I have mostly been making a video...


The Dell PC that's hooked up to all my recording gear was running a bit low on disk space, so I finally got round to upgrading the drive with the OS on it. I was prompted to do this by a more pressing problem: the Dell has six USB 2.0 ports on the back, and as of last week I've been using every single one of them. The PC just wasn't up to the task of supplying power to lots of external devices as well as internal components - when I was only using five USB ports, it wasn't too much of a problem, but I'd get occasional glitches or one of the PCI cards would drop out. With six devices plugged in the system really struggles. The original power supply just couldn't provide enough juice for everything to run and the bottom of the food chain appeared to be the wireless network card. Half the time it wouldn't respond to its software drivers, the system tray icon a solid red. So I decided it was time to upgrade from a 350W supply to a 500W one. Reading the Dell forums, the most important advice was "don't get one with a power switch or you'll need to cut a new hole in the back of the PC." So I tracked down a supply that didn't have a switch and ordered it - last night I got home from work and set about installing it. It was an ATX unit, same as the old one, so it should be simple, right?

Nope. The power socket on the old unit was on the left of the base. Where was the socket on this one? Yup, you've guessed it: it was on the right, so I had to cut a hole in the back anyway. An hour of drilling, bolt-cutting, wire cutting and bending later I'd got the unit seated in the case. The PC looks like it's been in a road traffic accident, but the power supply is firmly attached. It was time to start hooking up power to the disk drives, and that was where I hit problem number two.

The configuration of the old socket was logical: one lead had a pair of Molex connectors for the two optical drives and a 4-pin for the floppy drive, and the other had a daisy chained pair of edge connectors for the two SATA hard disk drives. The new supply had one plug of each kind on each lead, and once they were plugged in to the optical drives, neither lead could reach the hard disk bay. Eventually I solved the problem by moving the C drive into an empty floppy disk bay and installing the D drive the other way up, but a task that should have taken ten minutes took me over two hours.

Once I'd put everything back together and transferred the old disk image to my new C drive, things went much better. Special mention should go to the open source disk imaging software Clonezilla as transferring my operating system data was a piece of cake. The system boots noticeably faster and everything works - the network card powers up every time. And best of all, I've gone from having just over 30Gb free on the first hard drive to over 250Gb free. I will be filling it up with my recordings, I suspect.


The Guardian finally caught on to the excellent Spitalfields Life blog this week. And if you aren't familiar with The Gentle Author's musings on life in the East End of London, you are missing out. TGA very kindly signed a copy of the excellent book of the blog for me at the book launch a couple of weeks ago. It's a work of art, with gorgeous illustrations by Mark Hearld, Lucinda Rogers and Rob Ryan, and you should add a copy to your library immediately.


Over the last few years computer processing power has reached the stage where the potential of CGI for creating believable, photo-realistic environments has started to be realised. On the other hand, more than a few productions have resorted to throwing as many sprites at the screen as possible and hoping that it looks sufficiently impressive to eight-year-old boys that it will make a profit (yes, Michael Bay, I'm looking at you.) So it's a real pleasure to be able to point you at a short animation by Wes Ball and the team at Oddball Animation called RUIN. The post-apocalyptic world in which the action takes place is stunning. Make sure you watch it in HD.


The clocks go forwards tonight, the sun is shining, and the magnolia by the front door is in bloom. It smells amazing. I think spring has finally arrived, which I guess means it's time to give the lawn the first cut of the year...


Yes, I've succumbed to the dreaded Gear Acquisition Syndrome once again. This week I bought another peripheral for my Korg M3, the DS1H damper pedal. It acts like the sustain pedal on a piano, and with the M3 it acts progressively, rather than just toggling between on and off; I've already discovered some interesting things that it lets me do so I guess they'll appear in recordings over the next few months.

In related news, I've been tweaking quite a few of the tracks I recorded for FAWM:

F-15 now has more drum and bass.

Nevada has had the vocals tightened up and brought forwards in the mix.

Promised You The Galaxy has been tweaked so the talkback sequences all sound the same.

...and of course the aforementioned Gear Acquisition Syndrome has been revised and revamped.



Many thanks to Andrew W for pointing me in the direction of the iFixit website. By following their guide to upgrading the RAM in a Mac Mini I was able to double my Mac's RAM up to 1Gb for the princely sum of £16.99 plus VAT. The whole process took me less than ten minutes. It runs noticeably faster as a result, too. One quote I saw from Apple for doing the same thing ran to £153.


The trouble with high resolution cameras is that they tend to pick up stuff that you don't notice when you're shooting the picture. In particular I've noticed that during the summer, my camera will faithfully capture every single damn bug that flies into shot. Applying Occam's razor to similar shots taken by other people in the summertime, which do you think is more likely: an insect flew in front of their camera too, or the photographer managed to shoot a fleeting visit by a flying saucer from an alien civilisation? Yeah, right - well done. Meanwhile, the Huffington Post has gone for the flying saucer explanation instead. I guess getting more page clicks trumps healthy scepticism every time when you're trying to build a reputation as an online source of news...


I've blogged about the loudness war many times, and complained about the albums from bands I love that have been ruined because they have been mastered at ridiculously high levels. Today, I'm supporting the folks from Turn Me Up! Please visit their website, even if it's just to see their explanatory diagram which pokes fun at Metallica's drummer...


Nooooooo! Brazilian scientists are breeding a species of coffee plant whose beans have just 2% of the normal caffeine content.


The Guardian interviews the extraordinary David Byrne. It transpires that he is currently working with Fatboy Slim on something called Here Lies Love. "It is Byrne's long-nurtured pet project, an opera about Imelda Marcos, and it will have its first full presentation this summer in upstate New York."

As you do.


Farewell and RIP, Jean. You were and always will be my hero and my inspiration.


I've just plugged the last bit of kit into my studio setup, so everything is now connected to eveything else: Mac, PC, recorder, M3, Big Knob, monitors - they're all wired in. I suspect I'll spend a large chunk of the weekend playing around to see what new tricks I can get up to.


People have been going bonkers about the solar flare that happened earlier in the week. The BBC's coverage has, no doubt, been ramped up to increase the likelihood of folks watching this week's dreadful Horizon programme about the phenomenon, and I'll write more about that in a minute. But first, let's get a little background on the subject, shall we?

It's all to do with sunspots. Like the Earth, the sun has a magnetic field but it's much, much stronger than the Earth's. The Earth's magnetic field is very simple: in textbooks it's frequently compared to one that would be produced by a gigantic bar magnet, with field lines running in parallel from the north pole to the south (although just to confuse things, the North Magnetic Pole is actually the south pole of a magnet). In contrast, the sun's magnetic field is very complicated, and constantly shifting. Sometimes, the magnetic lines of force bunch together and the increased magnetic field density stops the normal flow of heat from the sun's core to its surface (a process known as convection). As a result, the surface becomes cooler and darker than its surroundings, and this appears to us as a sunspot. Although sunspots look dark, this is all relative: if you could examine a sunspot on its own without the rest of the sun surrounding it, it would shine about as brightly as the moon.

These tangles of magnetic field lines don't last forever; they become more and more tightly wound and eventually something snaps. When these bunched-up magnetic field lines reconnect they quickly move into a new configuration. This is an extremely energetic process, and all that energy has to go somewhere. Plasma from the sun's atmosphere that is trapped in the magnetic field lines suddenly gets thrown off into space in much the same way that when you let go of one end of a slingshot, the stone gets flung off at terrific speed. Millions of tons of ionised gas gets accelerated by the magnetic field into space, travelling at several million miles an hour. The process also means that these accelerated particles emit electromagnetic radiation across a huge spectrum (all the way from radio waves up to gamma rays). The energy of the x-rays that are emitted as a result (measured in watts per square metre) is used as a guide to how powerful a flare is, as follows:

A = 10-8 watts/m2
B = 10-7 watts/m2
C = 10-6 to 10-5 watts/m2
M = 10-5 to 10-4 watts/m2
X = >10-4 watts/m2

These solar flare classes were introduced to categorise measurements made by x-ray sensors on the GOES (Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellites) network, which has been measuring the sun's activity since 1976 and has resulted in an almost uninterrupted record of solar x-ray radiation for three complete sunspot cycles. As the GOES scale is logarithmic (that is, each class is ten times the energy of the one below it) it's not particularly suited for fine measurements, so each class is subdivided from 1 to 9 to provide more accuracy. That's fine, but for the top end, what happens when you get a flare bigger than an X9? Simple: you keeep on going, so an X11 flare has an x-ray energy flux of 11 x 10-4 watts/m2; an X14 flare has an x-ray energy flux of 14 x 10-4 watts/m2, and so on.

As I mentioned in my earlier blog post, in 1989 a large solar flare knocked out much of Canada's power grid for several hours. That flare was an X15. This week's flare was an X5.4. So although it's a significant size, and airlines will probably be rerouting flights away from polar regions to ensure that their passengers don't receive a significantly increased dose of radiation (even during an average transatlantic flight, you receive the same dose of radiation that you'd get from a chest x-ray), the amount of energy involved was approximately a tenth of that produced by the flare that caused problems in Canada.

On the 4th November 2003 there was an even bigger solar flare, and when I blogged about it the following day it had been rated as an X20. By March 2004 it had been reassessed as an X45, which means it produced an x-ray flux of 45 x 10-4 watts/m2.

That's a lot of energy, and as I said before you really wouldn't want to get in the way of the associated CME. So how big can flares get, then? The Carrington Event is often mentioned in news reports about big solar flares, but academic comparisons of the event with other X class flares suggest that while the 1859 flare was undoubtedly a very big one, it was not freakishly so (i.e. statistically speaking it was not an outlier.) There have been many large solar flares since the Carrington Event took place, and at least 17 flares exceeding X10 have been observed since 1976. But from the blogosphere frenzy that's kicked off as a result of the publication of Pete Riley's paper you'd think that (a) big flares only happened every hundred years or so and (b) the end of the world was just around the corner...

With all of the above in mind, let's turn to the BBC's Horizon programme on solar flares which was broadcast this week. The web page for the production starts off with the assertion "there's a new kind of weather to worry about" which pretty much sets the tone of the programme: wrong. For a start, it's not "a new kind of weather" at all - the sun has been producing solar flares at least since 1859 (the Carrington Event is the first ever historical record of a solar flare) and given that the Chinese were recording sunspots back in 800 BC it's safe to assume that the sun has always produced them. The tone of the programme was hysterically apocalyptic. Showing a picture of a sunspot on screen, we were told gravely that observing one was "the equivalent of looking down the barrel of a loaded gun." Yet all this hyperbole wasn't backed up by anything much in the way of proper science. Big solar flares in the X class happen regularly during solar maximums, and solar max takes place every 11 years or so. While the average X-class flare might cause some inconvenience (such as reducing the accuracy of GPS signals or occasionally taking down power grids) there aren't too many cases of really bad things happening.

The director clearly wasn't satisfied that things were terrifying enough, so we were treated to repeated computer graphics of planet Earth being battered by an immense wall of fire roaring across space.

Yup, that's what I said: fire.

In space.

Not even Roland Emmerich would stoop this low. By this point I'd already facepalmed at least once, but the graphics team responsible for this travesty managed to make things look even more inept; despite the fact that they were working on a programme about solar flares they'd clearly not appreciated that the wall of fire was supposed to have been produced by the sun - so the direction we saw it coming from was about 90 degrees off from the light source they'd used to illuminate their carefully rendered planet Earth. Hmmm, I wonder what was providing the light, then?

But it got even worse. When the special effects team started adding mystifying shimmery video effects to footage of a laboratory experiment using molten sodium to model the convection currents inside a star, you could tell desperation had set in. Science involving obviously hazarous chemicals isn't sufficiently entertaining to be presented on its own merits - it has to appear scary and threatening. John Crace's review in the Guardian was spot-on: "Solar Storms had all the hallmarks of a loss of nerve in the editing suite; as if the filmmakers didn't believe viewers would stay with them through an hour of scientifically demanding TV without some end-of-the-world catnip."

As the programme drew to a close I was expecting some vague, meaningless and glib statement to wind things up in a suitably hyperbolic good news, bad news kind of way, and I was not disappointed. This is what we got: "We may be more vulnerable, but we've never been better prepared. One thing is certain: we ignore this phenomenon at our peril."

Even judged against Horizon's recent woeful episodes, this was a dismally poor effort.


You may have noticed I've not been blogging much this month. That's because I've been having problems with my home broadband. I'm very happy with my ISP, IDNet, but for my broadband signal to make it to IDNet's setup it has to negotiate BT's creaking and overburdened network and as the times I want to get online are the same as everyone else's, it seems that that's no longer possible. From five in the evening, broadband just goes away until 8pm or so. My router can still connect to the exchange, but that's about it. What really gets my goat is that every month I get at least one mailshot from BT telling me how much better off I'd be switching to their broadband service. Last night I had no net access for four hours and that was a *good* evening. I'm not one for complaining, but l've had enough. So today - so help me - I fired off an actual, physical snail mail letter. Yeah, I know: it's pointless, but it made me feel a little bit better.

Update (November 2015): Although it never made it into the blog at the time (which is extraordinary in itself), the issue turned out to be much larger than the blog indicates here. All my neighbours were being affected at the same time. Letters were written to our local MP, and he wrote to the Chairman of BT in an effort to resolve the problems, which dragged on for months. In fact it wasn't until March 2013 that things were sorted out.

That was when someone at BT with a bit of common sense got involved. They arranged for a van from their Radio Frequency Interference team to be in the area at the appropriate time of day. The engineers tracked down the problem immediately: it was an old black and white portable television set that some folks down the road were watching every evening. The interference it produced was enough to knock out the high frequency signal used for broadband over an area nearly half a mile in diameter. In retrospect, this is probably what caused all the connectivity problems I was blogging about back in October 2010 and as long ago as October and November 2005.

The owners were strongly encouraged to get rid of the offending set (BT have the authority to prosecute in such circumstances) and our problems disappeared. Hooray!


The Atlantic Magazine eviscerates Stratfor, the "intelligence publisher" which was recently targeted by Wikileaks. Neither Stratfor nor Wikileaks come out if this well; in fact, it makes for entertaining, if brutal reading: "One Middle East-based NGO worker noted on Twitter that when she met Stratfor's man in Cairo, he spoke no Arabic, had never been to Egypt before, and had to ask her for directions to Tahrir Square."


Meanwhile, XIPH shed light on another "scam." Not only do we find that the supposed benefits of 24 bit, 192 kHz audio do not actually exist but also that the format sounds slightly worse than a standard CD despite needing six times the data storage. No doubt the music industry are banking on selling it to you at a healthy markup over CDs despite all of this.

XIPH's verdict is refreshingly honest: "Why push back against 24/192? Because it's a solution to a problem that doesn't exist, a business model based on willful ignorance and scamming people." Yup, that sounds like the music business to me.


More Near Earth Object news from Phil Plait, who runs the Bad Astronomer website. This time he's got his eye on a "football stadium sized" rock called 2011 AG5 that may or may not pose a threat to us in 2040 depending on what happens to it the next time it passes us in 2023. If that pass falls inside an area approximately 360 km across, we could be in trouble.


It's the first of March, and after the hectic pace of February Album Writing Month it feels a little strange to get home and do something other than writing and recording a song. To recap: last month I managed to write 19 original pieces of music and collaborate on a 20th song, all in the space of 29 days. That's a giant leap (ha ha) on last year's efforts, but it's not just about the quantity; I think there's been a significant improvement in the quality of what I've produced, too. In yesterday's blog I remarked that I learned a lot this year about making music, but I didn't go into any details. Since then I've been thinking I ought to capture some of my key learning points for the year just in case I forget them, so here are the top five. I'm sure they're all obvious to anyone who has been doing this seriously for any amount of time, but I'm putting them up here anyway.

1. Leave things out.

I ended up writing the song Spaces to summarise the most important thing I learned this year: the things you leave out of a song are just as important as the things you keep in. One of the disadvantages of having a 32-track recorder is that there's a great temptation to "shovel it on" and make the most of absolutely every possible item of equipment and all available synthesiser patches when in fact, all a particular song might need is a drum beat and a bit of piano. I found myself editing lyrics, trimming tracks down, removing notes or even whole arrangements, and occasionally just deciding that a song really just didn't need a twin guitar part at all...

2. Equalisation is magic.

Ableton makes it very easy to analyse the frequency spectrum of the song you're mastering, either track by track or in total. As a result of this, I finally combined my science education with my approach to music when the abstract concept that you can only put so much energy into a song at any given frequency changed into practice born of concrete experience: if you've got two tracks that share a particular frequency range, they are going to fight each other and the resulting mix will sound confused or muddy. This became obvious to me once I could watch it happening right there on the screen in front of me. Equalising each track so that they peak at different frequencies separates them out as effectively (and far more subtly) than panning one track hard left and the other hard right. And building on my previous point, sometimes the easiest way to clean up a confusing-sounding mess is to get rid of one of the tracks that's fighting for energy. A couple of songs started off with tracks that had one or more guitars on them, but they didn't make it through to the mastering stage.

3. Make things easy for yourself.

I kept losing track of where I was when I recorded one song, as I was concentrating so heavily on remembering the chords I was going to play next that I forgot how many bars I'd already played. After half a dozen aborted attempts I suddenly hit on the idea of recording myself singing as I played the keyboards so I'd know where I was in the song. It worked so well that I got the song finished in half the time I'd been taking on tracks up to that point.

Another way of making life easier is upgrading your studio gear (and that is always a subject close to my heart!) I bought a couple of items of equipment recently that were specifically intended to improve my workflow. Using a DAW suddenly becomes a lot easier when you move from a fifteen-year-old CRT monitor to a flat screen full HD display; for a start, you can have all the windows open on screen at the same time. Being able to hear what I was doing on proper near field monitors made a tremendous difference, as I mentioned last week. But even simplifying something as trivial as the way I can now switch between DAW and dedicated recorder without having to unplug my headphones from one device and plug them in somewhere else has made recording stuff a more pleasurable experience.

4. Double-tracking is also magic.

I've never been comfortable singing, but I discovered last year as FAWM drew to a close that if I double-tracked my vocals (that is, if I recorded myself singing the same thing twice, three, or even four times) it would improve the sound to the point that my voice almost sounded tolerable. The resulting sound is thicker (and, on average, closer to the intended note). The technique also works well for guitar, which is what I first used it on.

The bad news: if I missed the timing on one track but nailed it on the others, I could really hear it stand out. Every slight slip became a glaring mistake. The good news: a little bit of selecting and clicking in Ableton can fix problems like this simply, and remarkably quickly. Thefurther bad news: I foound myself getting obsessive about sychronising individual syllables on some songs that weren't actually that bad in the first place.

On a related point, I discovered that I could make my vocals sound a little less awful by really exaggerating some aspects of pronunciation and expression. The first time I did this, much of the feedback for the song I received drew unexpected comparisons with Roger Waters of Pink Floyd, which I found extremely flattering.

5. It's okay to go back and fix things.

Building on the last observation above, In the past I've never really had the capability to go back to anything I've recorded and change it. To be honest, I never had much of an inclination to do so either. I used to justify this by claiming that a recording was a record of a particular performance rather than seeking to be something approaching the ideal recording I could make, talent and technology considerations aside. "That one's done, let's move on" was my approach, and reading the forums on FAWM made it clear I'm not the only one to think this way. But this year I've become a lot more critical of what I'm doing and many times when I sat down and listened to the first mastered mix I'd produced of a song, I found myself thinking "this isn't good enough." In one case I went back and redid all the vocals.

I've also begin to appreciate why the verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge approach to songs is so prevalent: it's because it works. This led to me writing extra parts of a couple of songs so that they could follow the proper structure, and they ended up sounding all the better for it.


Back in January 2009 I blogged about the Carrington Event, a massive solar flare that took place in 1859. The resulting electromagnetic storm induced such strong currents in the Earth's burgeoning communications networks that equipment in telegraph stations caught fire. Now the Carrington Event is in the news once again, as Wired are reporting that the probability of that size of flare happening at some point in the next decade have been estimated as being as high as 12%.

Even Pete Riley, the scientist who made the prediction, is a little taken aback by this.

I'm not bloody surprised; an event on that scale would wreak havoc across the globe. Anything that uses large stretches of metal cables could be severely affected - and that means power distribution and communications networks are all at risk. I'd rather not have to do without them for very long, and I bet you probably wouldn't either.


Eighty five films Martin Scorsese thinks you should see. I haven't seen some of these, and this will not do.


This year's TED conference is under way in California, and the early buzz from Thomas Dolby is that the quadrotor copters playing the James Bond Theme were amazing, while Susan Cain's talk about why businesses need introverts as well as extroverts earned her a standing ovation.

As I read the TED blog about Susan Cain's talk I found myself nodding vehemently; despite appearances to the contrary I'm far more of an introvert than an extrovert and I'm seldom happier than when I'm at home reading a book or writing music (which is, I suspect, the principal reason why I love participating in FAWM so much.) I can understand the bias in businesses to creative activities like brainstorming that are conducted in groups, but we shouldn't abandon solitude as a creative tool. And yes, I've ordered a copy of her book.


I am in awe of anyone who uses a chainsaw as a means of artistic expression, and they don't come any more adept than Tommy Craggs.


So why isn't it March 2nd today, as the clock on at least one of the pieces of electrical equipment in my living room insists it should be? Let the Bad Astronomy blog explain.