Chris Harris's Blog Archive: September 2013

Wow, September was a busy month. There were all sorts of things going on - I got to hang out with my brother who was visiting from California, I wrote loads of songs, went to gigs, took lots of photographs, went to a wedding in London, had a drink or two at the top of the Gherkin, visited Ruth in Wales, and had a conservatory built.

And it all went in the blog...


I'm sitting here with my usual breakfast this morning: a big mug of coffee and a couple of croissants. Yes, I'm back on the caffeine. I didn't see any significant change for the better while I was abstaining and I really missed coffee *and* chocolate. The first night after drinking coffee at work again I slept better than I have in several weeks. Go figure.

This weekend I'm at home - although I'll be heading into town for a gig this evening. I don't have much planned other than that; I've been to the recycling centre and got rid of more stuff out of the loft, I've done my shopping for the next few days, and the car's topped up with petrol. I'm going to stay indoors and recuperate a bit. I came down with a stomach bug on Tuesday and spent a couple of days throwing up - there's obviously something doing the rounds at the moment because several people I know here have come down with the same thing. Even now, my stomach is making far more gurgling noises than it usually does. So far I have resisted the urge to sample it and make a track with the sounds.


I still don't feel like I'm back at 100%, but while I was off I managed to get some more songs recorded for 50-90. In fact, I got enough music recorded to hit that magical fifty mark. Yes folks, I've done it. Since the 4th July I've written and recorded fifty pieces of music. I really wasn't sure I could manage it, but the FAWM and 50-90 community is awesome. Thanks to them, it didn't feel like it was that hard to do.

Today I'm going to go back and remix a couple of tracks as they're a bit muddy with all the reverb I slapped on them; yes, I know - I finally managed to create something with too much reverb. I didn't think it was possible! While the tracks sound fine on monitors, headphones aren't as forgiving and they definitely need toning down a bit.

While I'm at it, I'll be notching EQ on some of the instruments on the last couple of tracks, as they sound way too harsh. Work on equalisation is something I've really taken to heart this year. I never used to bother with it at all - I just accepted the sounds I was getting and that was the end of it - but I've really noticed how EQ can change the character of individual tracks as well as the end result as a whole. I need to learn a lot more about this, as I'm still a novice, but I can already hear a difference in the results I'm getting.

I might record one or two extra songs before the end of the month, too. Those ninety days aren't over yet!


The weekend was not one of my usual weekends. On Friday night after work I hit the road, travelling north. Five and a half hours later I'd arrived at my destination (my travel time was not helped by the fact that the M5 was solid from Gloucester to Worcester). I was staying at Ye Olde Bulls Head Inn in Beaumaris, Anglesey. Charles Dickens and Samuel Johnson both stayed there. And what a lovely stay it turned out to be.


Why was I in North Wales? I was there to spend the weekend catching up with Ruth and seeing the flat she moved into a few weeks ago. We spent most of our time taking photographs; between us we took over 1300 photos in two days!


On Friday night I had a beer in the bar and then retired to my room - the Lofthouse Suite is in the Bull's main building and although it's named after one of the inn's former guests, it really is in the loft, with huge oak beams one of its major features.


If you're more partial to modern ameneties, the Townhouse next door offers them as well, but Rebecca and the twins had told me I needed to book a room in the Bull itself, and I'm glad I did. I nearly nodded off soaking in the huge bath, so I decided to call it a night.

On Saturday morning I had one of the best cooked breakfasts I've ever eaten. The Bull uses locally sourced materials wherever possible and the bacon in particular (which I was told came from Valley, just up the road) was superb. Breakfast was also served with a pot of tea; after abstaining for two weeks without any noticeable improvement in the quality of my rest, I've resumed my caffeine intake. Seldom has a cup of tea tasted so good. The second cup tasted just as good, and so did the third. After letting breakfast go down for a while I hit the road for Menai to collect Ruth.


We'd decided that we'd start Saturday with a visit to Bodnant Garden as Ruth's grandmother had visited there a couple of years ago and has been extolling its virtues ever since. Bodnant is a National Trust property just south of Conwy. It's been the family home of the McLaren family for many generations, and the gardens, which feature national collections of several species, is managed by the NT and open for 362 days every year. We arrived shortly after the gardens opened and bought our tickets to get in. Well, only Ruth needed a ticket; I finally got round to doing something I've been meaning to do for years and joined the National Trust, which meant that I got free admission as part of the deal.

It was a spectacular day, bright and sunny, and the house and gardens looked amazing.

Bodnant 7

We both had our cameras out and were snapping away immediately. Everywhere you looked, there was something worth photographing. The house is an immense, tudor style mansion that looked particularly striking in the sunshine.

Bodnant 6

It overlooks a valley to the west and beyond that, the view stretches away to the mountains of Snowdonia.

Bodnant 23

The gardens adjacent to the house are formally laid out with lots of fountains and beds of brightly coloured flowers. Right at the top of the valley is the garden's 55-metre-long laburnum arch:

Bodnant 12

Although it's striking in the photos we took, in the spring it's a mass of drooping yellow fronds in May or June when the laburnum flowers. The arch is tended to with an almost fanatical attention to detail: it's pruned and retied every year and every single branch is tied to the metal supports with the same reef knot.

Not surprisingly, the garden was full of birds. There were robins eyeing us from close quarters, crows strolling across the lawns like they owned the place, and magpies, jackdaws, great tits, coal tits and pigeons making a fair amount of noise from the greenery. I got a couple of shots of a buzzard as it soared overhead, but I was much more surprised to spot a grey wagtail at the side of one of the ornamental waterfalls - so surprised that I failed to get a decent photo of it. We looped around the upper levels of the garden back to the house's terrace where I admired the rather spiffy heliochronometer:

Bodnant 11

Then we started our descent into the valley through a number of terraces. Immediately below the house's rose garden was a formal lawn for playing croquet on, and below that a pair of spectacular cedar trees at either end of the house's lily pond. It was still early when we reached here and with no wind the pond was as smooth as a mirror. Prime material for some more photographs!

Bodnant 8

Bodnant 2

Below the lily pond was the canal terrace. The terrace doesn't feature a real canal; rather there is a long, narrow lily pond running from north to south, with the Pin Mill at its southern end. The building is so named because its owner had a small business making sewing pins there. We spent quite some time wandering around this part of the garden, trying to photograph the dragonflies as they hunted insects over the water and finding out about the history of the building. A lot of work has gone into renovating the building and it's being restored to its former glory.

Bodnant 22

Bodnant 20

Bodnant 21

Below the canal terrace the gardens become heavily wooded, with a section planted with lots of different varieties of magnolia. Some of them, planted in the 19th century, have grown to huge proportions (they put the one outside my house to shame!) There were also some sequoiadendrons - giant redwoods - which obviously like the environment they're living in. At the bottom of the valley was the River Hiraethlyn, and an old barn with a roof covered by a thick carpet of moss. Next door to it was a small snack bar - time for a choc ice and a quick sit down...

Bodnant 18

We followed the river uphill to the southern edge of the gardens, where we came across the Maclaren family mausoleum, the Poem.

Bodnant 3

"Poem" is an acronym for "Place Of Eternal Memories." The building is still used for its original purpose and it sits on a rocky escarpment overlooking a waterfall on the river (the dam is currently being rebuilt). We climbed up a steep set of slate steps to reach it; as Ruth observed, I wouldn't like to try that climb in wet weather as they'd be incredibly slippery...

Bodnant 17

We walked back to the house for a spot of lunch in the tea room. By this time the day had really warmed up and I really didn't need a fleece or the winter coat I'd brought with me, so they went into the car boot. I did retrieve a hat, though; the sun was bright enough that I could feel the top of my head beginning to burn. The tea room was busy, but the food was good and I had a sandwich and a slice of egg custard to refuel. Even better, there was a coffee machine, so I got my first latte in two weeks. Oh coffee, how I've missed you!

After consulting the guide to Bodnant we realised there were some areas of the place we hadn't seen, and as we both felt that the gardens were good enough to go round again, we swapped camera lenses and headed back. We found a whole area of the gardens we'd not seen, planted with lots of acers, that were just beginning to change colour, and mountain ash trees. The berries on the Californiensis varieties were so spectacularly red that they didn't look real.

Bodnant 13

Bodnant 19

Bodnant 10

By the time we'd explored the rest of the gardens it was after four o'clock. If you're going to pay the place a visit, you should plan on spending the whole day there, as there's lots to see.


Before we joined the A55 back to Anglesey I filled up with petrol in Conwy - I was pleased to see that the car was doing well over 30 miles to the gallon (in fact I got more than 33 mpg over the weekend, which is not bad for a three and a half litre V6). After a brief stop in Menai we went back to Beaumaris for dinner at the Bull's Head (as a guest, I was able to book in advance). First item on the agenda for both of us was a pint in the bar. This time when I sat down I really noticed my back telling me I'd been on my feet for most of the day, wandering around with a bag full of lenses on my back. It's safe to say we were both pretty hungry by this point and I was glad to go through to the Brasserie for our meal. Ruth had the bread, balsamic vinegar and olive oil starter; I went for gravadlax with celeriac. My mouth is watering just typing this out now, as I developed quite a taste for the pickled fish when I visited Norway with work. We both picked the lamb tournedo for the main course as Ruth has had it before and told me how good it was - and she was right. It was delicious, incredibly tender and had a wonderful flavour. Dessert was pretty amazing, too!

After taking Ruth back to Menai I returned to the Bull and ordered a mojito; I'd seen it on the drinks menu at dinner and I haven't had one since Christmas, so it felt like a good way to finish off the day. I sat in the lounge and used the Bull's wifi to get a quick fix of online stuff while I sipped my drink, but it wasn't long before I felt my eyes starting to close so I headed off to bed. That was a very good day!


I woke up once during the night as the result of a noisy car going past at about four in the morning, but I was asleep again when the alarm clock went off. I had another full Welsh breakfast this morning and it was just as tasty as the one I had yesterday. A poached egg on toast together with a couple of rashers of bacon, tomato, mushrooms, bacon, sausage and slice of black pudding isn't normal breakfast fare for me but it went down very nicely.

Menai was much busier this morning than it was yesterday and I had to park around the corner from Ruth's place - parking is quite limited and the back streets are pretty narrow. Ruth had suggested that we spend the morning walking along the side of the Menai Straits to Church Island, so that's what we did. We took our cameras with us, of course. A few steps from Ruth's front door took us to the Anglesy Coastal Path which we followed west. When we set off, the tide was pretty much all the way out and there were mudflats visible for much of the stretch across to Bangor. But yesterday I'd seen just how fast the water flows at the turn of the tide, and Ruth told me that people who rashly decide to try swimming across rapidly find themselves being carried out to sea. We walked under Thomas Telford's imposing suspension bridge, which carries the A5 across the water.


Then we found ourselves on Menai's Belgian Promenade, built by members of a community of Belgian Refugees who moved to the area during the First World War. From the promenade we could look west towards the Britannia Bridge, which carries rail traffic and the A55 across the Straits (now the primary route into Anglesey and the port of Holyhead.) Looking out over the water I could see lots of cormorants enjoying the sunshine on the rocks of one of the small islands. There were oystercatchers and redshanks calling, and I even heard a curlew, which we eventually spotted picking its way through the shallows close to shore.

Church Island is a tiny island in the Menai Straits, which is almost entirely taken up by the graveyard around Saint Tysilio's Church. According to the sign over its front door, the original church was built in 630 AD, but the current building dates back to the 1400s. It's still in use; the service was just finishing as we walked past. There's a striking yew tree at the island end of the causeway that connects the island to the mainland.



The island has some excellent views of the suspension bridge, and we took lots of photos before the cloud rolled in and the light changed.


By this time, the tide was coming in, and coming in fast. Lots of yachts were taking advantage of the tide to head over to Llandudno or Puffin Island, and they were being carried along at a fair clip. Out towards Caernarfon we could see lots of sails, that all looked the same; there must have been a competition going on. We headed back to Ruth's for a cup of tea before heading over to Beaumaris.


Beaumaris Castle was the last, great castle planned by Edward the First. It put to use all the lessons learned from the other castles he built in his campaign against Llywelyn ap Grufudd and his relative Madog ap Llywelyn. But before the castle could be completed, Edward's attention switched to Scotland. The money available for the project dwindled to nothing, and construction ground to a halt.


The castle today is a squat, intimidating presence at the west end of the town, and while it's not the building that it was intended to be, it's in fairly good repair and you can stroll along the battlements...


...after heeding the health and safety warnings about kamikaze seagulls first, of course. Ruth explained that the gulls have learned that if they fly at people, they are frequently rewarded by food dropped by startled tourists. The larger birds can get quite aggressive.


There was an exhibition about the castle's history, a small theatre inside one of the turrets where you could watch audiovisual presentations put together by local schools, and back outside the ramparts there was a gift shop where you could buy a selection of typical tourist fare. I resisted the opportunity to equip myself with a toy archery kit or a plastic sword, and felt very pleased for showing such steely self control.

Next it was time to head over to the Neptune fish bar for a spot of lunch. Given the gull situation, we ate indoors. Despite a big meal last night and a lovely cooked breakfast this morning, I was starving. It must have been the sea air. I had fish, chips and mushy peas for the first time in months, and really enjoyed them. Ruth had got things planned to a "T" so after we'd finished we crossed the road to the Red Boat Ice Cream Parlor, where I had a tub with a scoop of chocolate caramel ice cream, and a scoop of After Eight ice cream. There were whole After Eights in it, and it was so good I was tempted to have another tub, straight away.

After that I needed a walk along the front to work off some of those calories. We ended up in the RNLI shop, where we bought a few bits and pieces - including a plastic duck that changed colour from purple to blue when it warmed up. The staff hadn't twigged that they did this, so when we left the shop they were going through all the other colours in the box to see what colours they changed to...

We sat on a bench next to the town's Gorsedd and watched a procession of boats go past, including Sir Galahad, once the Lifeboat for Tenby but now privately owned.


The kamikaze seagulls treated us to a couple of close range passes to see if we'd got any food worth nicking, but they lost interest when it became clear we didn't.

Sadly, it was soon time to take Ruth home and head back to England. The trip back was nowhere near as bad, and apart from the stretch where the M56 joined the M6 things were running smoothly. I'd put the car in the garage back home less than four hours after I left Menai. A most enjoyable weekend!


Yesterday the private spaceflight company Orbital Sciences Corporation successfully launched its Antares rocket carrying an unmanned Cygnus spacecraft on its first cargo mission to the International Space Station. The spacecraft's solar arrays have deployed correctly and the capsule is on schedule to dock with the ISS on Sunday. Orbital Sciences are the second commercial company to launch a resupply mission to the ISS. SpaceX's Dragon spacecraft has already made several trips. Both spacecraft can reach the ISS while carrying several tonnes of food and other materials necessary for life in orbit. This is good news for the US; since the shuttle was retired, NASA has had to rely on Russia's Progress cargo vehicle, Japan's H-II Transfer Vehicle, and the European Space Agency's ATV to ferry supplies up to the astronauts but the only way up to the station if you're a human being at the moment is still the venerable Russian Soyuz spacecraft.

Meanwhile, DARPA have announced that they are starting a program to develop a new two-stage-to-orbit program called the XS-1 (for eXperimental Spaceplane ). More details will be forthcoming in October, but the basic concept will be familiar to anyone who used to watch Gerry Anderson's science fiction TV series UFO back in the seventies: you build an aircraft first stage which carries a smaller, spacegoing second stage into the upper reaches of the atmosphere where it detaches, starts up its rocket engines, and flies up to orbit. Somehow, I doubt that DARPA's vehicle will look anything like as classy as SHADO's did.

DARPA's goal is to build a launch system that can be launched ten times in ten days at under $5 million per launch (and that is astonishingly cheap - back in the day, a shuttle launch would set you back a mindbending $450 million.) What was I saying about things getting interesting this week?


Today's mind-bending medical condition: " Auto-Brewery Syndrome." NPR tell the tale of a Texas man whose gut was so infected with yeast that when he consumed anything sweet, the yeast converted the sugar into alcohol and he became drunk. He had, as the condition's name suggests, a brewery in his gut. Quite astonishing.


The world seems to be getting more interesting this week. Yesterday I was reading about Lockheed Martin's work on making nuclear fusion powerplants a reality before the end of the decade; today I was found out a little about an interesting development in physics concerning a geometrical concept called an amplituhedron that seems to be sparking a bit of an "everything we know will have to change" reaction. The geometry involved in constructing this object has allowed physicists to reduce the complexity of the mathematics of particle interactions from 500 pages of algebra down to a function that can be written on a single page. And as the guy responsible for a lot of those 500 pages of algebra went by the name of Richard Feynman, that's a Big Deal. An amplituhedron exists in multiple dimensions and the space that it encloses is equivalent to one of the fundamental properties of those particle interactions called scattering. The geometry is so successful at simplifying things that scientists are now questioning a number of basic assumptions about how the universe works, such as the principle of locality (which was already in trouble) and unitarity (which mainly wasn't). Intriguingly, the new mathematics also suggests that pretty much everything in our universe, including space and time, is a mere byproduct of this geometry. Let that one sink in for a moment or two.


Mallory Ortberg's article on exoplanets for The Toast is "like H. P. Lovecraft writing for The Onion," says Kenneth Hite, and he's not wrong. Imagine Werner Herzog reading this to you; it would be perfect.


I slept for a solid six hours last night. This is unusual. It's over a week now since I gave up caffeine; is it finally beginning to have an effect? Stay tuned for more thrilling reports...


When I left the house this morning the clouds looked amazing. The sun was just rising and the sky was blazing red. I very nearly went back inside to grab a camera and take a photo, but I didn't want to be late for work. As I got in the car I was muttering the old saying, "red sky in the morning, shepherd's warning" and sure enough, by mid morning the rain had arrived.

The reason those clouds looked so spectacular this morning was that they were high up - as they were cirrostratus or altocumulus clouds - which meant that the rising sun could illuminate them from below. As the Met Office's John Hammond explained in that link, high cloud normally precedes a cold front, and a resulting change in the weather. That's exactly what happened today. The weather's been pretty rubbish ever since. I've been shivering all day and it was still raining when I got home. The barometer is dropping rapidly, too. I'm glad the skip's finally been collected as I was able to put my car in the garage tonight for the first time in a fortnight!

Wikipedia's page on weather lore has more examples of rhymes and sayings about the weather, some of which I'd not heard before. I particularly liked "cats and dogs eat grass before a rain" although, sadly, that saying has absolutely no grounding in fact. You can't win them all, I guess.


Two weird stories caught my attention today. The first was a report on a Lockheed Martin announcement back in January that they would have a working nuclear fusion reactor (which fits in a cylinder two metres wide and four metres long, no less) within four years. I would have expected the news channels to go nuts about this, but today was the first time I'd heard about it. The only report in the mainstream media about Charles Chase's presentation that I could find appeared in the New York Times in August.

A 100 megawatt power station that will fit in a shipping container? By 2017? It sounds far too good to be true, and even though some impressive figures are being thrown around in the presentation, I just can't bring myself to believe that a small bunch of people at the Skunkworks have somehow solved all the problems that multinational teams of scientists have been working on since the 1950s, and at the same time make it small enough to fit inside (and power) a spacecraft. I really hope I'm wrong, but practical nuclear fusion has been "30 years away" since I was a kid and a sudden leap like this sounds about as believable as the wild claims that cold fusion's advocates made back in 1989. Google for that technology these days and you'll rapidly find yourself in serious wingnut territory.

The second story might seem just as improbable, but it's absolutely true. io9 have a bunch of postcards from Los Angeles in the 1950s that show photos taken from the city of the effects of night-time atomic tests in Nevada, some 270 miles away. Letting off atom bombs in the desert treated Los Angelenos to some pretty spectacular light shows. Those really were different times, weren't they?


I was in London on Saturday; some friends of mine got married. It was good to meet up with folks that I hadn't seen in a while, and the location of the ceremony was pretty special:

Top of the Gherkin

We were at the top of 30 St. Mary Axe, the building designed by Sir Norman Foster that is better known to most Londoners as The Gherkin. After a lovely ceremony we climbed the stairs to the reception area at the absolute top of the building. Even though it was a damp, misty Saturday afternoon the views from the reception area, just shy of 180 metres above street level, were spectacular. I could watch showers as they made their way across London from the Woolwich Barrier and the Olympic Village in the east to Battersea Power Station and beyond to the west. The Shard doesn't look quite as tall when your eyeline is more than two-thirds of the way up, and HMS Belfast looked tiny...

I can see your ship from here

After making our way back down to the street we boarded a red Routemaster bus for a quick trip across town to Soho, and the Union Club in Greek Street. When we made our way inside and finished gawking at the incredible selection of pictures on the walls, there was dinner and dancing and craziness until the small hours. My friend Mel had arranged a surprise party piece with the groom, and the two of them treated us to a fine performance of Bill Withers's Ain't No Sunshine that had several people in tears. It was a great day.

When I finally left the venue, it seemed like most of the population of London had decided to hang out on the streets. Little clusters of smokers congregated round the entrances to every restaurant; the pubs in Soho were doing a roaring trade and their clientele had spilled out onto the pavements. When I got to Shaftesbury Avenue and turned the corner into Charing Cross road, people were thronging out of the theatres and standing around for a chat before making their separate ways home. There was plenty of traffic on the roads, making way for an occasional police car hurtling north with lights flashing. Even the train out of Charing Cross was more than half full. I haven't seen the city as busy as that for a long time and to be honest, it made me really glad that I live somewhere much quieter.

I had a late-night drive back home ahead of me; I'd been drinking soft drinks all evening which was a bit of a drag, but I much prefer travelling overnight. I picked up the car from my brother's house in Orpington, filled up with petrol at the station on the A21 and then looped on to the M25. Even at midnight, the traffic was down to 10mph in one stretch while people had a good look at the roadworks going on rather than concentrating on the road in front. When I got on to the M4, I was chasing the moon. It hung low in the western sky, which was a good sign that things had cleared up. It had set by the time I made it back to the village, and with the streetlights off the place was pitch dark. There wasn't a cloud in the sky and the stars looked amazing. I was tempted to stand there and stargaze for a while, but it was late. It was very late, in fact - I got to bed at 3am.


Sunday was a quiet day - I didn't get up until ten. I sat in the bath reading the latest copy of the Fortean Times and then had a cinnamon bun and a glass of orange juice for breakfast. I'm still not drinking coffee or tea and I'm really missing it. A week's abstinence doesn't seem to have improved the quality of my sleep and I'm beginning to suspect that the reason I don't get a solid eight hours any more is simply because I'm getting older rather than the amount of caffeine I consume. Part of me will be happy if I'm still sleeping badly by Friday, as it means I can start drinking coffee again without feeling at all guilty about it.

The conservatory floor is a lot paler now, as it continues to dry out. I spent Sunday afternoon moving a few plants and small items into it, and it looks pretty good:

Use that space

After that, I spent an hour or so going through the garage finding stuff I didn't need that could go in the skip (which is still on my drive tonight). As a result, the garage hasn't looked so tidy in years. The living room, too, looks a little less cluttered than it usually does. I will be continuing my clearout over the coming months, but the bins are full right now, so I will be getting on with other things for the rest of the week.


I haven't made any music this weekend. With 44 tracks in the can for 50/90 so far, I'm ahead of schedule, but I'll be back recording something later this evening. By my reckoning, the total tally of tracks that I've written this year is 82 - way more than I've ever managed before. In fact that's more than my entire musical output from the 90s. Some of them are bearing up under repeated listens, which I'm very pleased about. I hope that my final tally for the year will be more than 100, as I have the ambient album about Kuiper Belt Objects to finish off. Meanwhile, it's not long until NaNoWriMo rolls round again in November and I switch from writing music to writing a novel.


...except that, as I discovered today, if you're a fly it doesn't. Scientists have discovered that different animals appear to perceive the passage of time at different rates. If you've ever tried swatting a fly, you'll hve figured that out for yourself, but the phenomenon appears to vary across many different species. The rule appears to be that the smaller the species, the more slowly they perceive the passage of time, but there are exceptions. I was dumbfounded by the bizarre description of the tiger beetle that runs so fast that its visual system can't keep up; every now and again it has to stop and wait for its eyes to sort out what it's looking at before it hurtles off again.

Intriguingly, Trinity College's Dr Andrew Jackson suggests that the sense that time passes more quickly as we get older may be another aspect of the same phenomenon. Makes sense to me.


Much respect to my colleague Ifor who turned up at work this morning despite breaking his wrist in several places last week while playing football; he'd wrecked it so badly that they had to operate, and it still took three attempts to set it in a cast. He's been signed off for the next six weeks but he spent this morning at work, making sure that all his projects were up to date and burned to CD. He's quite the hero!


I had another rough night last night. My back was painful enough to keep me awake until the small hours and even after that I kept waking up again every time I moved. I was already awake when the alarm clock went off this morning. As a result I've been rather out of sorts today. I was going to take a painkiller in the office at lunchtime but then I noticed that my emergency supply of the things was prominently labelled "contains caffeine" so that knocked that idea on the head.

Tonight I'm tired, and grumpy, and craving chocolate. I hope these caffeine withdrawal symptoms tail off soon because I'm getting pretty fed up with them and I've yet to see any benefit in the amount of sleep I'm getting. Which is, after all, the reason why I'm abstaining from caffeine in the first place. Bah!


Why does whiskey (and as we're talking about American stuff here, I'm using the extra "e") taste the way it does? Why is all bourbon a kind of whiskey, but not all whiskeys are bourbon? Dr Tom Collins explains all over at the Smithsonian blog. In the course of his research he identified over 4,000 different non-volatile compounds in the samples he tested, which goes some way to explaining why the drink can have such a bewildering array of flavours. It's a fascinating article. In deference to the other Tom Collins I have to say that my favourite tipple is gin, but I do drink whisky (and whiskey) as well. Apart from the occasional tipple of Jack Daniel's I can't say I'm familiar with American whiskeys as I tend to stick with Scotch. Although I don't drink a lot of the stuff I have developed a liking for single malts over the years, particularly those from the isle of Islay. At the moment I have the remains of a bottle of Laphroaig in the cupboard as well as a Bowmore. I'm not averse to mainland whiskys either, of course; from the lowlands I have an Auchentoshan. And I can only imagine just how many unique non-volatile compounds Dr Collins could find in some samples of those!

Hmmm. Maybe that's what I need to ward off the grumpiness this evening...


Via Colin Peters and They Might Be Giants: here's the most unusual photo you'll see all day.


I have to stay out of it for the next few days while the floor sets, and I will have to leave things to dry out for a few weeks before I can tile the floor, but other than that my conservatory is finished. The floor is screeded and all the finishing touches are in place. It looks fantastic and I'm delighted with it. Tonight when I checked inside, it was nice and warm. Now all I need is for the skip to be collected...

The finished article

This morning the conservatory was misted up. Part of that will be the moisture coming out of the base as it sets, but it was also quite chilly outside. Autumn is definitely beginning to take hold. The weather has changed from warm sunshine to being cold and damp. I'm back to wearing a sweater at work, as I spent yesterday afternoon shivering under the air conditioning vent that is directly over my desk. I do like this time of year, though; it's time I headed out for some long walks through the fields with a camera. It's a time of withdrawing, of returning to the warmth of home, of sitting on the hearth next to a warm fire, or curling up in an armchair with a good book after finishing one of the last bursts of gardening for the year. There are few more evocative sights for me than seeing (and smelling) woodsmoke rising vertically into the air on a quiet autumn evening. There's the twins' birthday and bonfire night to look forwards to, as well as winter stews, mulled wine, and baked potatoes. So long as I can stay indoors and watch it fall, I'm looking forwards to snow, too (having to drive anywhere in snow is, of course, a different matter).

The main problem I have with winter is that I suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder, but light bulbs that I have in the house these days seem to be effective at keeping SAD at bay. I'm keeping my fingers crossed that that is the case this winter.


I'm still abstaining from caffeine and I'm really noticing the effects now. I knew caffeine has beneficial effects but I may have underestimated just how marked its analgesic properties are. I'm hoping that my current state is due to withdrawal symptoms rather than general decrepitude because that means I'll feel better after a few days; at the moment things are quite uncomfortable. Last night I was a mass of aches and pains - I eventually had to get up and take a couple of painkillers before I could get comfortable enough to get to sleep. I'd crashed out after tea, too; I spent most of the evening dozing after I'd moved the bookcases in the living room back to their normal positions. Shifting a bunch of heavy furniture around might have had something to do with those aches and pains too, of course...

As far as I can recall, this is about as far as I've got with giving up coffee in the past. Yep, I lasted just three days the last time I tried this - it really is that uncomfortable. As I sit here in the living room I'm craving chocolate. But there's none in the house, so I'm just going to have to stick with it and see what happens. The way I figure it, the longer I abstain, the more delicious that first cup of coffee will be when I start imbibing again.


Tonight I intend staying up and working on yet another track for 50/90, which will be number 43. I'm still getting nice feedback on the tracks I'm producing, and I'm doing my best to offer constructive criticism to other participants. I've commented on over three hundred songs so far. Some have been real surprises, and I've downloaded a fair few to listen to again. There's a huge range of styles and approaches to music in evidence. Some songs are just lyrics, or a sketch recorded in a single take with vocals and a ukulele; others are multitracked extravaganzas with rich soundscapes and vocal harmonies. There's rock, and punk, and chiptunes, and trance, there's ambient, rockabilly, lounge and folk. My stuff falls somewhere in the middle of all this.

I find it fascinating to see what people pick as their subject matter. When you're working to a deadline, you can't be fussy about what inspiration presents itself and the results are a bewildering variety of tales told in music. I've heard great songs extolling the virtues of a guitarist's new distortion pedal, a death metal song about a character from a Suzannah Clarke novel, a fond farewell to someone's dead car as it was towed away to the breaker's yard, a pub quiz that was too hard, and songs about dinosaurs, about cockroaches, and Batman. Never underestimate Batman as a source of inspiration. And I enjoyed them all.

Given how many comments I've posted, you've no doubt realised that I've been listening intently to a lot of music since 50/90 started. I use a different set of listening muscles to my normal listening habits; after all, my job is to support and encourage fellow musicians and suggest ways in which they can make what they're doing even more awesome than it already is. I've had to pay attention to different aspects of music than I usually do, and I also have to focus intently the quality of my own recordings; there are things that I struggle with and I've become very adept at spotting the mistakes in my own work. Unfortunately, this has meant that I can now spot those mistakes in other people's songs too. Much as I've tried not to carry that critical ear over into my leisure listening, I do find myself listening to tracks and thinking "oh, the background noise on that vocal track is a bit loud, they should have gated that..."


I've just ordered Rush's Vapor Trails album. Again. I bought it when it came out, and I found listening to it really tough. It had been "mastered" to within an inch of its life, and the lack of any dynamic range made listening to more than a couple of tracks at once a real struggle. I've blogged many times about the loudness wars and what a mess overenthusiastic mastering can make of an album, and even back in January 2007 I had singled out Vapor Trails as one of the worst examples of the practice. Today I found out that the band thought so too. As a result, they've had the whole album remixed and remastered properly. Alex's quote sums up exactly what I thought: "It was a contest, and it was mastered too high, and it crackles, and it spits, and it just crushes everything. All the dynamics get lost, especially anything that had an acoustic guitar in it."

I can't wait to hear what the new version sounds like. It comes out on October 1st.


I'm back at work today, which meant I was out of the house and on the road to Bristol before seven this morning. The sun doesn't rise until after 6:30 at this time of year, and it was raining, so I drove into work with the car's lights on; I haven't done that in a while. It was cold, as well as damp, and on Twitter, people were talking about putting the central heating on. Summer, it seems, is over.

As usual for a Sunday night I woke up three or four times, which doesn't really aid restful sleep. Despite a week off work and ostensibly relaxing, I don't really feel rested. I'm not looking forwards to returning to my regular state on Fridays of feeling absolutely shattered with my sleep balance heavily in debt. So I have decided to see if I can do something about this. Starting this week, I am going to take some extreme measures. And I really mean that: I'm cutting out all caffeine to see if my sleeping improves. That's right, no coffee. And not just coffee, I'm not going to be drinking tea, and even worse, I'll be abstaining from chocolate. What's more, given how long it takes to withdraw from caffeine, I'm not just going to be doing this for a couple of days. I'm going to abstain for at least a fortnight.

I must be mad. Or desperate for a good night's sleep, at the very least...

From this week, then, I will be chronicling my experiences. It'll either turn out to be something I should have done years ago, or I'll have a document to remind myself why I should never ever attempt to do anything like this ever again. I had my usual double-shot latte and croissants for breakfast on Sunday morning, but I haven't had anything with caffeine in it since then. I don't think my system noticed until around lunchtime today, when my energy levels completely crashed. I was yawning almost continuously, my nose was running, and my eyes were watering - all the symptoms I develop when I get very tired or when I'm coming down with a cold. By quarter to three I'd got a mild headache. Nothing seriously inconvenient, just a dull ache in my sinuses that has kept me alert for the rest of the afternoon. While the headache is still lingering this evening, I don't feel quite as shattered as I did earlier. I'm not perky, by any means, but I haven't retired to bed just yet.

Looking at Wikipedia's page on caffeine, I'm less than inspired to learn that caffeine withdrawal symptoms peak at around 48 hours (so I can still expect things to get worse!) and they can last up to nine days. That's why I'm going to try this for a couple of weeks. Withdrawal is "accompanied by craving for caffeinated drinks and loss of concentration." Erm, I'm not sure I'd notice any difference there. That pretty much describes my default state first thing in the morning on any day of the week. Aside from headaches, aches and pains are also mentioned - well, I have those all the time - and some people suffer more extreme reactions like stomach cramps and vomiting. Wish me luck, because it sounds like I'm going to need it...


All the glazing is in the conservatory, the roof is on, and the electrics are installed. It's looking pretty good if you ask me...

Nearly there

Now that it's a room rather than just a structure in the garden, I've noticed how much of a reduction there is in outside noise (next door are having building work done, too). I'm hoping it will also reduce the amount of heat lost through my patio doors in the winter. From the inside, it looks pretty cool with the sun shining in through the windows.

From the inside

As you can see, the floor's not finished yet, but everything else looks pretty much complete. I'm really chuffed with the clear roof!


I've been on holiday for more than a week now, but to be honest I don't really feel like I've unwound much. I still feel tired. I've been waking up at six thirty every morning, even though I haven't had to go in to work. Since I've lost weight I've really noticed how many aches and pains I get these days and they make getting to sleep (and staying asleep) rather difficult. It's all part of getting older, I suppose. Given the alternative, I can't complain...

Still, all that early rising has meant I've got plenty of stuff done. The week's ironing was done by Friday lunchtime; I've got 41 songs recorded for 50/90; I've read a couple of books that have been on my reading stack for months, and the house looks remarkably clean and tidy. My sudden interest in reducing clutter continues, and another load of stuff has found its way into the recycling bins or the dustbin. Right now, there are actually some flat surfaces in the house that are not covered in books, CDs or DVDs. Don't worry, I'm sure it's only a temporary aberration.

I'm going to head back upstairs shortly to start work on track number 42 for 50/90. I'm about a week ahead of schedule for writing 50 songs by the end of the month, which amazes me - it would normally take me several years to produce that many pieces of music. That's one of the reasons why I love 50/90 and FAWM so much: you can't be precious about waiting for inspiration, you just have to get on and do it. I've genuinely surprised myself with some of the songs I've produced this year, and I mean that in a good way. Listening to them now, my reaction is one of disbelief ("wow, did I really do that?") Certainly this year I haven't produced as many songs that make me cringe when I go back to them. Last night I tried listening to some of the stuff I wrote just a couple of years ago, back in 2011. Oh dear... Mind you, that showed me how much I've improved as a songwriter, so I suppose that's a good thing.

I seem to be skipping from genre to genre at the moment, and I have absolutely no idea what I'm going to produce next. My muse is working overtime. In the last week the music that I've recorded has included a reggae song about Robby the Robot, a five-and-a-half minute house track, and a fairly decent chillout mix with guitar and organ. They're all up on my profile page at the 50/90 site if you want to give them a listen.


By Friday afternoon, the conservatory was starting to look much more like a conservatory...

Coming along nicely

If all goes according to plan, it will be finished by Wednesday. I'm really looking forwards to having a bit more space. My venerable umbrella plant, which moved here with me from Milton Keynes eighteen and a half years ago has been thriving in my bedroom, but it's got a bit big for where it is. The back bedroom is full of all my art gear and all my home recording kit. There really isn't enough space to work productively in there, although I've done pretty well in my opinion.

I'm also looking forwards to the skip being collected so that I can put the car back in the garage. I don't like leaving my baby out on the street!


It's handy having a builder's skip on the drive. I've taken the opportunity to dispose of a bunch of stuff that's been gathering dust and cobwebs in the garage. The house is full of things that really don't need to be there, either. I am a dreadful hoarder. Bits of wood that "might come in useful" that have been sitting at the back of the garage for more than a decade, broken low noise blocks from satellite dishes, some used windscreen wipers, a broken broom handle, the ends of a garden seat, a rusty old radiator; it's all gone in the skip. And that got me in a clearing out mood indoors, too. Out went a bunch of programmes for conferences I attended years ago. They were followed by a clock that doesn't work, packaging for stuff that I bought in the previous century, notes from courses I went on in the 80s, old socks, promotional leaflets for Windows 3, a hugely out-of-date master atlas of London, instruction manuals for computer peripherals I recycled years ago, and dozens of floppy disks. I've taken seven bags of books to the local sort-it centre, I've got an enormous stack of cardboard to be recycled, and both the paper recycling bag and the dustbin are both full to the brim. Psychologically, this hasn't been a trivial thing to do. There's a tremendous amount of letting go involved in some of what I've done today. Why did I still have my ex-wife's cycling helmet, for instance? Why did I still have a shelf full of self-help books from the early nineties that we bought together, that I will never read again? Why had I held on to an unusable kitchen chopping board - a present from long-absent friends - that had a big chip out of it?

Those mementoes are all gone, now. Yes, I'm more than a teensy bit sad. My coping strategy for this, fast day be damned, is that I am now having a glass of red wine. But actually, it feels good.


The base for the conservatory is pretty much complete...

Taking Shape

There's a cubic metre of concrete in there, which was poured earlier today. I'm really pleased with those steps - chosen to match the stone on the house - and I can't wait to sit on them this autumn and watch the stars. And now the base is up, I have a much better idea of how much extra room I'm going to have. It's going to be a fine workspace, I reckon. There will be plenty of room for my plants, too.

Tomorrow, the first components of the frame arrive, and if all goes according to plan, things will be complete by the middle of next week. That will leave the floor to be tiled - I'm doing that myself - and then I can start using my new room. I can't wait!


I headed in to Bristol again last night for my second gig in less than a week. What's come over me? Last night I was at the O2 Academy to see Steve Vai...

The Audience is Listening

Once again the band were onstage by eight pm with no support and played for nearly three hours. Steve said that the band has been touring now for over a year. They haven't stopped because "we enjoy it so much." The statement didn't sound like rock and roll hyperbole, either; I saw him in Wolverhampton last December and the energy levels of everyone last night were as high as they were back then. That is quite an achievement - life on the road can be pretty brutal.

The venue last night was much smaller than Wolverhampton, and not full of overzealous "security" attendants or pissed-up numpties bellowing at their friends about how awesome Steve is through every song. Steve was able to engage with the audience a lot more, and they clearly responded to that. In fact it was a thoroughly enjoyable gig. I was amazed to learn that last night was the first time he's ever played Bristol, and his comment of "we should get Joe along and do a G3 gig here" was met with a huge roar of approval, particularly from me!

The set was largely the same as last December's show (and many of Steve's comments were the same, too.) But harpist Deborah Conant-Henson wasn't part of the band this time round. It's probably just as well, as there really wasn't an awful lot of room to spare on stage. The audience participation slot last night turned out to be something quite different to last year's, as the two people they brought up on stage (Jen and Chris) turned out to be perfect choices. Chris in particular turned out to have a great singing voice and you could see the surprise - and delight - on Steve's face as he sang them a melody to play. "What we need to play this," Steve mused, "Is another really good guitarist..." Hands shot up in the audience from a number of willing volunteers but Steve had other ideas. "What we need is someone like Herman Li from Dragonforce. Oh look, there he is!"

Now with added Dragonforce

So for the improvisation section we had three kick-ass guitarists on stage. The result was pretty amazing, particularly considering Steve had made up the structure of the thing on the spot; "Herman, you take a solo in A minor, then I'll come in with the groove..."

The whole evening was a masterclass by a bunch of extremely talented musicians. I made sure I was over by Philip Bynoe's side of the stage, because his bass playing is incredible. He's still playing the Yamaha basses he had last year but last night he was also playing a tiny Kala bass for the acoustic part of the set. The tone he got out of it was mouth-watering. With drummer Jeremy Colson he makes up the foundation of a truly formidable band, and the guitarists can stretch out knowing that they're not going to get lost.

"I've got a question for you," Steve said after the encore. "Do you feel good?" Needless to say we all bellowed back "Yes!" "Then our work here is done," Mr Vai told us. "See you again soon!"


On Saturday morning I headed down to Swanage to meet up with my brothers. Andy's over from the United States and Dave and his family are staying at the caravan site at the north end of town. It was good to see everybody. It's been a very busy couple of days. On Saturday Andy, Dave, Tom and I visited the Tank Museum at Bovington. It was fascinating - I wished I'd got there earlier (I was stuck in traffic for hours) as I could have spent the whole day there. There was a lot of heavy metal on display...

Little Willie

On Sunday we caught the ferry across to Bournemouth for the last day of the Bournemouth Air Festival. We sat on the beach and watched lots of great flying. Sadly the Vulcan had a problem with its number 7 fuel tank and couldn't fly, but the Typhoon, B-17, Battle of Britain Memorial Flight, Chinook, Lynx and Merlin were great to see. I'm a great fan of the Fairey Swordfish, which did its famous low speed flypast with the crew saluting and the white ensign raised.

Raise The Ensign

The sun shone, the Royal Marine Commandos stormed the beach, the crowds cheered (and it was *very* busy indeed in Bournemouth) and we had a picnic. After a restorative cup of tea at the caravan I drove back home last night, and this week I'm on holiday. I'm very glad of that, as I feel knackered this morning, although I'd been to Thornbury, done my food shopping, filled the car up with petrol and driven back home before 8am!


There is a big hole in my back garden. The building work I mentioned last month has started, but before the conservatory can be built, the inspection hole for the drains by the back door has to be moved. That means digging out the old one and digging another hole to put the new one into. The foundation work is likely to take the rest of this week.

It begins

Then there will be a gap while everything sets before the conservatory is installed. I'm really looking forwards to setting up my art gear in a spacious, airy room with lots of light!