Still Blogging After All These Years

Chris Harris's Blog Archive: June 2013

This month marked ten years of blogging for me. I'd planned on doing a retrospective of the last decade in more depth, but there was a lot going on in the present to write about instead!

PREVIEW

Here's a rough mix of the track I've been putting together over the last few days. As it's for my forthcoming album about Kuiper Belt Objects, Beyond Neptune, it's named after one of the objects that orbits way out on the edge of the solar system, one with the coolest name of any astronomical object I know: Quaoar. I uploaded the track to Soundcloud yesterday afternoon and I'm chuffed to report that it's already been "liked" four times.

I'm really pleased with the music I've written for the Beyond Neptune album - I feel like I've made significant progress even since I finished this year's FAWM. Since I bought the Korg M3 I've spent far more time playing keyboards than I have in years, and I've noticed a vast improvement in my playing as a result. But switching to digital recording and computer-based mixing and mastering has also wrought vast changes on the sound of my music. I love the almost unlimited possibilities that Ableton's software gives me - if I'd tried to do what it does just with hardware and effects boxes, I would have had to spend an absolute fortune and at the end I still wouldn't have been able to achieve the precision in editing that Live 9 gives me. Then there's the hardware I have bought recently - particularly The Monolith. The amount of signal processing that I'm using for most of the tracks on the album would have been completely beyond my computer's processing abilities even a couple of years ago. To recreate the feeling of vast empty spaces, most of the album's tracks marinate in huge amounts of lush, authentic-sounding reverb and a good hardware digital reverb used to be one of the most expensive audio effects you could buy. But these days, all that has changed. In fact, the Focusrite Scarlett I blogged about yesterday came with a suite of VST plugins and there's another reverb in there to add to my burgeoning collection. It's going to take me years to explore all the sonic possibilities I now have at hand, and I'm going to enjoy every minute of doing so.

LAZY SUNDAY

This year I've only suffered badly on a couple of days with hay fever but judging by the state of my sinuses, the pollen count today must be very high. Yesterday afternoon I spent a couple of hours outside doing the gardening, mowing the lawn and cutting back the Virginia creeper that grows up the side of the house (it had reached the roof again...) I didn't notice any ill effects until the evening, when I started sneezing. Antihistamines stopped the sneezing but my eyes have felt itchy ever since.

This morning my back is aching from all that climbing up and down ladders. I really need to spend more time doing physical things rather than sitting on my butt in front of a keyboard - whether it be a computer keyboard or a synthesiser keyboard. But as for today, I will probably be staying indoors. I don't think I'm going to be getting up to much beyond doing a pile of ironing and listening to the new albums from Boards of Canada and The Duckworth Lewis Method.

Whatever you're up to today, have a good time doing it.

THE SOUND OF SILENCE

I got very grumpy last week because the Monolith developed an annoying fault: the audio would buzz and crackle and a faint but distinctly audible chirping noise would happen every time I moved the mouse. After taking the thing to bits, reseating the sound card, moving the sound card to a different PCI slot and any number of more arcane rituals intended to exorcise whatever gremlins had crept into the case, I went online in search of a solution. After reading the fifteenth scathing critique of Creative's approach to product support, I decided it was time to investigate slightly more expensive computer audio solutions. I wanted something reasonably priced - if I'd won the lottery last week I'd probably have bought something by Mark of the Unicorn - but in the end I went for the Focusrite Scarlett 2i2. Focusrite are Novation's sister company and Novation are the folks who made one of my favourite toys, the Launchpad - the thing that made William Gibson say "whoa, what's that?" at the WGB jam last year - and they're British, goddamit! It's a nice chunky piece of kit in a scarlet anodised aluminium case and I would like to state for the record that the fact that circular LEDs around the gain controls light up green when they receive a good level and flare red when the input signal starts clipping had almost nothing to do with my decision to buy one.

It was delivered yesterday and once I got home I had the thing up and running in less than an hour. The difference is staggering. For a start, it has ASIO drivers; Creative just couldn't be bothered making any for the x-fi. Thanks to that, and the unit's design, latency (the delay caused by sound making its way through the computer's circuitry) has dropped to less than a quarter of its previous value, and when I turn up the audio to 100% I can't hear a peep out of the PC. No crackles, no squeals, no "frying bacon" digital noise. Success!

Suitably enthused, I went on to record the basic tracks for the eighth piece of my Beyond Neptune electronica album (which will be coming to a well-known music website near you in the not-too-distant future) and though I say it myself, I think the results sounded really good.

And the LEDs do look really cool, too.

HEH HEH HEH... DREADFUL

The new album from the Duckworth Lewis Method was on the doormat when I got home last night and after I'd finished recording my own stuff I sat down with a bottle of wine and put the thing on repeat. It's another impeccable piece of work, paying homage to the genius of the Electric Light Orchestra's Jeff Lynne, and featuring another set of songs that are ostensibly about cricket (although the lyrics can also be taken, as you'd expect when Neil Hannon is involved, as acute social commentary.)

There are quite a few celebrity guests this time round, including Stephen Fry and Daniel Radcliffe. Once again we get the mellifluous tones of Matt "Douglas Renholm" Berry who this time can be heard reading out the match score card on the track Mystery Man ("W. D. B. Cooper: Fifty. Caught Anderson, Bowled Swann. G. M. Massey: zero. Trod on wicket.") and the whole thing is perfect summer listening material. You should go out and buy a copy immediately. Here's a track from the album which features the vocal stylings of none other than Blowers himself, Henry Blofeld.

SECOND DECADE

So here we are, beginning another year of blogging - yesterday marked the blog's tenth birthday. A lot has changed over the last ten years, but you're still more than likely to find me sitting in front of the computer in the evenings.

One difference these days is that I'm more likely to be using the computer for recording music. Ten years ago, my recording gear consisted of a Fostex X-15 four-track cassette recorder that I bought secondhand off a colleague at BT. Nowadays I record digitally and I can use as many tracks as I want (or need). Going digital has been a boon, as the results sound so much better. It's also made recording easier, so my output has increased. I doubt I recorded more than a couple of dozen tracks with the Fostex in the space of ten years. This week I created a new song on the Korg D3200 and its default name was "Song100" - making it the hundredth piece I've recorded on the thing. Next month will see me attempting 50/90 for the first time and if all goes according to plan, by the end of September I should be up to song 150.

Another difference ten years on is the computer screen I'm looking at. Back in 2003, flat-panel displays were mainly used by Bond villains and marketing agencies. The rest of us made do with big, heavy CRT monitors that had nowhere near the same resolution that you can get today. I had a 17" monitor that maxed out at a resolution of 1600 x 1200. Right now I'm writing this on a Samsung flatscreen with a native resolution of 2048 x 1152 and the PC's second monitor is displaying Tweetdeck at 1920 x 1080.

Which brings us to another difference between now and ten years ago. If you look at the earliest version of my blog on the wayback machine from February 2004 you'll notice there are no links to social networking sites. There's no mention of MySpace, no Facebook, and certainly no Twitter API. How did we manage to cope, he asked in a faintly ironic fashion.

NOT WAVING

When I lived in Tampa, I found out that the highest point in the entire state is less than four hundred feet above sea level. And south of Tampa, you'll struggle to find anywhere that is more than six feet above sea level. That is going to be a big problem for everyone who lives there. Rolling Stone magazine examines the fate of Florida in a century of climate change and rising sea levels and the message is stark: "If you live in South Florida and you're not building a boat, you're not facing reality."

The scariest part of the article, thought, is the attitude of some of the people who should be planning for the inevitable. When one risk analyst visited the state, he was told by a commissioner: 'God destroyed the Earth with water the first time, and he promised he wouldn't do it again. So all of you who are pushing fears about sea-level rise, go back and read the Bible.' Even the folks who aren't religious or far-right wingnuts are deluding themselves, because they believe that they can do what the Dutch have done with dykes and drainage canals. Because of the state's geology, Floridians can't rely on engineering projects that have been so successful in Holland: Florida lies on extremely porous rock and, as Jeff Goodell explains in his article in the Rolling Stone, this means that it can move freely underground and then seep up wherever it wants. In other words, if you build a dyke around Florida, the sea will just flow underneath it and come up on the other side. Fighting nature on this scale is likely to be impossible - what you should be doing is making plans to fail gracefully.

What does the future hold for Florida, then? Let's put it this way: I wouldn't be investing in property in the area if I were you...

ROCK, AND INDEED ROLL

Yesterday afternoon Charfield staged its very own music festival on the playing field at the primary school. The event was held to raise funds for the Friends of Charfield School charity, and featured three local bands: The Echoes, The Press and GPS. Needless to say, I was there to give my support and take photos...

GPS

Charfield's Got Talent

The Press

Mr Melville enjoying the festival

The Echoes

Even though the sunshine decided not to stick around and there were a couple of bursts of drizzle, it was a good day. The music was good, the locals were friendly, the beer was very easy to drink and the hog roast went down a treat. I hope that the organisers will work to turn this into an annual event - it's certainly got potential!

DEMOLITION JOB

On Wednesday night I went and saw Man Of Steel down at the Showcase Cinema in Bristol, and I've been mulling over the experience for the last couple of days. Today I decided I needed to write about it, to see if I was overreacting, or whether - as I suspect - the film takes profound and disturbing liberties with one of America's great cultural icons. Beware of reading further if you haven't seen the film yet, because I will be dealing with plot points that are major spoilers. There's some rough sailing ahead.

The movie starts out promisingly enough. The opening credits had some nice particle effects to show off the 3D, and the Legendary Pictures and Syncopy logos flashing up are usually reliable signs that you're in for a good time. Zach Snyder begins by intercutting the birth of Kal-El on Krypton with grown-up Clark Kent's life as an itinerant guardian angel, saving lives wherever he happens to be. The world of Krypton shows a bewildering mix of technology levels that border on the mystical and weapons technology that looks all-too familiar. There are nods to James Cameron's Avatar and Russell Crowe makes for an imposing Jor-El. There's some nice character writing by David Goyer, and once the action moves to Earth we find that the Kents have been subtly updated (which means that they don't come over quite as clich├ęd or cloyingly sentimental as they have done in the past - and yes, I know Donner played this for laughs with Clark's "actually, she's silver-haired.") I really liked the scenes of Clark at school, discovering the disturbing aspects of his powers. I loved the exchange that's used in the trailer: "Can't I just keep pretending to be your son?" "You are my son!" Kevin Costner gives a very respectable performance and the passing of Jonathan Kent is far more dramatic and memorable and right for the story than Glenn Ford's rather feeble "oh darn" in the Donner Superman. Finally we get to see a Lois Lane who is a competent enough investigative journalist to uncover Clark's identity pretty much from the outset (she did win the Pulitzer prize, remember?). I liked how the film hints several times that other people in Clark's life have pretty much figured him out as well. Okay, that's a departure from the mythos, but it's an understandable one given how we live our lives these days; digital cameras, social networks and metadata would make it hard for an alien with superpowers to pass unnoticed. If you're going to root Superman firmly in the 21st century, then this all fits.

But...

The problems start when General Zod and his cronies turn up. I must say that there's absolutely nothing wrong with General Zod's portrayal by Michael Shannon. Where Terence Stamp played him as malevolent but somewhat effete, here Zod is both charismatic and powerful, as well as being utterly, brutally focused. The character is prepared to do whatever it takes to bring the world of Krypton back to life. He's not fundamentally evil, but he's been genetically selected to have absolutely no qualms about disposing of anyone who gets in his way. The root of the trouble is that Superman's character is supposed to be the antithesis of this. Draw whatever conclusions you like, but the comparisons to Christ are there if you want to look for them (and Snyder clearly knows this - look at the crucifixion pose that Henry Cavill strikes when he leaves Zod's spacecraft.) In Man of Steel, that's not what we get. The "hero" here is just as much a monster as General Zod. In fact, the last act of the film treats the seventy-whatever years of Superman's character and backstory established by the comic's writers, and ignores them in even more grotesque a manner than J J Abrams does with the legacy of Kirk, Spock, McCoy and the rest of the Enterprise crew in the most recent Star Trek film. You can "reimagine" aspects of that story all you want, but the reason Superman has been such a popular character for nearly a century is because of the values and morality to which he adheres. How did the old saying go? Truth, Justice, and the American way... As I was watching the last half of the movie, I had one thought in my mind: "That's not Superman." There is no way that the Donner-era Superman played so well by Christopher Reeve would ever have brawled in such a fashion. More broadly, there is no way that any version of Superman true to the story's origins and intent should behave like this film's character does.

Why?

Superman, remember, has been brought up by the Kents to see the good in everyone and respect human life. His first approach is always to solve problems without the use of violence. And if the intellectual approach doesn't work, Superman's first thought in story after story, film after film, is to sacrifice himself to save the lives of others. Yet here, the Man of Steel helps to lay waste to both Smallville and Metropolis with absolutely no thought for the townsfolk who are unfortunate enough to get in the way. The scale of casualties involved in the destruction that follows would be astronomical.

At this point let's cover the ridiculous amount of mayhem wrought by the Man of Steel's fight with Zod and company in Smallville, by General Zod's world engine, and finally by the fight between protagonist and antagonist across what's left of Metropolis. Let's make no bones about it, I think buzzfeed's estimate that the number of deaths would be under half a million is woefully optimistic. Skyscraper after skyscraper - and we can presume they are all full of people - gets toppled. The centre of the city that the Daily Planet calls home is utterly levelled. And does our hero try to limit the casualties? No. Mark Waid points out that in Smallville there are empty cornfields a block or two away, but the fighters resolutely stick to the main street, collateral damage be damned. I recommend that you read Mark's verdict on the film, because (a) it agrees completely with mine but is considerably better written and (b) he's a lot more invested in the movie than you or me: he writes stories for DC comics for a living, including the canonical Superman origin story Birthright. Several scenes in Man of Steel (such as him buzzing the herds of zebras in Africa) are direct references to Mark's work.

The last act of the movie is disaster porn, not drama. Several of my friends commented that "it felt like Michael Bay just took over the directing" when Zod arrived and I couldn't agree more. As Mark Waid asks, why does the protagonist bugger off to the Indian Ocean while Metropolis is being levelled? Why does he concentrate on the place where there aren't any casualties being sustained? Superman just wouldn't do that, plain and simple.

Finally, the end of the film is the utter nadir of the character's portrayal on screen. Remember how Christopher Reeve's Superman defeats Zod in Superman 2 using intelligence, rather than brute strength? Remember how Zod is brought to justice, rather than executed? Here, the Man of Steel gets Zod in a headlock and snaps his neck. Once again, it's lazy writing. Why bother coming up with a denouement that doesn't involve forty minutes of CGI explosions? Because that would have been hard work, that's why. Going back to my comparison with Christ, this felt like someone had made a religious movie and changed things so that at the end, Jesus stabs Pontius Pilate and then rides off into the sunset...

I really wanted to like this film. I was hugely excited by the snatches of Hans Zimmer's score that I'd heard, but most of the music is drowned out by the sound of things exploding. The 3D (added after the film was completed, at great expense) was done subtly enough that the visuals didn't take you out of the movie - in fact for the most part I forgot about the 3D completely. While I enjoyed aspects of the film on a superficial level - and the last line ("Welcome to the Planet") is a doozy - it wasn't a Superman movie. I didn't see Superman in this film.

I wonder if that's why they chose the title that they did?

TRAVELLING DRAMA

I had an interesting drive home on Sunday evening. I was driving down the A1065 towards Swaffham and enjoying the late sunshine, when I noticed a rabbit sitting at the side of the road. As I got closer, a buzzard dropped out of the sky and grabbed it! I don't think the bird was expecting my car to be moving, and this startled it enough to make it jump. The buzzard lost its grip on the rabbit, which bolted into the safety of the hedgerow. Not something you see every day, really...

NOTE TO SELF

I'm putting this link to the online form for reporting spam texts to the Information Commissioner's Office here because I'm using it often enough for the link to be convenient, but not often enough that I can remember where I put the bookmark...

Spam texts and phone calls about PPI and suchlike have no entertainment value whatsoever. I was delighted to see that the scumbags who perpetrate such things are beginning to get their just desserts. But 419 scams, on the other hand, are sociologically intriguing because the choice of content made by the person writing the email is clearly intended to convey a sober, responsible and well-educated man or woman of the world with a plausible and feasible reason why they might unaccountably want to give you lots of money. The reasons they come up with for such a wildly improbable turn of events are fascinating, and yet at the same time completely unbelievable. Also, they are frequently hilarious and - even better - they can be played at their own game for hours of (mostly) harmless fun. Major Abacha Tunde is very definitely way out in front in the comedy stakes with a classic plea that first surfaced several years ago and has just cropped up again. He's stuck in orbit, says his dad - and if you're unwise enough to contribute to the rescue fund, you'll get a cut of his savings.

(Spoiler alert: no, you won't.)

HEY DAD

It's Father's Day today, and I'm over in Norfolk with my dad. True to form, I've been sitting here in the living room wondering whether the placement of the apostrophe is appropriate. If today is a collective celebration of fatherhood, should it therefore be a day belonging to all fathers, in which case it should be Fathers' Day? Or is it a day which is concerned with, but not belonging to, all of the (plural) fathers in the world, in which case the apostrophe should be omitted entirely? Perhaps today is, as I have long suspected, just a cynical marketing ruse to get people to buy stupid gadgets, tacky greetings cards and inordinate quantities of chocolate and/or whisky. In which case spending any further effort worring about it is clearly pointless. That sounds like the best answer to me...

Dad got a new car of Friday, and it's full of all sorts of high-tech bells and whistles. I bought him a USB stick for his computer, but it is now plugged into his car! I had to explain how to rip his CDs using the laptop, and we copied a few on to the stick - the entertainment system not only has FM and DAB radio together with a CD player, it will also play DVDs and play stuff off USB media or a smartphone if it's connected. This afternoon we went out for a ride in it, and for a few minutes I felt like I was a little kid again. It was lovely.

EVEN KEEL

I took a big step last month and stopped taking antidepressants. So far I seem to be doing okay; I'm sleeping better, I have more energy and dare I say it, I also feel a bit sharper cognitively speaking. Best of all, I'm writing music that I'm really delighted with. If you want a comparison, read this month's blog from two years ago. My outlook is considerably more positive than it was back then, and I was quite obviously in a really bad place. In fact I was really taken aback when I read that blog entry today, and I wrote the thing. Why do I feel so much better now? Today I've been thinking about why that might be.

I came to the conclusion that the biggest reason is that the work I'm doing at the moment - a bunch of tech authoring written in Simplified Technical English - is really satisfying. It's something I know I can do, and do it well (hey, it's writing, okay?) Not only that, I have a solid schedule to work to and the timetable I'm following hasn't suffered from any unexpected revisions or arbitrary changes since I started on it back in January. In other words, my work is being managed, and being managed effectively. My working environment is stable, the stuff I'm doing is ticking along without a hitch, and best of all, it's interesting. Sadly, that's not always been the case over the last decade. When things don't go according to plan, it's stressful. And as we get older, it's harder to manage that stress.

As I said at the beginning of the month, I've been reading through the blogs I've written over the last decade. In doing so I've realised just how much of an effect my work environment has on what, for want of a better name, we'll refer to as my mental health. In particular it's brought home how important it is for me to feel appreciated or valued, and apart from a burst of creative ego-stroking every February when I take part in FAWM, the main place I seek that these days is at work. I like being a productive member of a team. When things go well, I'm fine - I love the profession I'm in. I must do, to have stuck with it for the best part of thirty years. But when things don't go well, I suffer, and I suffer badly. And I'm not alone in feeling like this, not by a long way. According to the UK charity MIND, one in six workers is struggling right now with a mental health problem such as anxiety, depression or stress. One person in every six. That's over sixteen per cent of the workforce; one in every six of your colleagues is likely to be mentally ill. That statistic isn't just shocking, it's appalling. Your employers, your suppliers and your customers might not actively hate you, but often the way in which they treat you can give the distinct impression that they do; so why should this be?

Today I read an article which might provide a clue and in my opinion it's well worth a read. It's an article about productivity. Productivity should be a good thing, shouldn't it? Judging by what goes on where I work, management practice focuses almost obsessively on productivity these days. Utilisation and productivity are the two watchwords by which the company operates. But companies must be careful to ensure that this doesn't alienate your staff. We have printouts of spreadsheets up on the walls, showing league tables of who is spending the greatest percentage of their work week working against discrete project codes, and, highlighted in red, those who spend the least. It's not these people's fault they're under-utilised, of course - it's just the result of which projects are active from day to day. Imagine how it must feel if you're at the bottom of that list on a regular basis; someone might as well have drawn a target on your back.

Claiming that your business practices are geared entirely around maintaining the highest degree of productivity, is good marketing, and it sounds attractive to customers. But you're likely to encounter problems putting that claim into practice. Firstly, this approach creates a high-pressure work environment, where the business demands exceptional performance from its employees as standard behaviour. You'd think someone would have twigged that exceptional things can't happen all the time, wouldn't you? It's as daft as claiming that everyone can be above average. Running your car at full throttle all the time will wreck it in fairly short order, and running people the same way is just as damaging. It's unsustainable.

People need time to ease off a bit and recover. They need time to gather their energies and rebuild motivation and enthusiasm for the next big push. If you don't give people time to do this, they're going to end up without any enthusiasm or motivation. And if you don't build that regeneration time into your schedule, don't think it won't happen anyway. If you make your staff terrified of looking like they're slacking off, then in order to look as if they're fully utilised they will focus on (or even invent) things to do that don't require much effort. The culture results in (and acts as a driver for) people spending time producing stuff that has no purpose, just so they can look busy. Sure, they're not going to help you finish your project on time, but they were fully utilised doing what they were doing, so what's the problem? The spreadsheets never lie, right?

This, I think, is why customer reviews so frequently focus on things like rewording sentences that are perfectly fine as they are; aside from being largely zero-risk (whoever brought a project to a halt by insisting an apostrophe was in the wrong place?) it's a low-effort activity that ticks just enough boxes on the spreadsheet to count as work. Producing something that's practical and useful - for example, by providing an opinion on whether the product actually does what it's supposed to do - takes far more effort to put together, but doing that won't get you any extra credit, so why bother doing it?

It's not just reviews that suffer, either. Let's say you need to supply a bunch of technical data to your tech author. To keep up the productivity figures, you're supposed to supply a couple of dozen every month - and that figure is the only project goal that matters. There may not be any usable data available, but the spreadsheet demands that something be delivered. What happens? Well, in my experience, suppliers provide you with a set of documents (so they get to tick all the boxes in their spreadsheet, hoorah!) but when you actually read them, all they say is "this is a placeholder, because we won't actually get round to doing the work that's necessary to complete this document for a couple of years." From the viewpoint of a business that focuses on productivity, there's nothing wrong in doing this. From a practical perspective (such as relying on people like this to help you get your work done), the people responsible are a waste of oxygen.

Work somewhere where this happens a lot, and you're going to have problems. Or, as this legendary tweet (frequently misattributed to William Gibson via a process he was moved to describe as attribution decay) from Steven Winterburn puts it:

"Before you diagnose yourself with depression or low self esteem, first make sure you are not, in fact, just surrounded by assholes."

It's not as if giving employees time to catch their breath and do stuff on their own initiative is bad - in fact there are many examples which show it's a very good thing indeed, even if Google's CEO Larry Page is easing back on his company's "20% free time" approach. But companies still assume that they can set incredibly ambitious goals without making allowances for - well, let's be blunt - for the simple fact that shit happens. Shanley says in her article, "Why do we keep believing we’re going to get so much done?" Life is chaotic, unpredictable and frequently strange, yet we tend to assume for the purposes of work that it runs smoothly all the time and that there are no such things as surprises, pleasant or unpleasant. Don't just allow for unplanned things like illnesses and accidents, either.

Once a business shifts focus away from the practicalities of people's lives, it begins to lose touch with reality. In the short term, sure, you may see benefits. But if your team leader expects 100% effort from 100% of their people, 100% of the time, they are likely to be a psychopath. Your best people are unlikely to remain your best people if you've got someone like that managing them, and that brings us to the second risk. If you reduce the workforce to numbers in an equation, fit for tweaking so that the end result - company profits - is as large as possible, you tend to forget about things that the people who work for you think are important; things like feeling that they are respected, involved, heard, well-led or valued. It says a lot about the environment where I work that over the last couple of years, one of the most frequently heard management expressions is the acronym JFDI. This is, as you've probably already guessed, short for "Just Fucking Do It." Imagine how valued you would feel, hearing that. The productivity mindset also tends to assume that when workers don't live up to completely unrealistic expectations, it is of course, their fault. After all, when the numbers were typed into the spreadsheets, it all looked brilliant...

All this is why, the older I get, the more I realise that Scott Adams's Dilbert cartoon isn't satire, or even exaggeration for dramatic effect. It's a documentary.

SIGNING OFF

Stuart Kelly writes up his interview with Iain Banks for the Guardian. It turned out to be the author's last interview. The last two paragraphs are very likely to make you cry.

IAIN (M) BANKS 1954 - 2013

If you read books as much as I do, you know that there's a very broad spectrum of writing ability out there. Not all published authors are great writers. But if you've got classy, well-read literary friends who throw gems your way, or if you don't, but are incredibly lucky, every now and again you stumble on a work that literally makes you say "holy shit, this is good stuff." It happened to me back in the 1980s when I borrowed a book from the public library in Milton Keynes. It was a novel called The Wasp Factory. I immediately bought my own copy and then set about finding everything else that had been written by the same author.

That was the start of a continuing obsession with someone who grew to become one of the UK's most respected and well-loved authors, Iain Banks. Anything he wrote, I bought. Sometimes, as in the case of The Bridge, I bought several copies and would give them to friends, raving about how they had to read it... When he started publishing science fiction as Iain M Banks I bought all those books, too. Especially those books. For the last thirty years I've wished at least once a day that I was part of The Culture, the sprawling galactic civilisation in which he set many of his epic, doorstep-sized books.

But I also developed a liking for certain single malts as a result of his erudite writing on the qualities of scotch whisky (and I bought several people copies of that book as presents too, and got a whole different set of friends hooked on his writing). Raw Spirit in particular shares many of its author's qualities; not only is it entertaining and easy to get on with, it's funny, witty, and entertaining and it leaves you feeling the world is a better and more interesting place.

In 2008 I sat enthralled in the Literary Tent at the Latitude Festival while Mr Banks was interviewed for forty minutes or so and I realised (a) what a top bloke he was, (b) just how scarily intelligent he was, and (c) how endearingly enthusiastic he was about absolutely everything he encountered. Here was a man who had found his perfect calling in life, and he knew it. He was a first-class raconteur. I could have sat in that tent listening to him talk for three days and I know I wouldn't have been bored for a second.

A couple of months ago Mr Banks announced that he was "officially very poorly" with gall-bladder cancer and while I knew that one day I'd find out that he had passed away, I was really hoping that day wouldn't turn up any time soon. Sadly, it turns out that day was today and the BBC have announced his death as, quite rightly, the top headline on their website. Neil Gaiman tweeted "Iain Banks is dead. I'm crying in an empty house. A good man and a friend for almost 30 years." Warren Ellis tweeted "This glass of fine old Scotch whisky in memory of Iain Banks, the finest of us" and Nick Harkaway tweeted "Crap. When good days become bad days. RIP IMB".

When I read the news this afternoon, I turned off the studio gear; I don't feel like making music any more today. But just now, even with such sad news, the man still managed to make me laugh out loud.

This evening I will be raising a glass or several to Mr Banks's memory. RIP, IMB.

OH DEAR

Flickr really is utterly and completely bolloxed, isn't it? I was going to link to a photo of mine from a Forbidden Planet event in one of the stories below, but when I tried to get the URL of my picture on Flickr, it turned out to be this :

http://www.flickr.com/photos/head_first_only/5086138739/in/photolist-8KrMRe-8KriBD-8KueQm-8KrfjH-8Kr5kD-8HLnf6-8HP3aq-8HP4b3-8HP8VQ-8HLZoa-8HLWdz-8HPKKj-8HKP3n-8HLFUa-8HLXCH-8HPDRd-8HL87i-8HPa2b-8HLkYe-8HPFf7-8HQ3n9-8HL6Ze-8HM32a-8HPCnS-8HPAYS-8HL5Pr-8HPcrf-8HPMa7-8HKSi2-8HKTh2-8HPzHd-8HKYYt-8HPbeL-8HLArX-8HPU3C-8HKRep-8HM1HP-8HNVEJ-8HLEzx-8HQgAE-8HKWAD-8HPRbU-8HPGKG-8HPysW-8HPSBL-8HP6v9-8LiZZF-8HHGQr-8H88Xs-bgPZND-a6Xxdo/

That final part of the URL is 367 characters long, and by inspection we can assume that each character can be either a number, a letter or a dash. Ignoring the recurring pattern of dashes and 8s in the URL (which smacks of programmer laziness rather than coincidence - it's redundant information, after all), and ignoring the fact that both upper case and lower case letters are used, this means that the URL can have (10+26+1)^367 different combinations, or roughly 3.38869 x 10^575 combinations. By comparison, the estimated number of atoms in the entire Universe runs at a paltry 1 x 10^82. In other words, with Yahoo's system you could assign each atom in the Universe a set of URLs bigger than the number of atoms in the entire universe then assign each of those URLs its own set of URLs of an equivalent size, and you'd still have shitloads left over.

I think it's pretty obvious that the folks at Yahoo! Haven't! Got! A! Fucking! Clue!

CONFORMING TO STEREOTYPES

If you've ever been in a band, or followed a band closely enough to find out a bit about the personalities involved, you'll know that recurring character types crop up. Nobody ever focuses on the bassist, because they're strong, dependable types who just get on with it (why yes, I do play the bass, as a matter of - wait a minute, what are you insinuating?) But drummers, who after all, are people who hit things repeatedly for a living, are not always the most erudite of scholars (unless they're Neil Peart). Lead guitarists can be flighty, ethereal types with an unshakeable belief in their own overwhelming talent; keyboard players are, frankly, often the sort of person who would be happier working in Silicon Valley or teaching particle physics, and rhythm guitarists often feel the need to improve their limited standing in the band's pecking order by being a little bit too rock and roll (which only works successfully if you're Keef).

But for complexity of psychological profile and sheer bloody entertainment value, you're never going to beat the band's singer. Google "eccentric celebrity" and you'll find a bevy of singers, from Axl Rose to Lady Gaga and from Elton John to Bjork. But only one person could conduct an on-stage (or off-stage) meltdown with utmost verve and panache and still leave you shouting for more. Consider this selection of stories about the late, great lead vocalist with the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah band (and erstwhile master of ceremonies for Tubular Bells), Vivian Stanshall. If only he was still with us...

The thing is, these days I've ended up being singer, rhythm guitarist, keyboard player, lead guitarist, and drummer, and I don't know which stereotype I should conform to.

It's a problem.

NARROW ESCAPE

Danie Ware, a Twitter acquaintance I've actually met in real life, discovered yesterday that she writes like Cory Doctorow. Want to see which famous writer you resemble? Go to the I Write Like website, paste in some text of your own, and see who you get tagged as.

The software uses a naive Bayesian classifier to identify patterns of word usage which match texts that the software knows about (in simple language, the web page has a store of works, each associated with a particular author; it assigns your writing style to the author who gets the biggest number of matches). In even simpler terms, it's a spam filter that's been taught to recognise work by, say, Edgar Allan Poe rather than 419 scams.

Of course I had to have a go. I took a few paragraphs from my blog and fed it in to the system. The result I got - I write like H P Lovecraft - wasn't what I expected. I was pleasantly surprised, to be honest. It could have been far worse.

EVEN NARROWER ESCAPE

Ballistic Recovery Systems (BRS) Aerospace make parachutes that you use without getting out of your plane. Their emergency recovery system is designed to be deployed when your aircraft encounters severe mechanical problems and it's been around since the 1980s. Last week, it saved the life of someone just up the road from here in Cheltenham. The 76-year-old-pilot was able to walk away from his Cirrus aircraft (which has the system installed as standard) unscathed.

BRS owner Boris Popov reckons that this was the 295th life the system has saved. That's a pretty impressive statistic.

TOO MUCH TO DO

Where's the rest of this year gone? I'm 100% utilised at work (that's "busy" to you and me), I'm trying to record an album of ambient music during the evenings, I've got recipes to cook, grass to cut, housework to finish, blogs to write, video games to play, clothes to iron, another grab-bag of books to read (I've just finished John Scalzi's excellent Redshirts and am now ten chapters in to the equally excellent Dracula Cha Cha Cha by Kim Newman - then I have China Mieville's Railsea and Lauren Beukes's The Shining Girls ready to go, followed by two books by Rush drummer Neil Peart that arrived yesterday), and I sort of accidentally bought another couple of box sets of films to watch last week (all of the Indiana Jones movies and the first ten Star Trek movies on blu-ray, since you asked). I'm also trying to teach myself copperplate calligraphy and I'm in the process of getting a conservatory built. Last week for relaxation I proofread someone else's three-hundred-and-forty-page manuscript and thoroughly enjoyed myself.

But there just aren't enough hours in the day any more, let alone days in the week. It's June, for goodness' sake. And next month, in addition to all of the above, I start the process of trying to write fifty songs in ninety days. What was I thinking?

SUMMER ROUTINE

For the last few days the weather has been lovely: warm, dry and sunny. So, of course, my eyes have been itching and several times a day I've been having sneezing fits. I ache all over and wake up feeling like I've come down with a heavy cold. Some years I'm barely troubled with hayfever, but this year is clearly not going to be one of those years. Today I resorted to taking an anti-histamine tablet, and it's definitely helped; I just wish I didn't need to take quite so many pills to get through the day...

WHO IS NUMBER TWELVE?

I was sorry to hear at the weekend that Matt Smith will be leaving Doctor Who at Christmas. I don't think I've enjoyed anyone's tenure as time lord as much since the days of Tom Baker but, as Wil Wheaton so succinctly put it, if he's decided to leave, all we can say is "thank you."

Speculation started immediately about who his successor would be, despite the fact that John Hurt has already made his appearance in one of the show's biggest "WTF?" moments since it began fifty years ago. But Hurt appears to be an earlier Doctor; from the comments "our" Doctor made to Clara in the season finale, he clearly knew exactly who Hurt's character was. So is Hurt going to play the man who fought the Time War? That would make Ecclestone's Doctor the Tenth Doctor, Tennant the Eleventh Doctor, and Matt Smith the Twelfth. This would have been a problem back in the Tom Baker days of the show, when The Master's motivation in The Deadly Assassin turned out to be that a time lord can only have twelve regenerations and he was nearing the end of regeneration number twelve. Now that the Doctor is in the same boat, that rule has been quietly retconned out of the way. But this raises an inconvenient point of continuity - the "fall of the eleventh" that I mentioned last month would therefore have to refer to David Tennant's Doctor, not Matt Smith's, and - oh no, I've gone cross-eyed.

There have been some interesting suggestions for the next Doctor. Someone - I can't find the page where I read it - suggested that Tilda Swinton couldn't be the Doctor because people who actually are from Gallifrey aren't allowed. Both Richard Ayoade and Ben Wishaw have been mentioned (and if you've seen Wishaw riffing on Moss from the IT Crowd in the last Bond movie you may well be thinking they're the same person anyway...) as well as Rory Kinnear, Idris Elba, Olivia Coleman, Chiwetel Ejiofor, and Rupert Grint (who would ensure that the Doctor finally gets his wish to be ginger). I'm just waiting to see what happens. Mr Moffat tends to go left-field in casting and I'm sure whoever he chooses will surprise me, but all the same I know he - or she - will do just fine.

FILE 120

Later this month I'll have been blogging for a decade. That's ten years of wibbling about popular culture, science, music, graphics and photography with various rants and expositions thrown in for good measure. That's 120 files, amounting to over five and a half megabytes of HTML (and that doesn't include the many megabytes of graphics, audio, or video that I've embedded in entries over the years). When I started doing this back in 2003 I had no idea it'd last as long as this. Given the number of other Chris Harrises there are around the world, I certainly didn't expect to end up in the top 3 results when you Google "Chris Harris Blog" either (and at the moment I'm #2, go me!)

I have no plans to stop, either. The world of the Web - and let's face it, everything else as well - is just too damn interesting to pass up a chace to witter on about it for my own amusement. If you enjoy reading it too, that's even better. So, let's crack on with another examination of Life, the Universe, and Everything, shall we?

EWW

My colleague Kyle discovered something unusual in his back garden last week. I don't get that many slugs or snails in the back garden here because the hedgehogs eat them all, but over the river in Chepstow things are rather different. I'd not heard of them before but as Kyle told me, apparently deathly white carnivorous Ghost Slugs are a thing. As the Wikipedia article says, the Latin name for the beast - Selenochlamys ysbryda - is suspected to be the first case of a Welsh word (ysbryda is Welsh for ghost) being used in a species classification. I love figuring out the etymology of species names, and this one's great: Seleno- will be "pertaining to the Moon goddess" and a chlamys was a type of cloak. This earthworm-eating monster is thought to be an invasive species that originated in the Ukraine and probably came over to the UK in soil from a shipment of garden plants.

In one of those peculiar coincidences that happen when you're paying attention to the wider world (or, if you prefer, if you suffer from apophenia) later the same day I found myself reading about a newly-discovered species of slug that lives in Australia. This one isn't white; it's a spectacular, shocking, fluorescent shade of pink.

I think I'll stick with my hedgehogs.

WORD OF THE WEEK

My memory's not what it used to be. Yesterday I couldn't remember the name for the variant of apophenia that makes humans tend to see faces in random patterns such as rock formations or tree trunks. But by a strange coincidence the BBC website just happened to have a new article on pareidolia that did the trick.

OOH, SHINY

Want a DAW for your Linux workstation? How about Tracktion then? The latest version is in beta at the moment and I really like the look of that interface. There are Windows and Mac versions too. If you're on a tight budget and can't stretch to Pro Tools or Ableton, this looks like it might be worth investigating; the full version is just $59.95.