Bonkers Blog

Chris's Blog Archive: June 2019

Permalink entries for Chris's blog from June 2019.

My new album Beyond is now available. It's also on Spotify, iTunes, Amazon Music, Tidal, and all your other favourite streaming services.

My recent albums Generator and Fort are also available at Bandcamp, together with a wide selection of my earlier music.

SWEET SIXTEEN

Where does the time go, eh? I started this blog sixteen years ago today, back in 2003. The first entry was an inconsequential one; it took me a while to get into my stride with things, although three of my obsessions (film, music, and the weather) had surfaced before the month was out. Even so, if you'd told me back then that I'd still be writing blog entries in 2019, I doubt that I'd have believed you.

Some things never change, though. With the exception of a few years where I switched to Dreamweaver, I still code each page by hand. To start with I used Notepad, just to see if I could. Then I switched to Notepad++ which I still use from time to time for quick edits and bug fixes, but these days I mainly use the NetBeans IDE. I started using it back in October 2015 when I finally got round to switching to a CSS template for the website. I stuck with version 8.2 for years, partly because its almost-DOS look and feel appealed to my old-school sensibilities, but mainly because I missed the news that development of the software had switched to the Apache Incubator project and version 8.2's "Check for Updates" feature hadn't taken this into account. One result of writing today's blog entry is that I have now upgraded all the way up to version 11, which was released in April this year. Downloading and using the experimental installer for the latest version took me all of five minutes, and so far I very much like what I see, although I still need to work out how to set the menu text size so that it appears big enough on my 4K monitors; the fix I used for version 8.2 no longer works. (Edit: installing the Darcula plugin let me set up the IDE exactly how I wanted it. Job done!)

MORE MY JAM

The Mooer AC adaptor I ordered last week arrived the following day, and it's already been plugged in to my guitar signal chain. It turned out to have enough grunt to supply not just the Ocean Machine I bought it for but also my Zoom G3 multi-effects unit, which frees up some much-needed space on my extension lead. Now, I have long known that the choice of power supplies makes a big difference to how noisy an effects chain will be (and that's why pro-level pedalboards have very expensive power supplies in them) so I was pleased to hear a reduction in the amount of background hiss and fizz I get, particularly when the G3 runs an amp simulation, which tended to add a lot more noise. But while it might be my imagination, I think I can also detect a more subtle difference in my sound: there seems to be a lot more high end present, and the Ocean Machine's reverbs in particular seem to have more definition to them. Last, but not least, the new supply does what it needs to do without getting stupidly hot...

Needless to say that all this fiddling about led to me checking the power requirements of my other effects pedals more carefully. I soon discovered that although the manual for the JamMan looper says that it draws less than 150 mA (I've been using it with exactly the same model of 500 mA power supply that was overheating so badly when used to power the Ocean Machine, and I've not had any heat problems at all), Digitech's own-brand power supply that's recommended for it is rated at two amps, the same as the Mooer supply. I ordered one as soon as I found this out. The postman has just delivered it, and it's noticeably and reassuringly heavier than the unit it's replacing. I'll be adding it to my rig as soon as I'm done here, so there is likely to be a lot of guitar playing taking place in my studio this afternoon.

ADDITIONAL NERDERY

Yesterday I finally figured out the cause of some irritating behaviour that my TV has been exhibiting since I carried out a full reset on it a week ago. Each time that I cycled power on the set, if I then tried to watch BBC1 or BBC2 in standard definition, channels 1 and 2 would have disappeared. The TV would have "forgetten" them. Instead I'd get a "selected programme is not tuned" message. At first I thought that this was caused by a fault in the antenna cable, but if I ran through the "digital tuning" routine again, the two BBC channels would always come back. That suggested to me that the set itself was at fault, and this turned out to be the case.

After a bit of digging with Google, I discovered that the behaviour happens when the set gets a good signal on channels from two different regions (in my case, from BBC West and BBC West Midlands). The initial setup routine for the set asks you select the county where you live and choose which TV broadcast region you want to receive. I want to get the local news from Bristol, so I always pick "Gloucestershire" and "West" respectively. I'd assumed that these choices would be stored somewhere in the TV's memory, but apparently they aren't. So, rather than just leaving things as they were, each time the TV was set to standby for more than a few minutes it would scan for any channel updates, detect the other region, switch to it, get confused, and eventually give up trying to tune in to either signal, leaving it to the viewer (i.e. me) to do a complete retune the next time the set was switched back on again. That's rather poor programming practice, in my opinion. Fortunately, Google found me a solution: just turn off the "Auto Service Update" feature in the television's settings menu. I got a lot of satisfaction from the fact that ever since I did this, the TV has behaved perfectly, but the fault was most annoying.

THE WEATHER CONTINUES

There was a break in the grim weather on Saturday. It stopped raining for a couple of hours and there was even some sunshine. Although things had turned back to grey and overcast by Sunday lunchtime and one or two light showers came through in the afternoon, there's been a noticeable rise in both temperature and humidity. Even though it's dry outside this morning, the humidity is 70%. Things are predicted to get warmer still in the next few days as a plume of warm air comes up from the continent. The weather forecasters are already talking about temperatures here getting as high as 31°C by the second half of the week. Over in France they're having a heatwave that is set to break records over the next few days with temperatures looking likely to hit 40°C.

I'm disappointed to report that the thunderstorms that my phone warned me about a few days ago have yet to show up. There's still a yellow warning here running from 1pm, but the Met Office forecast now rates the chances of precipitation here this afternoon at less than 5%. It ain't gonna happen.

JAM ON, POWER OFF

The annual songwriting challenge of Fifty/Ninety—where participants have to write fifty songs in the ninety days between the 4th of July and the 1st of October—begins in less than a month. I've been playing guitar quite a bit to build the calluses on my fingers back up in readiness; they'd started to soften up after six weeks or so doing other things.

On Tuesday night I had an impromptu jam session with my buddy Paul at a local hall. It was an opportunity to play at louder volumes than I do at home, although I didn't take the Marshall stack with me. Instead I took the Blackstar ID:15 combo I bought back in 2014 and a holdall full of guitar pedals. We had a lot of fun, jamming along to basic loops I laid down on my old JamMan loop pedal.

Pushing gear harder is a good way of testing its reliability, and this became very evident after an hour and a half of continuous playing when my Mooer Ocean Machine reverb and echo unit started crashing and then switched itself off entirely. The culprit turned out to be its mains adaptor, which had become so hot that it was uncomfortable to touch. When I bought the Mooer, I didn't buy an adaptor for it as I already have a box full of the things at various voltage and amp ratings to choose from (you tend to acquire a collection of them when you've been playing guitar for nearly forty years.) The Mooer is a complex device and very hungry on juice, and while the label on it states that its 9V supply draws 500 mA, using a standard adaptor with the rating specified clearly resulted in the poor thing making its way towards meltdown. I unplugged the adaptor and let it cool off, and took the Ocean Machine out of my signal chain for the rest of our session. When I got home I went online to see about getting a Mooer-built adaptor for it instead. As soon as I saw the spec of Mooer's own adaptor for the Ocean Machine (which cost more than twice as much as the adaptor I was using), it became obvious why things were getting so hot: the Mooer supply is rated at two whole amps.

That'll be why that happened, then.

STILL NERDING

I might be premature in saying this, but I think I've solved the problem of the TV locking up. the TV has not crashed since I carried out a factory reset on it on Sunday afternoon. I've watched a number of things on Prime and Netflix and then switched back to normal TV without ending up staring at a screen that stays resolutely blank. I haven't quite got everything running smoothly, however.

The television frequency change went ahead on Wednesday. With the old configuration of channels, reception on the big TV was so good that I'd stopped using a signal booster with it. I'd moved the booster that I bought a while ago upstairs, where it's connected to the old TV I have in my bedroom. The upstairs TV uses an aerial in the loft, and as this cuts the signal strength quite a bit, it won't pick up some of the Freeview channels, even with a signal booster—but I can live with that; I just watch the missing channels downstairs. The problem is that after the frequency change yesterday, I need a signal booster downstairs again. The big TV's reception on some channels has become so patchy that it keeps dropping them altogether, so I've just gone online and ordered one. At least the things are getting cheaper; this one cost about half what I paid for the first one I bought.

And thus the economy is boosted once again. I have come to the conclusion that the principal outcome of the introduction of new technology is the need to buy further existing technology in order to keep the old technology working.

STILL STORMY

Today looks like staying mostly dry, which is a welcome change from the wet weather that the UK has had so far this month. But my phone just pinged and when I checked to see why, it had just received a yellow warning of thunderstorms running from 3 pm on Sunday until midnight on Monday night. Summer this year seems to be going the same way as it did in 2012, when I almost forgot what sunshine felt like until I flew out to California...

MONSOON SEASON

The UK continues to squelch through an extraordinarily wet month. It rained here every day last week. By Thursday, the organisers of the annual North Nibley Steam Rally (which was supposed to take place at the weekend just gone) had taken the decision to cancel the event as the showground was waterlogged. Given that it rained here for most of Friday, all day on Saturday, and off and on during the day on Sunday, it was clearly the wise thing to do; running heavy traction engines on a hillside covered in thick mud would not have been a good idea. People don't need heavy machinery to turn wet ground into a morass, however—if there's enough of it, foot traffic on its own can churn the ground into a thick soup and make it impassable. At Donington Park just south of Derby, that's exactly what happened. The Download heavy metal festival turned in to such a quagmire that many fans had given up and gone home before things even got under way and wags rapidly renamed the event to #Drownload. I felt very sorry for the fans there. Festival camping in those sort of conditions is no fun at all, and my experience of the mudbath at the Latitude Festival back in 2011 cured me of any desire to ever repeat it; I left a half-inch-thick layer of silt at the bottom of my first post-festival bath and I haven't been to an outdoor festival since.

Things were more serious in Lincolnshire. Residents of more than 500 properties in the village of Wainfleet have been evacuated after two months' worth of rain fell in two days and the River Steeping burst its banks. Areas of Leicestershire and Nottinghamshire have also been affected by flooding. Things aren't going to get any better over the next few days, either: thunderstorms are forecast on Tuesday and Wednesday for most of England. The Met Office has issued weather warnings that will stay in place until 21:00 on the 19th. As I type this, the sky to the north looks grey and threatening and I suspect it won't be long before it starts raining again.

These days the summer only seems to come in two varieties: dry and hot or wet and cold. At the moment, I'm resigned to the fact that we're going to have the second variety this year.

NERDLY PURSUITS

My Sony TV has recently developed the habit of crashing when I switch back to digital TV after using streaming services like Amazon or Netflix (but curiously, it never crashes after I watch anything with its YouTube app). To clear it, I've been switching it off at the wall and waiting a few seconds, then rebooting it. The cause of the crashes? I've updated its Android operating system software several times since I bought it, and Sony's website recommends that you should do a factory reset after each update. This gets rid of stray files and optimises its memory to make sure that everything's running as it should. I've not been bothering, because I've been lazy. A factory reset means (duh) that you have to set everything up again from scratch. It erases all your personal settings, including any additional apps you might have installed. You have to scan for all TV channels again and as the TV is a satellite receiver as well as a terrestrial TV receiver, the channel count is well into the thousands. Sorting through them to find channels you actually want to watch and moving them to the top of the channel list is a time-consuming task and, frankly, a monumental faff, so after I first set up the TV, I'd left it to its own devices.

When the set crashed again yesterday afternoon, frustration finally won out over laziness and I hit the reset button. It appears to have sorted things out. However, as expected I lost all of my my personal settings, lost all the extra apps I'd installed, and wiped all the digital television channels and the several thousand satellite channels which I'd previously tuned in. It even forgot the picture settings for colour, brightness, contrast and wide mode which I had meticulously set up for optimal viewing. After the set rebooted, I sighed heavily and then set about returning it to its former state.

I did have a shortcut this time. Since I bought the TV, I've switched to an Android phone, and the first thing the TV asks you when you set it up is if you want to pair your Android phone or tablet with it. I was able to import a whole bunch of settings for things like Google and YouTube from my phone over a Bluetooth connection. I also discovered that Sony provide an app for my phone which turns it into a remote control that offers more options than the unit that came with the set, including context-sensitive text entry. This meant that I could use my phone to enter text in the various data fields on the TV during the setup and registration process, rather than having to use the TV's on-screen keyboard with the cursor keys on the set's "real" remote control. If you've ever had to log in to Amazon on a TV by using a remote control unit, you'll understand what an advantage this is.

At least I had all the TV's settings written down this time around, so I could configure the satellite receiver to do a full scan properly on my first attempt.

Channel Hunting

The Sony took twenty minutes or so to complete its scan, and this time around it found over 3000 stations on the Astra 1 and Hotbird satellites. A lot of them are scrambled of course, but after sorting through the list with the set's "Discover" function I was able to identify my old favourite free-to-watch HD and UHD channels and move them back to the top of the channel list again. By the time I'd done that, I'd spent more than an hour fiddling about with settings so I called it quits for the afternoon and watched a few episodes of Lucifer instead.

This morning I finished setting things up by signing in to my BBC iPlayer account and reinstalling the apps that I've got used to using over the past 18 months. But I see that I'm going to have to retune all the digital TV channels again on Wednesday, as another round of frequency changes take place on the Mendip transmitter to free up bandwidth for the UK's new 5G telephone network.

I do enjoy watching my new TV and the picture quality is fabulous, but I do miss those days when all you needed to do with a new set was to switch it on, tune it in, and then simply forget about things for years afterwards...

BLUSTERY DAY

It's been a stormy couple of days here. Yesterday there were multiple reports of funnel clouds in Somerset, and at least one of them touched down, becoming a tornado. Luckily it was small and weak, and didn't do any damage. By late afternoon a series of thunderstorms had bubbled up around the South West, slowly drifting to the north west as the day wore on. In Worle down in Somerset, a lightning strike blew most of the roof tiles off a daycare centre but fortunately nobody was hurt. Yesterday evening the storms really got going and I was tracking lightning strikes on the LightningMaps website as one thunderstorm passed to the south of the village and another passed to the north. In Dursley, they got hail and torrential rain; here it stayed completely dry.

This morning it's been windy enough for gusts to break the local speed limit, but so far the rain has stayed away. I'll be staying indoors; I have more books to read...

EASY ON THE GAS

It's a month since I last had to commute to work. At the moment I'm savouring the luxury of having free time to do what I want each day and I certainly don't miss sitting in the car for four hours getting to and from work. Nor do I miss spending lots of money on petrol. It's been a month since I last filled up the car and when I got back from the supermarket yesterday after getting supplies for the weekend, the petrol tank was still more than three-quarters full.

Even though the car is spending most of its time tucked away in the garage at the moment, as I wrote back in April, I'm really enjoying the benefits of driving a hybrid. I still haven't got used to keyless ignition, though. Each time I stop the car I find myself reaching behind the steering wheel to pull out the key that's been sitting in my pocket for the entire journey.

JOB WELL DONE

I spent large chunks of Friday and Saturday watching the new adaptation of Good Omens on Amazon Prime. The book, by Neil Gaiman and Sir Terry Pratchett, is one of my favourites. The story's tone is perhaps best summed up by the working title that Neil Gaiman chose for it, which was "William The Antichrist." Richmal Crompton's Just Willam series of books were written between 1922 and 1969 and chronicle the adventures of William Brown and his gang the Outlaws, who exist in an idyllic, idealised version of the English countryside. In Good Omens, Adam Young and his gang get up to similar scrapes. The village where Adam and his gang (who call themselves the Them) is just as perfect. In Adam's village, the summers are always long and hot and it always snows on Christmas Day. However, there is a small catch: Adam not only misbehaves by helping his pals to scrump apples from the orchard next door, he's also expected to bring about the Apocalypse with the help of the Four Horsemen: Death, Famine, War, and Pollution (Pestilence, we find out, has retired.) Meanwhile, the angel Aziriphale and the demon Crowley have spent the six thousand years since the Creation living on Earth and have not only become attached to the place, they've gone native. They therefore decide that it would be much better if things just carried on as they were, and set about trying to stop the End of the World...

With Neil Gaiman producing the show I had high expectations that the series would be something special, but it turned out even better than I'd hoped. The pairing of Michael Sheen as Aziriphale and David Tennant as Crowley was inspired, and from the way they bounce off each other in their scenes together you'd never believe it was the first time they'd ever worked together. The production is densely packed with extra material, knowing references, and hidden easter eggs. "That's new," says Aziriphale as he notices that a complete set of Just William paperbacks has just appeared in his bookshop during one episode; Newton Pulsifer's tie is a miniature version of Tom Baker's scarf from Doctor Who; Adam Young's father drives a Morris Minor with the registration "SID RAT" which is TARDIS spelled backwards; when Crowley examines his atlas of places in the Universe to pick somewhere to which he can flee, one of the pages floating around his head shows the planet Gallifrey; the guard in the gatehouse at the US air base is reading a paperback copy of Gaiman's book American Gods; the archangels Sandalphon (Paul Chahidi) and Gabriel (Jon Hamm) visit Aziriphale's shop, whereupon Sandalphon sniffs the air and remarks that something smells evil. "Oh, that'll be the Jeffrey Archer books, I'm afraid," is Aziriphale's glorious reply.

The series is available now on Amazon, and the BBC will be broadcasting it later this year. It's great fun, and well worth watching.

READ ON

While I look for another job I've been doing a lot of reading. I'm seven books ahead in the reading challenge I set myself for the year on Goodreads, and I'm more than half-way through another six or seven books on my Kindle. This morning I read another couple of chapters of James R. Hansen's epic biography of Neil Armstrong First Man, which is very good (unlike the film, it gets the technical details right).

By complete contrast I've also just reread my copy of The Humanoids, a collection of 1960s articles from contributors to Flying Saucer Review compiled by the FSR's editor at the time, Charles Bowen. Fifty years after it was published, we know that many of the stories it refers to have been debunked. George Adamski's films of flying saucers in California and elsewhere are painfully obvious fakes, easily recognised as such; from this perspective it's difficult to believe that Stephen Darbishire's photographs of saucers identical to Adamski's that were taken in Coniston a few years later are anything other than paper cutouts stuck on to a sheet of glass; the next report discussed in the book is of a 1950s British sighting by one Cedric Allingham, who went on to write "The Man From Mars" and who was notoriously reticent about appearing in public. This was probably because Cedric Allingham didn't actually exist. His original report was a hoax perpetrated by the astronomer Sir Patrick Moore together with his friend Peter Davies. The fact that Davies, wearing a fake moustache, posed for Allingham's author photograph next to the 12-inch reflecting telescope in Patrick Moore's back garden was a bit of a giveaway, and although Moore never admitted to being the hoaxer (he would get quite huffy if anyone asked him about it) it seems he couldn't resist reviewing the book for the April 1955 issue of the Journal of the British Astronomical Association!

Other reports in the book are less than accurate. The story of an incident at a football stadium in Monza in 1954 involving "a hundred and fifty people" actually took place in front of ten thousand witnesses, and the phenomenon was not alien spacecraft, but the webs of freshly-hatched spiders ballooning on the wind.

When I first read it, W. T. Powers's chapter on a policeman's encounter with a landed UFO just outside the town of Socorro in New Mexico was clearly the centrepiece of the book. There were diagrams and everything; it all sounded incredibly convincing. Fifty years after the case, it turned out that what happened was considerably more down-to-Earth. Students from the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology had punked an unpopular former employee: mechanic Lonnie Zamora had left the campus to get a job as a policeman, and it seems he enjoyed laying down the law with the Institute's students a little too much. They got their revenge by drawing him out of town with a speeding car and staging a "landing" with a research balloon they'd borrowed. (In a reply to a letter about the encounter from the double-Nobel-Prize-winning chemist Linus Pauling, the Institute's president Stirling Colgate revealed that not only did he know for sure that the encounter was a student prank, he had a good indication of who was responsible.)

The feeling I was left with after finishing the book this time around was primarily one of sadness. So much of the mystery and fantastical in people's lives has evaporated since the 1960s. What remains of the field of UFOs is swamped by tales that are cynical and manipulative, and usually created to sell books, videos, and even sightseeing tours. The FSR's correspondents had a touching tendency to take what they were told at face value. These days, similar reports would deserve (and most likely get) very short shrift. The magic hasn't just gone away; reading the book again has made me realise that it was probably never there in the first place.