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Chris's Blog Archive: April 2021

Permalink entries for Chris's blog from April 2021.

My latest release on Bandcamp is a fifty-eight-minute collection of highlights from my work during FAWM this year called What I Did In February. Listening to it now that FAWM has closed I can hear a big improvement in my chops as a songwriter. It's a pay-what-you-want deal, too (and that includes free, because I know times are hard for everyone right now.) Why not give it a listen?

My most recent commercial album Oneiric Tulpas is available on Bandcamp! You can also check it out on Spotify, Amazon Music, Apple Music, Tidal and all your other favourite streaming services. My previous album Beyond is also on Spotify, Apple Music, Amazon Music, Tidal and the rest as well.

My earlier albums Generator and Fort are also available at Bandcamp, together with a large collection of other music from me.

ALMOST NOT A SHAMBLES

Okay, I've been doing these things for nearly a year so I've got a fair way through the ten thousand hours or so that Malcolm Gladwell's book Outliers reckoned you need to achieve mastery in something; Gladwell's assertion was based on research conducted by Anders Ericsson and his colleagues, although—as always with these things—I think you'll find that things might be a little bit more complicated than that. But last night's show was one of my better ones, I thought. Editing it down this morning I thought that even if I have a way to go until I could be described as slick, at least I finally appear to be leaving the badlands of "utterly shambolic" behind me. That's my not-so-humble opinion, anyway; you can of course judge for yourself:

Everything looks way, way better than it did when I started broadcasting from under the bed last spring.

I have an upgraded studio (and you wouldn't believe how much of a difference that has made, not only to the production quality of the music I'm making, but also to my confidence on camera.) And speaking of cameras, I have a much better, multiple-camera setup these days. I broadcast in Full HD, which was not the case a year ago. I now have proper lights and everything! I tweaked the lights yesterday so that instead of alternating colours from left to right, there's now a simple fifty-fifty split of orange on the left and teal on the right. Watching the footage of last night's show this morning, I reckon that the room looks much better that way, so I'm going to leave things like that. For a while, at least. Until I get bored with the look.

DUST MY BROOM

One thing that can be relied upon to give my mood a lift (something that I have been needing recently) is to clean the house. I know that housework is probably the furthest thing from your mind if (like me) you suffer from depression, but forcing yourself to do even a small chore like sorting out paper for recycling, doing the ironing, or clearing away the stacks of crap that accumulate on furniture and then giving the furniture a polish, can be a powerful mood lifter. I got to the "I really have to do something about the state of this room" stage on Saturday afternoon and I have been tackling the mess in stages, an hour or two at a time. There has been much throwing out of stuff. I vacuumed. Today, things in here don't feel like they're getting on top of me quite as much, the house is beginning to look a little less like a crazy person lives here, and I'm feeling slightly better as a result.

Believe me, this all took rather more effort than a normal person would need to expend. It was worth it. But after today's clearing-up session (I have managed a whole two hours today) I think I might need a nice cup of tea and a sit down. And quite possibly some cake, too.

TGIF

Seriously. TGIF. This week feels like it's lasted twice as long as they normally do. My mojo meter has been reading "E" since last weekend, and it's been very difficult to muster up energy to do pretty much anything. And yet, somehow, I not only managed to stream for more than two hours last night, I also had three new pieces of music to share with everybody:

Today I've just been chilling out. Took things slowly, hence the lateness of today's blog. And the laid-back vibe is likely to be continued over the weekend, because why not?

PERKING UP

Perhaps because I consumed more coffee than I usually do over the weekend, I've had a half-decent couple of days. Although the temptation to just stay in bed and hide under the duvet is still there, I've found it easier to overcome it, get up, and get on with Doing Stuff.

I streamed for two and a half hours or so on Saturday afternoon. I voted on the running order of tracks for a compilation album that I'll be appearing on (more on that once it gets released). I cooked proper food rather than relying on ready meals for sustenance. I did some housework, and a bunch of laundry. I read books. I watched some TV (I am very much enjoying The Falcon and The Winter Soldier, and took great delight in watching John Walker getting his ass handed to him in one of the fight scenes in the latest episode; "They weren't even supersoldiers," he whines when the fracas subsides.) And I slept better than I've been doing recently, and that makes a big difference.

I'm not going to jinx matters by claiming that I've turned a corner, because I've done that before here on the blog in recent months and a few weeks later I found myself back where I started. But the days are noticeably getting longer, even if recent hard frosts (it was back to -3°C in the back garden here last night) have postponed the advent of hayfever season for a while. Some of the summer migrants have already arrived in the area (the chiffchaffs were calling from the woods behing the car park at Sainsbury's when I went shopping) and it feels like winter is receding. That always lifts my mood.

MORE LIGHT

I have more light in the studio for my streaming activities, too. I picked up another twin pack of LED panels for the studio and had them up and running on Sunday night's show. As I said in last Friday's blog, I appeared to be sitting in the dark for Thursday's show. I eventually figured out that I'd set the panel at the back on the right to a darker shade of blue that looked dramatic but which didn't really provide much by way of illumination, so I've set it back to how it was. And the new panels are clamped to my monitor arms and aimed at the walls to either side of my desk to provide a subtle wash of colour without being too bright or overloading the camera sensors. I think the results look pretty good.

The show went well, but I've edited a lot of the side discussions out of this week's episode. Not because there was anything that I wasn't happy about having on record, more because I want to try and focus the Sunday shows more strongly on the creative act. So the show is very much concerned with getting your mojo working and using it to come up with a new song. And that's exactly what I did in the closing section of the show. It's a rough sketch, yes—I've already rewritten the lyrics and I'll be working on the song some more over the next few days—but it showed me that I can do this on demand in front of the cameras, and that provided a welcome boost to my self-esteem.

LOADMASTERS REPRESENT

If you don't know what a loadmaster is, they're the person who figures out how much extra weight an aircraft will be carrying when all the passengers, cargo, and fuel are on board. Loadmasters have to make sure that the aircraft is able to take off from its current location while it's carrying that much extra weight because MTOW (Maximum Take-Off Weight) decreases as air density gets lower; that happens as the temperature and altitude increase and if you're above MTOW and the air at the airfield isn't dense enough—or if you're "hot and high" in loadmaster parlance, your aircraft's wings won't be able to generate enough lift to keep it in the air, no matter how long a runway you've got.

Loadmasters also have to arrange things so that the aircraft's centre of gravity is not shifted too far away from where it is when it's empty, because that would make it difficult to control. Getting your load calculations wrong can have terrible consequences. They were very likely a contributing factor to the crash of an Air France Concorde in Paris, twenty-one years ago. I helped develop a loadmaster training programme for the RAF back in the day, which is why I know a little bit about the role and its responsibilities.

Today's tale of an IT outsourcing screw-up where an aircraft ended up being 1200 kg heavier than the aircrew expected because the coders writing the loading software had assumed that any passenger with the title "Miss" was a child rather than an adult (because that was the convention in the country where they worked) could quite easily have been a horror story.

Not having a clued-up human being in the loop for systems like this might save money, but if the IT systems that replaced those expensive people aren't up to scratch, there might be unforeseen consequences. Tui were fortunate to get away with it in this case and the aircraft's operating capabilities were not exceeded.

And that is a great argument for building machines that exceed their design tolerances by a generous margin if ever I read one.

SUB-OPTIMAL BUT PERSEVERING

And that might have to be the title of my next album. Aside from the fact that I appear to be sitting in the dark, just look at the state of me yesterday evening:

I'm feeling pretty shattered this week and at a low ebb once again. And oh boy, can't you tell? I'd spent the day cleaning the conservatory and doing the supermarket run to stock up on supplies, and by the evening I was toast. After I signed off, all I had left in the tank were fumes. I'm in quite a lot of pain at the moment and to be honest I'm not feeling particularly resilient.

But @stupidukguy's wonderful comment that my streams were the reason that he'd started making music again made me feel great. That's my goal when I do these live streams: I want other people to experience the kick that I get out of writing and recording music. Even when I look like I'm dead on my feet, I know that if I can still create music, it will keep me going.

WELCOME TO MY WORLD

Somebody looked at the long-term effects on mental health of patients who became seriously ill with Covid-19 and discovered that many of them were subsequently diagnosed with a neurological or psychiatric condition, the most common being anxiety.

If you've never been seriously ill, that probably comes as a surprise to you. In that case, let me also tell you that water is wet, and bears do indeed...

Seriously, though. This is news to people? As a child I was less than robust and had multiple stays in hospital. Several of those stays lasted for several weeks. I had to undergo major surgery more than once, and I still have flashbacks of coming out of a general anaesthetic while I was still on the operating table as a small child and it's only been in the last couple of years that I finally realised that flashbacks like that are a classic symptom of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder or PTSD. As far as I'm concerned, if you've ever been that ill and you've come out of it without suffering lasting damage to your mental health, you're a seriously unusual person.

I haven't read the study, but it immediately occurred to me that the chance of assessing an adequately large control group that was taken from a representative sample of the population must be vanishingly small, because the authors were looking at cases of Covid-19 in the US. Healthcare is grotesquely expensive in the United States and many people suffering from PTSD or other psychiatric or neurological conditions literally cannot afford to get a diagnosis, so the prevalence of such conditions may be—who are we kidding; is almost certainly—much higher than the figures seen by medical practitioners.

And if that supposition is true (as I suspect it is), no further indictment of privatised healthcare should be necessary. Putting profits before health to the degree that a significant portion of the population is seriously ill and not getting treatment is a truly monstrous thing to do.

I'M SO EXCITED

Yesterday my brain nearly exploded with delight. Why?

Because of this Tweet.

The teaser for Picard season 2 makes it clear that John de Lancie will be returning as my favourite character from the Star Trek Universe, the omnipotent and mischievous Q. He said a few years ago that he had become too old to revisit playing the character, but clearly that was before he met Lola and the technology that is available to film makers these days. I can't wait to see the new season of the show.

CHANGEABLE

The temperature here for the last couple of nights has dropped to -5°C and all the lovely blossom on my magnolia has turned into a brown, shrivelled mess. The weather forecast that I mentioned a few days ago was spot-on: yesterday the weather here ranged from blue skies and brilliant sunshine to sleet, then more sunshine, then hail, and finally snow.

Weather forecasters love the word "changeable" at this time of year because, as happened here yesterday, if you don't like what the weather's like right now just wait an hour or two and you'll get something completely different. Why is this?

It's to do with the fact that we just had the equinox, when the Sun is directly above the equator at noon and we get equal hours of light and day. We get more sunlight, and it's coming from higher overhead; this starts to warm the northern hemisphere in the spring and when the reverse happens in the autumn, the northern hemisphere cools again. That warming and cooling shifts the jet stream, which gets pushed south during the winter by the cold, dense mass of air that forms above the north pole. As the jet stream moves north at this time of year in the northern hemisphere, atmospheric conditions become more unstable. More instability happens around the autumn equinox, when the jet stream starts to be pushed south again. And in both cases, we get days here like yesterday.

SMART-ISH

I recently set up my Withings watch to give me phone notifications, and now when I get a message on FB Messenger, my phone transmits the message to my watch which vibrates and scrolls the message across its display.

I wouldn't consider myself to be a smart watch kind of guy and I'm not normally impressed by phone technology, but this does seem to be a rather impressive technological feat, particularly as my phone and watch are made by different manufacturers. It almost makes up for us not having flying cars yet.

Almost.

DEEP CLEAN

I recently discovered the delights of stir-frying udon noodles as a fast and slightly heathier source of carbohydrates to chips or roast potatoes, but yesterday when I'd finished doing the washing up, I took a look at the cooker hood in the kitchen and recoiled in disgust: the paper filter behind the vent was soaked in grease. At that point it occurred to me that it hadn't been replaced for a while. More than a while, in fact; it's probably a few years since I last fitted a new filter. I was so horrified by the state of the thing that I dismantled the whole assembly then and there. Fortunately the last time I replaced the filter I bought a double pack of the things so I had a replacement filter handy. The greasy one was rapidly consigned to the bin. Out came the step ladder, and I set to with the spray bleach. I even removed the light bulbs in the cooker hood and gave them a buff up and I was amazed how much brighter they were afterwards. Once I'd sprayed kitchen cleaner everywhere I also ended up cleaning the hob, and the oven, and the kitchen floor. The next thing I knew it was three hours later and I'd given the entire kitchen a thorough deep clean.

This morning I noticed that the kitchen actually smells noticeably cleaner.

I know that spending three hours on my feet and climbing up and down a step ladder over and over again was good exercise, but I was very sore when I went to bed last night. I didn't sleep particularly well, either. I am really looking forward to getting my kidneys fixed because from the feel of things they are clearly not in great shape right now.

GO SLOW

I've been uploading my live streams to YouTube for forty-six weeks now, and over the last few months I've noticed that the amount of time it takes the platform to "process" one of my uploads is getting longer and longer. It doesn't seem to make a difference if the video is twenty minutes long or a couple of hours; while the upload itself happens reasonably quickly (I get fairly decent speeds here in the village) the subsequent stage (which I'm assuming renders the video out in multiple resolutions and checks whether or not I've infringed somebody else's copyright in the show) can take longer to complete than watching the video itself would do. I'm fastidious about other people's copyright to the point of psychosis, so that's not gonna happen, but I get the point of them needing to check.

As I sit here thinking about the ramifications of the process, I'm wondering what the energy costs of all these checks and balances are. I suspect that they will be non-trivial. YouTube don't release data on their energy usage either, and that really makes me think that each video has a non-trivial energy footprint.

And that has me asking myself the very awkward question, "when do we get to the point where all of these cat videos become environmentally unsustainable?"

I suspect the answer will be "Sooner than you think."

NEVERTHELESS...

...I keep plugging away. Here's last night's show, which now has a new name and theme tune even if I haven't shot the opening titles yet. It's time for the Write Another Song show, ladles and germs:

SPRING (NOT SPRING)

I read recently that you shouldn't start doing the gardening until the ground temperature rises above 10°C (50°F), as doing so earlier will expose a lot of the helpful bugs and other organisms that shelter in the soil over winter to any late-season frosts and kill them. Here in the South West of England the ambient temperature has been warming up nicely, but the nights are still chilly and the ground is nowhere near that warm just yet. It's a good excuse not to touch the garden for a few more days, I know—but illness forced me to leave the garden untouched for much of last year and it rather got away from me. I don't want to repeat that this year.

But I turned on the TV to catch the weather forecast last night and was rather surprised to hear the word "snow" being mentioned. Last night the temperature in the back garden plummeted to -3°C, which was significantly colder than it's been for a fortnight or so. The forecast here for the next few days is for overnight frosts and showers of sleet, so it looks like I will be postponing cutting the lawn for at least another week. Shame.

AND OFF WE GO

Fifty/Ninety: The Prequel gets under way today and I spent a few minutes before breakfast this morning writing lyrics for the first of (hopefully) a hundred songs that I'll be writing in the next 180 days.

This afternoon I'll be back upstairs turning those words into music. It doesn't matter how many times I record a song, the process always feels like magic.

With any luck, I'll have something ready to share with you on tonight's live stream on Twitch. As promised on Thursday's show, I have come up with a new title for my Sunday night streams, so tune in at 21:00 BST to find out what it is!

FIRE UP THE ENGINES

It's nearly time for another creative challenge. Fifty/Ninety: The Prequel starts on Sunday, and as you'll see from last night's live stream, I'm already geared up and ready for the starting gun.

Over the past year or so I've noticed that the blog has taken on a marked tendency to be profoundly introspective. Which is a polite way of saying that it's been mostly about me, my health, and the things that I've been up to. I realised yesterday that the reason for this is that my thoughts and frustrations about the wider world have a different outlet these days: rather than write a grumpy blog post about things that are happening out there in the world at large, I've been writing grumpy songs about them instead. And once I've done that, I've said what I wanted to say and moved on (which is why songwriting has turned out to be really beneficial for my mental health, folks.)

And the grumpiness has to take a back seat, I know. As I said on the show last night, the world sucks enough as it is. I need to be more upbeat in my writing, both here and in my music. That could make the songwriting challenge I'm going to be doing for the next six months far more of a, er, challenge than I'd planned.

But that's a good thing.

WHY YOUR COMPANY SHOULDN'T PULL APRIL FOOLS' STUNTS

One word:

Voltswagen.

Sure, the practice of pulling stunts like the BBC's spaghetti harvest film was funny in the naive, innocent days of the 1950s, but that film was funny principally because back then the BBC was a paragon of truth and integrity. The idea that the BBC would broadcast a report that was fictitious was not only shocking, it was unheard of. You've only got to watch a few recent episodes of Question Time to realise just how far things have deteriorated since then. And now that Facebook and other social media networks have been weaponized and fake news is an everyday existential threat rather than an amusing diversion once a year, the day of the April Fools' Joke is dead. They're just not funny any more.

They're even less funny when, as in VW's case, they're made by clueless PR shills who want to show how creative they are. Because—as we saw this week—they couldn't even get the date right. What turned out to be far worse for them was that, once the joke got out, they had a choice between admitting that the joke had failed and accepting a certain amount of ridicule, or doubling down on the whole thing and insisting that it was all true, even though it wasn't. Clearly, someone's ego made the decision and decided that lying about the company's strategy was the preferable course of action: they sent out the same story again the following day. Lying is never a good look from a public relations perspective; being caught doing it in the global media is a disaster of spectacular proportions and industry regulators are already muttering darkly that something may have to be done to teach VW a lesson. Don't let your company be the next VW, kids. It's not big and it's really not clever.

SCANNING

After Bob Rickard climbed to the roof of FT HQ a couple of days ago and lit the scanner signal once again, I've spent a fair few happy hours scanning some of my old copies of the Fortean Times for his archival project. Every issue is being scanned and the text will be fed into an OCR program to turn it all into searchable files that can be indexed and data-ised. The issues I'm archiving are from the tail end of 2005, and it really does feel like they're from a different world. It's actually rather shocking.

Back in 2005 nobody had heard of QAnon, or fake news. The FT's monthly column on conspiracy theories had yet to appear. Instead, there are endearing photo stories about (for example) pigs taking part in sporting events. The hot topics revolved around fringe science rather than anti-science. Flat Earthers were seen as an amusing bunch of eccentrics rather than a threat to rationalism or clear thinking, and Facebook (est. 2004) had yet to become the global cesspit of disinformation and radicalisation that it is today. Back then, Nazis were people that got punched and thrown out of airships in movies rather than appearing on chat shows and driving government policy.

There are reports and letters about the tornado that struck Birmingham in July (I was on holiday in Spain at the time, and missed all of the excitement). There are adverts for the first ever tour of Jeff Wayne's stage production of The War Of The Worlds with performances from a real Justin Hayward and a virtual Richard Burton. Back then, Netflix was a DVD rental company, and DVDs were the platform of choice for consuming media (Joss Whedon's TV shows Buffy and Angel figure prominently). And there were an awful lot of adverts for video games, most of which I couldn't remember at all.

They were happier, more innocent times. Leafing through the pages really brought home just how much the world has changed since then. Few of those changes have been for the better.

FOOLED

When it comes to examples of folk not applying critical thinking skills, I've been spoilt for choice this week. Apparently I shouldn't believe the theory that the classic Socorro flying saucer landing case in New Mexico in the 1960s was a hoax perpetrated by students getting their own back on a police officer who had been unpopular when he worked as a security guard at New Mexico Technical University, because of who "revealed" the evidence, and the hypothesis that it was a craft piloted by extraterrestrials was just as unproven (and, by inference, just as valid.)

Just let that sink in for a moment.

Yup. That's what I thought, too.