As always, July means that the annual Fifty/Ninety songwriting challenge gets under way once again. After rather overdoing things last year, I was keen to take a more leisurely pace about things, but by the end of the month I was already forty per cent of the way towards my target.
For the first time in several years I was fortunate enough to have some disposable income available and I put it to good use, giving the studio some long-planned upgrades.
I make music. These days, I make lots of music. My latest release on Bandcamp is the twenty-second full length album I've recorded since I rebuilt my bedroom studio back at the end of 2020. It's called From Script To Screen. Once again I'm making this release a pay-what-you-want deal, so you can get it for free. Why not grab a bucket of popcorn and an overpriced fizzy drink and give it a listen?
As the first month of the Fifty/Ninety songwriting challenge draws to a close, I'm just over a week ahead of schedule with 20 songs done. While I'm making good progress, I'm nowhere near the pace I managed last year. By the end of July in 2022 I'd written and recorded thirty-six songs.
Yeah, not doing that again.
Five hours after I posted yesterday's blog update, the Guardian ran this story about a new meta-analysis of data suggesting the potential collapse of something called the the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Current (AMOC). I've blogged about this before, and back in 2021 I wrote that some climate models were predicting that this current (which drives the Gulf Stream, and thus keeps northern Europe significantly warmer than places at the same latitude elsewhere on Earth) might have shut down completely by as early as 2100 unless we take drastic steps to reduce carbon emissions. The new study has moved that timescale forwards. A lot.
While the study gives a wide range of predicted timescales, the year 2100 is now sitting at the most optimistic, distant end of the results of the simulations. The average date predicted for the Gulf Stream failing is now 2050. What got the Guardian's attention, though, is the most pessimistic prediction, which indicates that AMOC could have collapsed by 2025. The climate is a massively complicated system and such systems can behave in wildly unpredictable ways when they reach what is known as a tipping point. The unprecedented heatwaves in Europe and the insane levels of heating in the Atlantic off the Florida coast are all signs that the amount of time left to avert disaster is fast running out. That's the thing with tipping points; by the time you notice that they're happening, it's often much too late to do anything about them.
Meanwhile, it's abundantly clear that the Tories still "can't be bothered with all that green crap". Sunak's appalling recent stance on net zero shows that his statements on climate action at COP26 and elsewhere were just meaningless word salad. People like this shouldn't be influencing climate policy. Or anything else, now that I think about it...
This week, the news has been featuring lots of stories about tourists being evacuated from Rhodes, as much of it is currently on fire after a heatwave which has lasted for two weeks. From a global perspective, this month is already the hottest July on record. In the southern hemisphere, where it is currently winter, things are even more alarming. The extent of sea ice in the Antarctic is 1.6 million square kilometers (618,000 square miles) below the previous record low extent for the date, which was set last year.
You may have seen a meme going around recently which states that the world's fifteen largest container ships are responsible for more emissions than all the cars on the planet. The figure came from a paper published in 2009 by Dr James Corbett and his figures were actually a lot more specific than made it into the newspapers at the time. He was talking about sulphur emissions (and these are indeed a significant contributor to climate change) but in true scientific fashion I'd just say that when it comes to the wider issue of all contributing factors, I think you'll find it's a bit more complicated than that. Yes, I looked it up. How much impact do cargo ships have on emissions? It's a lot. Swiss-based company MSC was responsible for pumping out nearly 10 million tonnes of CO2 last year, which is more than some entire countries manage to produce. Worse, shipping companies aren't scaling back their emissions at all. Instead, they grew by 3% last year. And now people have lost interest in controlling the spread of Covid because it was hurting the economy too much, cruise ships are back in action. They're almost as bad as the cargo ships for emissions.
But from what I can tell it's the world's continued reliance on coal and other fossil fuels which is the biggest driver of global warming at the moment. Coal plants are the biggest polluters in Europe. The use of fossil fuels has caused a year-on-year rise in atmospheric CO2 for decades, and we're still not doing enough to wean ourselves off them.
I hate to say it, but even people seeing their homes going up in flames doesn't seem to be enough to get politicians and multinational corporations to start doing something to fix the problem. It makes me wonder how bad things are going to get before they decide otherwise.
I must be feeling better. Yesterday I retrieved my strimmer and the lawnmower from the garage and set about bringing some form of order to the back garden, which was running rampant. I've been reluctant to do much in the way of gardening recently, although not for the reason you might have expected from this month's earlier blog entries.
The council's garden waste, recycling and refuse collectors have been on strike for a couple of months now. It should be pointed out that I fully support their action, because their pay rates are woefully low, but in this household things are beginning to mount up. Fortunately the stuff in my green bin which has been there since the strike began in earnest had composted down in last month's hot weather and this turned out to be sufficient for me to add more to the bin, although I had to get the step ladder from the kitchen, climb on top of it and jump up and down a few times to help compress everything down still more.
The back garden has a bramble problem, which I will need to root out thoroughly at some point in the future. I had the gigantic leylandii hedge cut down a few years ago (and earlier this week, the sound of an industrial-size wood chipper let me know that two of my neighbours have followed suit) and ever since then, all the plants in the back have become rampant. This week I noticed that they were seriously beginning to encroach. I had to address this before I could contemplate mowing the lawn, so it was out with the gardening gloves and my trusty secateurs and time to wade in to the jungle. I got quite a workout. It was a warm and sunny day, and I worked through more than one and a half litres of iced squash while I was out there. But the garden looked much more serviceable afterwards and I felt fully justified in treating myself to an ice-cold mojito when I'd put all my gardening gear away once more. I put some food out for the birds afterwards, and the tamest of the magpies which visit the garden had soon arrived to grab as much as it could, but it was noticeably spooked by the changes I'd wrought. It was extremely hesitant to approach the exact same bird table that it had happily been sitting inside the previous day, apparently because in putting it back I hadn't ensured that it was aligned with everything else the same way that it had been. When I went out and turned the table round to its previous position, the magpie was much happier. It's out there now, looking for any mealworms and suet pellets it might have missed.
This morning, the max/min thermometer in the conservatory is showing that the temperature dropped to just 7°C (44°F) last night. I'd like to think that this might slow down all that rampant growth for a while, but I'd no doubt be deluding myself if I did.
For most of the past week, I've felt terrible. I've had aches and pains all over the place. Indigestion and heartburn have resulted in a lack of sleep that left me unable to do much more than stare blankly out of the window for several days in a row, and I've been generally feeling like crap. On Sunday I cancelled my regular stream on Twitch because I simply couldn't summon up the wherewithal to do anything about it. I'd gone to bed by the time I normally signed off for the evening. This morning I've been telling myself I've started to feel a bit better. For the last few nights I've spent more than an hour soaking in a hot bath while reading a book, and that definitely seems to have helped matters (and my tally of books read this year has raced ahead accordingly), but even so: thank goodness for Voltarol. That's all I need to say. If you're my sort of age, you'll know exactly what I mean.
On this date last year I'd just uploaded the twentieth song I'd written and recorded for Fifty/Ninety to my profile on the challenge's website. This year, I've just finished song number 10. I'm still ahead of the game if I'm to reach my target of writing fifty songs in the ninety days between July 4th and October 1st, but I'm working at half the rate I achieved twelve months ago. I was deliberately taking things much easier, even before my latest health issues, but they aren't exactly helping matters.
But I'm happy with the work I've been doing. I've got a collaboration under way with a buddy from the US I've worked with before, and that seems to be going well. I've also written and recorded one song about Turing's famous "Halting Problem" paper that's going to be animated and used in an online philosophy course that's being run by my pal Tom Spademan, so at last I've managed to combine my musical interests with my professional career as an e-learning specialist. Next up, I plan to write a companion piece that will examine Turing's legendary "Imitation Game" paper (which introduced the world to what is now referred to as the Turing test). Believe me: when you've got fifty songs to write by the end of September, any subject matter is fair game.
For the last couple of days I've only been able to access the FTP server where I store this website by using the Windows command line tool and oh boy, I'd forgotten everything I knew about doing FTP the old fashioned way. I had to (shudder) look it all up. The reason for this sudden retrograde step was that my regular FTP client (I've been using FileZilla for years and years) had started misbehaving: once it had established a connection, it requested a directory listing but got no response from the server so eventually it would time out.
The only response I got from a support request to my ISP was basically "well, it's working here," which was rather unhelpful, but I suspect that as one of their legacy free web hosting customers I don't merit any more effort than that; their web hosting is now sold as a premium product, and when I say premium I mean premium. After a bit of digging around and eliminating each potential cause at this end one by one, I eventually got everything working again. But the change I made that eventually led to the problem clearing was not one that I'd needed to bother with before; I had to change one of the FTP options in FileZilla away from the default value that it had been left at since I first configured the program, back in the dim and distant past.
I don't suppose I'll ever find out what happened there, although I must admit that the first thought that came to my rather cynical mind was that the server must have been downgraded. I can't imagine my ISP 'fessing up to that being the cause, though. But at least I can use FTP with a GUI once again, and I feel rather pleased with myself as I was still capable of figuring it out for myself. I'll take that as a win.
Right now as I look out of the window, there are a couple of dozen house sparrows gathered around the bird feeders. There are so many of them in fact that they're having to queue up to find a perch at the table. This past week the garden has been visited by several magpies, a flock of seven or eight collared doves, blackbirds, dunnocks, starlings, and a family of jackdaws with two unruly and very gangling fledgelings.
I've always put out food for the birds while I live here, but something feels different this summer. It feels like the birds are sticking around in the garden rather than going off finding more plentiful sources of food elsewhere (which at this time of year, they would normally be managing to do).
Whether this is a sign of our ecosystem's growing fragility, I'm not in a position to say. But something has definitely changed.
It's still warm here and I had another very uncomfortable night last night. After several days of heavy showers the humidity is still higher than normal, and the forecast for this afternoon is for further showers which may turn thundery.
I guess it's not surprising, as the annual Wimbledon tennis tournament is under way at the moment, and that seems to be almost guaranteed to bring unsettled weather with it. I'll be staying indoors, of course. I have music to work on.
There was indeed a thunderstorm here yesterday afternoon. It showed up as predicted at around 5 pm but it was a very modest, unassuming affair and while I saw a few flashes outside the window of my bedroom studio and LightningMaps showed a considerable number of strikes clustered around Berkeley and Cam, I didn't hear a single rumble of thunder here.
There was a significant amount of rain involved, though. Note to self: go and shut the conservatory windows if it looks like a storm is coming in, or you'll end up spending half an hour afterwards mopping up the water.
Today the humidity has risen another couple of percentage points and while it's slightly cooler than yesterday, the weather still has a distinctly unsettled feel.
I feel strangely unsettled too, but I don't know why. Last night I couldn't settle and I was still awake long after 1 am. I woke up several times during the course of the night. I can't put my finger on anything specific which might have triggered this, and things haven't been as bad as they were last night for months, but nights like this have been an increasingly regular experience for me in recent years. I get transitory flashes of all sorts of negative feelings: anger, grief, worry and fear all come and go in the space of a few seconds. I suspect that the underlying cause of this is PTSD and the anxieties that it generates. I'm having very non-specific flashbacks where all that's left of the memories are the emotions. There's not a lot I can do about it while it's happening; knowing what's going on is half the battle. I just grit my teeth and wait for things to subside. But today I feel exhausted. I won't be rushing to fire up the studio just yet. I'll see how I feel later on.
The fact that Meta haven't launched Threads in Europe because it breaks a number of EU regulations regarding competition and data sharing tells me all I need to know. I won't be signing up for it. Although I use the Book of Face, I only do so on a browser and I run a number of plugins which limit its access to the rest of my machine. I've found the experience to be much more tolerable that way, as they also strip out the adverts and a lot of the ephemera which Meta's programmers seem to love adding needlessly to the user experience.
So despite my earlier post, I can't see myself signing up to yet another social media platform at any time in the near future.
This week's run of surprisingly chilly nights (it got down to just 6°C overnight earlier in the week here) seems to have ended. Last night the minimum overnight temperature was 17°C, and the humidity has also risen noticeably. It feels like it might even be muggy enough to kick off a thunderstorm or two later on; the day has got that sort of lowering, oppressive feel to it.
I will be inside, anyway. I will be back recording songs today after taking a day off from music making yesterday. Last year, doing that would have been unthinkable but this year I'm keeping a wary eye on my mental state. Last year, I ended up feeling depressed and burned out by the end of August, so if I feel the need to just spend a day or two zoning out and staring blankly into space, that's what I'm going to do. And after all, I already have three songs done, so I'm ahead of schedule.
Last year I noticed that the quality of the material I wrote seemed to be significantly better if I sat down and wrote the lyrics first. In the past I've adopted both a music-first and a lyrics-first approach interchangeably but in writing my account of last year's adventure (and there will be more news about that in a few weeks) I was struck by how much happier I was with the songs I wrote where the lyrics had come first, so that's what I've been focusing on this year. After taking the day off yesterday I woke up this morning with the lyrics for my next song all mapped out in my head and the first thing I did when I got up was to go into the studio and write them down.
Now all I have to do is come up with a melody to go with them, and then record the thing...
The remains of Twitter continue to sink noisily beneath the waves, still broken, still on fire. After the "rate limit exceeded" mess of the past week where users suddenly found themselves unable to post any updates, the "Tweets by" widget that I've been using at the top of this page for the past five years or more has given up the ghost. My patience with the company is pretty much exhausted so rather than Googling an alternative method of linking to my activity there, I have instead given up entirely and removed the widget.
These days I'm more of a Mastodon guy, anyway.
My new studio chair beckons and the Fifty/Ninety website will start accepting new submissions in a couple of hours, so that's my schedule for the rest of today (and the next three months) sorted.
Should you wish to do so, you will be able to follow my progress and listen to my work on my profile page on the Fifty/Ninety website.
See you there!
The Fifty/Ninety songwriting challenge begins again tomorrow, and I'm planning to be squirrelled away in my home studio working on new music for most of the next three months. The challenge sets you the goal of writing fifty songs in the ninety days between July 4th and October 1st, and this will be the 11th time I've taken part. Not to sound smug or anything, but each year I've taken part I've managed to reach that target. Last year, I ended up with a quite ridiculous 117 pieces of music by the time I'd finished, which was crazy. I won't be doing that this year.
Rather than working on the quantity, I want to improve my song quality this year. That's more difficult than it sounds, because what is it, exactly, that sets a song apart as something of high quality? I really don't know, but I want to see if I can find out.
I also want to be less of a grumpy curmudgeon this year. The world is just as crazy as it was last summer (quite probably more so, in fact) but my personal circumstances are much, much easier than they were. Angry tirades do have their place in pop, for sure—but I've been favouring that approach over sweetness and light for an awfully long time and it's gotten old. It's time for a change. I suspect that I'm not going to find switching easy, so I'm awaiting hearing the end results with interest.
The weather has moved on from last month's heatwave. On Thursday night the temperature in the back garden dropped to 7°C (44°F) and on Sunday night it was back down to 8°C. Right now as I'm typing this, it's chucking it down and the rain is hammering on the conservatory roof as well as thrashing against the back door in the kitchen.
I think I've identified why I've been sleeping so badly lately; last night I woke up with throbbing pains in my elbows and hips. The old wives' tale that the arthritic can tell when the weather's going to change because their joints hurt appears to be based on fact.
Last summer I was working out with weights regularly, and that seemed to keep the joint pain at bay. I've rather let things slide over the past few months, so I think it's time I picked them up again. We'll see if that helps matters.
My new Aeron chair was delivered yesterday and after carrying it up to the studio and spending an hour or two sitting in it, I'm very happy with the level of comfort it provides. The way the pellicle fabric is stretched over the frame means it gives as much support as cushions would, perhaps more; cushions tend to compress over time when you don't give them an opportunity to bounce back. The amount of adjustment that's possible on many different parts of the chair means that I've got the thing just the way I want it. In comparison with the previous chair I was using (which, as I mentioned on the blog a few days ago, disintegrated after less than three years) the Aeron blows it away.
The Fifty/Ninety songwriting challenge starts once again on Tuesday, so I plan to spend a lot of time sitting in the studio over the next three months. I'm no longer worried about what that is likely to do to my back (but I will still be making sure that I take regular comfort breaks!)
I was delighted to discover yesterday that the original tape of the recording session which gave us the most famous (and well-used) sound effect in the history of cinema, the Wilhelm Scream was discovered a few months ago by Craig Smith, who was examining sound archives as part of his job as the Academic Sound Coordinator at the School of Film/Video at the California Institute of the Arts.
The Wilhelm Scream was recorded in 1951 for a western starring Gary Cooper that was set in the Florida Everglades. It was called Distant Drums and it pops up on Film Four's channel on UK television on a regular basis, should you wish to watch it and spot the sound as it appears in one of the film's pivotal scenes. Nobody seems to know for sure who the actor tasked for creating the sound of "Man eaten by alligator; screams" was, but the consensus is that it was the actor and singer Sheb Wooley, who is perhaps best known today for writing the novelty record The Purple People Eater. Craig Smith has digitised the recording session and uploaded all six of the attempts made to create the scream at Freesound.org; you can listen to it here. The fourth attempt is the one which went down in movie history.
The sound was duly added to the library of stock sounds at the Warner Brothers studio and it was used again in another Gary Cooper movie, Springfield Rifle the following year. Oddly enough, the sound didn't acquire its popular name until a couple of years later, in 1953. That was the year when it was used (for the third time) in a rather more formulaic western starring Guy Madison and Vera Miles called The Charge At Feather River. In this movie, the effect can be heard when a certain Private Wilhelm (played by Ralph Brooks) is shot in the leg with an arrow and falls off his horse. The scream seems to have been popular with sound designers from that point onwards, as it can also be heard as a stock sound effect in A Star Is Born (1954), Them! (1954), Land of the Pharaohs (1955), The Sea Chase (1955), Sergeant Rutledge (1960), PT 109 (1963), The Wild Bunch (1969), and The Green Berets (1968).
But it wasn't until Lucasfilm sound designer Ben Burtt rediscovered it in a sound effects library and dropped it into Star Wars (1977) that the thing took on a life of its own. Since then the scream has been used in hundreds of movies, television programmes, and even in video games (it can be heard if you hijack a vehicle in Borderlands 3 and throw the driver out, for example). If you search for the Wilhelm Scream tag over at iMDb right now, you'll get nearly 600 results and I can pretty much guarantee you'll have heard it in a film that you've seen recently.