Chris Harris's Blog Archive: May 2013

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May was a good month. I got to meet up with old friends I hadn't seen in a while, I was inspired to start a new musical project and I even got some exercise, completing a ten-mile sponsored walk.

Best of all, I saw the legendary Canadian power trio Rush not once, but twice. They were excellent - but I'm sure you'd guessed that already.

 

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30 May 13 (permalink)

WHERE'S SUMMER GOT TO?

You may have noticed that I haven't been very posty recently. It's been a busy few weeks, and a few too many late nights have been catching up with me. With driving back from London after Friday's Rush gig via the 24-hour supermarket, I didn't get to bed until 4:30 am on Saturday morning and it was 2am on Monday morning when I turned in after the NEC show. I had a really good time, but more than anything else right now I'm looking forwards to spending the weekend reducing my sleep deficit.

It'll be June on Saturday and that means that in just over three weeks' time the evenings will start getting shorter again. Yet the weather here still seems to be stuck in about mid-March. This spring is set to be the coldest for 50 years and I've still got the central heating set to come on for half an hour in the evenings because the house gets too cold otherwise. After spending the day working in an office with an industrial strength air-conditioning system I need some warmth to defrost myself. And it's not only cold, it's damp too; while I managed to get home this evening without using the windscreen wipers it's been raining for most of the week. I don't remember May being quite as windy as this when I was younger, either. So far, the weather has been almost as grim as it was last year. That's a bit of a drag, as this summer I don't have a trip to California planned to grab some much-needed sunshine. Last July I couldn't believe how much better I felt after a few days basking in the warmth of the Bay Area's wonderful weather, and the climate up the coast in Vancouver was just as balmy. I'm already missing it. Instead, this summer I will be huddled in my studio doing 50/90 and using the heat generated by The Monolith to keep myself warm.

I'm still very pleased with my new machine. Now that I've got it set up how I want it, the PC has been running smoothly and despite the heavy soundproofing I haven't had any problems with cooling. It manages all the tracks and effects chains I throw at it in Live 9 without complaining and putting the OS on an SSD means it's ridiculously fast to boot up. I've just installed Skype on it and added a webcam. I picked the same Logitech C270 that I have on the machine downstairs. It gives a superb picture and sound for under 25. In fact, I think it's ridiculously cheap for what you get. I just wish there were some affordable higher-resolution monitors on the market, because a basic 2560 x 1440p monitor won't leave you much change from 500 at the moment. Also, to get that resolution I'd end up with a 27" screen which is way too big for the very limited workspace I've got. Oh, to have a little more room...

WAFFLING

I'm still on the 5:2 diet, and the weight is staying off. I bumped into a former colleague yesterday who I hadn't seen for a couple of years and he remarked on how much I've lost. Hooray!

Today is a fast day, so I'm limited to 600 calories - and while my stomach rumbles occasionally I don't have a problem with that. However, my subconscious doesn't always play ball and instead of eating a sandwich for lunch I found myself searching for waffle makers on the web. My mother used to have a fantastic waffle iron - the old-fashioned sort that you place on the hob rather than an electrical device that you plug in - and I've long hankered for one of my own. But I've never been able to find one that really fits the bill (cast iron rather than aluminium, one that you have to season rather than having a Teflon coating). I need something that makes big, chunky, fluffy waffles.

Mmmm, waffles.

Waffles are my ideal comfort food. Why wouldn't they be? You can have them as part of a savoury dish for the main course, and then have them again with something sweet for dessert. You can have them for breakfast, dinner or tea and not be thought weird, or mocked for your culinary choices. They have a gorgeous texture and taste. I love the things, and while I was in America and Canada last year I made sure I got the opportunity to sample as many as I could. The waffles, fried chicken and maple syrup that I had at Chewie's in Vancouver was one of the most memorable meals I've had in a long time. It's probably just as well the place is so far away or I'd be eating there every week.

And I'd be the size of a house.

27 May 13 (permalink)

LIKE CLOCKWORK

Since Friday I've been to two Rush gigs; on Friday night I was at the O2 in London, and last night I was at the LG Arena at the NEC in Birmingham. Rush are one of my favourite bands and I've been going to their shows since I was a teenager. I haven't missed a tour since I first saw them in 1979 at Bingley Hall in Stafford. This tour was a bit different, though - they had a seven piece string section on stage for the second half of the show:

And now for something completely different

The strings were primarily there to play on tracks from Rush's latest album Clockwork Angels, but the addition of so many other instruments transformed the earlier material they played, particularly Red Sector A off Grace Under Pressure. And the presence of other musicians on stage really seemed to energise the band - they played their socks off.

Rush have been a strong influence on my own musical development over the years. You'll find it difficult to find another band who bring such a high level of professionalism and ability to their live performances. When Rush are on the road, you know you're going to see something special. Their material is complex and demanding to play; the lyrics are thought-provoking and wide ranging. Sunday's set featured subject matter ranging from science fiction epics to the suicide of a friend. The arrangements make no sacrifices when trying to recreate the sound the band achieved on their albums, either - Geddy often sings, plays bass, synthesiser and bass pedals in the course of a single song. Alex was playing piano at one point last night and Neil Peart's drum kit includes Roland drum pads and cymbals that triggered a bewildering array of samples. The resulting sound was immense.

I've been asked several times this week why I'd go and see the band more than once on the same tour. The answer is, of course, that their shows are never the same. On Friday night the set included Manhattan Project (from Power Windows) and The Body Electric (from Grace Under Pressure); last night instead of those tracks they played The Pass (from Presto) and Dreamline (from Roll the Bones). I also had a very different perspective on the show at each gig. On Friday I was up in the gods with my brother which gave a spectacular view of the entire show (Rush are well-known for their lighting design, which has been the responsibility of Howard Ungerleider since 1974) but last night I was a dozen rows from the front and bang in the middle, which meant I was close enough to see how the band interact with each other. Neil in particular really looked like he was enjoying himself. It's been a very memorable weekend.

SECURITY THEATRE

One thing that really soured the experience at the O2 Arena on Friday was the ludicrously heavy-handed security. When I'm trying to enjoy a concert that I've paid a serious amount of money for, the last think I want is for some shaven-headed security guard to decide he can get a better view of someone he thinks might be recording the show by standing in my lap. It's very difficult to focus on the music when there's someone glaring at people right next to you.

It must have been even more unpleasant for the French woman sitting in front of me, as one guard spent a considerable amount of time standing uncomfortably close to her - I reckon behaviour like that in a public place would have got him arrested. Another guy behind me got shouted at as if he was a small child for buying his mate a beer: "He's drunk. Don't give him that!" I haven't had such a poor experience at a concert in decades. Rather than coming out of the gig talking about how great the band were, the first thing my brother and I talked about was how unpleasant the guards were. And yes, we both used the word "guards" unprompted. It felt like we were in prison rather than going out somewhere to enjoy ourselves. That's wrong, deeply wrong.

In contrast, the security at the LG Arena in Birmingham got things just right. There were plenty of folk about to make things go without a hitch but they never got in the way of the show and they were happy and good-natured. It was clear that their number one priority was the customer experience; at the O2 the focus was much more on marketing and in transferring as much money as possible from you to them. Given the choice, I'm sure you can guess which venue I'll be picking from now on for seeing top-line bands.

THE WHEELS ARE FALLING OFF

Last week the photo sharing website Flickr unveiled their revamped service. The site has been pretty stable for the last five years or so, and I've been a paying user since 2006 but the first few days of the "new-look" site have left a sour taste in the mouth.

Firstly, Yahoo CEO Marissa Meyer made some extremely ill-advised comments that "there is no such thing as professional photographers (sic) any more" and announced that the Pro account on Flickr was therefore no longer necessary. Needless to say, Pro account users didn't react well to this assertion. Some Pro account users (including me) also found that thanks to "three free months of Pro" gifts that Yahoo have distributed over the past year, their pro accounts had switched from the default automatic renew to a set expiration date - meaning that we'd lose the functionality that the Pro account gives (and getting some, but not all, of that functionality back would mean paying double the old fee per year). When this happened to high-profile Flickr user Thomas Hawk, he went ballistic. Flickr very hastily changed things back to how they used to be and Thomas and I are now back on the original pro account arrangement. Pro account users might not figure in Yahoo's larger plans for Flickr (the site is now obviously aimed at the mobile user and going after the photo-sharing users that currently stick their stuff on Facebook) but they make a lot of noise. At the time of writing this, the feedback thread on Flickr's own user forum has over 28,000 comments and the tone is overwhelmingly negative. Some people were incandescent with rage.

The design of the new look has been particularly badly received. Everything is thrown together in a confused mess and Yahoo appear to have a strong aversion to leaving space around pictures. In the past you could choose from several options in how your photos appeared on the screen. In the redesign, users have had to cede almost all control over how their work is presented; for example, when you scroll through contacts' photos, the site now seems to make arbitrary decisions on whether a photograph deserves being given its own line or included in a mosaic with one or more pictures from other people.

The changes were rolled out without sufficient usability testing. The bug list rapidly filled up with users reporting simple errors that really should have been picked up before launch. A lot of the functionality of the site disappeared and, depending on which browser you're using, it still hasn't been fixed a week later. Firefox still doesn't work properly: when you click on most of the controls dotted around the screen, all that happens is that the page reloads. The only way I could grab the code to embed the Rush photo above was by switching to Google Chrome. Even when a page does work, the layout of the screen is clumsy; titles of photographs are truncated; comments fall off the bottom of the page; photographs are painfully slow to load. Worryingly, it's become much easier to grab high-quality copies of pictures off the site, which is not something the professional photographers (the ones that Marissa Meyer claimed don't exist) are happy about. But worst of all, Yahoo clearly misjudged the additional load that would be placed on their site as a result of the revamp and it promptly fell over spectacularly.

Finally, the online help about how to interact with the site and do things like adding photos to groups, edit tags, or grab the HTML for sharing on other websites wasn't updated for several days; when all the changes came into effect, the FAQ still told you how you would have done these things on the old version of the site. When you make a change this significant, the first thing you do is make sure that there's plenty of help available to ease users into the new interface. Interactions and tasks on the new site are obscured or convoluted in a way that they never were on the old design. From a usability perspective, the new site sucks.

You have to wonder about the professionalism of a company that can make such a thorough mess of things as this. I used to conside Flickr to be the best site on the web for making my photos available to look at, but not any more. I will certainly be extremely wary about signing up for any other Yahoo services in the future.

19 May 13 (permalink)

GLOBAL CHATTER

It was the Eurovision Song Contest last night. As I've done several times in the last few years, I spent the evening watching it with my Twitter feed in my lap and a bottle of wine on the table, and had a whale of a time doing so. Eurovision works so much better in the context of Twitter; it's reassuring to see my friends responding positively to the good songs, and the wisecracks and snide comments on the bad ones make them hilarious to watch. It's also essential to watch with the red button services enabled, as the lyrics are often mind-bendingly weird. One early entry featured a guy singing about the names he'd given to his shoes...

There were some pretty good tunes this year. From the Netherlands, Anouk's Birds was my early favourite as it sounded absolutely nothing like a Eurovision entry. Quiet, introspective and written in a minor key, it contained far too many chords to stand any chance of garnering mass support and the comments scrolling across the bottom of the screen (like I said, you have to be watching the BBC coverage with the red button) bore this out. Let's just say they were not supportive and leave it at that.

Romania's entry had generated a huge amount of early buzz even if it was primarily from a "WTF?" perspective (if William Gibson tweets about you, you're clearly on to something). Cezar's performance, which came across like Klaus Nomi fronting Pendulum, certainly ticked all the prime Eurovision boxes - provided that your boxes include "camp falsetto vampire" and "Mariangela Melato wannabe". Then again, Greece looked like they were in with a chance of winning by utilising a shameless pastiche of Madness blended with bazoukis and singing about booze. But it was Margaret Berger's wannabe Bond theme I Feed You My Love that ensured that my vote went to Norway.

Swedish host Petra Mede's half time comedy song - which included shout outs to the Swedish Chef and the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and included the lines "By winning this contest you get a chance / to host a show you can't afford / But then sell your country with song and dance / Here's our Swedish Smorgasbord" - was the high point of the evening. But in the end, it was not to be Norway's night and Denmark were the runaway winners. Their singer Emmelie was one of several barefoot Shakira clones this year, but the song Only Teardrops was catchy with a distinctly celtic feel (it sounded more Irish than the Irish entry, which came last) and to be honest I couldn't complain about the result.

The Twitter crowd were great fun and with a bleed over into Facebook I was still chatting online at 1:30 this morning. That is not something I normally do, believe me. And this year, I somehow managed to finish the proceedings with more Twitter followers than I had when I started. That's pretty good going, as Warren Ellis reported he'd lost 500 followers. That is a great shame, because his comments last night frequently made me laugh out loud. That was a good night.

LOOKING FOR A FIGHT

The new playable character in Borderlands 2 was released this week and I've been playing Krieg the psycho for a few days now. The character feels markedly different to the other vault hunters - his eyeline is much higher than Maya, Axton or Zero and he's got a lot more weight to throw around. This has not gone down well with fans, as it means there are some tricks in the game that he just can't do. He dies a lot more often, too. When you use his "special ability" the chances are you'll find yourself in fight for your life mode in a fairly short space of time and in my opinion his skill tree powerups take away as much - if not more - than they give. The class mods don't seem to help matters, either. In kill skill mode I often find that I can't make out what the hell is going on: the buzz axe takes up a lot of the screen and the mess made when you hit something obscures the rest of the view. I don't think I'll be making my way through the entire storyline without getting so frustrated that I switch back to using Axton the Commando.

I hope that Gearbox do some tweaking with the character, because if you're considering plonking down eight quid for the download I can't really tell you it's worth it right now. Wait and see if they fix things first.

NAME CALLING

So. The season finale of Doctor Who aired last night, and what a humdinger that turned out to be. As soon as I saw William Hartnell on the screen (and in colour, at that) I knew we were going to get something interesting and I wasn't disappointed in any way at all. Several of my friends had suggested beforehand that Clara would end up scattered across time, and as soon as we started last night it was clear that this is exactly what had happened - the show then became an exploration of how this came to happen. All the events in earlier episodes of this season - where it was always Clara who resolved the plot - now make sense. She was, quite literally, born to save the Doctor.

Once the opening credits had rolled, we were back with Madame Vastra, Jenny and Strax once again and the dialogue was well up to scratch:

Jenny:

I like the new desktop!

Madame Vastra:

I got bored with the Taj Mahal.

I loved the way Strax grumbled about "The one with the big head" and then asked Madame Vastra if she'd gone a darker shade of green when she had to introduce River as the Doctor's "companion". But then events took a much more dramatic turn than I'd expected:

Jenny:

So sorry, so sorry. I think I've been murdered.

The Doctor knows about where they're going, as he tells Donna that Dorium (the blue chap from A Good Man Goes To War) mentioned it. The visual effects when they arrive in the graveyard on Trenzalore (which, I see was signed by the scenery artist herself on the grave next to the Tardis) are some of the best I've ever seen on the show - that image of the giant Tardis looming over a desolate graveyard will, I am sure, become one of the classic Who moments.

Strax got all the good lines this week. "Do you want me to do that again?" and "Don't worry sir, I think I've got him rattled" were just two examples. Richard E. Grant was on fine form as Dr. Simeon (the Great Intelligence) and he threw some interesting names at Madame Vastra's gang: Storm, The Beast, The Valeyard. The Doctor, in return, also had fun with names:

The Doctor:

Now then. "Doctor Simeon", or "Mister G. Intelligence", whatever I call you. Do you know what's in there?

I must admit that I spent some time thinking that we'd just discovered that the Doctor's name had turned out to be "please" but of course that was just Mr Moffat screwing with us. Did you spot the very subtle foreshadowing of something to come in the scene that followed? Listen to the sounds of the previous Doctors when the Doctor zaps his timeline with the sonic screwdriver. The final line is definitely David Tennant. He's saying a line I didn't recognise, saying something that sounds like "daisies" which prompts Matt Smith's line "Even the ones I haven't lived yet" just before the Doctor collapses. Interesting...

The resolution of the story, of course, turned out to generate a whole new set of questions. That cameo at the end? I certainly didn't see that one coming. It was one hell of a cliffhanger and it sets the 50th anniversary show up to be an examination of the Doctor's entire 50-year run. Can't wait until November.

18 May 13 (permalink)

SATURDAY ALREADY?

It's already late afternoon - I really don't know where the time goes these days. I'm sitting here with a glass of pinot noir and Radio 3's jazz record requests show on the radio, thinking about a number of things that I meant to blog about over the last week or so but didn't get around to recording. So here goes, I guess...

RAY HARRYHAUSEN 1920 - 2013

I couldn't leave the passing of Ray Harryhausen to go unremarked. Ray was almost singlehandedly responsible for the love of cinema I developed back when I was a kid. His work had an extraordinary knack for sticking in the memory, whether it was the black-and-white special effects of Earth vs. the Flying Saucers that I saw on the TV or the spectacular technicolour dinosaurs in The Valley of Gwangi which I still remember seeing at the Odeon in Stafford on a Saturday morning back in the 1970s. And then, or course, there's the skeleton fight from Jason and the Argonauts. That one scene alone would have been enough to assure him a place in movie history, but it was just one highlight from a long and glittering career. Just look at that list of movies he worked on: I've seen almost all of them and I have a large number of them on DVD.

He was a true groundbreaker and it's important to remember that he achieved what he did with traditional film cameras on a tabletop, shooting frame by frame. Maybe his good nature was a side-effect of what must have been a limitless reservoir of patience; there were no computers to create digital representations of his thoughts and he had to rely on mechanical skeletons covered in rubber skin. Every single movement, every raised Ymir eyebrow or Medusa grimace had to be choreographed a 24th of a second at a time. The simplicity of this approach belies its effect - even now, watching his monsters come to life makes me smile and shows me an examplar of the art of cinema at its greatest.

The obituaries didn't just focus on his technical achievements, though. I never got to meet him, but from watching the documentaries on his DVD it's clear that, as the Guardian said, he was a modest and charming man and the tributes that came in from all over the entertainment industry reflect how much he was loved.

Ray will be sadly missed, but what a legacy he's left for us.

TREKKING TO THE MOVIES

I went and saw the new Star Trek movie on Wednesday. I'm afraid it didn't impress me. It's a prime example of the Hollywood approach to storytelling these days: rather than have a well-thought-out plot, just hustle the audience from scene to scene at a blistering pace so they never have time to think. Sure, it looked nice, but the plot was written by someone with no grounding in science fiction beyond a desire to crib memorable lines (and, indeed, the entire plot) from existing works.

My suspension of disbelief was broken pretty much as soon as we got to the bit with the Enterprise hiding underwater from natives who did not have telescopes; what was wrong with leaving the thing in orbit? Spacecraft are not renowned for their performance as submarines and outer space is most emphatically not the same environment as a couple of hundred feet below the surface of the ocean.

Then there's the physics. So long as you accept the fact that FTL travel is possible in the show's universe, the original series tended not to stray too far from accepted physics. Paramount started to play fast and loose with things once we got to Deep Space Nine, but that was nothing compared to Abrams's "red matter" in the last film and this time out is no different. Spock freezes an erupting volcano solid in seconds thanks, we are told, to "cold fusion". When the Enterprise is damaged, debris shoots out of it, but when the ship comes to a halt, so does the debris - it just hangs in space between the two warring vessels in order to make the passage from one ship to the other more dramatic. Er - no, JJ. No.

Science fiction is at its most interesting when it plays by consistent rules, but here the plot has so many holes it resembles a string vest. Screenwriter Roberto Orci has a history of coming up with clunking, implausible plot devices that are so cringe-inducing that I wonder how he remains in employment. Maybe it's a Dan Brown thing, I dunno. But all of those films move at the same, frenetic pace in order to avoid too close an examination of plot, motivation, character development or - let's face it - logic. Kirk breaks Starfleet's Prime Directive (which as it's the PRIME directive is, we can assume, the most important rule in the book) but still finds himself at a top-secret meeting of Starfleet's finest because he knows somebody involved? Greenwood, we are told, talks Weller into giving Chris Pine the Enterprise back but we are not shown what he says - for no good reason other than Orci clearly wasn't up to finding sufficiently good reasons for doing so/couldn't write a scene that featured a reasoned, logical argument. Weller knows that Benedict Cumberbatch's character is a genocidal maniac, but he lets him go wherever he wants without supervision? Really? Those gangways between huge aluminium tanks (filmed at a Budweiser factory) for instance. Whereabouts are they on the ship? How does a space that large fit? What is its function? Why does it have so much unused space above? Designing a space vehicle with that much empty space inside it is inefficient - it just wouldn't happen. And while we're on the subject of design, does Abrams honestly expect me to believe that a ship that uses artificial gravity would be so poorly designed that when the system failed, gravity would shift through 90° and fling people down corridors that were hundreds of metres long without any safety cut-outs being triggered? A ship in which the hull has been breached, yet there seem to be no internal bulkheads to restrict the area of the ship rendered uninhabitable? There's not much point finally fitting the bridge with seatbelts when the rest of the ship is clearly a deathtrap; you wouldn't get me on board, that's for sure.

Abrams tells us he has respect for the original show, but aside from plagiarising lines from it, I couldn't see any evidence to support his assertion. The only people who give an impression that they've done more than watch a couple of episodes of the series are Chris Pine and Karl Urban. Both of their performances are note perfect. Also, Bruce Greenwood is woefully underemployed. Somebody seems to have told poor Peter Weller that he was playing James Garner and the idea of a boss of Starfleet coming out with lines like "Well, shit" is just wrong on so many levels. Alice Eve finds herself standing in a shuttlecraft dressed only in her underwear for no good reason at all, and Simon Pegg is reduced to running about a lot and calling his commanding officer a "mad bastard". And yes, please note that I've been referring to the actors by name, rather than their characters. Aside from avoiding a particularly large (if somewhat obvious) spoiler, it's because whoever these characters are, they are not Kirk or Spock or Uhura or whoever. The film carries only the most tangential connection to the universe of Star Trek and that does not extend to the characters that I grew up watching and admiring.

Sure, the film looks (and sounds) wonderful, and there are some jaw-dropping special effects shots. But I got the distinct sense that the plot had been cobbled together to justify those sequences, rather than having them arise naturally out of the story. It's lowest common denominator film making, and the fan service in it is there solely as a cynical exercise to justify spending a ludicrous amount of money on a badly-written, poorly-thought-out science fiction film that with any other setting (with the possible exception of Star Wars) would never get made. I'm ashamed that it should attach itself to the Star Trek name.

OFF TO THE PLAYGROUND

I'm just about to sit down and watch the season finale of Doctor Who, but before I do I'll say a few words about last week's episode A Nightmare in Silver which was written by one of my favourite authors, Neil Gaiman.

One thing that Doctor Who has never handled well has been plots that revolve around children. I won't include The Empty Child here because we didn't actually spend much time in the company of children before they changed into scary gas mask monsters. No, I'm thinking more along the lines of Fear Her or The Doctor, The Widow and The Wardrobe. Neil Gaiman, on the other hand, is a master of writing both for and about children, so I had high hopes for the episode. The setting, in a creepy abandoned amusement park on a distant planet, looked promising.

But like the Star Trek film I saw on Wednesday, things moved so fast that you didn't have time to figure much of it out. Gaiman tweeted this week how various plot elements were explained by scenes that, due to the time constraints of making things fit into a single episode, never got filmed. It would have benefited hugely from being a two-part episode, but apparently things aren't done that way any more. The result didn't go down that well with fans, by all accounts. As for me, I loved the See You Next Wednesday line (a John Landis reference which had me laughing out loud) but I thought the direction was laboured, clumsy. Neil explained that he wanted the cybermen to be fast and silent rather than their current, clunking incarnation (and an early scene, cut from the script, had them walking silently up the shingle on Brighton beach which would have been creepy as hell). What we got were a few rather low-budget and fake-looking visual effects which did nothing to change the cybermens' image as minor-league monsters. It's no wonder that the Daleks take the piss out of them.

It was a delight to see Warwick Davies on the show, but I'm sure I wasn't the only viewer who'd twigged that he was the Emperor about five seconds after the Emperor was mentioned. Again, his character cried out for more development. Everything just seemed much too rushed.

As for tonight? Well, let's see how The Name of the Doctor shapes up...

13 May 13 (permalink)

WALKING IN THE RAIN

Yesterday I successfully completed the ten mile Charfield Charity Walk, along with a crowd of fellow walkers and quite a few dogs. I tweeted a few photos from my phone as we made our way around the route. Unfortunately the weather didn't really give us its support, and by the time we'd reached the Tyndale Monument at North Nibley it was raining...

Half Way Round

Several stretches of the steps that I normally climb up to the Monument aren't there any more: they ended up at the bottom of the hill after a landslip last year. So instead, we took the less steep track up the side of the hill. I must admit I was happy to do so, as the steps were quite a tough climb (here's what they looked like back in 2010).

They go up

Once we got to the Old London Road in Wotton it was all downhill. Crossing the last three fields back to the village was heavy going, though. I found myself wondering why I was getting taller but walking ever more slowly. Then I realised that the soil was damp and sticky and it was building up on my boots. Finding the way to the finish line was easy, as all I had to do was follow the trail of muddy bootprints leading back down the road to the village hall. When I got home I was covered in mud almost from head to toe. It didn't matter. I had a great time and it was great to see so many people raising money for some very good causes. This morning I managed to get out of bed without any problems, although I have been getting the occasional twinge during the day.

Now all I have to do is collect my sponsor money!

A SLIGHTLY DIFFERENT MUSICAL ADVENTURE

Apart from recording conventional songs over the last few years, I've also been writing ambient music. I've loved the ambient approach since I first heard Brian Eno's work decades ago, and since I started using Ableton I've been creating pieces of my own. Since I installed The Monolith in the studio I've got the processing power to push the limits of my sonic landscape way beyond anything I've done before, and as I said last weekend the results I've been getting are fascinating.

They seem to be going down well with people on Soundcloud, too, so on Saturday I decided that I'd try a bit of an experiment. I'm going to record an album of ambient material related to last week's piece. Each track will be named after a different Kuiper Belt Object, and the tracks will all be from three to five minutes long. But, rather than uploading them to my Soundcloud account I'm going to put them on Bandcamp and offer them for sale as a proper album, complete with cover artwork, track illustrations, sleevenotes and other stuff. It'll be the first time I've ever tried selling my music and I have no idea if anyone will be sufficiently interested to spend money on any of it, but we'll see what happens.

I was sufficiently enthused by this idea that over the weekend I recorded three tracks (a full version of Ixion, a track called Makemake and another named Varuna) which are now nearly complete. If I continue at this rate I should have the album available next month. When it's ready, I'll let you know.

10 May 13 (permalink)

SUMMER IS COMING

For me, the biggest signifier of approaching summer happened last night. I was walking through the supermarket car park in Thornbury when a flock of swifts flew overhead, shrieking. It's the first time since last year that I've heard (or seen) any. The sound is one of the most evocative things I have ever experienced. Their calls will always remind me of childhood summer holidays in Holt, when I used to listen to them as they flew through the streets at rooftop height in the evenings. I can think of few finer things than walking back from the chip shop in Albert Street with their shrill screams echoing overhead. I must try to get some decent recordings of them this year so I can use them in some ambient work...

THAT'S A LOT OF BYTES

A friend of mine who lives in the US was told by her service provider recently that "the Internet is not designed for streaming" but it looks like the rest of the continent thinks otherwise. On a normal weeknight, Netflix accounts for nearly a third of all downstream Internet traffic to American homes.

Nearly. A. Third.

The problem is that most Internet Service Providers (ISPs) impose caps on how much data they allow you to download, and those limits are falling way behind consumer habits. A DVD quality movie runs to at least 2 gigabytes, and expect to use even more if you want to watch it in high definition with surround sound. Cisco systems reckoned that in 2011 the average family used just over 26 gigabytes a month; by November last year that had risen to 52 gigabytes a month. Yet most ISP caps at the moment seem to be stuck in the 30 to 50 gigabyte range.

That growth in data usage looks suspiciously like a correlation with Moore's Law. If it takes eighteen months for rates to double (and they've certainly been doing that) and if that increase continues unabated, then by 2018 the average user will be downloading more than 830 gigabytes of data each month. I suspect that ISPs will have a hard time accepting that without expecting users to pay much more for their services.

TWINKLE TWINKLE

Princeton University's Lucianne Walcowicz is about to embark upon a fascinating project. She's going to be searching the heavens for extraterrestrial civilisations, not by monitoring for radio or laser transmissions but by watching for stars that flicker inexplicably. I'm not talking about the twinkling we see as a result of atmospheric distortion here: she'll be looking for twinkling that happens at the source of the starlight - the search is for civilisations advanced enough to alter the energy output of their stars (a civilisation which geeks like me refer to as being Type II on the Kardashev Scale).

The article reminds me of a throwaway line in one of my favourite books: the 1986 novel Across Realtime by Vernor Vinge. In it, a character in the deep post-singularity future describes living in a time when humanity was embarking on unspecified engineering projects which dimmed the light of the sun by five percent. How will we react if we discover civilisations out there that really are that powerful? It's enough to make you feel a tad inadequate.

Although the search sounds like a daunting project, the main work will be in developing computer analysis software. All the sitting-watching-telesopes part of things has already been done, as the data that Walcowicz will be searching through has been compiled by the Kepler space telescope. I wonder if anything will turn up?

SQUAMOUS AND RUGOSE

Although he's now inextricably linked to the words, you might be more than a little bit surprised to learn that Howard Phillips Lovecraft only used the word "rugose" in his work three times, and "squamous" crops up just once (it only appears in The Dunwich Horror, which came as a huge surprise to me).

Nevertheless, Lovecraft's use of language was extraordinary. He was a master in using words to conjure up unsettling imagery and his style is, I think, one of the reasons why his works retain their huge popularity. It was deliberately archaic and heavily linked to the gothic, as the Oxford Dictionaries Blog explains. He was rather obviously influenced by Poe, of course - but also by the Welsh author Arthur Machen. He went on to influence many, many writers but Lovecraft did bleak like few before him and seldom since. He had a very pessimistic approach to his plots; few of his protagonists reach the end of their tales in a better place than they were at the beginning.

If you've never read any of his stuff, try At The Mountains of Madness (read the whole of it here), which is a classic of chilling horror (it's set in the frozen wastes of Antarctica, and from what I've read about Lovecraft, it seems he had a morbid dread of the cold). It's rightly regarded as a classic and the director Guillermo Del Toro has been trying to make a movie of it for years. I hope that, one day in the not too distant future, he will succeed.

WALKIES

I'm going to be doing The Charfield Charity Walk on Sunday to raise money for a number of very deserving local cancer charities. Wish me luck!

6 May 13 (permalink)

JOBS DONE

I'd made myself a list of things to do this weekend. It was a pretty mundane list, featuring things like "mow the lawn" and "do all that ironing you've been putting off for the last two weeks" but I'm pleased to say that I've got everything done. One task was "create a new piece of music with Ableton Suite 9 on The Monolith" and I'd finished and uploaded it by eleven o'clock. Here it is:

It's called KBO2001KX - Ixion after the Kuiper Belt Object discovered in 2001. I wanted to convey a sense of something alone at the edge of interstellar darkness in utter isolation, and I reckon I achieved exactly that. There are two separate instrument tracks: one uses the "toy piano 2" patch from Suite 9 and the other uses "legato cello" - both were played using the M3 as input device. There are also four instrument processing tracks which take the output of the toy piano track and mangle it in weird and wonderful ways. By using the "resonator" tool I was able to set things up so that if I played certain notes, the reverb would take off by itself into swirling, not-quite-feedback - I will have another go producing something along those lines, I think, because I found the results fascinating.

RING OF FIRE

These aren't your grandpa's rockets. Last month SpaceX test flew their Grasshopper launch vehicle, and it performed flawlessly. While the Saturn V may have had a much bigger set of engines (at 60 gigawatts, the power output of the first stage was roughly equivalent to the peak energy demand of the entire United Kingdom) but once you lit it, you stood back to watch the show - you couldn't turn it off until it had burned out. You certainly couldn't get it to do things like this. And that's the point: while the Saturn V dropped into the Atlantic Ocean after it used up all its fuel, the Grasshopper is designed to fly back to the launch pad so that it can be used again. As someone who watched Apollo launches on the TV as a kid, I find this footage mind-bogglingly strange.

5 May 13 (permalink)

ONE K

I noticed this weekend that since I set up my Soundcloud account 18 months ago, my songs have been played over 1000 times. I'm humbled and delighted that people all over the world are taking the time to listen to my stuff - apart from the UK, in the last month people from the US, Germany, Indonesia, Korea, Brazil and Aruba have paid a visit. If you were one of them, thank you!

MORE GAS

You're never cured of the dreadful and debilitating condition known as Gear Acquisition Syndrome, the best you can hope for is bouts of remission from time to time; they usually follow a large equipment purchase. After watching another mind-bending review video about the Ableton Push I'm getting ever more deeply intrigued, and I'm afraid that my GAS is kicking in again. The more that I see people using the thing - and it doesn't hit the shops for a good few weeks yet - the more I suspect that as an Ableton user, I am going to have to end up buying one. Just watch Dream Theater's keyboard wizard Jordan Rudess absolutely shredding on his with Project RnL on their track Bad News Jitterbug:

If you like prog rock, it's well worth subscribing to Project RnL's YouTube Channel, too - it was the first thing I subscribed to when I set up my YouTube account. There's some great music on there. It's about time we had a proper album from them, I reckon.

NOT JUST SILLY, BUT OUTRIGHT DAFT

After last week's bizarre and confused episode, Doctor Who was on more familiar territory this week with flashes of the scatty irreverance that graced Tom Baker's tenure as The Doctor. We found ourselves in Victorian Yorkshire, with no sign of the Doctor at all, but plenty of people coming to a very sticky, scarlet end. That opening shot, panning up to reveal a landscape of dark satanic mills, was one of the best visual effects shots I've ever seen on the show. And Dame Diana Rigg was almost unrecognisable as the villain - Sweetville's proprietor Mrs Winifred Gillyflower. And if you thought that Rachael Stirling's Ada bore a striking resemblance to Mrs Gillyflower, that might have something to do with the fact that Diana Rigg is her mum in real life...

Mark Gatiss is turning out to be one of the show's most reliable scribes, although this week he did rely a teensy bit too heavily on tropes from his work on The League Of Gentlemen. Once the Doctor finally appeared (a whole 14 minutes into the episode) Matt Smith had a little bit too much fun channeling Michael Palin from the Four Yorkshiremen sketch, I thought (and we even got a "trouble at t'mill" of course). JLC, being from the other, better side of the Pennines, did her best to rise above it all. But the "It's grim up north" jokes really came thick and fast, starting off with one thrown in with the welcome return of three of my favourite characters in the show...

Madame Vastra:

She is only interested in the fittest and the most beautiful.

Strax:

You may rely on me, ma'am.

Madame Vastra:

I was, in fact, speaking to Jenny.

Strax:

Jenny? If this weak and fleshy boy is to represent us, I strongly advise the issuing of scissor grenades, limbo vapour, and triple-blast brain splitters.

Madame Vastra:

What for?

Strax:

Just everything. Remember - we are going TO THE NORTH!

This scene was dismally undermined by, as ever, Murray Gold's tediously literal music. Tee hee, the harpsicord and bassoon motif continually nudged us, this is funny, geddit? Eh? Eh? The fairground music during the Doctor's flashback exposition was nearly as bad, but the flashback itself was lovely, all jumping grainy film and sepia washes. I laughed out loud at the throwaway reference to Tom Baker and Peter Davison's stints on the show:

Doctor:

I once spent a hell of a long time trying to get a gobby Australian to Heathrow Airport.

Clara:

What for?

Doctor:

Search me. Anyway -

(He is interrupted by a scream)

But there were plenty of laugh-out-loud funny moments this week. Commander Strax, the Sontaran warrior turned butler is a character who just keeps on getting better and better. Dan Starkey clearly has a whale of a time playing him - who wouldn't? I loved his "dialogue" with the horse pulling his Hansom cab, which was not performing his task to the Sontaran's satisfaction:

Strax:

Horse! You have failed in your mission! We are lost, with no sign of Sweetville! Do you have any final words before your summary execution?

(The horse chews at its bit, unconcerned, then grunts)

Strax:

The usual story. The fourth one this week.

(He draws a ridiculously large rifle that has a glowing red LED on the side. He aims it at the horse.)

And I'm not even hungry.

Immediately afterwards we got one of the most bizarre jokes I've ever seen on Doctor Who:

Boy:

Sweetville, sir?

Strax:

Do you know it?

Boy:

Turn around when possible. Then, at the end of the road, turn right.

Strax:

What?

Boy:

Bear left for a quarter of a mile, and you have reached your destination.

Strax:

(He offers the boy his arm and he climbs up onto the cab).

Thank you. What is your name?

Boy:

Thomas, sir. Thomas Thomas.

Strax:

I think you will do well, Thomas Thomas.

There were so many good lines this week. I can't resist quoting another one that literally made me laugh out loud:

Madame Vastra:

Strax, you're over-excited. Have you been eating Miss Jenny's sherbert fancies again?

Next week, we get an episode from another of my all-time favourite writers, Mr Neil Gaiman. I really can't wait for A Nightmare In Silver, can you?

3 May 13 (permalink)

INSIDE, THE TRAILER WAS THE COLOR OF VASELINE...

A first taste of William Gibson's next novel, read by the man himself at the New York Public Library at a special event last month. He looks like he was enjoying himself, too, which is good to see. The language, the style, the delivery - it's irresistible. I can't wait.

SPRING HAS SPRUNG. SORT OF

When I arrived at the office yesterday, there was a rabbit sitting outside the front door. On Monday I heard a chiffchaff calling in the trees at the side of the business park and several days this week I've seen buzzards (including a group of three as I was on my way home tonight.) Spring is definitely here, although as it's a bank holiday weekend the glorious sunshine we've had for the last few days has disappeared and right now the breeze has picked up. The sky is full of disappointingly grey clouds as a cold front moves in, but the forecast for Sunday isn't bad and Monday is supposed to be rather nice. I'll be keeping my fingers crossed that it is, because I really need to cut the lawn again. It hasn't been touched for a couple of weeks.

CLICKY CLICKY

I had more than a brief moment of panic this evening when the big Dell PC wouldn't start Windows. It seems to be OK at the moment. I've run CCleaner and I'm just defragging the hard drives, but I will be backing up the important files on it before I switch it off again, that's for sure.

Interestingly enough, when the Dell did finally boot up tonight it exhibited exactly the same behaviour as my old Dell did after it crashed spectacularly back in March - the Avast anti-virus software I use had reset itself and displayed messages to the effect that I should register (which I already have) and take out a trial version of their full-feature product (which I don't want). Have Avast ballsed up their product? I'm beginning to think that they have...

Part of me suspects that the real reason I've been having problems with the Dell is because it's jealous of The Monolith upstairs, which I have been using in preference over the last week or so. The Dell's throwing a strop - tough. I should remind it that its older cousin ended up, gutted, at the recycling centre for behaving like that. I'm very impressed with the new machine, and it's blindingly fast. It boots up from cold in less than a minute, which is pretty awesome for Windows 7, I reckon.

However, I have found myself sitting at the keyboard in the dark quite a bit this week, and the desk where The Monolith lives has a keyboard shelf which blocks any light from the monitor. The old Dell keyboard and mouse I was using just become black lumps, and with my eyesight that's a problem. Today I took delivery of a very spiffy (but cheap) illuminated keyboard and a Gigabyte mouse to go with it. I love Gigabyte mice because the shape fits my hand perfectly, they're incredible value for money, and the one I use on my office machine has stood up to large amounts of abuse without failing once. Recommended.

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