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Chris's Blog Archive: March 2020

We are living in increasingly strange times. Looking back at the first couple of entries for this month is like peering at the historical records of another world; things were very different by the end of the month. But as an introvert I found it relatively easy to stay more-or-less chipper in the face of a social lockdown, even as the prospects of getting my kidney stone sorted out receded into the far distance...

My latest album Beyond is now available on Bandcamp. It's also on Spotify, iTunes, Amazon Music, Tidal, and all your other favourite streaming services.

My recent albums Generator and Fort are also available at Bandcamp, together with a wide selection of my earlier music.


I've had my phone call from the consultant surgeon, and as I'd expected it's a case of good news, bad news. The good news is reassuring: the fact that I've not had a recurrence of last year's infections or bleeding suggests that I'm managing the condition effectively, and the stone is stuck on the edge of my left kidney, so it's not blocking anything major. There does not seem to be anything life-threatening.

The bad news is that, given the current situation with COVID-19, the best course of action is to wait and see how I get on until the health service is less busy with other things. So I will wait, and at the moment we've agreed to postpone things for eight months; "Which should mean that the worst of this has blown over," were the exact words that the consultant used. Then I'll get another scan to see if the stone has got any bigger, and the consultant will decide what happens to me next. Eight months means the tail-end of November, which seems a very long way off right now, but I'm not in pain at the moment so I should be able to cope with the delay. And given the consultant's comment I am no longer expecting the COVID-19 situation to improve any time much before Christmas, and have started to plan accordingly. I can do this.

What's going to be more of a challenge is some of the dietary advice I was given this morning. "Cut down on meat" won't be a problem as I already go meat-free several times a week. "Drink at least 2.5 litres (4.4 pints) of fluids every day" won't be too difficult for me either as I have been extremely focused on staying hydrated since this all started last summer. I'd already drunk a pint of coffee, a pint of tea and a pint of orange squash by three o'clock this afternoon. I both feel and look better for drinking more fluids, but rest assured that what I've been drinking tends not to contain caffeine after breakfast time. I no longer drink fizzy drinks and I only allow myself a bottle of wine at the weekend. I am staying off the beer and cider, too. But I found it very hard not to whimper when I was told "No chocolate. And no nuts."

Oh dear. It's going to be a long, long haul until November, isn't it?


In order to stop my Sony TV from using CEC to take over my home audio system and switch the amp's input to the television—even while it's set to standby and I'm listening to another source—I switched off its auto-update feature. Even that hasn't been a complete fix, so I have resorted to switching the TV off at the wall whenever I want to listen to a CD. I left the auto-update feature disabled, all the same.

But this week the TV updated its operating system anyway, spending about fifteen minutes downloading and installing a revision to Oreo, the Android 8 operating system. Now when I switch on the TV I see a radically different home screen and user interface, and I'm still figuring out where the parts of the smart TV system that I used to use have been moved to. The new home screen now features video previews in as many places as it possibly can, but everything is boxy and clunky and it feels like they've gone for a gimmicky look that's better suited to a phone or tablet display. On a 4K set like mine, it feels like a wasted opportunity to make the user interface something stylish and beautiful, particularly when I compare it to the menu system on my old Playstation 3.

I was also somewhat peeved to discover that although my set is only a couple of years old, its processors are not powerful enough for Sony to have included it in the rollout of Pie, the Android 9 operating system.

On the positive side, the set's network connectivity has been greatly improved. With the old OS, if I wanted to watch something on Amazon Prime, I would have to click play, then wait for audio to start (it would only occasionally be accompanied by a picture) and then press pause to stop the stream, rewind back to the beginning of the show, (because for some reason it would frequently think I'd been listening for five minutes or so) and then click play again. And as the set would then frequently get the set's resolution wrong and only show a quarter of the image, I'd have to do this at least once more before the programme would play in a watchable state. Now I just press play, and everything works.

I still have to switch the TV off at the wall if I want to listen to my CDs, though.


And I have been using Amazon Prime a lot in the last ten weeks, so the upgrade to the way my TV handles streams is very welcome. The show I have been watching regularly (and watching each episode more than once, I might add) is, needless to say, Picard. The tenth and final episode of the first season went live on Friday and I've already watched it several times.

It's not been a perfect run, by any means. But it has been pretty good, and certainly better than TNG's first season. I won't discuss it in detail, because that would be spoilery for those folk who are waiting for it to arrive on a terrestrial channel, but I will say that I loved where they took the characters. The show has been renewed for a second season (albeit without its showrunner Michael Chabon, which will be a big loss) and I am looking forward to seeing what happens next.


I found out yesterday that my upcoming appointment with the kidney surgeon on Monday will take place over the telephone. It's a very sensible way forward, and the fact that I don't have to travel in to the centre of Gloucester next week has done wonders for my anxiety levels. Last night I had the best night's sleep I've had all week, and that was odd because before I went to bed I'd made myself a much-needed cup of coffee. Maybe caffeine is the answer to my insomnia problems? If it is, that's reassuringly weird.

This morning I braved the supermarket for the first time in a fortnight, and I was pleasantly surprised by the experience. The car park was almost empty, there were no queues to get inside, what shoppers there were obeyed the 2-metre social distancing rule, and everybody was being unfailingly polite. Even better, I could buy everything I had on my shopping list, with the single exception of (of all things) tinned semolina. Although the store's supply chain has understandably been severely disrupted, there was enough of the staple requirements on the shelves to ensure I'm well fed and watered for the next week to ten days. Customers are being limited to buying no more than three of any single item, which appears to have sorted out the panic buying that had taken hold last week. I bought some chocolate to celebrate.

Once I got home, I realised that my anxiety levels are considerably lower now than they have been lately. I'd been really worried about running out of milk, or coffee, but it looks like that's not about to happen. I hope, wherever you are, that sanity is prevailing where you are as well.


The energy minister Kwasi Kwarteng announced today that the UK has reduced its emissions of greenhouse gases for the seventh year in a row. Since 2010, emissions have reduced by nearly 28%, thanks to the adoption of renewable energy sources.

It'll be interesting to see how our figures look next year. The shutdown of much of the UK's manufacturing base as a result of the COVID-19 lockdown means that the UK's total energy consumption is estimated to have dropped by 7% at the moment. The effect of the virus on global levels of pollution has been nothing short of staggering.

It's a total coincidence, I am sure, but for the last four days we've had the best run of nice weather that I can remember having in months. The skies are clear and right now I've got all the windows open to let in some much-needed fresh air—although those same clear skies also mean that night-time temperatures have taken a hit. It was -3°C here last night, so I'm going to hold off giving the lawn its first cut of the year for a while yet. But when I do cut the lawn, I'll have to compost the cuttings, as the council's garden waste collection service is being suspended thanks to COVID-19.


This year the February Album Writing Month forums were buzzing when a new participant signed up as the actor Nicolas Cage. It turned out to be a practical joke by long-time FAWMer and ace songwriter Klaus who, it turned out, has too distinctive a style of his own to be good at pretending to be somebody else, although he had us going for a while! When called out, he cheerfully owned up to the fact, and we all had a good laugh in FAWM's typically good-natured way.

But that turns out not to be the end of the story.

Because a new FAWMer signed up at the end of the month with the username ncoppola and the comment "my publicist said I should look into this." The fact that the song that is linked to the account actually is co-written by Mr Cage means either that somebody's made this a meta-joke, or that Klaus has been one-upped by the man himself. Both options are hilarious, but which one is true?

The plot thickens...


This week the COVID-19 situation changed from just being something that is happening on the news to being something that is directly affecting my friends and family. And from what they've been telling me about the experience, you really, really don't want to go through what they've been through this week. It's a nasty disease, far worse than just a "bad cold" and it needs to be treated with respect. It's worrying when some of the fittest folks I know have been absolutely clobbered by it.

If you're able to (and I appreciate that some people have jobs that make this impossible), stay at home. Stay away from other people. Do NOT socialise, especially at close quarters (that "social distancing" you've heard about means keeping at least two metres, or about seven feet away from anyone else you meet.) Don't be a covidiot. And trust me, there are enough idiots out there already making things difficult for everyone else. Nobody needs to make things any worse than they already are. But the astonishing levels of selfishness that some people clearly possess is challenging my faith in humanity's ability to weather a crisis like this. Meanwhile, it's emerged that the only reason our shambolic, lazy and dim so-called prime minister has—finally—started taking some effective measures to control the outbreak was that the French President told him to or face the consequences of France shutting its borders with the UK completely. What was that about "taking back control", eh?

I'm self-isolating at home. I've been outside just once in the past week, when I popped over to the local shop to get essential food items. It's a drag not being able to see my friends in the real world, but I am lucky that I've been able to chat with friends using Zoom and Skype and Messenger. And my lovely friend Robin has been curating the Stay At Home Festival which I've been watching on YouTube this week. It's worth tuning in, and please consider making a donation to help the people involved, many of whom have seen their potential income for the rest of the year evaporate completely.

So far I feel okay, and I hope you do too. And for those of you that I know who are ill, look after yourselves as best you can and I hope you are soon fighting fit once again.


I've been keeping boredom at bay by reading lots of books (I'm still several books ahead of my target for this year's Goodreads challenge) and making music; I'm planning on releasing at least two albums in the next month or so. I've started working on a couple of new tracks this week, and doing so has reminded me just how incredibly relaxing and sustaining making music can be. If you have a musical instrument lying around the house while you're stuck at home, why not get some practice in?


It's The Ides of March today, and every time I watch the news or surf the web it's difficult to escape a sense of calamity that's no longer impending, but has now arrived. In the EU, several countries are in more-or-less complete lockdown. In the last week the UK's approach to the situation has pivoted from Corporal Jones ("Don't panic!") to Private Fraser ("We're all doomed!") with regards to COVID-19. When I did my weekly shop on Friday, the shelves had been stripped of pasta, rice, tins of baked beans, soup, spray bleach and toilet rolls.

Meanwhile, our part-time Prime Minister, in telling the country that we should just "take it on the chin" shows a chilling disregard for doing—well, anything, let alone anything constructive or helpful. While the Daily Mail (a newspaper which has specialised in toadying up to racist dickheads since the 1930s) has been publicly telling its readers what a grand job "Boris and his boffins" have been doing in responding to the outbreak, the paper's head of HR has privately been warning employees by email that official Government advice is "no longer adequate enough to safeguard our staff." Several times this week I've read articles that have pointed out the irony that the over-60s—the only age-group that seem to view Boris in a positive light, and who are the Daily Mail's most lucrative demographic—are those he is most willing to place in harm's way in order to protect the UK's economy (or what's left of it.) I suppose things could be worse; I could live in the United States, where the level of incompetence being exhibited by its leadership is outclassing Mr Johnson's by a quite staggering degree. The virus is not going to play along with the media in shielding those in charge from their failings. Instead, it will exploit them to the fullest degree. Things are going to get a lot worse than they already are.

I suspect that a lot of people out there are going to struggle in the next few months, and not just because they will get sick. In the last couple of weeks on social media I've seen many of my friends who work in the creative arts cancel concerts, conference appearances, or even entire tours. This is how they make a living. They don't have a safety net for when they can't work. A lot of other people are going to find themselves in the same position.

And while I may have spent most of the last year self-isolating, I still have contact with people. Although I'm still under 60, my current state of health puts me at a higher risk than most people my age and I'm not looking forward to contracting the virus.


Full marks to synth manufacturer Korg, who have just made their Kaossilator app for Android phones free for a limited time to help give us musicians something to play with while we're stuck at home. I've already installed it and it's great fun.

If you're an iOS user, you don't need to feel left out, either: Moog have made their Minimoog Model D app free, too.


If you use BOINC to run the SETI@home screensaver, you will probably have already seen the news that UC Berkeley will be placing the distributed computation part of the project into hibernation from the end of this month, March 31st. I signed up for the project way back in June 1999 and ever since then, my computers have dedicated a lot of their spare processing power to looking through data from some of the world's most powerful radio telescopes in the hope of detecting signals from extraterrestrial civilizations. As of today, my computers have performed over 7.04 x 1018 floating point operations for the project; that's over 7 quintillion calculations, and 8,147,131 cobblestones (to use the BOINC system's own protocol for measuring the amount of work carried out).

The SETI@home project has always been run on a shoestring, with just four full-time employees on its payroll and regular fundraisers being needed to pay for upgrades to project equipment and server space. But the decision to hibernate the distributed analysis phase isn't about the money—far from it. As UC Berkeley's statement says, they've reached a point at which the returns on distributing the data have diminished beyond practical use. In fact Dr David Anderson, who is the software architect for SETI@home and project leader for BOINC, commented recently in a forum post that the decision to hibernate the screensaver was long overdue. We'll see why that is in a moment. But as this Wired article explains, the nature of the search for ETs has changed, and the amount of data that's now being collected by projects like Breakthrough Listen would overwhelm the existing SETI@home infrastructure. Every day, 35 gigabytes of data is collected from Arecibo and other radio telescopes and added to the queue of work to be sent out to people running the SETI@home screensaver. By comparison, the Breakthrough Listen project generates, on average, one petabyte (that's 1024 terabytes) of raw data every day. The logistics of sending that amount of data out for analysis is way beyond the Berkeley system's current capabilities; as the program's director Dr Eric Korpela commented in a forum notice back in January, even with the current amount of data being analysed, some aspects of the processing queue become too large to maintain in system memory without regular pruning, and the computers used for the job are already maxed out with the amount of RAM they can use.

And it's the processing of that data that is the important factor. The analysis performed by home computers using the SETI@home screensaver might still be computationally intensive, but all the same it's pretty basic stuff. The screensaver's main job is to carry out a calculation called a fast fourier transform (FFT) to see if there are any constant (and loud) frequencies hidden inside the data. In fact, the screensaver carries out fifteen different FFT calculations at different resolutions for each set of data. The screensaver also looks at frequencies that are changing over time, as a signal source that's moving relative to the telescope (such as a distant planet) will exhibit the Doppler effect, and that makes the signal particularly interesting to SETI researchers. And they are particularly interested in signals that grow and fade over a period of twelve seconds, as this is the length of time a distant transmitter would take to pass through the telescope's field of view. This also helps to screen out earthbound signals from radio frequency interference, or RFI. These two tasks are described on the screensaver's display as chirping and searching for Gaussians (if you have it set up not to go blank, the screensaver display shows lots of cool information on the progress of the analysis of each data unit in a graphical format that will be instantly recognisable to fans of Star Trek: The Next Generation.) At best, the screensaver's analysis is an initial pass. It's designed to flag up particular sets of data that should be analysed more deeply (and, therefore, identifies coordinates in the sky that should be investigated further.) And it's this initial pass through the data that is providing those diminishing returns to which the hibernation announcement refers.

The deeper analysis part of SETI@home is carried out in-house, and it's called Nebula. This part of the programme will be continuing, at least for now; after all, SETI@home is an experiment, and sooner or later the results have to be figured out, conclusions drawn, and academic papers written! The screensaver has been picking up interesting signals in amongst the data, but unfortunately when the data has been examined in more detail, all the really interesting signals have turned out to be caused by Earthly sources such as military satellites! The screensaver just isn't sophisticated enough to filter these "local" signals out of the raw data, and checking each one to see if it really is ET takes time and effort. One of Nebula's goals is to automate the process of identifying and rejecting RFI false positives, and do it reliably; the SETI@home team introduce fake signals (called "birdies") into the data to fine-tune this rejection process and make sure that no genuine signals are rejected (and the target for reliability is above 95%).

There is—clearly—plenty of work left to do on the SETI@home data set. A project that has been running for twenty years is going to generate a vast amount of data but sadly, it looks like distributed computing won't be playing as big a part in searching the galaxy for extraterrestrial life as it used to. To make the distribution of data across the Internet practical, SETI@home splits recorded data into chunks of relatively short duration (each work unit is just 107 seconds worth of signal). In comparison, signals that are recorded by the Breakthrough Listen project come in 30-minute chunks and as Greenbank's Internet connection doesn't have the bandwidth to pipe this data out for distributed analysis, the processing is performed by a massive array of GPUs in a facility at the Greenbank Telescope itself. On-site analysis can do a better job of looking, and do it over extended periods of time.

Once the SETI@home data stops coming through, I'll be attaching my BOINC screensavers to the Folding@home project. It's another great cause to donate computing power to. It'll be the end of an era, though, and I'll be very sad when my last PC sends off its last set of results to the server.


This blog may fall in to the "too much information" category as it discusses my current state of health, so please feel free to skip it.

As the Coronavirus epidemic gathers momentum, the NHS understandably has much more important things to bother about than scheduling another CT scan for me, so I'm still in limbo. I've been self-isolating, of course; for me, this is normal behaviour. It's funny seeing just how many of my more introverted friends have latched on to the same this is the moment I've been waiting for memes that have been floating around the web this week. But I wish that I felt a little better. I'm not in pain, as such—it's more a continuous awareness that something is wrong, a feeling that occasionally escalates into a tightness and discomfort in my back. I'm making sure that I keep hydrated and drink far more each day than I was doing a year ago, and that seems to have stopped me getting any further bladder infections (although that's probably because I haven't passed any more bits of kidney stone, so there has been nothing sharp and pointy rolling around in my urinary tract to trigger them.) I am trying not to become too sedentary in my habits, but I haven't always been successful. Last month when I was in low-power mode my daily step count didn't even reach four figures on a couple of occasions, and the temptation to retire to bed with a good book is still very strong. My progress towards this year's Goodreads reading target of sixty books is still three books ahead of schedule, and I've got five or six books on the go at the moment.

It will probably be no surprise when I say that I'm still not sleeping well, but as we approach the vernal equinox the rapidly lengthening hours of daylight have had a noticeable effect on my mood, which is much better than it was a couple of months ago. The occasional bursts of sunlight coming through the windows this afternoon are also helping things along. My energy levels are also improved: in the last few days I've done six loads of laundry and yesterday I cleaned the conservatory floor and repotted my collection of amaryllis plants. I now have eight of them, which are all descended from a single plant given to me as a housewarming gift by my aunt Mary when I moved into my first house in Milton Keynes way back in 1986. I've given three or four others away to friends and family, too; they seem to be the only house plant other than spider plants that can not just survive my attentions, but thrive on them. I'm looking forward to seeing them sprout new green shoots, as it's one of my favourite signs that winter is drawing to a close and spring is very nearly here.


My energy levels have clearly improved today, as I have also updated my NetBeans installation from 11.0 to 11.3. So much for the software's auto-update feature; it turns out that the URL it was using for checking to see if updates were available can be broken by installing other modules, and nothing had been updated for about six months...

The default installation still ignores your monitor resolution, though. Eleven-point text is microscopically tiny on a 4K monitor like mine. I reset the default text size to 24, which works fine for my eyesight. Once again I had to install the Darcula look and feel plugin to get everything looking the way I wanted it to. And like the updater URL, Apache's plugin portal URLs appeared to be borked for me at the time (I was getting 502 errors) although I've just checked and the portal is now working again. It wasn't a problem, anyway; as before, I ended up installing the LAF plugin from Github instead.


The FAWM website stopped accepting submissions for new songs at noon GMT today, drawing February Album Writing Month to a close for another year. As it's a leap year, the goal was to write fourteen and a half songs in 29 days. As I'm not working at the moment I'd initially (and, it turned out, much too ambitiously) set myself a goal of beating my all-time record of 31 songs which I set in 2016. In the end my general state of health meant I didn't get anywhere near that number, but my final tally was a more-than-respectable 21 songs, which works out as a regular FAWM and a half. They weren't short pieces of music, either: Windows tells me that the total length of the files I created or co-created is a quite astonishing one hour, forty-eight minutes and ten seconds, the equivalent of two decent-duration CDs.

Now the fun begins. It's time to really start listening to lots of the more than ten thousand new songs that have been written in the last four weeks and leaving comments and feedback on them. That's the process that makes the FAWM community so much fun, and it's a great way to pay other participants back for the support and encouragement that they've generously supplied. I can't overstate the effect that taking part every year for the last twelve years has had on my musical abilities. And I now have over 670 pieces of music in my catalogue that would never have seen the light of day if I hadn't signed up to take part way back in 2009.

What's even more valuable than the experience I've gained is the friendships I've made as a result of taking part. This year I was lucky enough to work with three of my favourite fellow FAWMers who I know in real life. Putting together tracks with Mel, Tim and Peter was huge fun and creatively rewarding; I'm chuffed to bits with how they turned out.


While I was working on my final two FAWM submissions yesterday, I could hear hailstones bouncing off the window behind my desk. Right now, I can see blue skies and sunshine out of the window, but it's still very windy out there as the tail end of Storm Jorge passes through. The good news is that the Environment Agency lifted the flood warning for the Little Avon River and its catchment areas (which is where I live) at half-past ten this morning. But it'll still be very muddy out there today, so I think I'll stay indoors, all the same. I'm still not feeling that great, so I'm going to stay in low-power mode and catch up with all the other stuff that I haven't been doing for the last month because of FAWM.