It's Definitely a Blog

Chris's Blog Archive: July 2018

July was a good month. I started it by hanging out with friends in London for a few days. I began my participation in the mammoth songwriting challenge that is Fifty/Ninety once more. And I finally managed to get my laptop - and my home cinema system - back working the way I wanted them to.

Don't forget - my new album is available here.


Yesterday I drove to Preston and back to see my aunt and help sort things out (she's back home after a stay in hospital.) There were one or two bursts of drizzle on the way there, but on the way home I drove under at least four spectacular thunderstorms. There were bolts of lightning flickering right across the sky in front of me, and at times the traffic speed had dropped to 20 mph because of hail or torrential rain. There was a forty miles an hour speed limit on the Thelwall Viaduct because of sidewinds and when I got home last night, the wind and the rain continued; I was woken up around four in the morning with the curtains being blown about. This morning I thought that the wind had dropped a little, but it's picked up again. And it's still raining, which is very welcome as my front lawn has been a crispy yellow wreck for several weeks. The outside temperature is just 16°C right now and at some point overnight it had dropped to 12°C. That's a dramatic change from the 33°C it was in the car park when I left work on Thursday afternoon. Now that the weather is cooler and fresher I'm hoping that I can sleep more soundsly and I think I can finally head back into the studio upstairs and start making music for Fifty/Ninety again; It's been difficult playing the guitar in there when it's 30°C, even with a new guitar and fresh strings on the G&L to tempt me...


The Pioneer player that I mentioned last week arrived yesterday, and I spent the evening setting it up and trying it out with a wide selection of discs, including CDs, SACDs, DVDs from different regions, and a few Blu-Ray discs into the bargain. It played them all flawlessly. Today I've been working at home and the player has been running for most of the day without a glitch.

I was writing about the affordances of players last week - how the design of something can give clues to how it should be used - and in the most part, the player here does a fairly good job of things. Most importantly - and this is what prompted me to complain about the Sony player in last week's blog - I can look at the Pioneer player and see what it's doing. When a CD or DVD or Blu-Ray disc plays, the display shows the elapsed time since playback started. When the disc stops, the display shows what media is loaded, such as "CD", which means that I don't end up ejecting a CD before it's finished playing (and I can tell if there's a hidden track at the end of the CD this way, too.) If I ignore the player after it's finished playing, the front panel display eventually switches to read "SCN SVR" (and if I had the TV to which it's connected switched on, I would see the screen saver display running.) This is very different to the Sony, where all I can see from looking at it is whether it's switched on or switched off. With the Sony, all those indicators or "affordances" are absent. The Pioneer player is better at communicating how it's being used, and how it should be used, but it's still not perfect. The unit has four controls on the front: a large power button on the left, which is labelled with the standard power switch icon as well as "Standby / On", just as it should be; to the right of the display there's a much smaller button labelled "Open / Close" that slides out the disc tray on the first press and closes it again on the second; next to it is another button the same size labelled "Stop"; next to that is a USB socket for external media; finally, on the right there is another large button labelled "Play". Although the "Play" button looks just like the "Standby / On" button, it does not behave in the same way. I expected it to toggle between the two states of "Play" and "Pause" following the power button's behaviour of toggling between "On" and "Standby", but instead, once a disc starts to play, pressing the "Play" button has no effect whatsoever. Still, I was delighted to discover that I could play CDs without needing to use the remote control at all: push the "Standby / On" button on the player to switch it on, push the "Open / Close" button to slide out the tray, set the CD in place, push the "Open / Close" button again to load the CD into the player, and playback begins as soon as its figured out it's a CD. This is what I want from a disc player. The Sony player might be able to tell me what CD I've just loaded into it (it uses the Gracenote database) but it fails at that last step, requiring me to press the "Play" button on its remote control (unlike the Pioneer, there is no "Play" button on the physical unit) before I get to hear anything.

Its web-enabled features are about as sparse as they get: there's a YouTube app and that's it, but I have more than half a dozen other devices in the room that will let me watch Netflix or Amazon Prime, so this isn't an issue for me. The only niggle I had in setting it up was getting it to send audio to my AV receiver correctly. I spent twenty minutes trying all the different settings under "Audio Out" in the player's initial setup menu and seeing a PCM signal arrive at the amp regardless of which option I chose before going back to the instruction manual and eventually discovering that the audio setting I needed wasn't in the "audio settings" section at all - it was in the "HDMI settings" menu instead. Changing the HDMI output to bitstream there allowed the receiver to decode the output as DTS-HD Master Audio or whatever else was encoded on each disc. The instruction manual could do with some work; the section describing the different formats of audio that the player can handle doesn't mention how you should set it up so that they get sent to your AV receiver, nor does it point out that this won't happen at all if you leave the player set to its default settings. And the print was so small that I needed to put my reading glasses on to make sense of it (yes, I'm getting on a bit, I know.) But once I'd configured things correctly, it worked a treat. And the sound hasn't dropped out once, so I think my television set is behaving itself.

Another thing that irked me somewhat about the Sony player was that when I took it upstairs and connected it to my old Sony Bravia, the player had remembered that it had been connected to a 4K television set, so its output signal wasn't in a resolution that the old set recognised. I had to unplug it again, take it back downstairs and reconnect it to my new TV, power it up and change its output resolution to 1080p, then switch it off, disconnect it, take it back upstairs, and connect it all up again. When I plugged it in and switched it on I got a picture - but I then discovered that the player had forgotten every other setting I'd made, so I had to log on to the network again and log in again to every streaming service that I use with it as well. I guess that it's a security feature, but it was very irritating.


The first trailer for season 2 of Star Trek: Discovery has been released and can we just dispense with the waiting and start 2019 right now, please?


I had a fine time yesterday, heading into Bristol to attend a book signing by my friend Danie at Forbidden Planet and then dodging the crowds at the Harbour Festival - the waterfront was rammed. Afterwards I headed over to Dursley to do some shopping and catch up with the good folks at Intersound Guitars, where I might have accidentally bought myself another guitar...

Yesterday was a good day.

But I haven't recorded any music since Tuesday, and I spent yesterday evening restringing and playing my new purchase and then restringing the G&L S-500 while I was at it. The studio was much, much too hot to record anything, and that means I'm behind schedule again for Fifty/Ninety. So, now that I've had breakfast it's time to head back upstairs and play catch-up once again.


I've been working from home today and had an extremely productive day, getting lots of stuff out of the way that had been hanging around for a while. I've also been playing CDs for most of the day, and I haven't had a single audio dropout. I think the solution I mentioned last Friday has fixed things.


A colleague has been having dire experiences with his office laptop that is running Windows 10. I took a particular interest in this because I have exactly the same laptop for work, and mine been almost 100% reliable. The difference is that when I joined the company my machine was delivered with Windows 7 on it, and I never bothered to upgrade the operating system.

But I did upgrade my personal laptop to Windows 10 and even after I installed a hybrid drive in it, it's been running like a dog. It's failed to install most Windows updates since last November, and its disk usage was almost continuously maxed out at 100%. After a bit of digging on the web, I made a bunch of changes to the machine that have much improved things. This is what you do:

  • Download and run the Windows Update Troubleshooter in administrator mode. Let it fix any problems it finds.
  • Close the troubleshooter and restart your computer.
  • Hold down the Windows Logo key, and while doing so, press R to open the "Run" dialogue box.
  • Type services.msc into the Run dialog and press Enter.
  • Locate and right-click on the Windows Update service, and click on Properties.
  • Set the service’s Startup type to Automatic. If the service is stopped, click on Start to start it, click on Apply and then click on OK. Don't pick the deferred startup option.
  • Locate and right-click on the Background Intelligent Transfer Service (BITS), and click on Properties.
  • Set the service’s Startup type to Automatic. If the service is stopped, click on Start to start it, click on Apply and then click on OK. Don't pick the deferred startup option.
  • Locate and right-click on the Cryptographic Service, and click on Properties.
  • Set the service’s Startup type to Automatic. If the service is stopped, click on Start to start it, click on Apply and then click on OK. Don't pick the deferred startup option.
  • Close the utility, and restart your computer.
  • Finally, to force the machine to install the Spring Creators' Update to Windows 10, download the Windows Update Assistant, run it, and let it do its thing.

This worked for me - my machine is still having issues with running its hybrid drive at close to 100% for a significant proportion of uptime, but it's now responsive enough to use again. Maybe when SSD prices fall a bit more I'll switch to a proper SSD in it, but for now I'm happy.


The Sony CD/DVD/Blu-Ray player I was using to play discs today is very definitely a low-end model, with a small form factor and a tiny remote control. It was cheap - and to cut costs, Sony dispensed with a number of features that would have boosted the price. It has just one indicator on its front panel, an LED which lights up green when the unit is switched on and red when it's in standby. That's all the status display that you get. I thought that this wouldn't be a problem when I bought it, but as I had the amp playing at relatively low volume today, I found myself wondering several times whether the CD I was listening to had finished playing or not. I've realised that I really miss seeing a readout that told me which track was playing. So I've decided to move the Sony player upstairs to the bedroom, which means I can watch films on Blu-Ray in bed, and add a standard form factor player to the main rack downstairs. I've gone for another budget player, the Pioneer BDP-180. Like the Sony, the one I'm getting will play all region coded DVDs and Blu-Rays, and it plays SACD audio as well. It'll even play my old 8-inch mini-CDs without needing an adaptor. But unlike the Sony, it has a regular-sized remote control and a front display panel. It should arrive next week and I'm already looking forwards to watching it playing my CDs.


Yesterday I recorded four instrumentals and uploaded them to the Fifty/Ninety site (where you can listen to them and download them, should you feel so inclined.) That means that for the first time this year I'm slightly ahead of my production target. I've struggled to build momentum so far this year, and yesterday was the first day where I felt like I managed to gain a little bit of traction. In fact I got so engrossed I forgot that I was supposed to be meeting some friends at the pub down the road in the evening.

Sorry, folks.


The thunderstorms that were predicted on Friday gave the village a miss. I didn't hear a single rumble of thunder (according to the Lightning Maps website, which I was watching closely, the nearest strike was over in Keynsham) and all in all I think it rained here for a grand total of about ten minutes. The water evaporated almost immediately. It is still preposterously hot and likely to remain so for much of next week. The only way I've managed to get any sleep at all is to have an electric fan next to the bed, pointing directly at my head. I'm working my way through an extra-large batch of laundry this morning, because shirts are only lasting me a day. Worst of all, it's too hot to have a bath, so the rate at which I'm reading books has dropped through the floor (reading in the shower is problematic, to say the least).

I really don't like hot weather. Have I mentioned that before?


Wednesday's blog post turned out to be premature; this morning I was listening to CDs with the TV in standby and even with software updates disabled, the TV was sending handshaking requests to the AV receiver and kicking the player's signal off the amp. Switching the TV off at the wall stopped this happening, but aside from saving me money on electricity, it's a bit of a kludgy solution. After going back to the web and doing a fair bit more digging, I finally tracked down the problem on a Sony user forum and discovered that it is a common fault on many different models of Sony televisions that run the Android OS, and it's been known about since at least 2015. The fix is to enable network IP triggering - which prevents the TV from dropping into its lowest power-saving mode when it's in standby, which is what causes the problem.

I wonder if this will solve matters? I'll let you know.


So with "Software update" enabled on the TV again, those signal dropouts returned. Switch it off, and they go away. I may not have proved that my theory about what's causing the problem is correct (science moves forward by proving that a theory is wrong, not that it's right) but I now have a decent set of experimental data that is entirely in accordance with how I predicted things would behave, strongly suggesting that having the TV's automatic update feature enabled is what's been causing the problem.

It's an odd theory, for sure, but it's helped me (so far) to get rid of the audio problems I was having. I'd call that a win.


I got home from London at 11:30 last night. I've spent a great couple of days hanging out with friends in town, doing cultured stuff like visiting the Tower of London and hanging out at the Tate Modern. Much coffee was consumed as well as the occasional pint of bitter. We ate some extremely good meals and talked about many things, from the use of psychoacoustics to science fiction television series, and from books we'd all enjoyed to Savile Row tailors and the importance of owning a decent hat. It was an eccentric, eclectic time and I enjoyed myself immensely. Somehow I also managed to walk ten miles on Friday and six on Saturday, which is not something I do that often these days. Oh, and we visited a few shops; I bought myself a Muji cuckoo clock. I've wanted one for years and it is ridiculously sweet.

The football was inescapable, of course. While we were having lunch on Friday we realised that many of the clientele were French when they all stood up and started singing La Marseillaise at the beginning of the game with Uruguay. The roar that went up when England scored on Saturday afternoon reached us, even though we were deep inside the concrete caverns of the Tate. It was terrifying, quite frankly. When I walked through Borough Market on the way back to London Bridge, it looked like a war zone; people had predictably got much too carried away. Celebrations had turned into a full-on riot and they'd trashed the place. There was broken glass everywhere. I haven't seen so many police vans for years. Aside from alcohol consumption I'm sure that temperature was a contributing factor; these things don't seem to happen in the winter.

Because egad, it's been hot. Yesterday in London the temperature was in the thirties for most of the day; when I set off for home at half-past eight in the evening the car's thermometer was still showing 28° outside. Even at ten o'clock at night I was driving with the air-conditioning on. At half past ten this morning it was 25°C in the house, and I've had all the windows open since I got home. There isn't a cloud in the sky and the heat is cloying; the humidity's 44% outside and on its way to 50% in here, and I am very tempted to get the car out of the garage and go for a drive somewhere just so I can cool down again; I really don't like hot weather. I have even resorted to bringing the fan from my bedroom down into the living room - something I've never done before in the 23 years I've lived in this house - and it is currently pointed directly at me. It's making conditions tolerable, just.

This afternoon I'll be attempting to record another song or two for Fifty/Ninety but they'll be quiet affairs so I can record with the windows open without frightening the neighbours.


I got a phone call from the folk at Richer Sounds on Thursday, checking that my new av receiver was working correctly (it is). They also confirmed that the Onkyo receiver I'd returned was indeed faulty - it was being just as temperamental for them as it was for me.

But after the new amp dropped out a couple of times this morning, I have realised that my initial theory - that the receiver was the cause of all the problems I was seeing - needed to be revised. The chances of me getting two pieces of equipment that were misbehaving were slim, so that meant that I actually had two problems with my gear; the first, which has been fixed, was that I had an amp that was failing to successfully handle HDMI inputs. So, what was the second?

After a bit of thought, I realised that the signal drop-outs don't happen when I'm watching anything on the TV. Flipping that around, it meant that I only get the problems when the TV is on standby. Was the TV doing something to the rest of my system while it was ostensibly switched off? Easy to test that: I switched the TV off at the wall and then tried playing a CD to see if the player was still being kicked off the receiver. Hey presto, I got uninterrupted playback.

Okay, I'm on to something here, I thought. So what is the TV doing while it's in standby? It's running Android, so the answer seems to be quite a lot. From version 6.0 of the OS onwards, Android has a "doze" mode that was primarily introduced for mobile devices like phones to improve battery life - it restricts access to the network and CPU-intensive operations when the device is not in use, which reduces power consumption. But crucially, Android will exit doze mode every so often to check for updates and let apps run their housekeeping functions. On my TV, this "maintenance window" is when it checks to see if there are any software updates available. If there are, it will install them, so that the viewing experience is not interrupted when I'm watching something. Maybe that maintenance window also polls the devices that the TV is connected to somehow, and that polling is what is disrupting my CD playback? That seemed like a plausible theory, so I plugged the TV back in and switched off its automatic software update function. Then I put it back into standby and tried playing another CD to see if the dropouts returned. They didn't.

So the last part of the experiment will be to reenable the TV's "automatic software update" function and see if the dropouts return when I listen to another CD. I'll keep you posted.


Last November I travelled to Belgium to shoot a pop video for my friend Mel's new album. On Tuesday her music website went live with the album - which you can download for free - and the landing page features the video we made, which is for her song Starfleet Boys.

Head over to Mel's RYAKO site to watch the video and download the album. Remember, it's all free!

And see if you can find the Easter egg hidden on the site, too.


Yesterday, the mammoth songwriting challenge known as Fifty/Ninety got under way once again. Participants - including me - attempt to write fifty songs in the ninety days between July 4th and October 1st. Every time I've taken part (and this will be my sixth year) I have managed to hit the target, and nobody is more surprised about that than I am. The quality of my output varies, of course, but I can detect a slight upward trend in the stuff I've produced since I started. My guitar playing in particular has been transformed. I still suck at singing, but I don't suck anywhere near as badly as I did when I started.

I've got the rest of the week off, and next on my agenda for today is to get off the blocks and record something. I'll probably ease back in to things with an instrumental, I think...


I didn't get any music done last night as I was setting up my replacement AV receiver and giving it a thorough run-through to make sure it was working correctly. This morning I've been playing CDs through it, which was the thing that the last receiver particularly struggled with. I'm currently listening to the Elements of King Crimson 2018 Tour Box which has played through without a single drop-out, and sounds amazing. Without wishing to jinx things, it sounds like I may finally have a fully working upgrading system.


This year, summer has unexpectedly started living up to expectations. It hasn't rained here for at least a fortnight. There were unbroken blue skies here for the past week and temperatures have reached the low 30s in the back garden. On a couple of occasions the thermometer in my conservatory had given up entirely and was displaying "OF.l°C" when I got home.

The shortages are beginning to take hold. Northern Ireland introduced a hosepipe ban on Friday evening. A Europe-wide shortage of supplies of carbon dioxide is affecting supplies of fizzy drinks and, most alarmingly, beer. The irony of us experiencing a shortage of the substance that is causing so many problems with the climate thanks to its overabundance in the atmosphere is not lost on me.

As I type this, it's clouded over. The Met Office have issued their first ever Thunderstorm advisory for today (not such a big deal, as they only decided to start publishing them last month), affecting Wales and South West England. Right now, rainfall radar is showing a big storm over Swansea and a smaller one following behind it that's currently over Taunton, but nothing for us further east. And that's good, because...


I hope it stays dry for Ruth, Will and Beth, who are taking part in the Cotswold Way Action Challenge and walking 100 km from Bath to Cheltenham this weekend. They are fundraising for the MS Society. If you can sponsor them it will be much appreciated.