Talk of the "dumbing down" of popular culture has been going on for as long as I can remember, and I was not surprised to find out that people were worrying about it fifty years before I was born, when the idea that culture could even be popular was still a novel concept. Even so, the way that the public perception of science has flipped from something that would eventually free us from scarcity and inequality to the current sentiment that "people have had enough of experts" and the way in which large swathes of western voters have abandoned critical thinking entirely - and they undoubtedly have, or we would not be in the mess we are in today - is something that I didn't see coming at all. The generation that were raised to mistrust science are now working in the media, and the results do not look good. Levels of credulity and gullibility are higher than they have ever been and the idea that programme producers must present "balanced arguments" when they cover scientific theories, even when the dissenting party is quite clearly as nutty as a fruitcake means that a lot of very silly beliefs have gained undeserved credibility instead of being laughed out of town. Sometimes, as Professor Brian Cox points out, there is no debate to be had. The Earth is not flat; climate change is real. Denying that the latter exists is an existential threat to humanity, because if we don't accept it as real and start taking action to mitigate it, a runaway greenhouse effect could turn this planet into a lifeless hell like Venus. Those are the stakes we're playing for here: wiping out all life on Earth. Funny how that never gets mentioned by those TV shows, eh?
Why has the public's perception of science been warped so badly? Where did that distrust of expertise come from? I don't believe it's simple jealousy. It's the result of an insidious campaign that has been waged for at least fifty years. It's a campaign that meets no resistance and is never challenged; precious little effort is being expended trying to mitigate its effects. It's a widespread and coordinated assault on the scientific method and most of us are exposed to it on a daily basis. Nobody is doing anything to stop it.
It's the television disaster movie.
No, I'm absolutely serious. Think about it: for most people out there with access to a television, the only portrayal of scientists that they are likely to encounter is the guy in the white coat who crops up at the beginning of a disaster movie, just before everything goes pear-shaped. He (and it will be a he, because movie tropes are rigid and immutable things) will be the one with dangerous "knowledge" that the hero is convinced will lead to armageddon. If you want to bet that the hero will be a working class kinda guy who actually knows more about the subject than the scientist with multiple Ph.Ds that he's talking to, I reckon your money's safe. The public loves seeing an expert taken down a peg or two, remember? If you also want to bet that said hero then saves the day by ignoring the scientist's advice and trusting his feelings instead, you'll be pretty much certain of keeping your money.
Watch more than a couple of disaster movies and you'll realise that their writers have absolutely no grasp of the science behind the plot devices that they use. They're fantastical inventions to provide dramatic impetus, not reflect reality. The writers have neither the intent nor the remit to educate or inform. Even when directors go to the trouble of getting a science adviser on board, there's no guarantee that the end result is going to be convincing. Danny Boyle's film Sunshine had Professor Brian Cox as science advisor, and that was a movie about folks flying a spaceship to the Sun so they could blow it up with a bomb in order to switch it back on after it had gone out...
The problem is not just the low level of scientific knowledge that your average writer or viewer possesses. It's also how quickly the audience is prepared to suspend their disbelief these days. Call it gullibility if you want, but the only people who we see questioning what is being shown on TV or heard on the radio are presented as dangerous, radical and misguided individuals. The norm is to accept everything that is shown to us; applying critical thinking to it is actively discouraged by those in control of the media. "People have had enough of experts" is the resultant mindset. Forget that it's not questioning what you're being told that is the dangerous option; critical thinking is becoming a lost skill. Feed the audience a weekly diet of programmes about ghost hunters and aliens and they will lose the ability to distinguish fact from fantasy. What you end up with is, in the case of the United States, a population where seventy-seven per cent of people asked said that they believed that Earth has been visited by extraterrestrials. Thirty per cent of the US population said they believed that their government was covering up evidence of these visits. If you read many discussions online, you've no doubt realised that there are people out there who do not understand that what they are watching on their TV screen is a work of fiction. They think - and I'm not overstating this for comedic effect, it is literally true - that they are watching a documentary rather than science fiction. And that's because the most common portrayals of scientists that they see on TV are not scientists at all. They're actors, pretending to be scientists. Much as I love the Welcome to Night Vale podcast, its regular character Carlos the scientist is an archetypal example of this. So, let's flip through the TV guide and see how the different scientific disciplines are being represented to the public this week. What exactly is it that we're expected to believe scientists get up to at work? Well, how about these scenarios for starters?
- An astronomer discovers a new planet in space that threatens to collide with the Earth.
- An astronomer discovers a huge fireball in space that threatens to incinerate all life on Earth.
- An astronomer discovers a huge asteroid in space that threatens to pulverize all life on Earth.
- An astronomer discovers a huge comet in space that threatens to obliterate all life on Earth.
- An astronomer discovers a huge comet in space that is discovered to contain space vampires who threaten to consume all life on Earth.
- Astronomy and the Petrochemical Industry
- An astronomer discovers a huge asteroid in space that threatens all life on Earth but is blown up by petrochemical industry workers.
- A man/woman/dog/teenager/cloud/tornado/biological sample from Venus touches mysterious goo and becomes a rampaging monster.
- A field trip discovers a new creature/giant mammal/giant lizard/dinosaur thought to be extinct, and when it is brought back to civilisation it runs amok.
- Genetic engineering creates a new creature/giant mammal/giant lizard/dinosaur thought to be extinct, and when it is brought back to civilisation it runs amok.
- A man/woman/dog/teenager/baby drinks a mysterious potion and becomes a rampaging monster.
- Computer Science
- Computer nerd discovers we're living in a computer simulation. Chaos ensues.
- A volcano erupts in a place that has never suffered from volcanic activity before and could not ever suffer from it. Everyone is surprised, particularly the geologists.
- The Earth's core stops rotating. Only a team capable of drilling through thousands of miles of molten rock at temperatures and pressures that would reduce any solid material to boiling goo can save the planet.
- A meteorologist uses extreme weather events to blackmail the government.
- A scientist whose tornado-predicting machine doesn't work must make it work so that he can predict a big tornado that he has already predicted. (Seriously).
- The Petrochemical Industry
- Drilling for oil unleashes a monstrous wolf that can only be stopped by the last surviving member of a native American tribe.
- The Petrochemical Industry
- Drilling for oil triggers a chain of volcanic eruptions so powerful it could wipe out most life on Earth.
- The Petrochemical Industry
- A new drilling rig drills so deep that it causes a split in a tectonic plate that could wipe out most life on Earth.
- Meteorology and the Petrochemical Industry
- A meteorologist and a petrochemical engineer must stop a gigantic storm before it destroys America. (How? By setting fire to it?)
- A shadowy government organization fakes an alien invasion and unwittingly triggers a real one.
- An accident during an experiment creates a cosmic string/black hole/wormhole/quantum macguffin/deadly vortex/strange being which threatens the existence of humanity.
- A man/woman/dog/teenager/baby/octopus/icky insect is exposed to radiation and becomes a rampaging monster/gains superpowers (yay physics!)
You can watch most of the films I've described above on at least one British television channel within the next week. You'd think, with the frequency that such disasters occur on television, that you'd see them taking place in real life more often, wouldn't you? And when I compiled that list I was amazed by how often (and implausibly) the petrochemical industry crops up. You'd almost think that their actions had gained them a reputation for threatening the future of the planet, or something...
I've been working with microphones quite a bit this week. Not the ones I use in my studio that use XLR connectors and plug into my studio gear, but tiny clip-on condenser mics that have 3.5mm jack plugs on the end. They're unobtrusive when worn (provided you don't have to attach one of those ludicrous windbusters to them), and they're perfect for use on a video shoot. They're a type of microphone that is normally referred to as a Lavalier mic, so called because the original designs placed the microphone capsule in a single pendant hanging down from a necklace - a type of jewlery known as a lavalier.
I have a handful of different mics at home that use 3.5mm plugs, including one that can be attached to a phone to record those annoying fraud calls from "Kevin at Microsoft" but I've never been able to get consistent results from them. If I plugged them into one recorder, they would work fine; if I then tried to use them with another piece of gear, I wouldn't get a peep out of them and up until this week I didn't know why. But after reading an article from the Pro Video Coalition's website, realisation has dawned. It's all about the plugs.
Unbalanced audio cables, like the ones I use with my guitars, have quarter-inch jacks with a tip and a sleeve separated by a plastic, non-conducting spacer, so the connectors are known as TS jacks. The two sections are used to transmit the mono signal (the tip) and provide a ground connection (the sleeve). Balanced audio cables - or stereo audio cables - have TRS jacks on them, for tip, ring and sleeve. On this type of jack plug, the tip carries the left channel, the ring carries the right channel, and the sleeve carries the ground. I was used to seeing the 3.5mm versions of these plugs on bits of gear and I've used them without difficulty for years. The Lavalier mics I was using this week go a step further and use TRRS jacks: tip, ring, ring and sleeve. You'll see this type of jack on smartphone headsets: the tip transmits the left channel in your headphones, the first ring transmits the right channel, and the remaining ring and sleeve are used for the mic and ground connections. The Sennheiser headphones I have for my iPhone have this sort of a 3.5mm jack on them, and they work fine.
But of course, it's a bit more complicated than that. The 3.5mm jack standard for TRRS has changed in the last few years from OMTP to CTIA, and the part of the plug that's used for a ground connection and the part that is used for the microphone connection have been swapped over.
The mics I was using this week are cheap ones, costing less than a tenner each. They're cheap because they're mass-produced for the smartphone or computer use market. They're not really intended to be used with pro-grade audio gear, and this means that the simple 3.5mm to quarter-inch adaptors that come with things like headphones won't work with them, because they won't bridge the right parts of the plugs together. Trying them out by plugging them into a wireless system designed for quarter-inch TS jacks proved that point quite effectively. It took a while before I figured out what I needed to do, but I got there eventually.
Buying a couple of adaptors to fix things was cheaper than buying another "proper" Lav mic (I have an Audio-Technica ATR3350 with a TRS 3.5mm jack on it as my "special occasions" lav) so that's what I did. But after reading the countless "did not work" reviews on Amazon for cheap Lavalier microphones, I found myself wondering just how many perfectly functional microphones have been thrown away because their owners didn't know about the different plugs in use...
I got up late this morning after spending the best part of the preceding twelve hours fast asleep (apart from brief moments where I woke up, in one case because I'd snored very loudly). I obviously needed the rest. I also needed some proper, deep, dream-filled sleep; when I woke I had vague recollections of rooms that seemed as familiar as childhood, but which were places which I'd never experienced in real life. It was a night of complex scenarios that seemed entirely reasonable at the time (I have a habit of waking up when dreams stop making sense) and while I can remember half-realising that I was dreaming and noting how vivid and detailed the dream was, I can remember nothing about it now save that it was largely set in a rather grand living room with a sideboard-sized record player in it (something like this one, which is odd, because I don't remember anyone I know owning anything quite like it.)
I've been sleeping badly recently. After missing out on dreams for a few nights my brain obviously decided last night that it was time to catch up. As I get older, I have come to realise that getting a good night's sleep is probably the thing I value most highly about life. Without it, everything else loses its lustre. Cervantes knew what he was talking about when he wrote about sleep in Don Quixote:
"Blessing on him who invented sleep, the mantle that covers all human thoughts, the food that satisfies hunger, the drink that slakes thirst, the fire that warms cold, the cold that moderates heat, and, lastly, the common currency that buys all things, the balance and weight that equalizes the shepherd and the king, the simpleton and the sage. "
After a good night's sleep, anything seems possible. A bad night turns the simplest of tasks into a struggle. Even the act of getting out of bed seems pointless. When the alarm clock has been set, a part of my brain seems to decide that it will track the night's progress to ensure that I wake up on time. It does this by making me wake up every couple of hours.
"Look, it's time to wake up!"
"No, it isn't."
"How about now?"
"No. Go back to sleep."
"Well, it must be now, surely?"
With no alarm set for tomorrow morning, I wonder if I will sleep as soundly again tonight?
On Saturday afternoon I recorded another piece of music and uploaded it to SoundCloud, as I normally do. By the end of the evening, one of my friends had liked it and reposted it (thanks Scott!) Apart from that, I'd picked up two new followers. That's good, right? Well, no. One was an account with no tracks posted and no followers, but whose picture was text reading "Buy real Soundcloud followers!" (who will presumably be just as "real" as the account itself.) The other follower was an account ostensibly run by a record label. I'd encountered them before, as they are notorious on SoundCloud for touting their "promotional services" which turn out - as I'm sure you've already guessed - to be an opportunity to buy fake followers and who don't actually seem to have ever done any of the things record labels normally do, like signing artists or releasing albums. As usual, I blocked and reported both accounts for spam. But it got me thinking...
I've had an account with SoundCloud since 2011, and I switched to their paid "Pro" account a couple of years ago so that I could upload as many tracks as I wanted. Their embedded player (when it works) is a useful way of including my music on my website, and if you read much of the blog, you've probably already encountered it. The paid stats told me where people were listening to my music, and how often, and it was lovely to see that I have a truly global reach with listeners from places like Saudi Arabia, Brazil, Indonesia and Ghana. I really wasn't expecting that.
But when I started looking at where my "likes" and "follows" were coming from, I noticed that the majority are from fake accounts who have never even listened to the music I make (and I know this for certain, because I once got four "likes" for a track before anyone had actually played it.)
Reading the SoundCloud community forum website has been enlightening, too. I rapidly discovered that my experience with spam accounts is not unusual, and many users in the forum have been complaining vociferously for years about the spam problem. In fact, it would appear that the majority of interactions with creators on SoundCloud originate from fake accounts. Requests for action fall on deaf ears, as the company's response is conspicuous by its absence. Just read this thread, for example. They're happy to take our money, it seems - but there's no sign of them expending any effort to fix what's broken. And make no mistake, SoundCloud is broken. I want my music to reach an audience of real people who might be interested in what I do. But I don't see how I'm going to achieve that on their current platform, which is overloaded with fake users, scam artists, and spam.
Yesterday I decided I'm no longer prepared to pay for a service that makes little or no effort to police itself. I've cancelled my "Pro" subscription. This means that when my current plan expires, most of the links to music on the website will break. I'll fix that problem when it happens, either by removing tracks completely (I'm not the musician I was even five years ago, so the older tracks are probably best retired) or by moving them to my Bandcamp account, which has the added advantage that you'll be able to buy anything of mine that you like as a digital download.
I'm sad that SoundCloud and I have come to the end of the road, as the site had a lot going for it. But I'm not prepared to keep throwing money at a company that doesn't seem to appreciate a very important fact: it's the content created by their paying customers that makes their business attractive to the advertisers who are keeping them afloat. Unless they look after them, those creators will eventually take their music and go play somewhere else.
I really should know better than to make a claim that I was feeling "more like my old self" on the blog. Within a couple of days I'd come down with the traditional post-flight lurgi and spent two days completely wiped out. I feel a bit better now, but I could quite happily spend another couple of days in bed. I suspect the predominantly grumpy tone of today's blog entries reflects my reduced state of health.
Nevertheless, I've managed to get a few tasks and chores done this weekend that I've been meaning to do for weeks. Nothing major, just a lot of little things that I let slide. It feels good to have them out of the way.
I've spent several hours this weekend trying to get my music laptop running at something like the speed it ran at when I first bought it, and it's not been easy. Despite the fact that I recently upgraded it to 16 Gb of RAM and installed a hybrid drive that's less than a third full, it's not been delivering the performance I expect a system based on a core i7 processor to have. It's not been the same since I foolishly switched to Windows 10. I installed GlassWire's free firewall and bandwidth monitor to see if it was busy downloading updates, but discovered that there was no netwok activity going on. In fact, Windows Update didn't appear to be doing anything at all. So I ran Microsoft's Windows Update troubleshooter. Several times.
In fact, I started trying to update Windows yesterday afternoon but it wasn't until just now, at teatime on Sunday, that I managed to get to the point where running Windows Update reported that my system was up to date.
Creators' update? Pah. I detest Windows 10 more than ever.
It's been a busy old week. Monday was a bank holiday, and in the evening I trundled up the road to Cheltenham to see The Album Project put on their one-night-only production of Pink Floyd's The Wall. They did an absolutely amazing job.
I've been hearing from their tech guru Norm about the preparations for the show over the last few months, and the degree of attention they paid to getting all the nuances of Bob Ezrin's original production to shine through on stage was quite extraordinary. To warm us up, they started with a rendition of "Shine On You Crazy Diamond" - reproducing that on stage is ambitious enough, and it sounded impeccable - and then took us through all four sides of The Wall (with an interval after the end of side 2).
It was quite a ride. And as you can see from the photograph above, the reproduction visually was every bit as faithful (limited budgets permitting) as the sonic aspect of the show. Chris and Bryn, who handled the main vocals as well as the guitar playing, really delivered the goods. And they were just part of a 10-person strong ensemble who worked their asses off all evening.
If you're going to play somebody else's music and do it justice, there are few songs that will get your efforts more scrupulous attention than "Comfortably Numb" or "Run Like Hell." When the first of those tracks started the build up to the guitar solo, you could feel the audience collectively lean forwards with expectation; no pressure, eh? They were rewarded with a lovely, bluesy performance; nailed it, totally. Even the more cinematic aspects of the album, particularly the closing theatre of "The Trial", were handled with aplomb and the touching finale of "Outside The Wall" saw everyone playing acoustic instruments slowly marching in a procession off the side of the stage (and they were still playing as they disappeared off towards the dressing rooms!)
They got a standing ovation, and quite right too. We brought them back for three encores: "One of These Days," "Wish You Were Here," and "Money" which were all performed with equal ability and received with rapt attention and then it was over and (after a swift catch-up in the bar) it was time to head home. I had a great time.
Their next project will be "Hotel California" in October. That's going to be an interesting one, too...
The following day saw me paying a visit to my old stomping grounds in Milton Keynes for a business meeting. MK is currently celebrating its 50th anniversary and there is still a lot of construction going on. The place still has that "not quite finished" vibe to it, and I doubt that it will ever stop giving me that impression. It felt odd driving along roads that I used to travel every day; I haven't been back there since I left, and when I've driven through the place over the last twenty years or so it's always been to get to somewhere else. Driving in to the city centre for the first time in two decades was a weird experience. Some landmarks I recognised, but they were surrounded by new and unfamiliar buildings and I felt like my internal compass was spinning out of control. It was disorienting and more than a little bit unsettling, although I managed to find our destination without having to consult the satnav. I was rather peeved to discover that traffic lights had been added to a couple of the bigger roundabouts. They really disrupted traffic flow, which really wasn't MK's style when I lived there.
After the meeting concluded it was back in the car for a drive down to Heathrow, where I caught a flight out to Munich for a meeting on Wednesday. Sadly I saw very little of Munich beyond the S-bahn and U-bahn which took me to the hotel. I hope I get more time to explore the next time I visit the place. There seemed to be a lot of trees everywhere, rather like Milton Keynes, and while it was nearly midnight when I got there I was struck by how quiet the place was. The hotel was a hundred metres or so from the station and not far from our meeting venue, which was just as well as the shoes I was wearing were too tight to be comfortable. I really need to get myself a new pair...
After a successful meeting it was time to head back to the airport for a flight back to Heathrow and the long drive home. I was rather tired when I got in at 9pm or so, although the Chinese takeaway I picked up from Thornbury on the way helped the recovery a fair bit. The rest of the week has been a little less hectic, and now it's Sunday afternoon I feel more like my old self and ready for the week ahead.