Harlan Ellison wrote a television criticism column for the Los Angeles Free Press (a.k.a. the Freep) every week for two and a half years back in the 1960s; his writing was published as a book with the glorious title of The Glass Teat, which reflected what he saw as the infantilising effects that television was having on public thinking. Harlan had a skeptical and frequently highly contentious view of much of popular culture. As an industry insider, he took a dim view of much of television's role in American society. But Harlan being Harlan, he wanted to unearth the reasons why television was being used in this way. He concluded that public opinion was being warped in order to become more compliant with the wishes of certain powerful organisations, particularly the current administration of Richard Nixon (which at the time was mired in the depths of the Vietnam war). Harlan's message was clear, right from the first column published in the Freep on the 4th of October, 1968:
" They’ve taken the most incredibly potent medium of imparting information the world has ever known, and they’ve turned it against you. "
Ellison had no illusions about the power of television to act as a propaganda machine; as a means of silencing dissent; and as a way of diverting public attention away from what he saw as more important issues of the day (not just the war, but what he referred to in the same column as a "1901-Midwestern stasis" of chauvinism and bigotry, and a disregard for the environment in TV's message that "throwing garbage in the river after your picnic is okay, as long as the factories can do it, too.") This pissed a lot of people off, to put it mildly; it got him marked down as being "seditious" (as he explains in the book's introduction, this was primarily for a less-than-complimentary remark about the then Vice-President, Spiro Agnew). As Harlan explained, there were several attempts on his life and the Freep was bombed by right-wing extremists.
Of course, Harlan being Harlan, he was eventually proved right about pretty much everything, particularly the Nixon administration. And fifty years later much of his criticism of television is not just still valid, it's disconcertingly more relevant than ever. The 1901-Midwestern stasis now has the President it always dreamed of, and it was television that put him in the White House.
And yet I've been watching hours and hours of television this week, and I've really enjoyed doing so. First of all, there was the first episode of Professor Brian Cox's new series The Planets on BBC Two. I still have my DVDs of the earlier series of the same name that was narrated by Samuel West and first broadcast in 1999, and by complete coincidence I'd rewatched several episodes of that series last month. At the time I thought it was a show that was crying out for an update, and lo and behold, the new show features lots of data from the subsequent Cassini, Juno and Messenger missions and some very spiffy high-definition computer graphics. It's worth seeing.
I know I'm late to the party, but I've been enjoying using Amazon Prime to binge-watch Lucifer, the Satan-as-detective-in-LA series based on Neil Gaiman's Vertigo comic. Every episode has made me laugh out loud at least once, and several plot twists literally made me jump.
But I will probably be spending the rest of today watching another show based on Neil Gaiman's work, this one written in collaboration with the late Sir Terry Pratchett. Good Omens went live on Amazon Prime today. I'll let you know what I think once I've finished watching.
Ableton released version 10.1 of its Live Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) software this morning, and I've already got it up and running in the studio. I've been an enthusiastic Live user since version 8, and I've been eagerly waiting for this version to drop since I first saw it back in December. There are plenty of cool revisions to things. The "simple delay" and "ping pong delay" effects have been combined into a single "delay" effect that now features additional modulation options, making it a much more powerful tool. I noticed immediately that if you open an old project that uses the previous versions of the effects, nothing gets broken; the effects are listed under their old names and work just as they used to. If you want to switch to the new version of the effect, there's a little "Upgrade" button on the old effect's window that lets you to do so. Upgrade the effect, the button disappears, and the effects listing is revised to the latest version. With a new project, the new effect appears by default in the audio effects browser.
This time around, Ableton have obviously spent a considerable amount of time thinking about ways in which the process of using the software can be improved. It's not before time; Live has always had one or two weird ways of doing things, idiosyncrasies that set it apart from other DAWs, and while they might be part of its appeal, even when you get used to them they can still get in the way. With version 10.1 we finally get to be able to change the height of the overview window at the top of the arrangement view, something that has bugged me for years. In earlier versions, it became too small to see anything useful if you were using a monitor that had a resolution above 1920 by 1080, as I was. Live 10.1 features lots of other tweaks to the user interface, too; nothing gets radically altered, they're mostly small modifications and adjustments that I think will make the software easier and faster to use. The way Live handles automation has been updated and expanded, with the program now doing clever things to optimise the number of control breakpoints required—so that when you use the pencil tool to draw automation curves, you no longer end up with thousands of data points. Editing automation parameter values has always been a bit of a faff, but a new set of right-click control options and a more sensible UI paradigm have been introduced to make changing things much easier. I have two new favourite hotkeys, which are H, which resizes the arrangement view vertically so that all tracks to fit the view exactly (or as much as possible) and W, which adjusts the horizontal zoom so that the whole song fits to the arrangement view with one bar of padding to the left and right (something that I've wished Live did pretty much since I first started to use it). There are some nice tweaks to the piano roll view and the same H and W hotkeys work there, too.
I also installed another free VST plugin over the weekend, a hang drum emulation from Ample Sounds called Cloud Drum. I've already written one piece of music with it, and it sounds lovely.
I noticed this morning just how much faster the Internet gets when everyone else is out at work. It's much faster; while I was downloading software updates I was getting a maximum download speed of 8.1 Megabytes a second.
We've come a long way since I moved here 24 years ago, when I used to connect to the Internet here with a dial-up, 14,400 baud modem. I dread to think how many days it would have taken me using a modem to carry out the software updates I did in about ten minutes earlier today. And the phone calls wouldn't have been cheap, either...
Twenty-four years ago today, I moved in to this house. It's difficult to process the fact that I've lived in the same place for so long; when I was a kid, we moved house every five years or so. Before I moved here, the longest I'd lived in the same house was nine years. That's not long enough to put down roots. Five years is hardly enough time to get settled in and unpack everything (and I speak from bitter experience: after the best part of a quarter century, I still have some boxes of books from my last house that have yet to be shelved). It takes time to get to know a house, to understand its quirks and foibles and—if you're lucky—identify most, if not all of the sources of the strange noises that you hear lying in bed late at night. It takes time to settle in. And it takes time for a place to become part of who you are.
Someone once said that the house we live in in our dreams is the house that we think of as home, and if that is so, then I've considered this place my home for at least a decade now. It has literally become part of my subconscious.
I'm sorry to report that my newly-discovered talents for getting a good night's rest were temporary. Last night I had a truly dreadful night's sleep and the night before that wasn't much better. I was still awake at 4am this morning. I'm hoping I'll be so knackered by bedtime tonight that insomnia will no longer be a problem, but I won't be holding my breath.
Ever since I read Matthew Walker's excellent treatise on sleep Why We Sleep, I have become more than a little bit obsessed about improving the quality of the sleep I get. My Withings watch collects data on how active I am each night; in the morning, the associated app on my phone uses the data to show me when I was likely to have been in phases of the deep, restorative kind of sleep called Non-Rapid Eye Movement or NREM sleep that's essential for our wellbeing, and when I was in the lighter phases of sleep that help us process the day's experiences (when I was in REM sleep and dreaming). The app on my phone then awards a "sleep score" out of 100 for each night, based on four parameters of the data it collects: duration, depth (NREM or REM), regularity (how often I switch from one to the other), and the number of interruptions (which in my case is usually zero). Last year I was lucky to get a score in the high seventies, and my worst-ever score was just 20/100 (although that was because I'd stayed out late at a concert.) It's been fascinating to track these scores and associate them with how I was feeling from day to day and from week to week. There was a clear association between alcohol intake and quality of sleep, for instance, and this has markedly reduced my consumption of the stuff. The most obvious thing I noticed was that knowing that I would be getting up at five thirty the following morning to drive to work was a reliable predictor of a really lousy sleep score.
Up until recently, each phase of my deep sleep would last less than an hour—typically they were only around thirty minutes long, and I'd only manage to get a couple of stretches that long every night. As Matthew Walker explains in his book, this is bad news, because the deep phases of sleep trigger processes in the brain that "clean up" chemical byproducts caused the day's cognition. In fact, Walker suggests that the sleep habits of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, both of whom famously claimed that they could get by on four hours' sleep a night, were a significant contributing factor to their subsequent demises from Alzheimer's disease. In his book, Walker goes on to explain that deep sleep is also an essential part of the process of memory consolidation; in deep sleep, memories are transferred from the part of the brain where they were stored during the day to another part of the brain where they are subsequently processed and organised during light, REM sleep. For this two-stage process to work properly, we need phases of deep sleep to happen when we first fall asleep, then we switch to bursts of REM sleep later in the night. Unfortunately, according to my watch (which, I'll admit, is no EEG) not only was I not getting enough sleep, but when I did finally drift off, I wasn't getting the right sort of sleep. It would often take me an hour or two before I got any deep sleep at all—especially on those nights when I was worrying about not waking up in time for the drive to work. I was stuck in REM sleep for most of the night. This was a particularly important discovery for me, because I knew that sleep deprivation (and disruption) is also recognised as a contributing factor for people who develop depression. But now that I knew what was happening to my sleep, I could start to do something to fix it.
To start with, I worked on improving my sleep hygiene, fitting a new blackout blind and adding light-proof linings to the curtains in the bedroom. If I use a device with a screen in the evenings, I have its "night light" feature enabled to reduce the amount of bright blue light that I'm exposed to. As I've already mentioned, I've cut back on my consumption of alcohol, and I also stop drinking caffeinated drinks at lunchtime. I also stopped listening to loud or uptempo music in the evenings, switching over to more ambient work (and I was amazed by just how big an effect on the quality of my sleep doing this has had). But the biggest effect that I've seen has taken place in the past week or so, since I switched to a different antidepressant. For most of the past week, my sleep scores have been in the mid-90s and I'm achieving big chunks of deep, NREM sleep that last a couple of hours or more. It's early days yet, but I'm hoping that this is the start of a healthier me.
So, here's the special news that I promised a while back:
The cover CD on the May issue of PROG Magazine features my track Xenotaph. This is a really big deal for me, and I'm excited to share my music with a much wider audience than it's ever had before. I hope you'll all rush out and buy a copy of this very special issue of the magazine.
The magazine's intro to the track describes me as "Leonard-Cohen-meets-prog", which is a fair description, I reckon. And the fact that the cover of the CD is a photograph of Frank Zappa's moustache is the icing on the cake. I'm very chuffed about the whole thing. :-)